January 28, 2005

Charm of Chaplin

(First, an aside to Tom the Dog - yes, Sara Rue is smoking hot. She makes me want to do semi-naughty things that I cannot announce on a PG-rated blog. You are now my second favorite blog behind Kevin, who posted an oh-so-naughty picture of Scarlett Johannsen eons ago).

Right now, I am about to say something that will risk me losing my hip-and-with-it film buff credentials. Ready?

Charlie Chaplin - what's the deal?

Saying that is tantamount to saying, "Will Eisner wrote and drew comic books like an eight year old" or "Raymond Chandler couldn't type his way out of a soggy paper bag", but for film buffs to discuss the genius of Chaplin...I don't get it. I just don't. I need a clue.

Saw The Gold Rush in college - cute film, but didn't get it. Didn't think it was funny.

The Great Dictator - saw it several times, loved it, but felt the ending was a little too cloy. It's a good film, but still, not exactly a masterpiece.

Recently, I sat down and watched Modern Times, and although I think Paulette Goddard is rather tasty, I still don't see the charm of Chaplin. The film (in my view) seems to be nothing more than a blanket, almost cliche, "machines = bad, human beings = good".

Maybe it's a contextual/historical thing - we have seen so much Chaplin-esque symbolism (he is the most recognized film icon), maybe he has become cliche, definiting rather than transcending his time. In his day, he was a superstar, the most widely recognized man on earth, an all-in-one package that we don't see in present pop culture. Writer, director, actor - his moviemaking consisted mainly of multiple takes, improvs that shaped his story. No one - Spielberg,
Cruise, any major star - could even reach the heights of Chaplin's stardom. Chaplin was also controversial, his personal life and radical theories providing the press with numerous gossip and innuendo...in these more cynical (and Internet-driven) times, Chaplin's star might not have risen so quickly or stayed afloat so long.

Granted, he did do one thing brilliantly - he was able to inject pathos and compassion into comedy. Thanks to him, movie comedies have some element of sadness, drama to offset the laughs - but somehow, they all seem to be centered around him, about the poor little tramp
(him) who, at the end of the day, ends up alone on the road again. (Except in Modern Times, he doesn't.) At 43 years old, the tramp mustache seems relatively counterfeit, the pathos overwhelming, the laughs minimal.

Even the supporting materials seem to suggest greater talent - after all, in the Chaplin Today documentary on the special features disc, two French filmmakers merely talk about his film before announcing that - gasp! - it's similar to a film they made. That would be like me announcing, "Hey, world! I draw just like Rob Liefeld!"

In short, I don't understand the Chaplin mystique...I guess I just had to be there. If anyone could explain it to me, I would greatly appreciate it.


N said...

I really enjoy Chaplin's films. Modern Times is to me a masterpiece of physical comedy and poignant as all get-out, too. Great Dictator is also a very important, moving and funny film. But nah... I can't really explain it. You like it, or don't, I guess. Like Adam Sandler, or Woody Allen.

Tom the Dog said...

#1, yay for me! #2, you are so very wrong on Chaplin! He's a genius! He's a.... oh, wait, I've never actually seen one of his films from beginning to end. My secret shame revealed! Wow, that's pretty bad of me. They released all his classics on DVD recently, and I fully intended to see them... but there was probably some some trashy erotic thriller released the same day, or some idiotic slasher flick, and I rented that instead. One of these days I'll get to Chaplin!

Anonymous said...


I'm with you on the Chaplin thing. He's okay, but for silent film comedians, my money says Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton were the funny guys. Keaton's The General surely beats any of Chaplin's films. As for Lloyd, I'll concede he may have a less universal appeal than Chaplin, but that doesn't mean I can't sing his praises.


Gordon D said...

N - Actually, I think Woody Allen makes some good films - he's always been a hit-or-miss filmmaker for me, but even his worst films are watchable. Adam Sandler has only made one halfway decent film, in my opinion: The Wedding Singer.

Tom - welcome!

H - Definitely agree on Keaton and Lloyd. Both of them are much funnier and don't often get the recognition they deserve. Both of them often get much less critical praise/evaluation.