Friday 12 January 2007

Work (1915)

There are wonderfully poetic images early on here that could easily have been made by a Lang or a Murnau: Charlie Chaplin, as the little tramp, pulling a large cart up a steep hillside, more mule than rickshaw driver. It's laden down with barrels, ladders and scaffolding, along with two passengers, and so naturally they fall prey to the power of gravity: they all go up and then back down again. More than once. And naturally there's a railroad track at the bottom complete with what must be the most frequently running train in Hollywood. These aren't slapstick in the slightest but they're comedic genius, possibly the first point in Chaplin's career where he gave us a glimpse of the timeless masterworks he would go on to create, and here unwittingly aided by the stark print with terrible contrast.

Up until now he'd been doing great stuff: pioneering the comedic arts, making the first feature length comedy, defining just what comedy was in the movies. Yet much of it really isn't that fun to watch today. Many of those numerous Keystone films from 1914 may have been riotous in their day but that day has long gone. Now they're tired. A year later Chaplin was at Essanay making films like this, and they're not tired any more, they're hilarious. While working through all this early work, this moment has seemed a long time coming, but after all this is still only 1915. Putting it into perspective, people like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd hadn't started to do anything either. Keaton didn't even make a film until 1917 and Lloyd had only just become Lonesome Luke, hardly his heyday.

Here Chaplin is working with decorators, or at least they're decorators and he's working, for the most part. You can almost describe half the script from that alone, but there's a lot more going on here. There's still the slapstick, here about as frenetically insane as I've seen, to be the obvious focus of attention, but there are other gags too that we have to pay attention to see: ones that run over longer periods of time or just take time to mature. This is definitely the peak of Chaplin's work up until this point and the start of the great work to come. It's also probably the first of his movies that is worth watching again and again.

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