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Movie stars are defined by a combination of what we observe of them on-screen and our perception of them outside of the cinema. This would include photographs, articles, interviews, books, posters and merchandise. Film stars and their star images often become far removed from the films themselves. Here are three examples of movie stars as part of the contemporary city. In this case, Charlie selling a shoemaker’s, Jimmy Stewart selling Stetson hats, and John Wayne’s name selling a six-shooter.
If you have any other examples of how classical movie stars have found their way into your city, please send them to me for posting at firstname.lastname@example.org
All photos by Christian Hayes.
On the 21st of July 2007 I was lucky enough to get my hands on a piece of movie memorabilia estimated at £90,000. What it actually signified in terms of cinema history is much harder to quantify. It was part of a pre-auction exhibition at Christie’s in London, and it was the camera on the podium that was the prized piece.
This Bell & Howell 2709 belonged to Charlie Chaplin and was used on films from Shoulder Arms in 1918 and into the 1920s. This camera then would have therefore been involved in such films as The Kid (1921) and The Gold Rush (1925). These very lenses were witness to scenes that have become so embedded into our consciousness (even if you haven’t actually seen them), it’s quite difficult to imagine that these classics ever had to be made at all.
I was lucky enough to look through the very eyepiece Chaplin would have looked through to judge a scene. I also had a chance to crank the handle itself. I would describe it as having a steady, fluid motion about it which was surprisingly compelling.
To coincide with the screening of Chaplin’s Keystone films, there is also an incredible (and free) exhibition of Chaplin merchandise and artifacts on display at the BFI Southbank. A combination of items from both the Bill Douglas Centre and the BFI’s own collection, it includes a fascinating array of original posters, toys, games and postcards. Titled ‘Chapliana’, it conveys how far Chaplin became embedded in popular culture during the 1910s and 1920s.
The prized piece in the collection is Chaplin’s original hat and cane. There are a few genuine hats and canes in existence since Chaplin used several throughout his career. This particular hat and cane is dated before 1921, the time at which Chaplin returned to England for the first time since leaving for America in 1912. Also featured is the costume worn by Robert Downey Jr. in the title role of Chaplin (1992).
The Chaplin screenings at the BFI Southbank are set to last for 6 months as all his short films from before 1921 are played in chronological order, an incredible 72 in total. Be sure to get there quick since the display is set to end on 31st August.
If you know where to look in London, you can find some astonishing places. Winding through the backstreets of the East End you may come across a faded building, its front scuffed and peeling, more reminiscent of a Venetian side-street than a London alley.
It’s humility hides the fact that this door is a portal into Victorian London. Wilton’s Music Hall is the oldest surviving music hall in the world and to step through the door is to immerse yourself in Victorian entertainment culture. Opened in 1859, it held a crowd of 1500 at its busiest, and featured music hall stars of the day such as Champagne Charlie. The auditorium is now faded, with its scuffed walls and balcony suggesting a grander past. But in many ways this is a far more vivid representation of what it once was than if it were superficially gilded and restored.
The current show playing there, Wink the Other Eye (until 16th August 2008), is a great introduction into music hall culture. Hosted by the ebullient John Wilton himself, you are led through an evening’s entertainment that features songs, comedy and drama in the old music hall style. Played out by the stars of the day, such as Dan Leno and George Formby, Sr., it is essentially a night out at the music hall combined with a strong sense of history. Taking you through the decade in one evening, it demonstrates how the music hall was affected by emerging technologies (electricity), new trends (moving pictures) and world events (The Great War). Not forgetting a reference to a young Charlie Chaplin, the show is highly recommend it if you can catch it in time.
A true study of the cinema is to look closely at other traditions, histories and cultures. The music hall was central to the development of areas such as the star system and film comedy, and filmgoing culture came out of the tradition of visiting the music hall. If you want to get a far deeper understanding of film, investigate other avenues. Graces Alley, London, is a perfect place to start.
This is a real treat for fans of Chaplin and silent cinema more widely. All of Chaplin’s 35 films from his work at Keystone during 1914 have been reconstructed and restored by the British Film Institute and the Cineteca di Bologna. They will all be screened at the BFI Southbank in London during August and September.
