Silence is Golden

04 16 charlie chaplinToday is Charlie Chaplin’s birthday. He was born in Walworth, South London in 1889. His early years were very difficult. His parents were both music hall entertainers, neither provided a stable family home and they had separated by the time he was two. He, his elder half-brother, Sidney, and his mother, Hannah, lived in extreme poverty. He was admitted to the workhouse once at the age of seven and again at nine. After that, Hannah was admitted to a mental asylum and remained there for two months. Charlie and Sydney were sent to live with his father who had become an alcoholic. Their life with him was so bad that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children intervened.

Hannah was hospitalized again in 1903 and for a final time in 1905. She remained in care for the rest of her life. During the times she was well, she encouraged Charlie when he showed an interest in acting. She used to sit by the window and mimic passers-by and from her, he learned to express emotions with gestures and also how to study people. He first appeared on stage at the age of five. His mother was performing and he was watching from the wings. She was booed off and he was pushed on as a replacement. He remembered it going quite well. People laughed. By the time he was ten, he was performing with a clog-dancing troupe called ‘Eight Lancashire Lads’, despite being from nowhere near Lancashire.

At fourteen, he signed with a theatrical agency. He landed a successful role as Billy the page boy in a play about Sherlock Holmes which was touring the provinces. His performance was so well received that he was called to London to play the role alongside William Gillette, the first person ever to play Sherlock Holmes on the stage. Gillette had also co-written the play with Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. Chaplin was Billy the page boy for two and a half years. After that he toured with a couple of companies developing his skills as a comic performer. In 1908 he joined Fred Karno‘s company, where his brother Sidney had been working for two years. By 1910, he was playing leading roles and was chosen as one of a group of performers who went on a tour of North America’s vaudeville circuit. He got on very well there. Reviewers described him as the best pantomime artist they had ever seen. When the troupe returned to England in June 1912, Chaplin felt a bit flat. When they returned to America in October for a second tour, he was offered a contract with Keystone Studios.

He wasn’t terribly happy with his first film, but for his second, he picked out the costume that would define him. A jacket that was too tight, trousers that were too baggy, a hat that was too small, shoes that were too big and a cane. He added the moustache as the studio were worried he looked too young. He thought it would make him look older without hiding his expressions. For Keystone, he produced short films at the rate of about one a 04 16 chaplin with dollweek and, by May 1914, he was also directing. After a year with Keystone, he moved to Essanay. Here, he developed his tramp character into a more gentle, romantic figure. A character people could sympathise with as well as laugh at. By 1915, everyone had gone crazy for Charlie Chaplin. There was Chaplin merchandise, comic strips and cartoons. Songs were written about him and he became the first international film star. Next, he moved to Mutual and then First National and in 1919, along with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D W Griffiths he formed United Artists. It was a company that allowed film makers to personally fund their own pictures, thus retaining complete creative control.

04 16 the kidChaplin made so many films, I can’t possibly mention them all. I’m very fond of ‘The Kid’ which he made between 1919 and 1920. In it, his famous tramp character becomes responsible for an abandoned baby. He probably drew on his own experiences of childhood poverty. There is a part where the child is taken off to an orphanage that it genuinely heartbreaking, especially when you realise he probably knew what that felt like. His co-star, five-year-old Jackie Coogan, was also a vaudeville performer. When he grew up, he went on to play ‘Uncle Fester’ in the 1960’s TV series ‘The Addams Family’.

04 16 the gold rushChaplin’s ‘The Gold Rush’, which was released in 1925, made a strong impression on me in the days when the BBC used to run old black and white films in the afternoons. It is set in the time of the Klondike Gold Rush. His character being reduced by starvation to eating his own boot is probably one of my earliest film memories. He manages to make the scene sad and funny at the same time and his character always remains kind and upbeat, no matter how life treats him.

Chaplin had made his name in silent film and he resisted the coming of sound to the industry for a long time. His character worked through facial expressions and through physical performance. He didn’t think it would work with sound and I think he was right. His film ‘City Lights’, released in 1931, had sound but nobody spoke. Or if they did, they spoke through a kazoo. ‘Modern Times’ released in 1936, almost had dialogue, but it didn’t really work and he abandoned the idea. Because it deals with the plight of workers in an industrialised society, it was less well received that his previous films. Not everyone liked the political message.

In 1939/40 he made his first proper ‘talkie’, ‘The Great Dictator’ in which he parodied Adolph Hitler. He played both the dictator, ‘Adenoid Hynkel’ and a persecuted Jewish barber. The similarity between Hitler and Chaplin’s tramp had been remarked upon. Both had a toothbrush moustache. Both Chaplin and Hitler had risen to prominence from poverty, and they had been born only four days apart. He was haunted by their similarities. One a madman, the other a comic. What if it had been the other way around? I’ve read mixed accounts of how the film was received, one that it went down well in allied countries, another that people didn’t like the speech at the end. Some mark it as the beginning of his decline in popularity. It is a wonderful speech which is always worth revisiting, but it seems particularly poignant in the current world climate. You can find it here.

