Comprehending the scale of Charlie Chaplin's career is a daunting task; how do you tackle the career of an entertainer who was the world's most famous man before he even hit his stride -- and kept getting bigger from there? Chaplin was, after all, a multiple threat in a five-decade film career: actor, writer, director, producer, even film composer (often his most overlooked, and possibly his greatest, talent). Chaplin said he always wanted to be remember simply as a clown, but his output suggests so much more -- even if it was all in service to that clown. Few artists went to such great lengths to control the presentation, and exaltation, of a persona.
Though his work had already been packaged in recent years, this year is the charm for Chaplin fans. This week, Image Entertainment, who previously released a four-disc film set, releases Charlie Chaplin Short Comedy Classics -- The Complete Restored Essanay & Mutual Collection (1917). But even more impressive are two other recent releases. Delta Entertainment's 12-disc package, The Essential Charlie Chaplin (released this spring) contains all of Chaplin's early period -- Mack Sennett's Keystone studios in 1914, as well as Mutual (1915) and Essanay (1916-17) -- before he later joined Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith in forming their own company, United Artists, in 1919.
Last week, Warner Home Video upped the ante with its smaller but more nuanced gift set, The Chaplin Collection, Vol. 1, eight discs featuring four of his most important films (The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Great Dictator and Limelight) that cover a pivotal 25 years of his filmmaking career. With a bonus disc for each film, the Warner Home Video version is a wonderfully crafted set that provides the background and context of each film along with the usual assortment of DVD extras/goodies.
Clearly, 2003 has become the year to look at Chaplin on DVD in all his re-mastered and restored glory and once again ask the age-old question: just how big was he then, but, more importantly, how does he stand today? The answer remains a resounding huge despite the hindsight that can pick apart Chaplin whenever critically necessary. His work was all about himself, and he succeeds and suffers accordingly. When you make your films all about yourself, controlling every facet of the production to serve your own needs and ambitions, there's no one else to point the finger at. Work your way through these two massive collections (or any other, for that matter), and good luck in finding successive scenes without Chaplin in them. From the very beginning, he made sure it was all about him; even his film scores seemed to provide the proper notes for him especially. This is how Chaplin -- and, to another degree, his contemporary Buster Keaton -- got mega-star status; they lived and died by audience acceptance of a sympathetic character.
Contextually speaking, Limelight is by far the most important (and final) piece of these puzzles that are Chaplin's performances. Limelight -- like The Great Dictator, made at a crucial point in both time and Chaplin's career -- is a lion-in-winter moment, showing the now-retired Tramp character in a bittersweet, melancholic pose. Here he ruminates in autobiographical fashion in (gasp) a drama. Though it's a massive exercise in ego inflation (it's his ultimate pity party), Limelight also shows what an entertainer can be when he truly aspires to be an artist.
Not that Charlie Chaplin wasn't an artist before -- he was a major artist almost from the moment he set foot in Hollywood. The road that led him there began at age 5, when he replaced his mother, Hannah, onstage in a London music hall when she fell ill and kept the act going. It was a moment that would profoundly affect Chaplin and his work ever after; as he noted in his autobiography, he bathed in the crowd's approval and would spend the next 70 years constantly trying to maintain it.
His mother would remain a massive influence through the years, despite her constant institutionalization for poor mental and physical health. He was in a touring musical by 8 and working with Fred Karno's English vaudeville show by 17, and when they toured the States when he was 21, he was impressed and decided to remain.
In watching the Essential collection, it's easier to see Chaplin's pure physical grace, already honed with years of vaudevillian practice, than his comic genius. He was one of cinema's great early athletes; Chaplin could bend, curl, bounce, flop, slap and snap with the greatest of ease. Watch how he loves to fall backward, his legs whipping over and behind him, and you start to detect the rhythm of a dancer or gymnast. He used everything around him, even people, as props; everyone and everything else was a foil for his talents. Very early on, he selected his Tramp character, a direct nod to his poverty-stricken childhood, but one that allowed him fluidity of character and movement. As an annoyance to society, he was like a gnat, buzzing in and out of trouble.
His iconic ensemble cut both ways; he looked either like a faded sophisticate or a wannabe rich cad: oversized shoes (he wore them on opposite feet to fit), baggy trousers and undersized jacket barely covering a bad matching vest, a tie, that famous derby, a pliable cane. His face, caked in makeup to the point of obscurity, was highlighted by the thick black eyebrows and a moustache culled from a toothbrush and painted black.
Truly, Chaplin was a body in motion, but sometimes he could undercut it with pathos. It is in 1925's The Gold Rush (the movie he said he wanted to be remembered for) that Chaplin offers up perhaps his most compact physical moment: the dance of the dinner rolls. To impress yet another beautiful, bemused woman, the prospector works with what he has: two dinner forks, two rolls and his imagination. Nearly 80 years later, it's still a sublime moment even if the dance becomes yet another manifestation of Chaplin the performer. He does for the bread what he does for his legs and feet. Behold the comedian as both Gepetto and Pinocchio.
