|My own presentation at the festival turned out to be the first one of the week, a great boon for me, because I was then able to relax and enjoy the festivities. I chose three Mutual films, The Pawnshop, The Rink, and The Cure and talked about Sydney Chaplin’s, Charlie’s brother’s, influence and/or assistance with these particular films. Other presentations included Chuck Maland on Chaplinitis-a talk which accompanied Bryony Dixon’s compilation of a group of films that would have been typical for a 1915 movie program in the UK. She included a roll call of the dead (WWI, you know), a short dramatic film concerning military heroism, a newsreel about the Lusitania, and Chaplin’s The Bank. The Charlie Chaplin Archive team gave an interesting and informative presentation about the new archive website that will be launched very soon. David Robinson spoke on Marcelline, the clown, one of Chaplin’s admitted inspirations, and showed a recently discovered film clip of him. Serge Bromberg, of Lobster Films, showed two films featuring Charlie without his moustache and accompanied them himself. Sam Stourdzé, the creator of the “Chaplin in Pictures” exhibit, gave an illustrated talk on Charlie’s physicality. Kevin Brownlow talked about the making of The Tramp and the Dictator and then showed the film itself. And Bernard Eisenschitz talked on Chaplin and modernity, or rather showed Chaplin’s influences on filmmakers who followed him. All of these presentations were illustrated by restored films and, of course, the highlight was the Keystones. I think my personal favorite was a simply incredible print of The Masquerader. As I am discovering with all of these restorations, the Keystones are not nearly the plotless pastiches that we all once thought them to be. It turns out that they only suffer greatly because of the many omissions and poor film quality of the versions we have all seen.The highlight of the festival, however, was the accompanied screenings, and there were an incredible three over the course of the week. The first two were housed in the Teatro Communale, an eighteenth century opera house in Bologna that easily satisfies anyone’s ideas and fantasies about what such a thing must be. The first Saturday night we saw The Kid and The Idle Class with the Teatro’s orchestra being lead by Timothy Brock. It was a very good way to start the week. Wednesday we were treated to Tim’s own restoration of Charlie’s score for Modern Times, a score which I’ve been wanting to experience since I missed its debut in LA all the way back in June 2000. It was definitely worth the wait. And, by this time, another important guest had arrived at the festival-actor Ben Gazzara and his wife-and they stole the pre-show amusements by disregarding their assigned seats and choosing their own, with dog in-tow. More important to me (and most others) was the fact that Michael and Christopher Chaplin introduced the film that night, and if Christopher could look any more like his father, someone please tell me HOW. And the last night, the final Saturday of the festival featured Tim Brock’s brand new restoration of Charlie’s score for The Gold Rush. This one was performed with the film on the Piazza Maggiore, the large square in Bologna. In other words, it was outside. So, the gentle breezes and overwhelming crowd came together to affect Charlie’s film and music and really, it was almost an overwhelming experience. We all forget how beautiful the score is for The Gold Rush.
And, to top it all off, if indeed anything further is needed, was Sam Stourdzé’s “Chaplin in Pictures” exhibit (Chaplin e l’immagine) housed in Bologna at the beautiful Sala Borsa. I have written about this exhibit in a previous newsletter, so will not do so here, except to relate the opinion of my friend Alessandra Garofalo who mentioned that the juxtaposition of Charlie’s photos and the renaissance architecture of the building worked together to make the exhibit a sort of work of art in itself. After seeing the exhibit again at the Sala Borsa, I’m very sad that I was unable to do what I had originally wanted to do-that is, experience the exhibit in each of its venues, for certainly, it would be a new adventure each and every time.Finally, as promised, I decided to take advantage of the fact that the festival often turns out to be one of the rare gatherings of Chaplin scholars. I chose four men who I felt could give very different perspectives and also who had not been interviewed for the newsletter before. They are:
Chuck Maland is the author of the acclaimed Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image, for which he received many awards and a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize, and Professor of English and Cinema Studies at the University of Tennessee Knoxville.
Hooman Mehran is a co-editor of The Chaplin Review, and all around film comedy afficianado. Hooman has written widely on Chaplin and has presented his work most recently at the Charlie Chaplin conference hosted by the BFI in 2005 and this year’s Kyoto Chaplin conference.
