CHARLIE, the vagabond- a brief sketch
"A picture with a smile, and perhaps a tear..."
- The tagline of, ‘The Kid’
Jean Luc Godard shot his tragedy in a long shot and comedy in a close-up, breaking away from the template established by one of his master forefather: Sir Chalire Chaplin, who said: “The long- shot (full shot) is best suited for comedy and close-up for tragedy, and utilized every inch of space, frame, to carve and perform set-pieces which even today can make million laugh and feel the essence of pure happiness and joy in every gag.
Charlie Chaplin was one of the masters of cinema, he wrote, directed, produced, composed music, and was the public figure (publicity) for his own films; he was an auteur (artist) of the purest kind. The likes of whom are facing extinction in an era of, mass proliferation of images, sound and text- in the name of satisfying audience, which Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin Jr could do without compromising on any of his artistic integrity, and he was (and still is) one of the most beloved silent movies stars of all times, and one of the greatest comedians to ever be printed and projected on celluloid.
At the age of five, the young Chaplin showed glimpses of his stage presence when he took the stage (alone) and started singing after his mom was booed off the stage, while performing at The Canteen (a theatre). Chaplin learned his singing from his parents who were both entertainers, though his childhood wasn’t a happy one, as his father left his mother when he was three, and his mother was mentally ill, it was Chaplin with his older brother who simply on the basis of his talents and sheer passion for the stage and singing drove around with troupes finally landing in America. It was his these years of struggle with poverty, illusion, and the knack or passion for succeeding which formed his basic ability to combine deep humane level of emotions and laughter. And form a visual poetry out of the gags, pieces, laughs, cries, bumps and made the mundane and banal of our life infused with energy and momentum.
Chaplin learned the basic art and craft of filmmaking at the Keystone Studio, where he was hired by Mark Sennet, and appeared in his first film in Making- A living, though the film was success, but his most famous avatar: The Tramp was yet to grace the silver screen. Chaplin with every subsequent film subdued his craft in order to highlight every inch of gesture, emotions and was a methodologist in setting or blocking his scenes and a sheer perfectionist even during those days, long before Stanley Kubrick became a the master of takes. Till his very last film with Marlon Brando, A king in New York he never went about shooting with a full working script. Chaplin constantly believed improvising and no film could be given the green signal till he was completely satisfied. Later on Chaplin had become too expensive to be hired by any studio, simply because of his methodology of filming and working. It’s during his stay at the Keystone studios when Chaplin deviated away from the normal staple production of the films made by the studio which had loud gags, featured erratic car chases, exaggerated gestures and physical comedy, and moved towards his subtle storytelling and gags.
Chaplin formed the basic character of the tamp at the Keystone Studio, and made an appearance briefly in a film titled, Kid Auto Races in Venice, where the character wore a tight coat, oversized trousers and shoes, a dery and carried a bamboo cane and had a toothbrush moustache. However, it’s from the release of the, The Tramp that Chaplin subsequently perfected and developed the character; with his characteristic walk, his bamboo waving and his overtly facial gestures. It was at this Studio, Chaplin’s magic as a comedian and a person in control of his subtle acting power were developed, and from here upon he build on this foundation, forming layers and layers of emotions and cinematic interpellation.
Chaplin move to the Essanany Studio helped in two very significant ways, first and foremost it helped him take his ideas and idioms regarding the syntax of film grammar to a new level, making a mark departure in his cinematic skills, especially utilizing the camera as a tool to capture and highlight and emote better with variety then most his pictures at the Keystone Studio. Secondly, it’s at the Essaany Studio that Chaplin formed his stock company, and moved into finding new meaning layers of depth in his slapstick comedy. It was Chaplin’s essence of finding humor and emotions out of the mundane of everyday life that made him different from the likes of other great comedian of the era-Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. The former was more successful than Chaplin in terms of his box office receipt(though Chaplin made fewer films), while the latter remained one the most widely critically acclaimed comedians who played in dreamlike and over-top situation, unlike Chaplin whose base of finding his gags was out of everyday objects and situation. Chaplin wrote a special scene especially for Buster Keaton in Limelight, and the presence of this two great artist within one frame is one of the most memorable moment in film history. Its from his days of learning and experimenting in cinematic mise-en-scene (acting, décor, camera, lights) at the Key Stone and Essany Studio that Chaplin went on to make some of the most remarkable and funniest films for the Mutual Film Corporation, where he was given full artistic control of his works, and from here embarked on making some of the greatest feature length films in the history of Cinema.
Hereafter, Chaplin’s success grew leaps and bound, his principal character “ The Tramp” became a household name throughout the world, and Chaplin not only was one of the highest paid person in the world but one of the most famous too. It was his fame, fortune and his extremely astute rigor when it came down to filmmaking that drove Chaplin to form one of the most successful partnerships in faith of good cinema: United Artist along with his best friend Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D. W.Griffith. Chaplin was a methodologist to the core, and he believed in equal participation from the stars and non-professional actors and his crew. He was known to take a number of takes until and unless every aspects within the scene (act, the frame, the décor, the light) merged or he went on for more takes, and it’s this precise mode of constant improvisation that gave Chaplin performance it’s sheer drive and emotional and comic energy and helped the entire film to weave together and come to life, and his uncompressing attitude remained till his final film The King in New York. Such was his nature of taking his work seriously that he destroyed negative of his film Sea Gull, because he was not satisfied with performance of his lead actress.
How can one forget Andre Bazin’s essay on Limelight or The Death of Moliere, where he recounts the screening of the film where directors, critics, and screenwriters choked with emotions and their eyes were red as tomatoes. He further went on to add:
There is only one word to describe the note struck by this film, and we must first restore it to its full classical meaning – sublime.
It was the period from 1923 to 1957, between A Woman in Paris to The King in New York, Chaplin craft manifested into virtuous tool of carving universal emotions, as Bazin says, the restoration of all tied strings in the film to its classical connotation. His personal artistic unity of combining all forms of filmmaking and expression; through his acting and mise-en-scene- bore some of the greatest masterpieces in the history of cinema. Not that his earlier films were inferior from the films made in this period, since he had made movies such as The Kid, A Dog’s life, Shoulder Arms and most films for, The Mutual films which themselves held in them various critiques and aspects of the human behavior and socio economic situations. However, it’s this important period where he really took his art to a whole new level, combining his impressionable acting ability and putting them in contemporary setting often revolving around certain socio political issues (The Great Dictator, Modern times) and making a foundation of gags which came out only after doing much improvisation (typical of him) and printing hundred of takes, before deciding to print or form a story out in the editing table.
It was his constant zeal of improvisation which allowed the influx of such master comic spaces and timing, and this also formed one of the base and understanding for the directors of French New Wave to form their cinema out of improvisation. The shot of Chaplin working frantically in the factory to keep up with the assembly line of production in Modern Time, not only gives up a set-up which would makes up laugh, but also forms a basic signature of how Chaplin films of this period were composed precisely in it’s mise-en-scene, where the normal subtext would speak beyond the parameters of the on going action: socially and politically. This very scene not only spoke about the basic nature of consumerism and the death of the normal worker, but today, really speaks volumes about the basic nature of the film industry.
The genius of Chaplin laid in his ability to moves us, make us laugh and fill our emotions (at a very humane level) and at the same time offer a genuine critique (of society). He had an astute nature of blending sublime moments that one was swept of there feet, whether watching his films as a spectator, critic or an academic. His films are ageless, they are classic in their pure roots of etymology in all it’s crystalline nature. Since over the course of years Chaplin films has filled our hearts and made us laugh, and even given glimpse of the socio demographics of the time. The shot of Chaplin about to feast on his boots (Gold Rush) is etched in the memories of thousand movie-goers; such images not only evoked emotions, but showed the dire consequences of the collapse of the society.
Chaplin had moved away from his famous “The Tramp” alter-ego for his latter works such as Monsieur Verdoux (black comedy, based on an idea by Orsen Welles) and his final film The King in New York, but both movies showed Chaplin maturity and his range of subtly as a director and performer in short, as an artist. Since in spite of the commercial failure of the films in relation to his diverse works such as, Lime Light, City Lights, Gold Rush, Modern Times or Great Dictator, it had pure elements of beauty in creation of images and aesthetic, that it made his pilgrim as an artist much more strong; his characteristic knack for churning out performances and weaving tale whether dark or sublime into making a pot-purri of varied emotions made Chaplin one of the greatest artist even when moving away form usual format of filmmaking and performance. The music in Chaplin films were often composed by him, and in his later years he got to re-issuing a number of his silent films with new music.
In the finale of City Lights (one of his greatest works), when the blind woman feels his hand, she realizes that it is familiar. You? She says, and he nervously nods, asking, “You can see now? “ She replies, “Yes, I can see now,”? The film ends with a close –up, and this very scene establishes the genius of Chaplin and summarizes his entire oeuvre into a simple touching image. Since it’s not only the conception of the image, but the gesture (the touch), in this case, which broke a mirage of the woman, and formed an important function of abridging the distance between fate and karma. And it’s here and simply here that such sublime moments can exist, in the films of Chaplin, where his artistic integrity of churning out works of universal emotions and truth; on the foundation of honesty, that allowed Chaplin to make not only powerful films, but also gave us one of the greatest creator and performer of the 21st century.