By then, Chaplin's routine was fairly predictable: an episodic structure, a muse, set pieces to show off his physical and comedic prowess, the whiff of unrequited love. Chaplin had it down pretty well. Then came 1936's Modern Times, at the heart of the Depression. By this point, Chaplin's social conscience was becoming fully formed, his deep sense of humanism ready to become manifest on the silver screen. Modern Times isn't so much a fully realized piece of work as it is an important one (something that could also be said about The Great Dictator). He had been studying economic theory and was becoming more and more aware of the price of the industrial revolution. It would be his last official performance as the Tramp, and he wanted to give him a proper burial by making a Statement.
Initially, it seemed an odd blend: slapstick comedy as social commentary, but Chaplin used unforgettable images to make his point in this, his first attempt at (barely) using sound. He had become critical of Henry Ford, inventor of the assembly line -- one of the great exploiters of human labor -- and nowhere is his criticism more memorable than in his performance as a factory worker literally caught up in the cogs of a machine. (Briefly taken off the line, he still shakes and shutters from the lack of continued, repetitive behavior.) Sucked into the machine, Chaplin is shown slipping and slithering around the cogs. Man has become machine. Beautiful. But it's no less subtle than the opening image of sheep plodding along -- with one black sheep, obviously Chaplin. The image is replaced by that of factory workers leaving the assembly line.
There are two other scenes from Modern Times etched in memory: the department-store scene in which his security guard hides the Gamin (Paulette Goddard). The pair uses the department store as their Edenic playground, with Chaplin at one point roller-skating about with a fluidity that makes you want to give him the gold. The other is that famous late scene in which Chaplin finally speaks -- rather sings, in a gibberish form of Italian, for his supper while working at a cafe. It's as if Chaplin cannot completely surrender to spoken language; it has to come out filtered.
Chaplin met one of his great muses in Goddard, who was years younger (of course!) but whose lively charm was a perfect match for him. He put her to great use in Modern Times and again in The Great Dictator, which, while in hindsight seems just as episodic and self-aggrandizing as Modern Times, will be remembered as one of cinema's boldest attacks on Hitler's fascism.
Chaplin's deepening humanism became focused on Hitler, who had been born in the same week of 1889 as Chaplin and who supposedly had fashioned his moustache after the comic great. Frankly, 1940's The Great Dictator is sometimes uncomfortable viewing. It's hard to laugh at persecution draped in slapstick, and it doesn't help that here, in this bizarre match-up, the world's two most charismatic figures become fused into one. Chaplin as Hitler is frighteningly accurate if only more buffoonish, but he also allows us to see a more sympathetic Chaplin as the Jewish barber who ultimately, predictably, has the chance to assume the role of the Fuhrer.
In hindsight, The Great Dictator's climactic scene is one of the ultimate mixed bags, but in 1940, at the outbreak of World War II, it must have felt like a haymaker. Chaplin, seemingly shedding his skin as both barber and dictator, becomes Chaplin and speaks directly to the audience in a belabored plea for humanity. Indeed, his speech transcends anti-fascism. The only thing missing is the soapbox, but the words nevertheless remain eloquent in his regal British tone: "But we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men's souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little."
Timeliness is also a huge factor in the making of 1952's Limelight, which would have (and perhaps should have) been the perfect swan song for Chaplin. Already in the twilight of his career, Chaplin was doubly challenged; his deep humanism and socialist leanings had made him a pariah in America. Anti-communism had reached fever pitch, and the House Un-American Activities Committee had called him in for testimony. His visa revoked, he remained in Europe, but returned to make not a political statement with the melodramatic Limelight, but one of melancholy in middle age. He sought to recreate the music-hall days of his mother back in 1914, as the burned-out comedian Calvero nurturing a disillusioned young dancer (Claire Bloom) who clearly symbolized his mother.
Chaplin floods the movie with his own ruminations about regret and nostalgia. "There's something about working the streets I like," he says, having regressed to that most elemental form of entertainment. "It's the tramp in me, I suppose." Making good on his promise in the film's prologue, Chaplin the old sacrifices himself for the young, dying just as Bloom's dancer succeeds in a comeback he helped nurture. Chaplin recruited his contemporary Keaton for the final scene, in which the pair performs a routine that delights the audience even as it kills Calvero. Despite its blatant self-promotion (the only thing missing here is a crucifix), it's an undeniably poignant moment in a movie burgeoning with them.
Limelight is also memorable for its display of Chaplin's gift as a composer. Though the film was barely screened in America -- the powers saw to that -- 20 years later he was given his only competitive Oscar, for Best Film Score. Its sweeping, sad string arrangements are so key in setting the mood not only of the time, but of Chaplin's place in history.
By the end of Limelight, Chaplin has come full circle. He triumphs, even in winter, as the center of our attention, our adoration and sympathy. The artist, conscience and all, bows out with his dignity intact.