Tomorrow afternoon (Eastern times) Turner Movie Classics will be presenting three classic Charlie Chaplin movies. As a lead-in, almost to whet your appetite before the big feast, they’ll have two Preston Sturgis movies (The Lady Eve and Sullivan’s Travels) and D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms. I like it, because it fits as an equation: Sturgis + Griffith = Chaplin. Works for me!
12pm: Modern Times (1936)
Modern Times is widely regarded as the last of the silent films, made nearly a decade since The Jazz Singer had made talkies popular with audiences, and five years since the release of the previous “last silent film,” Chaplin’s own City Lights.
In fact, Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times is largely about that conflict, about a man who is striving to maintain natural human rhythms and proportions in a world that has become regimented and automated. How is his old-fashioned character going to fit into this modern world? How does the anachronistic silent man fit in a sound universe? The film seems like a statement about the question whether Chaplin himself is relevant any more.
Modern Times reflects Chaplin’s two decades-long flirtation with leftist politics in its criticism of a society that values profits before people. Set in an Orwellian near-future dystopia, the film introduces him as an assembly line worker in a factory full of Keatonesque gadgets. Constantly exhorted to speed up, he has a nervous breakdown, a sort of repetitive motion psychosis. He spends the bulk of the rest of the film unemployed, in jail, or struggling to keep up in dehumanizing jobs. To keep it balanced, there are a couple of episodes in which he suffers on account of labor unrest and strikes as well, implying that his real target is any larger system that diminishes the individual. There really is no more plot to it than that.
His co-star in the film was his then-girlfriend, the lovely Paulette Goddard, as the “Gamine,” a sort of cross between The Kid and Chaplin’s heroines of the Purviance era. Feisty and full of the grit of self-preservation, the role might well have been perfect for Mabel Normand during her Mickey period. Goddard is terrific as the resourceful urchin; one of the very few times Chaplin allows himself a leading lady who can match his charisma on the screen.
As Chaplin had said many times and in many ways “we think too much and feel too little.” To the extent that he is an artist who proceeds by instinct and feeling, his satires are thankfully prevented from being straight-up agit-prop for this cause or that. There appears to be much confusion in his head but his work is better because of it. For example, throughout most of the film we are presented with a Dickensian vision of industrialization’s victims, with our heroes suffering from hunger and privation due to their constant unemployment, a problem associated with laissez-faire capitalism. Yet the factory scenes he presents give us a vision much more like the Soviet Union, the visual fetishization of sprockets, gears, and assembly lines, and the constant supervision of Big Brother on a video screen (which was at the time pure science-fiction). In the end he seems to say, along with Emerson, “How shall I live? We are incompetent to solve the times.”
As Modern Times remains one of Chaplin’s most popular films, I feel I scarcely need to recount the humor he mines from the film’s bleak setup: The image of the Little Fellow trapped within the machinery gears ranks with Harold Lloyd dangling from the clock as one of the most widely known images from silent comedy. The nervous breakdown, which starts as a twitchy inability to stop tightening bolts (or things that look like bolts), and culminates in the last of his great Pan dances. The scene where he becomes the test subject for a malfunctioning self-feeding machine (which will allow people to work without stopping for lunch). And the scene where he pays the system back by trapping Chester Conklin in the middle of a large manufacturing device and has to feed his defenseless face during their five-minute break. The repeated comic premise of the Little Fellow trying to get INTO jail strictly for the food and shelter. His arrest for accidentally seeming to lead a communist demonstration (the red traffic flag he is holding doesn’t help). And his single-handed quelling of a prison riot, enabled solely by the Little Fellow’s inadvertent ingestion of a large amount of contraband cocaine (yes, that’s in there!).
To sweeten the pot, he composed one of his most memorable scores for the film, including the hit song “Smile,” and introduced his first scraps of spoken dialogue. Cleverly, he has most of the talk come out of devices. The stern admonitions of the omnipresent boss-head on video screens. A radio in the prison. And then his very own, much-anticipated first words, which he coyly gives to us as gibberish in the form of a song to which he has forgotten the lyrics.
Modern Times was and remains one of Chaplin’s great blockbusters. Chaplin’s Tramp had suddenly gained new symbolic relevance during the Depression. In 1923, the U.S. unemployment rate had been 3.3%. At that time, the Tramp had been merely an amusing “other.” By 1933, unemployment had hit 23.2%. A quarter of the audience (if they could afford a dime for the movies) was out of work and suddenly—terrifyingly—the Tramp was someone they could relate to.
