A Dreamer Walking

Charlie Chaplin – An Observation – Devotion to Perfection

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series, Personal Philosophy 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.

Charlie Chaplin – An Observation – His Way!

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on November 10, 2011

Charlie Chaplin 1When Charlie Chaplin wanted to work everyone around him needed to want to work. When Chaplin wanted to take a few months off it didn’t matter how inconvenient it was for everyone else, he would take a few months off. I am sure Chaplin’s “my way” mentality didn’t help in very many of his marriages. Frankly, he was spoiled. He was able to do something he would never be able to do in today’s cinema. He told actors exactly how to act. He hired nonprofessionals to be the leading ladies in his films because he didn’t want them to think for themselves when it came to acting. He wanted to do all the thinking for them. Chaplin’s greatest co-star and arguably his greatest collaboration of all time was with Jackie Coogan, the five year old boy who played with him in The Kid. Why was Jackie Chaplin’s best collaboration? Jackie was said to be a born mimic, and could copy exactly what Chaplin showed him.

If he could Chaplin would have played each of the roles in his movies. His obsessive nature not only drove him to perfection but also everyone around him. He would explain exactly what he wanted to not only the stars of his films but the extras as well. He shot take after take after take in order to complete his vision. He once talked to a co-worker about his frustration with Virginia Cherrill, the leading lady in City Lights, how she did not understand the art of lifting a flower. They shot the scene where the Tramp first meets the blind woman, Cherrill, several hundred times. Chaplin was never truly satisfied with Cherrill’s performance. He needed his actors to be both physically and emotionally dedicated to him. Chaplin was not satisfied with the actors just physically getting into the performance, he wanted to feel their performance and have it inspire his acting.

If the actors weren’t completely involved with the performance Chaplin would waste little time with them. He was known for changing actors mid way through production. In City Lights Chaplin finally had it with Virginia Cherrill when she kept him waiting on set one day and fired her. This happened toward the end of a two plus year production. Chaplin realized later he couldn’t afford to re-shoot all of her scenes so he needed to rehire her for twice the cost.

Chaplin’s “my way” philosophy got him into a lot of trouble. It drove up the cost of production and made it so he only made movies every few years. Chaplin didn’t know exactly what he wanted when he began shooting his films. What drove him was the search for perfection. He needed everyone on his side. Yet, he needed to figure out the story himself. He did not have a bunch of writers and gag men helping him. The film for the most part was Chaplin’s discovery. When Chaplin couldn’t think of any ideas he would stop, even if it was in the middle of production. Some of his crew talked about how he would sometimes stand in the middle of the set for hours thinking while the rest of the crew stood there waiting for an idea to spark. Sometimes Chaplin would leave the set and not come back for weeks, leaving his crew at the studio to entertain themselves. Cherrill said she was bored for the majority of the City Lights production. For the most part she was left at the studio to play cards and read books. It took Chaplin two years and eight months to create City Lights, only one hundred and eighty days was spent actually shooting on set.

Many people might say that Chaplin had an ego problem. He got caught up in being the star and thus was not willing to have things be anyone else’s way but his. This for the most part is true. Chaplin, like so many stars then and now, wanted to be in the spotlight. Unlike now, Chaplin was able to have almost complete control over his projects. This resulted in a lot of inconvenience and even more frustration from actors and crew who did not like being told exactly how to do their jobs. However, I also believe this “ego” of Chaplin’s is what drove him forward to create some of the greatest and most controversial films of all time. While making City Lights Chaplin was ridiculed and told the movie would fail because he wasn’t willing to make it a talkie. Yet, City Lights opened to both critical and public acclaim and is now hailed as one of the greatest silent films of all time. Very few people in the 1930’s were willing to attack the manufacturing companies for their inhumane treatment of the hard working lower class. Yet, in Chaplin’s film Modern Times, he shows the cold heartlessness of the industrial era where workers in the manufacturing companies are treated more like cattle then human beings. Chaplin was one of the only people in Hollywood willing to stand up against Hitler and the Nazi Party before America went to war. He put all his chips on the table when making The Great Dictator, financing the project himself and willing to go into bankruptcy if the film failed. Chaplin made a stand in his famous speech at the end of The Great Dictator, that seems to only become more relevant as the days go by. Chaplin was begged to take the speech out of the film. The critics criticized him for ending the film on too serious a note. And, the right wing accused him of supporting communism. Yet, all this criticism didn’t matter to Chaplin because he made his movies his way. If he believed in something he would dedicate himself to it no matter how inconvenient his stance might be. Now, that “ego problem” is something to admire.

