A Dreamer Walking

Charlie Chaplin- An Observation- Devotion to Perfection

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on December 2, 2011

How could  a man with a fourth grade education, who was raised in the slums, with a father who deserted him, and a mother who went mad, become one of the greatest stars in the history of cinema? Might those hardships be why he became such a great star? Charlie Chaplin was one who demanded an audience. His insecurities drove him to perfect his art form. He wanted the audience to feel for him, to love him. Every movement he made in his films was calculated. Chaplin wanted to control everything on screen. He obsessed on small things like the art of lifting a flower and the exact way the Tramp needed to have his hat tilted. He shot scenes hundreds of times- until the actions in his films flowed like water on smooth rock. Perfection is what Chaplin wanted and it is what he got. Movies like The Gold Rush, Modern Times, and City Lights represent film at  it’s height. They got there because the artist behind them would have nothing less.

Chaplin did not go to film school. He needed to learn on the job. You can see Chaplin learning the techniques of filmmaking through his shorts and early full length features. Slowly Chaplin began to understand the value of a long shot verses a close up. The value of camera movement and invisible cuts. Every day he arrived on set he was in search of a way to tell his story better. Chaplin never knew exactly what he was going to do. He wanted his films to have an organic flow. No matter how funny the gag might be it would be cut if it didn’t make sense to Chaplin and contribute to the story. I have said before, Chaplin’s crew all agreed that if he could Chaplin would cast himself for every character in his films. His crew needed to deal with a relentless amount of scrutiny. He acted out exactly what he wanted his actors to do. If you didn’t do it perfectly you would be in for a long day. Back in the 1910’s through the 1930’s Chaplin would consistently do twenty plus takes when the common Hollywood filmmaker would do three to five.

Chaplin’s classic The Circus was originated from an idea Chaplin had of a man on a tightrope running into several unforeseen obstacles in the middle of his act. The whole rest of the movie was developed from this idea. Chaplin spent months training on the tightrope so he could be prepared for the scene. When it came to actually shooting the scene he shot over seven hundred takes trying to perfect the act. The scene now is a classic in cinema. Chaplin keeps topping himself in it. First he loses his safety harness. Then he has a bunch of monkey’s attack him. He holds us in suspense while he weaves back and forth barely managing to stop himself from falling with his balancing stick. Then his pants fall off, yet still he somehow maintains control. All the while Chaplin gives us some extremely dynamic shots- showing the distance he is from the ground and the frightening perspective the audience has watching him at such a great height. Finally Chaplin tops it all with the greatest banana gag in the history of film when he trips on a peel that one of the monkey’s threw on the rope. It took months to perfect but the result was a flawless performance.

Ideas didn’t come easily to Chaplin. When asked how one gets ideas Chaplin said, “By sheer perseverance to the point of madness”. Chaplin’s unbelievable drive is what created classic scenes like the Tramp on the tightrope in The Circus, the Tramp seeing the blind woman for the first time in City Lights, and Chaplin making his great speech at the end of The Great Dictator. All these scenes have lasted and will continue to last through the ages. Why? Because every movement made in the The Circus and City Lights scenes were pure entertainment leading to a perfect climax, and every word said in The Great Dictator speech rang true to the heart of humanity. Chaplin’s perseverance to the point of madness is what allowed him to retake, refine, and rework his films in his quest for perfection.

Chaplin spent close to two years on most of his full length productions. This compared to the average Hollywood production, which was forty to fifty days, seems quite obsessive. Yet, Chaplin has just as many classics as anyone in film History. Three of his films, City Lights, Modern Times, and The Gold Rush, made it to AFI’s (America Film Institute) top 100 American films of all time. Chaplin was a man with many insecurities and many imperfections. His personal life for most of his filmmaking career was a mess. Yet, this imperfect man created several magnificent films. He told most of his stories with no duologue and hardly any sound. It was mainly through the visuals that he needed to communicate to his audience. So he dedicated himself to perfecting the visuals. And in many cases he did. He has brought a tear to my eye more then once. He created a character who started out as just a clown meant to make us laugh and slowly turned into a character who represented the essence of humanity. Chaplin wanted to speak to the yearning of the human heart. He always felt the need to do more. He had a grand vision for the art of storytelling and he would not settle for anything less then perfection.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: