Sound and Vision: Charlie Chaplin and the Sound of Silence

First things first: this post is in conjunction with the Park Circus Charlie Chaplin Blogathon … for which I am shamefully late. The blogathon wrapped two days ago, but I absolutely HAD to contribute. Park Circus does amazing work: a UK-based organization dedicated to bringing classic films back to their home on the big screen. Not being a part of their Chaplin blogathon would be unforgivable!

So. That being said…

I thought it would be fun to explore Chaplin’s fascinating love/hate relationship with a little thing called … sound. Chaplin may have been the one filmmaker to hold out the longest against sound, but he also happened to be one of the earliest filmmakers to embrace it. A fitting contradiction given Chaplin was a man of so many contradictions.

The truth is, Chaplin could neither read nor write music. He had no formal musical training of any sort and taught himself to play the violin and cello entirely by ear. What Chaplin did have was a childhood deeply rooted in late Victorian English music hall culture. Music, whatever its form, was therefore an integral part of Chaplin’s Dickensian childhood. So many of his boyhood memories were wrapped in the soft comfort of sheet music– melodies brainwashed into him by his mother Hannah, herself a semi-successful music hall performer before her slide into mental deterioration.

“It’s beauty was a sweet mystery I did not understand,” Chaplin said, waxing poetic about those early music hall days. “I only knew I loved it and I became reverent as the sounds carried themselves through my brain via my heart.”

This sort of reverent attachment is essential to assessing Chaplin’s musical endeavors. Music was (pardon the pun) instrumental to Chaplin’s growth as an artist.  How could it not? Charlie fell in love for the first time there in the damp, dirty, overcrowded backstage of the London music hall (Hetty, a beautiful young dancer who would become, in Chaplin’s later memoir, an almost Arthurian figure) and Chaplin’s own poetic (if not somewhat inflated) prose he would pen for journals at the height of his fame romanticized those early years:

Lambeth, the land of concertina music! As I walk along the darkened streets, I hum to myself some of the old familiar tunes again:

“Why did I leave my little back room in Bloomsbury, Where I could live on a pound a week in luxury…” 

These old songs have their associations and a flood of memories surges through my mind. The streets are deserted and there is a slight mist. The houses are just visible in outline. Here in these humble quarters I walk along as though I were visiting some fairyland…. How often I have heard this waltz, refrain on a Saturday night played on concertinas by Cockney lads as they strolled by the house, the music gradually diminishing in the distance, dying off into the night. –Excerpt from A Comedian Sees The World, The Ladies Home Companion 1933.

When Sidney Chaplin successfully recruited his young half-brother to join powerful impresario Fred Karno’s music hall troupe (“Karno’s Army”) it was the music that became integral to the famous Karno pantomime.

From a 1952 BBC Interview:

“The [Karno sketches] had splendid music. For instance, if they had squalor surroundings with a lot of comedy tramps working in it, they ou see, they would have very beautiful boudoir music, something of the eighteenth century, very lush and very grandioso, just purely as satirical and as a counterpoint; and I copied a great deal from Mr. Fred Karno in that direction.”


His nearly intoxicating love of music led him to, at age 16 while still under Karno’s contract, learn the cello and violin. A defiant perfectionist, Chaplin would will himself to possess an adroit fluency with the strings that came with age– but at the onset, Chaplin’s natural comedic dexterity far outweighed any musical aspirations.

Chaplin may have left Karno for Keystone and Hollywood in 1914, but music would stay the rest of his life. A fact that would serve him grandly in the face of the silent comic’s greatest adversary: the talkies.

Now, Chaplin was by no means a musical prodigy (remember, he could neither read nor write music) and there are some critics to this day maintain he was never truly a bona-fide composer. I understand their arguments and court them, but resolutely disagree. It is true that Chaplin’s first works were far from polished, and his first scores not original compositions. They were, instead, dreamy gossamer re-imaginings of his favorite pieces. A patchwork quilt, if you will, of music hall memories.

In 1916, while newly contracted with The Mutual Film Company (anyone who thinks that the Mutuals aren’t his best shorts needs their head examined… or a Valium) Chaplin set up a music publishing shop in downtown Los Angeles called (ever so creatively) The Charlie Chaplin Music Publishing Company.

The sheet music for Chaplin’s “Oh! That Cello,” “The Peace Patrol” and “There’s Always One You Can’t Forget” would sell only a handful of copies. Downtown Los Angeles in 1916 was, simply, not Tin Pan Alley in 1916. Even a sky-rocketing name like Chaplin’s couldn’t attract interest. Not surprisingly, the company folded not long after.

Typed correspondence from the Charlie Chaplin Publishing Company that, prophetically, has nothing to do with music. The company lasted only a few months.

Sheet Music for "The Peace Patrol"

Also not surprisingly: Chaplin did not give up.

From the beginning, Chaplin acknowledged the symbiotic relationship between music in film. Others did as well– D.W. Griffith composed original music for some of his films and commissioned a score for Broken Blossoms— but none came remotely close to equaling Chaplin’s passion for telling stories shadow, light and music.

Chaplin allayed himself with well-established composers with whom he could collaborate.  Eric James and David Raskin are perhaps the most famous, helping Chaplin create the unforgettable scores to the likes of Modern Times and Limelight. But Chaplin’s first such collaboration was with musician Frederick Stahlberg in 1923 for the daring directorial departure, A Woman of Paris. The film was his first venture as a truly independent filmmaker, under the creative protection of United Artists (of which he was a founding member) as well as his first dabbling in serious drama. Chaplin was already a director supreme, an auteur decades before that word had any real relevance, and his confidence was such that he made a decision that mystified everyone: A Woman of Paris would be a film by Charlie Chaplin without Charlie Chaplin. Hardly surprising, the public did not respond. After all, the public reasoned, “Who wants to see a Charlie Chaplin film without Charlie Chaplin?”