Charlie Chaplin – An Observation – The Key to Comedy

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series, Personal Philosophy by Jacob on November 6, 2011

Charlie Chaplin 2You know if you threw all Charlie Chaplin’s gags into a montage you probably would be rolling on the floor laughing before it finished. However, many great gag artists filled the screens in the silent era. Critics credited Harold Lloyd  with just as much creativity in his gags as Chaplin. And, Buster Keaton in my opinion might have been better. Keaton did things that stuntmen these days wouldn’t do. The gag in and of itself didn’t make Chaplin stick out. Charlie was the best comedian of the silent era and one of the greatest comedians of all time because he was able to generate a huge amount of sympathy and affection for the gags he pulled off. Most of this sympathy and affection was directed toward the legendary character that he often portrayed, the Tramp.  The Tramp was not the everyman character Harold Lloyd tried to portray and he definitely wasn’t known to be a stone face like Buster Keaton. Chaplin’s character almost always was living on the edge just trying to survive. The Tramp drew immediate sympathy because he represented the poorest of the poor in our society. The childlike heart and the ability to wear his emotions on his sleeve is what won over our affection for the Tramp. Even in this generation, almost a hundred years since the Tramp first appeared on screen, few children or adults can avoid being entranced by the amiable smile the Tramp gives when trying to get out of trouble or the poignant image he creates when going through tough times.

Chaplin’s makeup and costume perfectly expresses the sympathetic character he wants to be to his audience. His face is perfectly framed with the dark eye shadow, centered mustache, and tilted hat. His costume is abstract, he wears over sized pants and shoes, and a too small hat and shirt. Even though he represents the poorest of the poor in our society, the Tramp tries to make himself look like an established gentlemen with the cane he carries, the ripped up gentlemens gloves he wears, and his black felt bowler hat. The Tramp creates for himself along with the unwavering optimism for life he has, attracts us to his character. We invest in the Tramp because he is both visually and emotionally appealing. When we are invested in the Tramp as a character we become all the more interested in the scenarios he gets himself into and the gags he is able to pull off.

Chaplin’s gags stand out because they often give us a greater understanding of who his Tramp character is. Gags like, the Tramp trying not to starve through eating his own shoe in the The Gold Rush or the Tramp trying to save the depressed rich man from suicide in City Lights, separate Chaplin from his peers. Even at the point of starvation the Tramp is still optimistic he will survive. He treats the shoe like an upper class dinner, taking it apart piece by piece until the man next to him becomes envious of how much Tramp enjoys himself. The irony that comes with a completely broke man- the Tramp, trying to convince a extremely rich man not commit suicide is funny in and of itself.

Chaplin found humor in more then how he could pull off a fall or sell a punch. Chaplin figured out you don’t need to be in danger to pull off a gag. Sometimes Chaplin found humor through completely changing our emotions in the middle of a scene. One of the Tramp’s greatest gags is in City Lights when he meets the blind flower girl for the first time. Chaplin first wins over our heart through creating sentiment with the revelation that the flower girl is blind. Then Chaplin goes a step further when his Tramp character, even though dirt poor, is willing to let the girl keep the extra money for the flower he just purchased. Not knowing the Tramp is still there the girl washes out her flower bowl while the Tramp simply gazes at her beauty. At the most romantic point of the scene Chaplin completely changes the scenario as the blind girl unknowingly throws a bunch of water into the Tramp’s face. Plenty of gags involve people getting splashed with water. The reason why this gag rises above is because of the way Chaplin sets it up. He created a sympathy and affection for the scene in general. We were completely involved with what was happening on screen, completly in love with both characters, before Chaplin went to the punchline.

Chaplin’s humor succeeds because it goes beyond just a good laugh. His humor gives us joy that warms our hearts. He created in the Tramp a character that represented a part of us all. We can relate to the low parts in the Tramp’s life and are encouraged and find joy in the Tramp’s optimism. In real life Charlie Chaplin was a multimillionaire. He owned his own studio, a huge mansion, and was one of the most famous men in the world. Yet, the real Charlie Chaplin was always struggling with insecurities. He was always deathly afraid of not being adored and he went through many marriages and even more affairs. I think Chaplin would even admit he was never as happy as the Tramp. The Tramp’s gags encouraged us and allowed us to realize that happiness does not come from money or fame. Rather, happiness comes from finding the light in the darkest of times and most stressful of situations. Chaplin’s key to great comedy was through refusing to make the gag more important then the character or story he was telling. Gags can be repeated but there will never be a character like Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp again.