Monday, August 16, 2010
The release of the almost complete (33 of the 34) Chaplin Keystone films (all 1914) from Flicker Alley, remastered from the best surviving elements over the course of decades and international boundaries, is cause for celebration, if only to allow a truer tracking of his character and development of film-making techniques. It also allows us to discover what intangible qualities insinuated his nascent tramp character into the cultural consciousness so quickly and so completely early into the century.
Chaplin occupies a unique place in film history, a young but polished stage performer who knew the tricks of pantomime and embodied an everyman underdog persona to early film's limited techniques to full advantage while other blustery, broad and 2-dimensional performers as Ford Sterling and Harry Langdon would end up being mere footnotes in Kevin Brownlow books. Popular film-going had been around for almost 20 years when Chaplin hit the scene. Filmmakers like Mack Sennett had already codified the limits of the common get-rich-quick business model that was ripe for expansion, either by advanced story-telling (soon to be exploited by Griffith), marketing (Zukor's "Famous Players" and Vitagraph's "Broadway Star" series), or more nuanced character work. Here Chaplin stumbled upon, in a self-knowing as likewise likely accidental manner, the assumed and effective traits that even as he built his popularity upon them, often in cahoots with his audience willing to be seduced, he would set an eye to abandon by the coming of sound a decade later.
The Keystone films have been hard to find in clear watchable versions, and their charms are obscured by scratches, random jumpcuts and generations of dupiness. This release allows us to put the beginnings of his career into perspective. Starting quite early in his career he was already starring in short comedies that took place in movie studios, pointedly early in each new contract with a new studio ("A Film Johnnie" at Keystone, 1914; "His New Job" at Essanay, 1915; and "Behind the Screen" at Mutual, 1916). Clearly such a setting was already familiar enough to audiences by 1914, a familiarity with the backstage mechanics of film-making common enough to set Charlie loose with antics to thereby ensue.
The comparisons between them are instructive, each only a year apart with the missing Keystone pieces as ... well, the keystones. Less than a month after he started with Mack Sennett, "A Film Johnnie", taking place at the Sennett studio with cameos by Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and Ford Sterling, demonstrates our hero at odds with an establishment that doesn't welcome or appreciate him, oddly enough populated by the very film workers who are making the film we're watching. (Sennett does not make an appearance.)
The film is, for lack of a better term, primitive. Filled with smoking, shoving and smirking, it shows the speed of prevailing slapstick traffic at the time with the fleeting pleasures of showing the Sennett studio in an occasional background shot, between business with rugs, fake backgrounds, a bombastic director and a pretty girl. Chaplin already knows how to play to the camera rather than to his co-actors, his first and best secret from the legit stage, but the wonders of film-making are still situated within the mise-en-scene, particularly in a sequence in which the backdrop is built and changes behind him as he pines over the girl unaware, a surprisingly modernist moment for 1914 and an impulse Chaplin generally avoided.
By comparison, the following year's "His New Job" (which not-too-subtly announces Essanay's success stealing him from Keystone, for an increased salary presumably going from about $150 to $1250 a week) depicts Charlie's persona as social irritant so comfortably developed and acceptable that the plot mostly hinges on bits about extras being pushed through doors and funny costume gags rather than exploring any potential a film studio or Charlie, as an increasingly sympathetic character, lost within it might reveal. It does feature the questionable benefits of Ben Turpin as another job seeker that Charlie steps over (and on), and also includes a couple of moving shots in which the camera rather insistently dollies in when the film-within-a-film is being shot.
This foregrounding of the apparatus of image-making is self-aware and unexpected in an otherwise typical entry. The studio setting is ultimately a throwaway, even as character accents proliferate, such as Charlie's distracted and immodest glances at a half-draped statue, allowing him to show a conflicted chivalry that must have struck a nerve with him or his audience. The turn reappears in "Work" and in "A Night In The Show" and elsewhere, almost making it a leitmotif of characterization through his early period. As an affectation it's slightly vulgar, but it shows Charlie's heart is in the right place.
The Essanay films are simultaneously more competent and less desperate. By the time of "Behind the Screen" (1916) for Mutual, 2 years after beginning in cinema and 50 short films later, Chaplin as a character has been developed enough and his takes, ticks, and turns familiar enough to risk having him kiss Edna Purviance while dressed as a boy on the mouth (claimed by some to be the first American mainstream "gay" joke). That detail and others, including the porcupine he makes of himself with a dozen chairs on his back and the prevalence of outsize but hollow columns, flour sacks and rubber swords, embrace a truly surreal understanding of making films, finally addressed head-on by Chaplin.
The naked statue he can't keep his roving eyes off of also shows up. A creature of habit (personally as well as professionally), Chaplin knew intimately how to create and milk little moments that had power and meaning beyond their apparent triviality on screen. Much of his training on stage taught him how to size and time little moments that most other screen actors of the era had no idea how to finesse.
A most telling premonition of Chaplin's long career capturing the attention of the world is manifest as early as his 2nd film, "Kid Auto Races in Venice" (1914), shot for Sennett one afternoon during a soap-box derby on the streets of Los Angeles. Here Chaplin acquires a tramp outfit for the first time, by accident and presciently similar to the one he would adopt months later, and the bulk of the show (a scant 6 minutes) is his curious and intrusive tramp walking in front of the newsreel cameras trying to film the race. Chaplin mugs, poses, gets pushed out of the way, and keeps vying for our attention, the audience, while the hapless filmmakers turn the camera away, push him aside, and generally pretend he isn't there.
He is magnetized by the camera lens, and he won't get out of the picture. The force of Chaplin's character and his insistence on being seen and recognized as something interesting, as photogenic - as newsworthy - ignites a fuse of recognition, not only of one man's vanity, though he may be clearly down on his luck (a tramp even!) but in the power of cinema to promise something larger than life out of normal everyday events and accidents.
Even in early 1914, Chaplin was injecting his own wry, winking personality into throw-off shorts already aware of a meta-narrative of films about films. Something that illustrated their potential power, even then.
Charlie kisses a "stagehand."