It flopped.

But the very few fortunate enough to have actually seen the film during its first run, would have also, in addition to witnessing the birth of a first-rate director, witnessed the birth of a pioneering film composer. This fact has more than its fair share of critics, but regardless of Chaplin’s musical merits the fact of the matter is inarguable: he was absolutely one of the first filmmakers to be just as passionate about the music of his films than any other creative aspect of the process. Something all the more remarkable given the fact that Chaplin’s enthusiasm for film scoring came about at a time when there was really no such thing as a film score.

Always drawn to musicians (his illustrious roster of acquaintances would come to include such 20th Century maestros as Igor Stravinsky) in 1925 Chaplin took a brief respite from filming The Gold Rush to team up with the highly popular Los Angeles-based bandleaders Abe Lyman and Gus Arnheim.  By way of perspective, during the gloriously delirious heyday of 1920s Hollywood, The Ambassador Hotel’s Coconut Grove was THE in-spot and Abe Lyman’s California Orchestra were the Ambassador Hotel’s big attraction. (Gus Arnheim was the pianist soon to make a major name in his own right.)  Arnheim’s jaunty, jazz-age tunes sizzled nationwide over the KNX radio waves their 78 recordings (still very much in existence) are high examples of hot ‘20s West Coast jazz.

From this partnership came a composition that was, really for the first time, consummate Chaplin: “With You Dear, In Bombay.” While the original Brunswick 78 is tinny, the energy of the piece still comes through and marvelous re-recordings of this and other Chaplin compositions are available on the excellent album Oh! That Cello.

Charlie with Gus Arnheim (at the piano) and Abe Lyman.

Chaplin’s guest conducting Lyman’s orchestra was noted in Music Trade Review, July 1925:

 Film Comedian an Able Left-Handed Violinist and Recently Conducted Orchestra in Making of Brunswick Record.

Few of the admirers of Charlie Chaplin, the well-known film comedian, know that he is a composer or that he is much of a musician. As a matter of fact, however, he is quite accomplished in this direction. He studied the violin in his youth and is one of the few left-handed bow-players the world has known. He is also a conductor as was demonstrated by his ability in directing Abe Lyman’s Cocoanut Grove Orchestra when they recently made the recording of his new song “With You, Dear, In Bombay.” This record was made for the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company. Chaplin not only wielded the baton on this occasion but himself played the violin solo part of the recording. It is said that the Brunswick Co. has inaugurated a special publicity department and will feature this Chaplin recording. “With You, Dear, In Bombay” is published by M. Witmark & Sons. Chaplin wrote both the words and music. It is a lively fox-trot with an appealing swing and very tuneful melody. The Witmark Co. will exploit the number on a wide scale.

Chaplin (far left) on the violin while Sid Grauman sits at the piano, Mary Pickford sings and Douglas Fairbanks plays the bass.

That same year, Chaplin released one of the masterpieces of silent cinema– and indeed, cinema itself– The Gold Rush. Still years before the advent of talkies, Chaplin went to extraordinary lengths to protect the musical fidelity of his vision by composing a score to accompany the film, the sheet music of which was provided to theatres. Of course, Main Street Hollywood was light years from Main Street Anywhere, U.S.A., and Chaplin’s musical accompaniments were very often lost in the process. A fact which, to say the least, annoyed Chaplin The Perfectionist. (I could rightfully use the term ‘control freak’ but that would be terribly disrespectful: it was Chaplin’s obsessive behavior that made his films as perfect as they are.)

Someone who dedicated himself to recovering these lost, and highly important pieces of film history, was silent film composer Timothy Brock. Brock restored a number of Chaplin’s original scores and was instrumental in their public re-introduction in (cough) modern times.

There is a tendency to believe that Chaplin’s collaborations with his musical advisors merely consisted of Chaplin humming a tune while his associate took down the dictations. Chaplin himself made the remark, and it is actually a case of Chaplin giving himself too little credit. Brock described the process this way:

“Chaplin’s composing methods, as we all know perhaps by now, involved a “musical associate” who would transcribe what Chaplin composed, either on the piano or the violin. From there, Chaplin, sitting beside [City Lights musical advisor] Johnston on the piano would orchestrate each passage as he had heard it in his mind. The unfortunate quote that I and my colleagues have to contend with, that Chaplin simply “la-la-ed” his music to the arranger, was not only a self-deprecating remark but wholly inaccurate. He was as meticulous with his musical output as he was with his directorial results. In the original manuscripts there are pages and pages of rejected music that he deemed unworthy in the final cuts. It is clear by looking at these documents that Chaplin not only knew what was involved in composing just the perfect music for the scenes, but had the objectivity to discard what any normal director would probably have used. Therefore, there is not a note out of place in the entire score.”

Serenading Jackie Coogan on the set of THE KID

The production of Chaplin’s silent masterpiece, City Lights, was plagued by a state of neurotic paranoia. With so much at stake, Chaplin drove himself to the absolute limit on the picture– not to mention those he worked with– and while the result is pure cinematic perfection, the result is also nearly perfect film score.

Hollywood’s first synchronized film soundtrack was Warner Bros’ 1926 John Barrymore starrer Don Juan, and of course with the advent of the talkies, music had taken on profound importance. But Chaplin, already a seasoned pro in this particular area of production, perhaps understood music and its relationship to narrative structure more than anyone else working at that pivotal silent/sound crossover. Although refusing to talk, Chaplin embraced this new technology with radiant enthusiasm as it finally allowed him to exercise complete control over musical accompaniment.  Relying on that patchwork quilt method of his, the City Lights score is seamless.

