Chaplin in ‘A Dog’s Life’ (1918) with Edna Purviance and Scraps

Homage to the Balletique

11th December 2015

With a bumper crop of Charlie Chaplin DVDs available this Christmas, Jack Watkins offers his appreciation of an icon of the silver screen...

He was Laurence Olivier’s favourite actor… Marcel Marceau considered him the greatest mime of all… and Nijinsky, in pronouncing him a dancer, described his comedy as “balletique.” As if that wasn’t accolades enough, upon his death Federico Fellini, the great Italian director, said he was “a sort of Adam, from whom we are all descended.” Yet, exactly one hundred years ago this year since Charlie Chaplin brought his Little Tramp to the silver screen for the first time, there are still pundits who line up to attack him.

He lacks Buster Keaton’s emotional detachment, they say, and point out the static nature of the camera work in his films when compared to Old Stoneface’s fluidity. Always playing the loner, despite this being a characteristic of most of the great comedians, they lament the absence of the warmth and comradeship of Laurel and Hardy. Then they talk about him being old fashioned, as if he was still locked in the 1890s and the days of his South London boyhood. It all seems rather like criticising Jane Austen for not being more Charles Dickens. The works of each inhabit entirely different worlds, each completely satisfying in their own terms.

Thankfully, the rest of us don’t have to worry about such distinctions and can just sit back and enjoy. The appeal of Chaplin, as with Austen and Dickens, now seems certain to endure. And if you are a fan, there’s every inducement to indulge yourself this Christmas with the DVD release by the BFI of Charlie Chaplin: The Mutual Comedies – comprising the films which cemented his reputation as the greatest and most expensively paid entertainer in the world when he signed for the studio in 1916 – and Artificial Eye’s release of The Charlie Chaplin Collection, an 11-disc set which majors on all the later classics, from The Kid and The Gold Rush, through to the likes of City Lights, Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight.

Watching these films today it’s easy to conclude how debased the art of screen comedy has become. Go to see a ‘funny’ film at the cinema now and the humour will mainly arise from verbal exchanges, and maybe some routine pratfalls of the lowest kind. Chaplin’s films were beautifully executed visual comedies, painstakingly worked up by a formidable perfectionist. Even as late as The Great Dictator in 1940, Chaplin was still creating silent magic, not least in the exquisite scene where, impersonating Adolf Hitler, he enacts a series of adoring ballet movements with an air-inflated globe which, portentously, eventually bursts in his face. Nijinsky was right. No comedian ever moved with the lightness and grace of Chaplin.

The evidence that Chaplin made comedy ‘dance’ is strung throughout the Mutual films. A favourite set piece is in The Rink in which, as the tramp, he creates chaos in an ice skating scene, skidding all over the place, yet swirling around with unbelievable balance and elegance. The Count features a comedy dance scene which is, similarly, both clumsy and graceful, an extra laughter bonus arising from the presence on the dance floor of Chaplin’s perennial foil: the burly, positively evil-looking Eric Campbell. As the dance proceeds, they seem less interested in their respective dancing partners than in administering surreptitious kicks to one another’s backsides.

Chaplin has been accused of overdoing the Victorian-style sentimentality, but you only have to watch the Mutual films to see what tosh this is. Chaplin’s tramp was certainly an ingratiating little fellow, with beautiful manners, and a fussiness and sensitivity which belied his social station. He was a rogue and a chancer, too, though, as likely to try and steal the silverware at the same time as he was courting a wealthy man’s daughter, usually played by Edna Purviance.

The other point about Chaplin is that the way he managed to ‘ornament’ the main line of a gag, in James Agate’s words. The payoffs were seldom big laughs, the joy arising from “the perfect, changeful shadings of his physical and emotional attitudes.” He was, said Agate, “the first man to give silent film a soul.” Previously, when working for Mack Sennett, his style of working had been regarded as too slow. The ability to tell stories and fit his character into a narrative was plain quite early on in The Vagabond, released in 1917.

It’s classic Chaplin, full of cheekiness and tenderness, and undoubtedly, its ending is sentimental. Yet it features one of the great moments of truthful acting in early films. The plot partly revolves around Chaplin rescuing a girl (Purviance) from a band of gypsies. However, Chaplin’s hopes of romance are curtailed when a handsome artist arrives on the scene. There’s no sentimentality in the look on Chaplin’s face as he watches Purviance, while she in turn is watching the departing artist, and with a mixture of anguish, despair and resignation, registers that she is in love with the other man. Another outstanding film in the Mutual collection is Easy Street, which is also fascinating because it seems to recreate the slum streets of South Kennington, a favourite area for the Victorian music hall artists of Chaplin’s childhood, and where his own origins lay before his departure for Hollywood.

The Artificial Eye collection includes introductions for some of the films by leading Chaplin authority David Robinson, the author of Chaplin: His Life and Art. It begins with The Kid, released in 1921, at the peak moment of Chaplin’s career. Few celebrities up to this time could stir such interest in their public appearances, a measure of the worldwide reach of the still young medium of cinema. Also included are The Gold Rush and The Circus, two of his best of comedy features. I’m not certain I like the voiceover narrative Chaplin did for the reissue of The Gold Rush in 1941, or even the new musical accompaniment he added, but you get used to it and, ultimately, it doesn’t detract from the fun.

By the 1930s, Chaplin was slowing his output, thus operating in a totally reverse style to that of one of the few modern comics to merit comparison, Woody Allen, who is still making one film a year. Three years passed between the release of The Circus and City Lights, by which time the age of the talkies had arrived. Chaplin, though, had seen the way that it had been the box office downfall of some of his contemporaries, and resisted the transition. Even for Modern Times, released in 1936, although his voice was briefly heard for the first time on film, singing a nonsense song, he stayed loyal to the, by now deeply old-fashioned, mime style.

Still, Chaplin was accused of pretentiousness in Modern Times, as he dared to satirise the machine age. It’s certainly true that the satire is clunkily obvious. And Chaplin, by now 48 and increasingly jowly, had lost the dainty chic of his younger days. The scenes with Paulette Goddard, however, have a coy charm, and when he concentrated on the slapstick, he was still the master.

The Great Dictator, made after a gap of four years, was very funny indeed, though Chaplin later admitted that had he known about the concentration camps he would never had made the film. This was the film when self-educated Chaplin overreached himself in the final scene by directing a speech at filmgoers in a plea for world peace, addressing addresses, but his send-up of Hitler (Adenoid Hynkel) was brilliant.

The Great Dictator must rank as one of the best Chaplin films, but I’ve always has a soft spot for Limelight, which, with great poignancy, reflects on the decline of the old style of music hall comedy and the decline of an ageing performer’s comic powers. The film is undoubtedly old fashioned in its execution, but sixty-odd years on, it doesn’t seem to matter. Long before 1952 people were pondering how Chaplin’s apparently old-fashioned filmmaking could be “so genuinely comic and endearing.” The question remains unanswerable. Chaplin, even if he hadn’t died on Christmas Day 1977, couldn’t have told you. All he’d hope is that we would still watch and smile…

Find Your Local