In the past these films have been branded as ‘primitive’, but in many cases the severely degraded quality of the prints worked against a proper appreciation of these early titles. The incredible popularity of these titles, as well as their lack of copyright, resulted in a heavy duplication and deterioration of the prints. In many cases the films were chopped into a variety of alternative versions with different titles which then went on to circulate for decades. This made the job of restoring and reconstructing these titles a particular challenge. Indeed the Keystone films are the last of Chaplin’s shorts to have been restored by the British Film Institute, following on from the Essanay and Mutual restorations.
Keystone was known for its breakneck comedies featuring quick thrills and chaotic chases, and in many ways these titles live up to that reputation. But the Charlie you see here is not the sensitive soul found in his later feature films. Here is character is rude, abrasive and violent while his virtuoso performances are wild, thrilling and unexpected. Chaplin’s performance style is unique to him: he manages to be many things at once. Not only does his dandyish gestures contradict the state of his clothes, but his body can often belie his face and vice-versa.
I was lucky enough to preview some of these restorations at the Charlie Chaplin Conference in 2005 and indeed they were revelatory. I will be attending every screening myself over the next two months (I will probably be the one taking notes) as a way of re-aquainting myself with these films.
Not only do you get to watch the glorious Chaplin himself as vivid as ever on-screen, you get to witness his early development as performer and director. You also get to see a slice of American cinema history that instantly poses several overlapping questions: what was popular American cinema like in 1914? What were films by independent studios such as Keystone like? What was the studio brand and how do they differ from the films of the larger studios that would emerge just after the war? Why were these films, and more importantly Chaplin himself, so popular? How far were these films and Chaplin’s performances performed by the British music hall from which he came?
The still above from A Film Johnnie offers a glimpse of movie posters outside a cinema in 1914. Interestingly they feature films from the studios Keystone, Essanay (a Bronco Billy title) and Mutual, the three studios that Chaplin himself would work at between 1914 and 1917.
Book below with the full schedule for August. The September schedule will follow.
- Sat 9 Aug 16:00 NFT2
- Wed 13 Aug 18:20 NFT2
Ninety minutes of early Chaplin, including his Keystone debut.
- Sat 16 Aug 16:00 NFT2
- Wed 20 Aug 18:20 NFT2
A programme of Charlie Chaplin’s Keystone shorts.
- Sat 23 Aug 16:10 NFT2
- Tue 26 Aug 18:20 NFT2
Our third programme of Charlie Chaplin’s earliest films.
- Thu 28 Aug 18:20 NFT2
- Sat 30 Aug 16:00 NFT2
Our fourth programme of the Keystone movies of 1914.
Turn on TCM right now! For the entire month of August, Turner Classic Movies (U.S.) hosts its annual Summer Under the Stars festival. Summer Under the Stars is a month long event that celebrates the most legendary names in film by dedicating 24-hours each to their films, meaning at least 12 of their films each day in August. Days are dedicated to stars such as Claude Rains, Greta Garbo, Richard Widmark, Peter Lorre, Kim Novak, Fred Astaire, Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyk, Spencer Tracey and even Marie Dressler. And that’s just for starters. Perhaps the most imaginative, ambitious and exciting classic film programming possible, this is a massive slice of Hollywood history in a single month, containing very rare films. The volume of it makes it a classic film lover’s dream but also pretty much impossible to record all of them! Charlie Chaplin is on today! A great selection of shorts followed by every single feature film he made. You could be a Chaplin expert in a mere 24 hours. Stop reading this now. Go, go, go!
Charlie Chaplin, August 2
6:00am The Knockout
6:30am The Rounders
6:45am A Dog’s Life
7:30am Shoulder Arms
8:45am A Day’s Pleasure
9:15am The Kid
10:15am The Idle Class
11:00am Pay Day
11:30am The Pilgrim
12:15pm A Woman of Paris
1:45pm The Gold Rush
3:00pm The Circus
4:15pm City Lights
5:45pm Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin
8:00pm Modern Times
9:30pm The Great Dictator
11:45pm Monsieur Verdoux
4:15am A King In New York
Find more info about the Summer Under the Stars season.
Let’s say someone came to you and said, ‘So, what’s the big deal with all these old movies you keep watching?’ They try to convince you they’re ‘boring’, ‘irrelevant’ and far more hard work than a quick visit to the multiplex. Some may even try to convince you that you don’t actually like them, you only think you do.