“His scores, within the boundaries that he set himself, are perfect,” remarked legendary silent film composer Carl Davis. “I would not change a note of them.”

“I use music as a counterpoint,” explained Chaplin. “ I learned that from the Fred Karno Company. For instance if they had squalid surroundings with a lot of comedy tramps working in it, they would have very beautiful, boudoir music, something of the 18th century, very lush and grandiose, and it would be satirical, a counterpoint.”

This style is highly evident in the original score for The Gold Rush and, of course, City Lights, (Jose Padilla’s “La Violetera” pitch perfect poignancy as the poor flower girl’s theme song) but also in his 1936 final silent feature Modern Times. (Flawed as it is, I love the ballsy, bad-ass nature of Modern Times: Chaplin effectively extending a prominently raised middle finger to anyone and everyone telling him what not to do and why not to do it.)

What would later become one of the 20th century’s most beloved standards, the sweet melancholy of “Smile” swirls in and out of Modern Times, framing moments of destitution and despair with sublime loveliness.

“Sometimes a musician would get pompous with me,” said Chaplin, “and I would cut him short: ‘Whatever the melody is, the rest is just a vamp.’ After putting music to one or two pictures I began to look at a conductor’s score with a professional eye and to know whether a composition was over-orchestrated or not. If I saw a lot of notes in the brass and woodwind section I would say: ‘That’s too black in the brass,’ or ‘too busy in the woodwinds’.”

Carl Davis, very accurately, made this observation: “His assistants had a terrible time. It must have been torture. He was very, very moody.”

This, I’m sure, surprises no one.

But the simple fact remains: Charlie’s only competitive Oscar win was not for acting nor for directing (crimes, both) but for Best Original Score: the 1952 beauty Limelight.

Keaton and Chaplin on the set of LIMELIGHT

As Chaplin grew on in years, especially while living Swiss exile, so did his obsession with perfecting the sound of his silents. Chaplin’s final musical associate, Eric James, worked closely with Chaplin during his ailing years in the 1970s and, therefore, took on a much larger creative role than his predecessors.

In 1975, at the age of 86 (two years before his death) Chaplin and James worked on recording the score for A Woman of Paris. “As the years went by, Charlie found it more and more difficult to think of ideas for the music and left a great deal of it to me. … When I arrived to work with Charlie on A Woman of Paris, he looked quite weak and ill. I was very distressed to find him in such a state and I could see that he found even talking quite an effort. I therefore told him not to worry but that when I had finished each piece and played it over to him, he need only shake his head…”

In these later scores, Chaplin revisits the music hall memories of his youth, and grand music hall-esque string arrangements dominate the scores for Pay Day, The Kid, The Circus. It is, I think, fair to say that all of the Chaplin/James arrangements are Chaplin’s autumnal swan songs to that childhood that was so very much a part of his lifelong love affair with music.

Recommended listening:

Oh! That Cello (Beautiful arrangements of Chaplin’s early sheet music.)

Charlie Chaplin: The Original Music From His Movies (A marvelous, comprehensive collection of Chaplin’s film compositions.)

The Film Music of Charles Chaplin by Carl Davis. (This is out of print, but worth the digging. Got mine 8 years ago from a Russian e-bay seller and still cherish it.)

Project Keaton Guest Post: Silent Volume

Silent film blogger Chris Edwards runs Silent Volume, a site dedicated to the art of silent filmmaking. Its tagline, “this medium is not dead,” is backed by a wealth of reviews, editorials and general musings on silent films great and small.  In conjunction with Project Keaton, Edwards has written a fabulous piece exploring the deeply human everyman appeal of Keaton’s work and its particular relevance in the 21st century. Follow him @SilentVolume


Framed: Keaton in THE GOAT (1921)

My Twitter avatar is Buster Keaton. It’s a screenshot of him, behind bars, from THE GOAT, one of his short films.

People love it. They’ve called it ‘perfect.’ It’s cool to them the way Buster’s bars exactly touch the edges of the frame, as though he’s imprisoned in Twitter’s own digital superstructure. One small, innocent man, peeking out of one window, in a building that has millions of them.

I didn’t think about this when I chose it. I just thought the picture looked funny. But reflecting back on it now, after a couple of years, maybe this little picture sums up why Buster matters so much to me. Not just as a fan of silent films, or as someone who writes about them regularly—but as a modern person, navigating life. Buster is me, or us, in a way the other clowns weren’t.

Almost all of us want to understand how the world works, if only so that we can fit into it better. We want to be happy, comfortable, respected, loved. We want fulfillment, freedom, sex—all the usuals. And the better we ‘get’ our world, particularly the circles in which we want to travel, the easier all this becomes to achieve. I’m not excepting the counter-culture types here either; at heart we all want to succeed on our own terms, and the most alternative person you know still, probably, wants to be part of his or her world. The only people who don’t are hermits—or possibly tramps—and you don’t know many of them.

However, most of us are not fulfilled or successful. And if we are, we’re encouraged not to rest on our laurels—to keep striving. This can be a tense thing, because the world remains big and complicated and we can’t always be sure what we’re striving for, or how reasonable our chances really are. On our bad days, we wonder if we’re good enough; on our worst days, we get metaphysical: wondering if the world is designed to thwart us.

It is a gigantic, amoral, mysterious, multi-geared machine of a world like this that all of Buster Keaton’s characters occupy, and yet, every version of him does his best to work within it. Think of the newlywed in ONE WEEK: a man who dreams of building a house; who owns the parts; who has the instructions for assembly and the mindset to follow them strictly. And he does. And he’s destroyed, because unknown to him, the man his wife turned down has changed the numbers on the crates. The house has all the right pieces, but none in the right order.

