BOOKS Cin­e­matic clown ge­nius Chap­lin never gets old

Comic put depth of thought be­hind each rou­tine

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Books - ROBIN INCE

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.




AFP/Getty Im­ages

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.

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