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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Charlie Chaplin

A few weeks ago, I finished watching The Charlie Chaplin Collection on Netflix with my dad. It was an anthology of several of Chaplin's more obscure films, most which I found to be generally mediocre from a humor and entertainment standpoint. However, my history of viewing Chaplin films goes back a long way, when my father purchased a collection of Charlie Chaplin films which featured "The Artist In His Prime", which I remember enjoying immensely. My personal experience aside, Charlie Chaplin is without a doubt a cultural monolith, and a pioneer in the then burgeoning film industry of the early 1900s.

And now for a Cliff Notes version of his life story! Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin was an actor and director in numerous silent films, also acting as a scorer, producer, and editor in nearly all of them. He arose from obscurity and poverty as a small time stage actor, where he at one point acted in a stage production of Sherlock Holmes for two years. He got into movies when he appeared in the 1914 silent film Making a Living, with Keystone Studios, movie from England to America. He developed the character of "the Tramp" which he portrayed in many of his films around this time, that character debuting in The Kid Auto Races at Venice, but what first filmed in the production of Mabel's Strange Predicament. Tillie's Punctured Romance was a pivotal moment in his career, helping him advance in fame. He later moved on to the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, where he met up with his frequent leading lady Edna Purviance, who co-starred in over 35 films with Chaplin over the course of an eight year period. After his stint with Essanay, he moved on to the Mutual Film Corporation, where he filmed several of the pictures seen in the aforementioned The Charlie Chaplin Collection.

By this time, Chaplin was a worldwide favorite with audiences, including a young Indiana Jones, as revealed in The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones. Then it was onto First National Exhibitor's Circuit, where he recorded my personal favorite of his films, Shoulder Arms, a 1918 comedy set during the First World War. He noted that it was a potentially dangerous film, due to the subject matter, but he nevertheless was enthusiastic about it (the film wound up being quite successful). During his tenure with First National, Chaplin developed several features featured in the aforementioned "The Artist In His Prime" collection, including Sunnyside, The Kid, and A Day's Pleasure, all filmed in 1919 (The Kid was his longest film to date, running 68 minutes). In this same year, he formed the United Artists with a handful of colleagues, including Douglas Fairbanks, in order to have total control over their films. However, he was not able to do work for this new company until his contract with First National was up. Once the contract was up, however, he produced such classics as The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936).

In his later years, Chaplin became very vocal about his political views, parodying Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940) and slamming capitalism in the failure Monsieur Verdoux (1947). As a result, he became wracked with controversy in this era, being subject to everything from vehement criticism to federal investigation, which in itself was linked to a paternity suit (Chaplin's love life was marked by a series of stormy and often short lived marriages). He was a suspected Communist, was confirmed to hang about with known Communists, and even received the International Peace Prize from the World Peace Council, a Communist organization. He also failed to claim American citizenship, describing being fed up with the country's "moral pomposity" upon his departure from it in 1955. He sold his remaining shares in United Artists around this time. Chaplin went on to make several films from his new Switzerland base of operations. He only returned to the United States some twenty years later in 1972 where he was given an honorary Academy Award for his contributions to film. He died on Christmas Day in 1977 at the age of 88 after suffering a stroke in his sleep. He was survived by nine children from two different marriages.

Researching this article (read: browsing Wikipedia while simultaneously typing) made me come to dislike Charlie Chaplin as a person. As an entertainer and an innovator, however, there are few whom I can esteem higher. I have yet to see all his films, but I have City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator on my family's Netflix queue. His contribution to film is immeasurable, as his many Academy Awards bear witness to. Many years ago, I was greatly entertained by the Chaplin films' ingenious sight gags and slapstick comedy, and I hope to entertained once more when I review the "The Artist In His Prime" collection. Maybe I'll even do some real in depth research into the man, perhaps read a book or two. I'm sure it would quite enlightening.

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