And yet he tries and tries to make it right. Just as he tries to please the people he cares about, from the sweet wife in that film to the cruel girlfriends in SPITE MARRIAGE and THE GENERAL. Can you imagine one of Fatty Arbuckle’s louts negotiating the terrain of social graces that Buster must in OUR HOSPITALITY? What about the Tramp? I think the Tramp would sooner get drunk.

The exceptions prove the rule. Buster’s sociopathic gunman in THE FROZEN NORTH is a dream; just like his alpha-male master sleuth in SHERLOCK, JR. In THE NAVIGATOR, Buster’s hero is born into wealth, but it does him no good. All Buster’s little fellows are part of the system, trying to work their way through it. They’re never trying to escape it. That would mean giving up.

Back to the Twitter thing. I was saying (actually, tweeting) to someone just today about how most people on Twitter are trying to promote themselves, one way or another. They have a sense of their own smallness, because they think so much about the world, in its vastness. They also think about how to get bigger, and see Twitter as a tool that can help. They’re convinced it can be done.

That’s a modern philosophy, and it’s a Buster philosophy all the way.

How would the other clowns approach Twitter? Lloyd would tweet regular updates about the weather and his kids’ favorite songs. Langdon wouldn’t get it—he’d try updating from his rotary phone. Arbuckle would spam you. And Chaplin, I think, wouldn’t have an account, though you’d still hear from him somehow. But Buster would be there.

It’s Buster, in spirit and in shared plight, who speaks to us best.

Now, none of this makes him better than the others. For what it’s worth, I give Buster the nod for best silent comedy feature (THE GENERAL), but not for best short (Arbuckle’s CONEY ISLAND and HE DID AND HE DIDN’T transcend even COPS and THE PLAYHOUSE). Nor was Buster the actor, innovator, businessman, or comedy polymath that Chaplin was. But Buster had genius, and his particular brand of it has aged the best.

You know… I don’t call Chaplin, Arbuckle or Lloyd by their first names. Funny thing, that.

Silent Films at the London Film Festival

A thoughtful and expressive piece appeared in today’s Guardian, praising the value, worth and beauty of silent cinema.

Three silent’s are slated to be screened at the London Film Festival later this month: Underground (1928, directed by Anthony Asquith), J’accuse! (1919, directed by Abel Gance), and Laila (1929, directed by George Schneevoigt), which, Guardian writer Ronald Bergan says, remind modern audiences just how eloquent dialogue-free movies are capable of being. He also makes the provocative argument that “if cinema history had started with sound, it would have been necessary to invent silent movies.”

Read his reverent op-ed below:

The London film festival is screening three silent classics this year, reminding us just how eloquent dialogue-free movies are capable of being.

Is there anyone out there who still needs to be convinced of the superiority of silent movies? They hold their own easily against sound, colour and widescreen films in any canonical list. Silent movies are the ne plus ultra of cinema. The rest is… theatre or literature. How exciting, therefore, that this year’s London film festival is screening three silent movie treasures: one British (Underground, 23 October), one French (J’Accuse, 24 October) and one Norwegian (Laila, 29 October).

Pre-sound movies are closer to Erwin Panovsky’s definition of cinema as “the dynamisation of space and the spacialisation of time”, and to Alfred Hitchcock’s belief in “pure cinema”. When film theorists attempt to define cinematic specificity, it is to non-talkies that they turn. I have a theory that if cinema history had started with sound, it would have been necessary to invent silent movies.

Actually, there is no such thing as a silent movie, because a musical accompaniment was an essential component of every performance. And how can anything so eloquent be termed “silent”? That is why I prefer to call them pre-sound movies, or non-talkies. Ironically, one of the few things that non-talkies couldn’t do was create silence. Silence as an acoustic effect exists only where sounds can be heard, as in Abel Gance’s The Life and Loves of Beethoven (1937), in a sequence where the composer loses his hearing. Incidentally, it is interesting to compare Gance’s non-talkie 1919 version of J’Accuse – which depicts death, delusion and insanity in the trenches – with his far less effective talkie remake of 1938.

Pre-sound films were more universal, with no need for subtitles or dubbing – FW Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924) is so expressive that intertitles were unnecessary. Charlie Chaplin, feeling that talkies would limit his international appeal, and being popular enough, resisted dialogue for 13 years, making two of the screen’s greatest comedies, City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936), in the midst of an avalanche of talk.

Much is written about the cinematographic beauty and the use of montage in pre-sound films (for Sergei Eisenstein, sound destroyed montage, which he considered the essence of cinema) but of equal importance were the closeup and the performances. The absence of the spoken word concentrates the spectator’s attention more closely on the visual aspect of behaviour. Acting in non-talkies, now a lost art, had to be done in a manner different from the style on stage or the reality of ordinary life. This was precisely what the great actors of the silent period accomplished, far from the pantomimic exaggeration seen in films like Singin’ in the Rain. Lillian Gish, Gloria Swanson, Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Conrad Veidt, Greta Garbo, Rudolph Valentino and Asta Nielsen were among those that gave the most extraordinary performances in screen history. As Norma Desmond (Swanson) says in Sunset Boulevard (1950): “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.”

Underground (UK, 1928)

Underground (UK, 1928)

Laila (Norway, 1928)

Laila (Norway, 1929)

J'accuse! (France, 1919)

J'accuse! (France, 1919)

Charlie Chaplin: Pictorial of the Month

artwork © the kitty packard pictorial, 2009

original artwork © the kitty packard pictorial, 2009

“The little fellow,” Vanity Fair once wrote, “was not a small man.”

Indeed, there are movie stars. There are superstars. There are legends. And then there’s Charlie Chaplin.