There are many ways to combat these statements (perhaps I’ll go into detail another time). For now I will suggest a few movies you should pile into their arms and send them away with (kick optional). First off:
The Circus (U.S., Charlie Chaplin, 1928)
During the 1910s Chaplin’s films gained instant popularity and propelled the British-born music hall comedian to world stardom. He became one of the most famous, popular and highly-paid men in the world, as did his famous shadow: the little tramp.
Chaplin was a virtuoso. His visceral performance style fitted the medium of film perfectly. Watching these performances, he is always busy, his face, body and hands constantly occupying themselves with an ever-shifting stream of comic business. His movement could be big – as in a chase – or they could be small – his fingertips delicately removing a cigarette from its case. Often his movements are so subtle, or so quick, that it’s easy to miss them.
One key to Chaplin’s success is the comic contradiction of the tramp. On the one hand he is a refined gentlemen with his hat, cane and delicate gestures, and on the other he is down-and-out. Somehow, from his second film (the brilliant Kid Auto Races at Venice (Keystone, 1914)) Chaplin created a universal everyman for the modern age, a character that was open to interpretation.
His performances are highly stylised, unlike even the other performers in his own films, but also in other films more widely. Unlike others his performance tapped directly into one of the primal forces of cinema: pure spectacle. So there is a pleasure simply to be had from watching the complex movement of this little man, on top of the interpretation of his performance.
One film that Chaplin did not discuss in his autobiography (My Autobiography, 1974) was The Circus (1928). The film has been long overshadowed by his other famous works such as The Kid (1921) and The Gold Rush (1924) but stands as perhaps his most purely comic feature film.
In the film the little tramp becomes involved with a circus. When auditioned, the troupe discover that he does not have the ability to be intentionally funny. Only naturally, and when not trying, is he able to get a laugh. This is tied up with a poignant subplot of unrequited love. Having fallen for the ringmaster’s daughter, the tramp’s feelings go unnoticed.
The film is punctuated by a series of spectacular set-pieces. The opening finds him being chased by a policeman into a hall of mirrors. Later he finds himself locked into a cage with a real-life lion and finally he ends up on a tightrope being attacked by monkeys. Not only are they incredibly funny, but they are at times jaw-dropping, as when the live lion awakes to find a terrified Chaplin.
A great introduction to Chaplin, to silent cinema, and to classic film more generally, this is an underrated film that is genuinely accessible to any kind of viewer. It is also a great place to start if you’re new to watching old movies.
Today I visited the Vanity Fair Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, a fascinating collection of photographs ranging firstly from the 1910s-30s and then from the 1980s to the present day.
The magazine folded in 1936 only to be revived in 1983 but began remarkably early. In 1913 Condé Nast brought out the first issue of what was then known as Dress and Vanity Fair and those early issues published portraits of personalities such as a young Irving Berlin and an old Thomas Hardy.
Through to the twenties images of movie stars become a staple of the Hollywood magazine: Fred and Adele Astaire, Joan Crawford, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., W.C. Fields, Garbo, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Gloria Swanson, Charlie Chaplin, Fairbanks & Pickford, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Paul Robeson, Charles Laughton and Peter Lorre.
It also published portraits of writers: H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce, as well as dancers, composers, scientists and high-profile directors: Nureyev & Pavlova, Stravinsky, Einstein & Eisenstein, and Ernst Lubitsch.
Vanity Fair, then, became a great portrait of the age during which it was published. Three parts fan, fashion and Hollywood magazine it both revelled in and further circulated the image of Hollywood and its stars as perfect and ethereal.
However these photographs seem to do two things at once: on the one hand provide a stylised image of its subject, and on the other capture a candid, revealing portrait of them. The formal composition, pose and lighting creates a barrier between the image and the viewer while the connection with its subject pulls that barrier back down.
Photographers of the original Vanity Fair included Baron de Meyer and the versatile Edward Steichen, who took the enigmatic and powerful shot of a veiled Gloria Swanson (above). The revived Vanity Fair included such famed photographers as Herb Ritts and Annie Liebowitz, and during the past 25 years has continued to publish many of the iconic photographs of movie stars during that recent era.
The exhibition continues until 26 May 2008 so if you happen to be in town, make sure you take a look. Below is a snap I took on exiting: Jean Harlow looking over London.