Archive for Charlie Chaplin

Stars of Vaudeville #1037: Charles Chaplin, Sr.

Posted in British Music Hall, Charlie Chaplin, Singers, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 18, 2017 by travsd

Born on this date in 1863: Charles Chaplin the Elder: the father of his better known namesake, comedian and movie star Charlie Chaplin. It’s not as well known today that in his time the elder Chaplin was a fairly successful performer in his own right.

The son of a butcher, Charles Senior was still a teenager when he went on the stage. It is said that he met Charlie’s mother Hannah Hall (a.k.a. Lily Harley) while performing in a sketch called “Shamus O’Brien” in the early 1880s. In 1885 he married her, despite the fact that in the intervening months she had taken up with another man and given birth to a child. Chaplin gave the boy his surname; he became Sydney Chaplin. By ’87, Charles Senior had worked up a music hall act and began getting bookings in the halls, with a repertoire of sentimental and comical songs. In 1889, his son Charlie was born.

So far so good, eh? Unfortunately (for the family) not long after that, Chaplin’s career began to take off — and so did he. By 1890, he was popular enough to tour America (notably, he played the Union Square Theatre in New York — this was his own foray into American vaudeville. The following year he ran out on Hannah and the boys for good.

Chaplin was popular enough by this stage that his name and visaged graced the covers of the published sheet music of songs he had made popular, such as “The Girl Was Young and Pretty”, “Hi Diddle Diddle” and the comical, suggestive “Eh, Boys!”

It’s a well known story by now. While Charlie the elder was cavorting and carousing in music halls, living the carefree life, Hannah (also an entertainer, and by her son’s account a brilliant one, the one he took after) went slowly insane and couldn’t work. Chaplin offered no financial support, even when the two children were packed off to workhouses.

By the end of the decade (and the century) Chaplin had become an alcoholic and was no longer working himself. Significantly, this was the juncture when he first seems to take an interest in his namesake. In 1899, he got ten year old Charlie his first proper show business job by getting him into an act called The Eight Lancashire Lads. The younger Chaplin was about to embark on an incredible life’s journey; the older one was just ending his. By 1901, Charles Chaplin, Sr. was dead of cirrhosis of the liver.

But his mark is there for all to see in Charlie Chaplin’s life and art. An alcoholic, performing dad is something Charlie had in common with Buster Keaton. But there are contrasts. You could say that Joe Keaton’s drinking hurt his career, but it didn’t end his life. And Buster followed in his footsteps, becoming a problem boozer himself. Whereas the elder Chaplin ended both his life and career through alcohol abuse. And Charlie, Jr. only ever drank in cautious moderation. But I find it significant that he played hilarious comic drunks on stage and screen for decades. And there is also the subject of Chaplin’s relations with him. For a good long while, like his father, he put his work first and neglected his women (following periods of intense wooing). This cycle was only broken when he finally married Oona O’Neill, quite late in life, when he only worked occasionally and chose to devote all of his energy into family life…as though he were making up for lost time.

To find out more about vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. For more on early  film please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Century of Slapstick #106: Charlie Chaplin in “Easy Street”:

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on January 22, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the 100th anniversary of the release date of one of Charlie Chaplin’s best known and best loved comedy shorts Easy Street (1917).

Easy Street was made and released at the peak of Chaplin’s Mutual Period, which many modern fans regard as the acme of career, when he was at the height of his powers comically, but not yet too far down the road to pathos that he would begin in earnest around The Kid (1921). The plot is simple. Charlie plays a guy who’s so desperate for a job he becomes a policeman in a bad neighborhood, at a precinct just desperate enough to hire him. The slum is being terrorized by a thug played by Eric Campbell in probably his greatest screen role. He’s so scary that the entire neighborhood en masse won’t take him on. A crowd of literally 50 people cowers in his presence. Chaplin is the David to his Goliath, and he finally conquers him by gassing him with a lamp that he himself has bent down to show his strength. Later when he rebounds, Charlie gets the advantage again when he accidentally sits on a syringe full of cocaine and gets the strength to throw a stove on top of him out a window. In the end, Charlie gets the girl (Edna Purviance of course), the bully is reformed, and everyone goes to church on Sunday.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Century of Slapstick #105: Charlie Chaplin in “The Rink”

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Silent Film, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the 100th anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin comedy The Rink (1916).