He was born on April 16, 1889 in south London at a time when poverty was rife, housing was scarce,  and low-income tenements had decomposed into dirty, overcrowded slums. Charlie knew such poverty intimately during his unstable childhood and spent most of it in and out of workhouses and schools for the poor while his mother, a failed singer, bounced in and out of sanitariums. His entire life-course was to be a product (whether directly or indirectly) of the desperation of privation.

At only 10 years old, Charlie joined a troupe of child actors which provided sanctuary from the oppressive London streets. At 16, Charlie teamed up with his half brother Sydney who secured him a two week trial with one of England’s foremost impresarios, Fred Karno. Charlie’s inspired performance as a drunken dandy  had audiences roaring and cemented his spot in the troupe.

Charlie in 1915 (left) and in 1911 (right)

Charlie in 1915 (left) and in 1911 (right)

From 1910 through 1913, Fred Karno and company made two American tours and, in the spring of 1913, Charlie would receive his calling in the form of a telegram. Hollywood’s ‘King of Comedy’ Mack Sennett had seen his on stage inebriate and wanted to recruit him, feeling that the lithely  comic was a natural fit for the movies. He lured West the reluctant Chaplin by promising a paycheck of $150 a week.

On tour in America, 1913. Chaplin (2nd from right) and his roomie Stan Laurel (3rd from right)

On tour in America, 1913. Chaplin (2nd from right) and his roomie Stan Laurel (3rd from right)

Initially mystified by the breakneck pace of the Sennett movie factory, and frustrated by the inauspicious first weeks with both Sennett and his number one star (and girlfriend) Mabel Normand, Chaplin finally found his footing in the oversized shoes of a nameless vagrant. “I had no idea of the character,” Chaplin said. “But the moment I dressed, the clothes and makeup made me feel who he was … by the time I walked on stage, he was fully born.” Mostly true, although Keystone Chaplin is an amoral cad compared to the sensitive little fellow in later films. The Tramp’s first appearance on screen in Kid Auto Races at Venice is, in fact, more Charles Chaplin The Man than Charlie Chaplin The Tramp: kicked and shoved out of the way by a cameraman who is dutifully trying to film the car races, the Tramp relentlessly wrestles his way in front of the camera. Whatever the cost, he must be seen.

Chaplin's debut in Kid Auto Races at Venice, 1914

Chaplin's debut in Kid Auto Races at Venice, 1914

There has rarely been a more prophetic screen debut than that of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp.

Upon finishing his year with Keystone, Chaplin signed with Essanay pictures. Even though he butted heads with the studio bosses throughout his contract, it afforded the 26 year old the ability to flex his creative muscles as both an actor and filmmaker. The Essanay’s are a fascinating visual diary of an artist learning his instrument—a portrait, if you will, of the artist as a young man.

Chaplin with Ben Turpin, His New Job - 1914

Chaplin with Ben Turpin, His New Job

A Jitney Elopement

A Jitney Elopement

By the time he finished with Essanay, Europe would be bitterly embroiled in war, but Charlie would be the most famous man in the world. Later in life Chaplin would defend his controversial politics by calling himself a “citizen of the world”– in 1916, no one would have dared argue the fact.

Example of the countless publicity photos in illustrated magazines of the period.

Example of the countless publicity photos in illustrated magazines of the period.

English, German and French poster art from the Essanay period demonstrate Chaplin's international popularity.

English, German and French poster art from the Essanay period demonstrate Chaplin's international popularity.

A myriad of fans greeting Charlie in London, 1921

A myriad of fans greeting Charlie in London, 1921. The crowd stretched clear from Waterloo Station to the Ritz on Piccadilly.

His next deal with The Mutual Film Company gave him more of the creative control he coveted—not to mention $10,000 a week in exchange for 12 two-reelers. Already, Chaplin’s auteur sensibilities were evident. He threw himself into work with a tireless creativity that would give birth to some of the best work of his career. Two particularly noteworthy films in the Mutual series—The Immigrant and Easy Street—are textured, poignant, socially conscious two-reelers that emerge as fully Chaplinesque. With The Immigrant especially it is very clear that Chaplin was lifting comedy from pie-throwing crudity, into something deeply meaningful. Without doubt, the Mutual period is what makes the rest of Chaplin’s oeuvre possible.

The Adventurer, 1917

The Adventurer, 1917 with Eric Campbell (left) Edna & Charlie

The Immigrant, 1916

The Immigrant, 1916 - Campbell, Charlie, Edna & Henry Bergman

Easy Street, 1917

Easy Street, 1917 - Eric Campbell & Charlie

As evidenced in the superb documentary Unknown Chaplin, he did not work from a script. He merely started with an idea and willed the story on the fly—sometimes inspiration would charge like a runaway train, sometimes it would derail completely and the crew retreated to games of pinochle while Chaplin agonized. His unique creative process required a highly adaptable, long-suffering, loyal crew who believed in Chaplin’s vision as much as he did.

Although he was prone to virulent mood swings, the Chaplin set enjoyed a chemistry that made it easy for his crew to discount his inevitable outbursts. Indeed, pranks, fits of laughter and a spirit of excitement prevailed on many of those magical days on set. And when tempers did flare (and they flared often) loyalty was still the undercurrent in the personal confrontations between Chaplin and his right hand men. Chaplin and his crew could fight like the dickens, but loyalty prevailed in the end and it was not uncommon for Charlie to be the first to wave the white flag. (He once even offered his ass to cameraman Rollie Totheroh for the kicking it deserved. Rollie obliged.)