Chaplin’s 1947 film, Monsieur Verdoux, had quite an anti-capitalist message and he wound up leaving the United States after being accused of communist sympathies. The last film he made in the US, ‘Limelight’, was very autobiographical, alluding to his life with his parents and to his failing popularity. It is also the only film in which he appears alongside my other favourite silent film star, Buster Keaton. The film was boycotted in America and was not widely shown until 1972, when it received an Oscar for its music score, which was also written by him.

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10 04 buster keatonToday is the birthday of Buster Keaton. He was born in 1895 in Piqua, Kansas. He didn’t live there, his parents were just passing through. They were both vaudeville performers and his father, Joe Keaton, was part owner, along with Harry Houdini, of a travelling show called the Mohawk Indian Medicine Company. Buster was christened Joseph, but was given the nickname Buster by Houdini at the age of eighteen months after he fell downstairs without hurting himself.

10 04 the three keatonsBy the age of two, Buster was appearing alongside his parents on stage. By four, he was on a salary and they had become ‘The Three Keatons’. Their act was an extraordinarily violent one. Buster played the part of a child who goaded his father by disobeying him mimicking him and generally getting in his way. In response, his father would kick him all around the stage and throw him against the scenery, into the orchestra pit, even into the audience. Buster had a suitcase handle sewn into the back of his costume to make him easier to throw. By the time he was seven or eight their act was known as ‘The Roughest Act That Was Ever in the History of the Stage.’ There was a great deal of concern about the treatment Buster received on stage and his parents were frequently arrested and accused of child abuse. But Buster had learned how to take a fall and was rarely injured. He was able to show the authorities that he had no bruises or broken bones. In fact he enjoyed being thrown around. He said at first he laughed as his father tossed him through the air, but he soon noticed that this drew fewer laughs from the audience. He got a much better response if he remained stone-faced and stoic about the whole thing. This is probably where he first acquired the deadpan expression for which he was later famous.

Although the act was fun for Buster in his childhood, it became less so as he grew older. His father began to drink a great deal which made him volatile and unpredictable both on stage and off. When he was twenty-one he and his mother, Myra, left Joe and moved to New York. Buster worked for a little while on stage in New York, but one day he went along with a friend to Roscoe Arbuckle’s new movie studio on East 48th Street. He immediately landed a part in Roscoe’s film ‘The Butcher Boy’ as ‘man buying molasses’. Straight away Buster was fascinated by everything about film. That night he took one of the cameras home, took it all apart to see how it worked and put in back together again before morning.

Buster became part of the regular cast. He made lots of two reelers with Roscoe and soon became co-director with him. In 1920 their producer, Joe Schenck, moved Arbuckle into feature length films and gave Buster his own production unit. He quickly began to make his own feature length films and, although he had a team of writers, the best gags were usually his. His best ideas often involved dangerous stunts which Buster would perform himself. In one of his most famous scenes the entire side of a two story house falls on him. He survives because he is directly below a single open window in the façade. The stunt required him to be standing in exactly the right spot. With only a few inches of clearance on either side, it required precision and nerves of steel. You can see the clip here. He doesn’t even flinch. That façade weighed two tons.

10 04 the generalHis most famous and now most critically acclaimed film ‘The General’ was not especially well received at the time. It was an epic and extremely expensive film which was based on an actual incident during the Civil War. Some thought it was a bit too serious, it was not the lightweight comedy that they had come to expect from Buster Keaton. Others thought that it was a bit off to make a comedy about the Civil War. The mixed reception received by ‘The General’ led to Buster’s loss of artistic control over his films. It was this and the invention of sound that caused him to become deluded. What he had enjoyed about being an independent film maker was the ability to come up with a script that, although it had a definite beginning and end, would be largely ad-libbed. He felt that scenes often lost something when they were rehearsed over and over and often used the rehearsal takes rather than a practised scene in the final cut. Trying to make films under the direction of rigid bosses who were dealing with enormous sums of money and expensive sets was difficult for him. He said: “The minute you’re not flexible that way, the desire to originate and ad-lib, as they call it, is gone. You’ve lost that.” When he signed with MGM in 1928, he was forced to use a stunt double. This was absolutely not what Keaton was about. Much of the joy of his films comes from seeing him attempt something completely reckless and being amazed by that.

Keaton slid into alcoholism,was sacked by MGM and, in 1935, briefly institutionalised. Here, he reputedly managed to escape from a straitjacket. He was eventually rehired by MGM in 1937 and worked as a gag man but he fell rather into obscurity. In 1952 the actor James Mason moved into Buster’s former Hollywood home and found a secret stash of his films, which were presumed lost. The fragile nitrate films were preserved and interest in his early work was revived. I’m happy to say that he lived long enough to see his genius recognised. ‘The General’ in an excellent film and appears on many lists of All-Time Greats. Any film you’ve ever seen where someone runs over the roof of a moving train owes something to this film. If you haven’t seen it, you definitely should. Failing that, take a look at this short that he made in 1921 called ‘The Goat‘. Go on, it’s only twenty-three minutes.