The Rink is a gem from Chaplin’s Mutual period, that magical stretch when he could do no wrong. Structurally and storywise, the film is similar to many films he had done previously, Caught in a Cabaret (1914), perhaps being the ultimate early example. Charlie is a waiter, causing much havoc at his job, and encountering various rich people….whose party he will later crash disguised as nobility. Here the characters include Edna Purviance (always the honey to Charlie’s fly), her father (James T. Kelley), and a wealthy middle aged couple played by Eric Campbell and — hilariously — Henry Bergman, in drag.

In the old days, what we have just described would have been enough for a two reel comedy, but at this stage Chaplin was no longer satisfied with “good enough”, which is why his comedies have survived, and those of so many of his contemporaries are now buried. Because the piece de resistance of this film is set at a roller rink, and it becomes a showcase for Chaplin’s ASTOUNDING talents as a roller skater. As if the guy didn’t have enough OTHER skills (pantomime, acrobatics, dancing, playing the violin), he is a superb, top level trick roller skater. If he had never done anything else in his career, he could easily have just been a roller skating performer in a vaudeville dumb act, and been the top man in his field. How many movies can you put that in, though? Just a couple. There’s this one, and Chaplin later trots the skating out again in Modern Times 20 years later. At any rate, it is a glorious thing to watch, not just funny, but graceful and beautiful. Because this is, well, Charlie Chaplin.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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Century of Slapstick #104: Chaplin Takes Us “Behind the Screen”

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Silent Film with tags , , , , on November 13, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the 100th anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin movie Behind the Screen (1916).

While made at the peak of Chaplin’s Mutual period, this comedy feels to me like a throwback to his Keystone and Essanay days.  It’s his umpteenth movie set in a movie studio and also has much in common with related scenarios such as The Property Man and His Musical Career. Eric Campbell is a stage hand, Charlie his assistant. Their names are David and Goliath. Campbell sleeps all the time while Charlie does all the work and makes it look the other way around. Then the crew (except Charlie and Campbell) go on strike, Workers go on strike, recalling Dough and Dynamite. 

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Edna Purviance (who’s been hanging around in order to get a job (presumably as an actress) dresses as a (male) stage hand in order to get hired. She is. Scab! When Chaplin sees that she’s a girl the two kiss. Campbell sees them, assumes their gay, and ridicules them.

Then a scene on a comedy set. They stage a pie fight. The fight gets out of hand so it spills over into next shoot, a costume drama. Campbell says “I don’t like this highfalutin stuff”. (a Very self-reflexive wink to the audience by Chaplin). Then the strikers set off gunpowder — explosion. Charlie and Edna kiss. The end.

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While this is in many ways a retread of too many Chaplin films to account, the gags are more elaborate and some are more original. I particularly like a moment where Charlie picks up a whole bunch of chairs, their legs stick in all directions, until he looks like a giant porcupine. And there is very funny business with a trap door Charlie is supposed to operate. He keeps getting the cues all wrong, opening and closing the trap at inopportune times, so people fall down it, or have the doors close on their heads.  It’s the equivalent of the escalator in The Floorwalker or the revolving door in The Cure, a big mechanical toy for Charlie to play with.

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

 

Century of Slapstick #103: Charlie Chaplin in “The Pawnshop”

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on October 2, 2016 by travsd

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Today marks the 100th anniversary of the release of the classic Charlie Chaplin short The Pawnshop (1916).

This comedy was made at the peak of Chaplin’s Mutual period and is full of brilliantly constructed strings of gags, maybe his best. Charlie plays a helper in the titular pawnshop — which is essentially a physical comedian’s dream prop shop. He shows up for work late (Charlie’s characters are always late), takes a feather duster out of a suitcase, dusts his hat, and accidentally gets the duster chopped up in a fan. There follows a brilliant chain of gags with a ladder, including what may be Chaplin’s most impressive thrill stunt, when the whole ladder falls over with him at the top, ending in a backwards tumble.

He is fired but gets the pawnbroker (Henry Bergman) to relent. Then he has a serious tussle with his coworker (John Rand). When the pawnbroker’s daughter (Edna Purviance) steps in, he manages to get her sympathy. She brings him into kitchen with her. He dries the dishes (including a cup) with a cloth wringer. Then makes a lei out of pie dough and pretends to play the ukulele. The coworker bursts in and they resume fighting.  The pawnbroker comes in, and they quickly pretend to be helping make pies. Charlie sneaks out grabs lunch from a safe and mans the front desk. Then a series of customers:

A man (James T. Kelley) comes in, telling his tale of woe. Charlie gets broken up about it, keeps spitting his cracker crumbs. Gives him a good deal on his ring. The guy proves to have a pocket full of bills.