Charlie cracks up and Edna cuts up in some Mutual Film bloopers

Charlie cracks up and Edna cuts up in some Mutual Film bloopers

Edna & Charlie, ca. 1915

Edna & Charlie, ca. 1915

Edna Purviance, a former stenographer and Chaplin’s leading lady and lover at the time (he kept her on the studio payroll for the rest of her life) was the prototypical Chaplin actress—an inexperienced ingénue who could be trained to do Chaplin’s exact bidding, right down to the raise of her brow. It is understandable why some, in this post Stanislavsky world, fault Chaplin for dictating to actors their precise movements. (Take after take after take–thousands of feet of film, hundreds and hundreds of takes.) However, when compared to the often overblown, over-the-top acting so ubiquitous in silent film (particularly those of the late teens), the acting in Chaplin films is remarkably realistic. Such dexterous nuance is particularly apparent in the Mutuals and would later be more perfectly achieved in the likes of Chaplin’s elegant A Woman of Paris and City Lights.

Film historian James Neibaur said “With his direction of the actors, Chaplin effectively replaces the broad gestures by which so much of screen drama had been represented. Chaplin believed that human beings would naturally hide their emotions. This penchant for realism, and the understated performances of his actors, redefined acting in dramatic cinema, just as his short films had brought screen comedy to another level.”

Regardless of the neurotic underpinnings of his  process, the results are consistently marvelous.

Hardly an expressionist, Chaplin films do lack aesthetic creativity and are noted for Totheroh’s static (some call it narcissistic) long shots. But  Chaplin was a comedian who grew up in the wide angles of the music hall stage where improvisation sprang from a gag which had to be played out for the benefit of the folks down in front as well as the folks up in the balcony. His brain worked in the aspect ratio of the  stage and, for better or worse, Rollie Totheroh’s lenses were notoriously short in keeping with this tradition to provide Chaplin with a steady canvas on which to paint. It can be argued that Chaplin’s stubbornly short lens is what makes his close ups so wrenchingly effective. His close-ups are not acts of fawning self-indulgence: they are powerful tools used to pack an emotional punch that only the silence of pantomime can evoke. All the words in the world fall short of expressing what Chaplin expressed in his close-ups.

The Kid and The Tramp reunited

The Kid and The Tramp reunited

People were forming an emotional connection to movies and, in Chaplin’s films particularly, were able to explore the emotional complexities of the human condition through the images on screen. In other words,  film was becoming an art form.

With his landmark contract at First National, Chaplin became his own producer, netted a million a year and was given a liberal amount of control.  Unfortunately, the time constraints of the First National contract brought much anxiety to Chaplin and his work suffers visibly. A Day’s Pleasure and Sunnyside, in particular, lack the excitement and vitality of the Mutual films and feel forced and disjointed. (“A Day’s Pleasure,” wrote one critic, “is anything but.”) But from First National also comes some of his strongest work. Shoulder Arms, A Dog’s Life, The Pilgrim, and his first full-length feature film, The Kid. With the sensational Jackie Coogan at his side (Chaplin’s best co-star hands down) the film stunned audiences and critics alike with a dramatic subplot that climaxed into a tear-jerking medley of pain and pathos. And then, seamlessly, he draws the audience into laughter again. No one had ever done it before, and to this day few have ever done it quite so well.

A Dog's Life

A Dog's Life

Shoulder Arms

Shoulder Arms

Chaplin and Coogan in The Kid

Chaplin and Coogan in The Kid

Chaplin was right: “life is tragedy in close up, comedy in long shot.”

In 1918 Chaplin built his own studio on a 4-acre lot amidst the plush Hollywood orange groves at Sunset and La Brea Boulevards. (The English cottage facade was built to purposefully keep the neighborhood genteel– today, ironically, it remains the only truly genteel spot in central Hollywood.) Chaplin had escaped the Hollywood studio system and would spend the rest of his life refusing to play by their rules—or anyone’s rules for that matter–as a fiercely independent filmmaker. Since Chaplin was an inexorable perfectionist who favored quality over quantity, it is not surprising that his output of work slowed down dramatically after he went into business for himself—by means of United Artists. One of the 4 founding ‘lunatics’ who ‘took over the asylum,’ Chaplin along with friends Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith, formed the distribution company as a means to control and protect their work and creative rights.

Doug Fairbanks, Mary Pickford & Chaplin on a 1918 war bond tour.

Doug Fairbanks, Mary Pickford & Chaplin on a 1918 war bond tour.

Best Mates: Doug and Charlie frame Mary Pickford.

Best Mates: Doug and Charlie bookend Mary Pickford.

Charlie and the little fellow.

Charlie and the little fellow.

Notwithstanding his 1923 drama A Woman of Paris, Chaplin’s independent films were consistent box office smashes. David Robinson writes that for A Woman of Paris, Chaplin “wanted to explore the limits of expressiveness—the range, subtlety and sophistication of sentiments and motives that could be revealed in pictures.” The result is a film somewhat ahead of its time emotionally—as evidenced by the disappointing box office performance. (To be fair, the real reason the film flopped is because Chaplin was not in it.) The ‘sophistication of sentiments’ Chaplin successfully achieved in A Woman of Paris are put to work in his next (and for some, his greatest) comedy, The Gold Rush. A cinematic tour de force that continues to inspire filmmakers 80 years after its initial release, Chaplin delivers one of the best performance of his career (topped only by City Lights) as well as some of the most iconic moments in screen history.

Still from the dance hall scene

Still from the dance hall scene in The Gold Rush.

The original 1925 ending-- axed in Chaplin's 1942 re-release.

Gerogia Hale & Charlie's kiss from the original 1925 ending-- axed in Chaplin's 1942 re-release.

