BOOKS Cinematic clown genius Chaplin never gets old
Comic put depth of thought behind each routine
I am of the last generation that found it quite normal to watch silent films on television. As I grew older, my love of Laurel and Hardy remained, but Charlie Chaplin went out of favour. The received wisdom that he was overly sentimental meant that it became unfashionable to like him. Keaton was the one to revere; he was considered a more serious clown, with a stone face of existential angst and boasting a collaboration with Samuel Beckett.
Why it might be necessary to make a choice between Keaton and Chaplin I have no idea — there is time enough to celebrate both. But I find a surprising number of people who say: “I never really got Chaplin.”
Each time I return to Chaplin, I find it harder to understand how anyone can dismiss him. He wrote, produced, directed, starred in and composed the music for a series of powerful, funny, philosophical and moving films. Even the first cinematic outing of the Tramp, Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), can make me laugh 100 years on, as Chaplin repeatedly gets in the way of the news cameras and racing cars with such brazen cockiness.
Though the bread-roll dance from The Gold Rush (1925) has been so often imitated that it may seem to have lost some of its wonder, watch the sequence again and you will see how intricate something of seeming simplicity is. Johnny Depp spoke of having to imitate it in Benny and Joon and said it took days to get everything just right.
That is what makes Chaplin live on — the depth of thought behind each routine. It is never just falling over with a bang, it is acrobatics with aplomb, it is the grace of the chaos. As one biographer, Richard Schickel, noted, with Chaplin, all that seems solid melts into something else.
To those who ask “but is Chaplin really still funny?” I can promise that a new generation of children do laugh at Chaplin attempting a tightrope walk while distracted by monkeys in The Circus (1928). There may be many banana-skin routines, but I am pretty sure Chaplin was the first to attempt the banana skin on the tightrope.
The Rink (1916) is my earliest memory of watching Chaplin. Here he is, a waiter, his face showing no servile deference as he works out a bill based on the remnants of food spattered over a diner (the furious and luxuriantly eyebrowed Eric Campbell), before pocketing an unoffered tip. He is lovable, rebellious, coquettish, both worldly and otherworldly.
City Lights (1931), Chaplin’s most revered film and highest on the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest films list, opens on a scene of accidental rebellion. The grand unveiling of an epic statue is ruined when the drape comes off to reveal the Tramp asleep in Charlie Chaplin by Peter Ackroyd, published by Chatto & Windus, will be available in Canada on May 27. the arms of the granite god. As the U.S. national anthem plays, the Tramp attempts to stand to attention while dangling by the butt of his trousers from the sword of a carved figure.
As for The Great Dictator (1940), amid the drama, social commentary and vivid portrayal of the rising oppression of the Jewish people in Germany, there are moments of superb broad comedy. Adenoid Hynkel, a petty, preposterous dictator with monstrous delusions of grandeur, is ripe for having his pretensions punctured.
The scenes of desperation as he attempts to show that he is a great dictator to rival Napaloni, played with oomph and chutzpah by Jack Oakie, continue to make me laugh.
And then there is Limelight (1952). The music hall may be long dead, but Limelight still conveys what it is to be a clown, the desperation and fear of losing your audience, what it is to age and rail against age and loss.
If you want to sample his mag- nificence with a brief scene, just look at the subtlety with which he conveys a drunk attempting to find the keyhole in a door in Limelight. If that doesn’t work for you, watch him dressed as a chicken in Gold Rush or with his face manically covered in soup by a malfunctioning machine that is meant to be a sign of a bright new future in Modern Times.
There is beauty, humour and humanity to be found here, Chaplin was, and is, a cinematic clown genius.
ACTOR AND WRITER
Charlie Chaplin, in a scene from The Kid. A new biography by Peter Ackroyd has inspired a spirited defence of the late comedian from British comic Robin Ince.