Frank Scheide is the other co-editor of The Chaplin Review and cataloguer of Chaplin’s Mutual film outtakes for the BFI. Frank is also an Associate Professor of Communications at the University of Arkansas and is on the board of the Buster Keaton Celebration in Iola, Kansas (as is Hooman).
Lee Tsiantis is a Rights Analyst in the Turner Entertainment Legal Group in Atlanta. His work tools are the studio legal documents of all the films that Ted Turner bought in 1986 (the pre-1986 MGM, pre-1950 Warner Bros. and RKO films). In working with his clients in Turner Classic Movies, who needed his research assistance to respond to a viewer inquiry, he untangled the rights to six long-unseen RKO films made between 1933-38, including A Man to Remember (1938), allowing the channel to purchase the films’ copyrights and showcase them on TCM in April with the theme “RKO: Lost and Found.”
Charlie began to be concerned that his work was “old fashioned” at least in 1967 when the movie critics overwhelmingly labeled his new film A Countess from Hong Kong with this adjective. Yet, in 2007, Chaplin and his work seem to have had a resurgence. Movie critics once staunchly opposed to Chaplin’s work as “too sentimental,” have engaged in re-examinations of it with the result that they are now both admirers and promoters. Both Richard Schickel and David Thompson are clear examples of this. How do you explain Chaplin’s seeming health in 2007 and do you think it will continue? Why or why not?
The claim that Chaplin’s work was old-fashioned actually predates A Countess from Hong Kong by at least three decades. Because he knew that the comic pantomime of the tramp character was central to his success, Chaplin wisely became an aesthetic conservative (even as he started to become more progressive politically) when he resisted dialogue entirely in City Lights and for the most part in Modern Times, which came out seven or eight years after nearly every American movie house had been wired for the talkies. That’s a major reason that Otis Ferguson-one of the most consistently interesting American reviewers in the middle and later 1930s-wrote in his 1936 New Republic review that “Modern Times is about the last thing they should have called the new Chaplin picture.” He went on to complain that many of the scenes, like the skating in the department store, seemed only like reworkings of the comic shorts from the 1910s. Yet “old-fashioned” is in the eyes of the beholder: what’s old-fashioned to one person is mastery of comic form to the next.It is true, though, that for a time in the 1980s and 1990s it became fashionable to criticize Chaplin’s “sentimentality” in favor of Buster Keaton’s stoic response to the world as expressed through his comic persona and films. I attribute this to a couple of factors. First, Keaton’s silent features and many of his short films came available on laserdisc in the Art of Buster Keaton collection, which allowed cineastes to review his work the way they could earlier with Chaplin films on VHS. Also, in the U.S. at least, as film studies was institutionalizing, struggling for respectability, and film theory was becoming ascendant, Keaton’s films somehow seemed more interesting while Chaplin’s sentiment seemed too mainstream and Victorian, only remotely connected to the modern world.
I do think that’s changed some in the last decade. I attribute some of the renewed interest in Chaplin-and acceptance of the breadth of emotions evoked in his films-to the work of Progetto Chaplin and the encouragement of Association Chaplin. By digitizing and making available to scholars the rich variety of materials from the Chaplin studios, they make it possible for more people to study and think about Chaplin and his movies. And by encouraging public exhibition of Chaplin’s films with live orchestral accompaniment and of museum exhibits about his life and work, like the ones we’ve encountered in Bologna this week, audiences are able to experience Chaplin’s films in a way that makes them come alive and shows viewers why Chaplin has been considered one of the world’s great filmmakers and performers.
Back in the 1960s Andrew Sarris wrote that “viewed as a whole, Chaplin’s career is a cinematic biography of the highest level of artistic expression,” and I still find that assertion convincing. Chaplin’s sentiment-as expressed in movies like The Kid and City Lights-will never appeal to everyone. Human beings are too complex and various for that to happen. However, for anyone interested in the history of cinema and its major filmmakers, encountering Chaplin’s work should provide ample rewards for a long time.