Chaplin performs the roll dance out of costume

Chaplin performs the Gold Rush's famous roll dance out of costume

The New York Times film review of August 17, 1925 explains the alchemy behind Chaplin’s Lone Prospector: “there is more than mere laughter in The Gold Rush. In back of it, masked by ludicrous situations, is something of the comedian’s early life—the hungry days in London, the times when he was depressed by disappointments, the hopes, his loneliness and the adulation he felt for successful actors. It is told with a background of the Klondike, and one can only appreciate the true meaning of some of the incidents by translating them mentally from the various plights in which the pathetic little Lone Prospector continually finds himself. It is as much a dramatic story as a comedy.”

Even a cursory examination of Chaplin’s films is obliged to make mention of his much-publicized love affairs. Indeed, the two are often inextricably linked and would, along with Chaplin’s political beliefs, be his undoing in Hollywood.  Not only was Chaplin a mega superstar, he also happened to be Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor: charismatic, charming, good-looking and fabulously wealthy. Since Chaplin was not the sort of man to took no for an answer, he always got the girl. Young girls. Again and again. It was inevitable that trouble would find him. Which it did. Again and again.

Chaplin at the time of his marriage to Mildred Harris--first out of four.

Chaplin at the time of his marriage to Mildred Harris--first out of four.

It was precisely this brand of trouble that shadowed the production of Chaplin’s next film, The Circus. His notorious fetish for young girls led to the pregnancy of 16 year old Lita Grey, his original leading lady for The Gold Rush (thankfully recast by Georgia Hale) and the shotgun wedding, inevitably, a very messy, very public, very expensive divorce trial.

The Circus, however, remains a film that is, quite possibly, Chaplin’s funniest work. Often overlooked as it lacks the refinement of The Gold Rush and the sentiment of The Kid, it is a nod to the straightforward gag-centered slapstick of his early years.

Still from The Circus, 1928

Still from The Circus, 1928

A devastated Chaplin after a fire destroyed The Circus set. A laboratory error would later destroy key prints to the film. It is indeed a wonder the film was ever made at all.

A devastated Chaplin after a fire destroyed The Circus set. A laboratory error would later destroy key prints to the film. It is indeed a wonder the film was ever made at all.

It was the golden age of comedy. Chaplin’s contemporaries Harold Lloyd and, most importantly, Buster Keaton, were likewise at the top of their game.  Stone-faced Keaton’s adventurous imagination and extraordinary physical prowess resulted in comedies that were consistent envelope pushers. Chaplin was not one to be outdone, and his films of the ‘20s are, although spare in number, representative of the heights to which film comedy was capable of reaching.

But the arrival of talking pictures in 1927 strangled film comedy in its prime. Overnight, silent pantomime, once a voice for the entire world, was gone forever. Chaplin firmly believed that sound would rob the Tramp of his intrinsic universality and he defiantly refused to acquiesce to the microphone. (Although he was certainly not opposed to the idea of synchronized music and, as a former aspiring musician, went on to score the rest of his films under the trained hand of a musical advisor.)

In the midst of Hollywood’s upheaval, Chaplin dove into a nearly 3 year production for City Lights. By the time it was released in 1931, silent movies were nothing more than an echo from another time and Chaplin was thought foolish and arrogant for releasing something so anacrhonistic. But City Lights would be his masterpiece and his greatest creative and financial triumph. Heartbreakingly beautiful, it was cinematic perfection borne from a turbulent sea of inner turmoil and neurosis. Chaplin spent a full year abroad enjoying its afterglow.

Charlie and cameraman Rollie Totheroh (in back) set up a scene in City Lights

Charlie and cameraman Rollie Totheroh set up a scene on the set of City Lights. Working out the Tramp's crucial meeting with the blind girl caused months of frustrated creative turmoil for Chaplin.

City Lights, 1931

Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill in City Lights

Final shot in City Lights--one of the most famous in cinema history.

Final shot in City Lights--one of the most famous in cinema history.

Doug Fairbanks (right) visits Chaplin on the City Lights set, creating a rare moment of good humor on the troubled shoot.

Doug Fairbanks (right) visits Chaplin on the City Lights set, creating a rare moment of good humor on the troubled shoot.

Chaplin around the time of City Light's release.

Chaplin around the time of City Light's release.

But times were changing. America was drowning in a Depression. A political firestorm was threatening to engulf Europe yet again. Chaplin sought to reflect on society’s upheaval. Social comment had always been a thread in Chaplin’s narrative fabric, but his 1936 release Modern Times is an overtly political film. Chaplin used his comedic arsenal fully in what is on the outside an entertaining piece of mostly-silent slapstick, but what is in actuality a damning protest film.

Charlie's gamine in Modern Times (and common-law wife), Paulette Goddard.

Charlie's gamine in Modern Times (and common-law wife), the beautiful Paulette Goddard.

Charlie and the gamine in a publicity still for Modern Times, 1936.

Charlie and the gamine in a publicity still for Modern Times, 1936.

Paulette & Charlie, ca. 1936

Paulette & Charlie, ca. 1936

The film is famous too for being the first film in which Chaplin allowed his character to speak–although in cleverly crafted gibberish. Chaplin scored the film, as he did City Lights, under the rigorous supervision of Robert Raskin and from it gave birth to one of the 20th century’s most beloved standards, Smile. (To this day the song is endearingly popular–it was the favorite song of lifelong Chaplin fan Michael Jackson, and was introduced to a new generation in the wake of Jackson’s untimely passing.)

There is a scene in Modern Times that sums up Chaplin’s conspicuous politics: A flag falls from the flatbed of a passing truck. The ever-obliging tramp picks it up and shouts after the driver to come back. He waves the flag frantically and, as he marches after the truck, an army of demonstrators round into view behind him. Oblivious to their presence, the tramp marches on, flag waving, and the men soldier on behind him . We realize with gleeful alacrity: the flag is red! A swarm of cops burst onto the scene to break up the communist demonstrators of whom the Tramp is the unwitting leader. The Tramp’s guilt by association lands him in jail.