Another customer (Albert Austin) brings in an alarm clock to hock. In his appraisal of the clock, Chaplin in succession becomes a jeweler, a physician, a safecracker, even a housewife opening in a can of tuna. By the time he is done with the clock it is just a pile of junk. He tells the poor man so and sends him on his way.

A woman tries to pawn bowl of live goldfish.

Then Eric Campbell comes in as a crook; he later tries to rob the place of jewels at gun point. Charlie saves the day, and then takes a bow — right to us! He should; this little comedy is a tour de force. 

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etcTo learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Century of Slapstick #102: Charlie Chaplin in “The Count”

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on September 4, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the 100th anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin comedy The Count (1916). 

This movie shows Chaplin at the top of his game as a straight up comedian, chock full of original bits of funny physical business, with no twinges of melancholia along the way. It has limburger cheese, and messy slurping of watermelon, and lots and lots of social embarrassment. 

In this Mutual short Eric Campbell plays a tailor and dry cleaner,  Charlie his assistant. Of course, Charlie makes a hash of everything, mismeasures a lady (due to his own delicacy), and burns up all his ironing. The boss fires him (hilariously, Charlie manages to light a cigarette even as he is being kicked out). 

Subsequently, Campbell finds a party invitation in the pocket of a coat he is dry cleaning: “Mrs Moneybags invites Count Broko…” He decides to attend in the Count’s place (this device is used in too many Chaplin and Keystone comedies to count). Little does the tailor reckon on encountering his former assistant at the very same mansion (Charlie has gone there to flirt with the cook). Learning the details, Charlie turns the tables, representing HIMSELF as the Count, and forcing his former boss to play his secretary. And it just builds from there….

For more on silent and slapstick comedy don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

On Chaplin’s Other Half Brother

Posted in Broadway, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Wheeler Dryden (George Dryden Wheeler, Jr, 1892-1957). It was tempting to include him in both my Stars of Vaudeville and Stars of Slapstick series, but Dryden was admittedly minor in both fields, and I decided to go with the best headline!

Dryden was Charlie Chaplin’s half-brother, born to their mother Hannah Hill (a.k.a Lily Harley) when the comedian was three years old. The chronology of events appears to go something like this:

  1. In 1885, music hall performers Charles Chaplin, Sr.and Hannah Hill marry. Hill came into the marriage with the infant Sydney, whose father may have been a man named Sydney Hawkes
  2. 1889, Charlie Chaplin is born
  3. 1890, Charles Chaplin, Sr. has a successful vaudeville tour of America, leaving Hannah alone with the children
  4. 1891, Hannah becomes involved with music hall performer Leo Dryden and Hannah separates from Chaplin (or vice versa)
  5. 1892, Wheeler Dryden born

Charles Chaplin, Sr. never divorced Hill, and Leo took custody of the infant Wheeler, removing her from the care of the unstable woman. From here she began to spiral into the mental illness that would overshadow Charlie Chaplin’s life.  A single mother, abandoned by several men, and one of her children taken away.

Like everyone else in the family, Wheeler Dryden became a vaudeville performer. In 1915, after his two half brothers became famous, his father told him the news of his real mother. He started reaching out to Charlie and Sydney at that time, although it took him two years to finally get a reply from them. He joined them in America in 1918.

Dryden enjoyed some small initial success in Hollywood, appearing in the dramas Tom’s Little Star (1919) and False Women (1921), the kid’s movie Penrod (1921) and the Stan Laurel comedy Mud and Sand (1922).

After this, he focused on Broadway, where he appeared in ten plays between 1925 and 1939.  In 1928, he adapted and co-directed the feature A Little Bit of Fluff starring Sydney Chaplin. In 1938 he married Alice Chapple, a dancer at radio City Music Hall. Their son Spencer Dryden was one of the original members of Jefferson Airplane, and was later a member of New Riders of the Purple Sage and other bands (he was a drummer).

Over the next decade-plus he was to be a key member of Chaplin’s creative team. He was assistant director and did some voiceover work on The Great Dictator (1940). He was associate director and played a bit role in Monsieur Verdoux (1947). And he had a slightly larger speaking role as a doctor, and acted as Chaplin’s personal assistant on Limelight (1952).

At this stage, when Chaplin began his exile in Europe, Dryden remained in Hollywood to oversee his interests in America. At this stage, he alone of the three brothers seems to have inherited his mother’s stress-triggered mental illness, living in seclusion and growing paranoid and detached from reality. Although it might be more accurate to say he was all TOO connected to reality. He was being harassed by the FBI at the time, after all.  He passed away in 1957.

To learn more about comedy film history don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For still more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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