Chaplin was being called old-fashioned by critics long before A Countess from Hong Kong. There are scattered references to this in reviews dating as far back as the 1920s, and by the time of The Great Dictator, it had become a chorus. But having said that, Chaplin’s popularity never depended on his technique – it was always the way he connected with his audiences that was important. He lost that connection with critics and the audiences in the 1940s, but then had a critical resurgence in the 1960s and 1970s, after which his star fell at the expense of Buster Keaton’s. There does seem to be some sort of a comeback in the eyes of critics now at the beginning of the 21st century (but NOT with American audiences, who remain indifferent). If this resurgence is ever going to amount to anything substantial, it will hinge again on his ability as an actor to directly connect with the viewer, and not on his sophistication as a storyteller.
These questions bring a number of issues to mind: Countess, is an issue unto itself. The seemingly simple notion of trying to define a perception of Chaplin is complicated, because this perspective changes every five to ten years–not only from generation to generation but from country to country. Countess is definitely not a film of its time, and I was really curious concerning how it would be perceived when shown as a part of Cinema Ritrovato this year. Critics did indeed call Countess old-fashioned at the time of its release. Usually when this phrase is employed it means that someone is continuing to do something in an archaic fashion. But Chaplin wasn’t repeating himself with Countess cinematically. If this movie is old-fashioned, what group of pictures are we comparing it with? It doesn’t look like the Rock Hudson/Doris Day type of farce. It’s still different. If this movie harkens back to another time in Charlie’s career, it was when he was working at the Circle Theater with Jerry [Epstein] and Sydney [Chaplin, Jr.]. And so, I don’t think A Countess from Hong Kong initially was old-fashioned. It just wasn’t the type of movie that people were seeing at the time it came out. We’re now far enough away from the late 1960s that we can consider this picture outside of the period in which it was made, and it either works or it doesn’t work as a film in its own right. I think that time has been rather good to A Countess from Hong Kong. It was meant to be the kind of light-hearted farce that Charlie and his fellow collaborators enjoyed producing at the Circle Theater. Unfortunately, the
I believe that film scholars are currently showing a greater appreciation for Chaplin as actor, director, choreographer, composer, and commentator of his times, but general audiences may be a bit less receptive. Speaking as a teacher, I don’t think casual viewers instantly gravitate to the art and novelty of black and white film the way they once did when channel hopping on television, for example. That said, many of my students still appreciate Chaplin films I show in the classroom after some preparation. If filmmakers from the past are to find a new audience, potential viewers may need the kind of exposure and training long demanded for developing an appreciation for such comparable specialized art forms as opera and ballet.
Chaplin’s work, the scholarly reception of that work, as well as his reputation seems to me alive and well in 2007 — at least among the mainstream of film scholars/film lovers; embracing silent films in general, alas, remains problematic for the mass market. Within this mainstream, I’m willing to attribute Chaplin’s health largely to the fact that all of his major work is available for viewing on home video. One simply can’t assess (or, for that matter, reassess) an artist’s work unless the work is able to be seen, preferably in restored, optimal quality prints or video transfers. Whatever the shortcomings of the domestic 2003-04 release of the MK2/Warner Home Video (PAL-to-NTSC transfer issues which marginally cripple the originals’ pitch/speed), Chaplin’s major 1918-57 output is available for all to view — and in source material that’s often generated from well-preserved original negative materials thanks to Association Chaplin and the restoration efforts of L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratories.
It’s my observation, largely from being able to see the films from the vantage point of public screenings at Il Cinema Ritrovato festivals in Bologna in 2006-7, that Chaplin’s “sentimentality,” which has usually been proffered by detractors as his weakness compared to his fellow genius Keaton, simply does not appear to be as severe a liability as these later film commentators would have it — in fact, and especially in the case of the still heart-wrenching The Kid, the film’s pathos (what I prefer to call it) is often quite powerful emotionally, and reveals itself as a distinct strength. Chaplin’s imagining Calvero the clown’s (that is, his own) death in Limelight, has been cited as a high point of brazen artistic hubris, but it actually comes across, as Bernardo Bertolucci has so accurately observed, as the death of “The Tramp” as envisaged by its creator. If this character is to pass on, why not give it a fitting requiem? The right has been earned.
As long as his films are able to be seen by a mass audience, I think Chaplin’s reputation and his deservedly exalted status in film history will prevail.