It would be a similar guilt by association—Chaplin’s open courting of the Left—that would land him in exile.

1940’s The Great Dictator is Chaplin’s first all talkie feature, the Tramp’s last appearance on film, and the bravest work of Charlie’s career. At a time when America was intent to ignore the war raging in Europe, Chaplin spoke up on behalf of humanity by relentlessly skewering Adolf Hitler. Chaplin believed that if he had to make a talking picture, he damn well better have something important to say. The film is not remembered so much for the comedy, but for the famous final speech –an awing moment when Chaplin breaks character to plead for peace amongst all mankind in a fervent denunciation of fascism.

Charlie as a Jewish barber in 1940's The Great Dictator

Charlie as a Jewish barber in 1940's The Great Dictator

The Great Dictator's globe ballet

The Great Dictator's globe ballet

Chaplin as Adenoid Hinkel and Jack Oakie as Napolino.

Chaplin as Adenoid Hinkel and Jack Oakie as Napolino.

But people weren’t ready to hear it and during the Red Scare, the film would be falsely misconstrued as a veiled piece of Red propaganda.

On the subject of Chaplin’s complicated fall from favor with the American public and subsequent exile, Time Magazine states: “Chaplin never became a U.S. citizen. An internationalist by temperament and fame, he considered patriotism “the greatest insanity that the world has ever suffered.” As the Depression gave way to World War II and the cold war, the increasingly politicized message of his films, his expressed sympathies with pacifists, communists and Soviet supporters, became suspect. It didn’t help that Chaplin, a bafflingly complex and private man, had a weakness for young girls. His first two wives were 16 when he married them; his last, Oona O’Neill, daughter of Eugene O’Neill, was 18. In 1943 he was the defendant in a public, protracted paternity suit. Denouncing his “leering, sneering attitude” toward the U.S. and his “unsavory” morals, various public officials, citizen groups and gossip columnists led a boycott of his pictures.”

These various officials included none other than J Edgar Hoover, whose dossier on Chaplin contained an incomprehensible 2,000 pages.

Right-wing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper took it upon herself to spearhead a smear campaign against Chaplin using her highly influential gossip column to condemn Chaplin personally, politically and professionally. In its fine essay Hedda Hopper, Hollywood Gossip and the Campaign Against Charlie Chaplin, The Australian Journal of American Studies states categorically that “Hopper’s red scare politics linked her to important forces in domestic anticommunism within and beyond Hollywood and she collaborated with these forces in a far-reaching campaign against Chaplin between 1940 and 1952. … Hopper never wavered in her belief that Chaplin, as a foreigner and political progressive, ‘upheld an ideology offensive to most Americans and contrary to the principles that have left this nation the last refuse of freedom-loving people,’ an ideology he was—she claimed—‘fostering’ through his activities and his films.’

Charlie and Oona O'Neil

Charlie and Oona O'Neil

Without proof of Chaplin’s alleged communist affiliation, the FBI and INS had to resort to Chaplin’s well documented questionable morality.   ‘If what has been said about him is true,” said the Attorney General, “he is, in my opinion, an unsavoury character who has been publicly charged with being a member of the Communist Party, with grave moral charges and with making statements that would indicate a leering, sneering attitude toward a country whose hospitality has enriched him.’

In 1952 Chaplin left for England to promote Limelight—a poignant fable about “a clown and a ballerina” that features his only collaboration with Chaplin’s greatest contemporary Buster Keaton– and was ceremonially informed that his re-entry visa had been revoked.

Buster Keaton and Charlie work through a scene in Limelight, 1952

The great Buster Keaton works through a scene with Chaplin in Limelight

Claire Bloom with Chaplin, Limelight

Claire Bloom with Chaplin, Limelight

With Martha Raye in Monsieur Verdoux, 1947

With Martha Raye in Monsieur Verdoux, 1947

A King in New York, 1957

A King in New York, 1957

Chaplin settled in Switzerland with Oona and his children.

He would only return to America 20 years later, at the age of 83, to receive an Honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Daniel Taradash’s eloquent speech that night was one of reverent gratitude for Chaplin’s contributions to cinema. It was obvious, after all, in the clarity of hindsight, that the man once thought of as a “sneering” communist had been nothing more than a philosophizing humanist. But Chaplin had outlived his most vocal opponents, and the acceptance of his honorary Oscar is truly extraordinary to behold. For three emotional minutes, the audience applauds and bravos the little old man on the stage— artist of the cinema, advocate for humanity, agent of laughter.

Nearly 100 years separate us from the birth of Charlie’s little tramp, and yet his impact is still apparent in film today: he was cinema’s first artist and one of its last. Although a flawed man of many contradictions and suppressed demons, he was, at the end of the day, Charlie: generous and loyal, a passionate lover of all things beautiful and true and good. He was a fearless fighter and inspired craftsman whose madding quest for perfection gave the world the eternal gift of laughter. His work is a profoundly deep expression of the human condition, without which modern cinema would simply not be possible.


Further Reading: Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema by Jeffrey Vance, Chaplin: A Life, by Stephen Weissman, Chaplin: His Life and Art by David Robinson and Chaplin’s My Autobiography.

Further Viewing: The Chaplin Collection volumes 1 and 2, Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin by Richard Schickel (available only in the Chaplin Collection box set), The Chaplin Mutuals, and Unknown Chaplin by Kevin Brownlow. (Richard Attenborough’s biopic Chaplin is rather choppy in its storytelling, but Robert Downey Jr’s passionate, thoroughly believable portrayal of Chaplin is definitely worth the watch.)

Further listening: Oh! That Cello, Film Music of Charles Chaplin (import), Charlie Chaplin: Soundtracks of sis Famous Movies.