1:30pm: City Lights (1931)
Despite being released well into the sound era, City Lights may be thought of as Chaplin’s last movie of the silent period, as work on it began in 1927. Before he had finished it (granted he was taking an exceptionally long time) the entire industry had switched over to talkies. So now his project was burdened with being more than just a silent movie. It sort of had to be THE silent movie, to put a period to the entire silent era, and perhaps the entire history of pantomime as a popular art form. Thus the movie aspires to be not just a silent comedy, but also something more like a clown piece for the stage, a pantomime in the modern French sense. (By the way, Paris is known as the “City of Light,” a nickname that goes back to its place as the first European city to be illuminated at night with gaslight. The name evokes a bygone, glamorous era.) Thus redoing the film as a talking picture was unthinkable; Chaplin had devised it pretty deliberately as a mimoplay. It depends on a delicate balance of gesture-based scenes. Introducing speech to the equation would make Chaplin’s stereotyped situation seem like weaker broth than it really is.
The plot is about the Tramp falling in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who mistakenly thinks he’s a millionaire. Meanwhile, the Tramp is also hanging around with an actual millionaire (Harry Myers), who has a distressing fair-weather habit of recognizing and embracing Charlie only when he’s drunk—and not recalling a thing the morning afterwards. Eventually the Tramp procures funds for the girl’s eye operation (eye operation!) from the drunken millionaire, only to be arrested for theft when the latter sobers up. When the Tramp gets out of the pokey, he finds the flower girl to be in possession of two good, working eyes. Which means, sadly that she can see him. And that he isn’t a millionaire. The complex beat on which the film closes—of her realization and his trepidation when the truth is revealed—has been called by many critics one of the greatest and most moving moments in all cinema.
The new element (and this is why City Lights is the next chronological high-water mark for Chaplin after The Gold Rush) is that he also composed an original musical score for the film (filled though it may be with borrowings and quotations) and a funny soundtrack of effects and comical gibberish substituting for speech. In some ways it’s a more complex undertaking than just writing a screenplay and recording actors talking.
But complex or simple it’s still a pantomime. Chaplin intended for it to be such, and it is. You cannot, as George Jean Nathan tried to do in a 1934 essay, castigate the story for its lack of originality. Chaplin never intended for it to have any. There are only a limited number of plots in this world as it is. When you begin to boil the cast of characters down to “Tramp” and “Blind Flower Girl” things get awfully simplified indeed. That is the convention.
Also there’s a feeling of closure as the film’s theme applies to Chaplin the man as well. City Lights contains a sense of summation of his career, a recap of all that the public loves about him: there are the comical drunk scenes, the run-ins with policemen and other authorities, a comedy boxing match, and the pathos of a hopeless love-from-afar.
Chaplin had kicked off the era of classic comedy features with The Kid; it was only fitting that he should end it with City Lights.
3:00 Limelight (1952)
Limelight was a victim of history twice over; if not for two accidents of history one imagines it would have been hailed by press and public upon its release. But that’s not what happened. Chaplin’s last huge success had been The Great Dictator, over a decade earlier. Unfortunately, he had followed it up with Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a movie so deeply unpopular with the American public it single-handedly tanked what had theretofore been a spotless, almost infallible career. Chaplin was all but pilloried in the wake of this film’s release, which is particularly a shame since the public was likely to have embraced his next film as Chaplin’s Triumphant Return if circumstances hadn’t prejudiced them against even checking it out.
Limelight (1952) is not so much a comedy as a drama about a comedian – a down on his luck, aging clown with an alcohol problem, someone who used to be great but now can’t even get work. He pulls himself together to become the mentor and salvation of a suicidal ballet dancer played by Claire Bloom. Along the way there are bits of pantomime as Chaplin’s music hall performer (named Calvero, and quite distinct from the Tramp) takes the stage. We finally get to see Chaplin’s flea circus routine (previously filmed in fragments in By the Sea and The Professor) in its entirety. And there is the tour de force comedy scene between him and Buster Keaton, the only time the pair appeared together on film.
By all rights, this should have been Chaplin’s last film, as was originally planned. His artistic reputation would have been intact, the story caps his myth, and it is the only picture in which his character dies. Talk about Oscar bait! But as great as Limelight is (and the script and performances are terrific, too) the film never had a chance. As Chaplin sailed to England for the promotional tour, he received a wire saying that his re-entry permit to return to the U.S. had been revoked. Rather than suffer the indignity of reapplying, he spent the remainder of his life in American exile in Switzerland. (This is the second accident of history I mentioned. This mishigas meant Limelight was never properly promoted or distributed in the U.S. after its initial release, leaving critics and audiences to discover it gradually over the ensuing decades).
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 Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc