Charlie Chaplin's daughter joins a new generation that finds his flms aimed for more than laughs
It's hard for modern film audiences to think of Charlie Chaplin as anything more than the "Little Tramp" persona he created at the dawn of his film career. Even in silhouette, the figure in baggy pants, oversized shoes, tight coat and too-small hat is universally recognized as one of the greatest movie stars of all time, one of very few who, over the course of 81 films, made the successful transition from silent to sound eras. While that character will come alive on screen again in a weeklong retrospective opening Friday at Enzian Cinema and Cafe, Chaplin was much more.
Raised in poverty in Victorian London, he became an actor in order to survive. He was a gifted pantomime and a successful actor before he reached adulthood. His harsh upbringing led to a lifelong affinity with the underdog, and he gradually eased a social agenda into his films, engaging humanist themes that would dominate his greatest works. Although his popularity waned when his political views came under attack during the early years of the Cold War, ultimately he was revered as a man of integrity, dedicated to political justice.
His personal life was wracked by scandal, divorce and political persecution. He finally found peace in his fourth marriage, to Oona O'Neil, daughter of dramatist Eugene O'Neil, and the union resulted in eight children. While the oldest, Geraldine, became a noteworthy actress, Jane, the sixth, became a filmmaker in her own right, settling in the Orlando area a decade ago and forming her own small production company. Primarily a screenwriter, she served with her husband, Ilya Salkind, as executive producer of "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery"; the couple lives in Bay Hill where they are raising two children. Jane will introduce the refurbished Chaplin prints on the opening night of their showing.
Chaplin was 68 when Jane was born, and she was only 20 when he died in 1977. She would not be fully aware of his status on the world stage for many years afterward. "I still don't realize it," she says. "At home he was very strict, very authoritarian, very Victorian. Plus, we lived in Switzerland, so it was very hard to think of him as this famous man that people adore ... and still adore."
But there were hints.
But there were hints.
"We had a tradition," she says. "Every Christmas, at Christmas lunch, we would watch a movie of my dad's. So I saw them literally all the time I was growing up. But I actually started becoming more conscious about them, and maybe enjoying them more, really lately."
Chaplin spent his later years composing soundtracks for his silent films, which led to their eventual re-release as the Charlie Chaplin Collection. "All of these films were restored by Chaplin himself," says Nicole Jouve of Interama, the distributor of Chaplin's 35-millimeter prints, 17 of which will be screened at the Enzian.
The films belong to the Chaplin estate, and his children wanted his films to be seen with the music he composed for them. When you see them now, they're more up to date, and very beautiful.
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born on April 16, 1889. His parents were employed in the theater. Charles Sr. was an absentee father who died an alcoholic in 1901. Hannah Chaplin was left to raise the children on her own. Destitute and of fragile psychological makeup, she deteriorated until one day she was unable to complete a performance. Five-year-old Charlie was pushed onto the stage by the director and told to perform a song, which he did to riotous applause and a shower of coins.
Eventually his mother was institutionalized, leaving Chaplin and his older brother to fend for themselves in the workhouses of London. Chaplin would never escape the memories of grinding poverty, and he would forever fiercely empathize with the underprivileged.
Eventually he found work on stage. After joining a pantomime troupe, where he first tapped the skills he would perfect in silent film, he decided that he must be an actor. He eventually joined a vaudeville company, where he mastered the art of slapstick.
He soon crossed the Atlantic for a tour of the United States that ended in a six-week engagement of "A Night at an English Music Hall" in New York. A budding young filmmaker who saw the show was so impressed that he vowed to sign him up as soon as he could open a film studio. The man's name was Mack Sennet, and the studio he would start was Keystone Pictures.
Sennet offered Chaplin a position with Keystone, prompting Chaplin to trek to California in 1913 to star in "Making a Living." When Chaplin invented the Little Tramp character for a spur-of-the-moment performance, his destiny was sealed. By 1914 he was writing, directing and acting in Keystone films, gaining greater autonomy over his adopted art. He then worked for the Essanay and Mutual film companies before signing the first million-dollar motion picture contract in history with First National, which allowed him build his own studio. By 1919 he was making his own features through United Artists, the company he formed with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith. His films grew in length, and with "The Immigrant," a tragicomedy that portrayed the tribulations of new arrivals to Ellis Island, Chaplin's social issues became running themes in his work.
In 1921, Chaplin's star hit a new height with "The Kid," featuring child-actor Jackie Coogan. And in "The Idle Class," Chaplin showed the disparity between the rich and the poor by writing a story about mistaken identity in which he portrayed a wealthy character alongside his beloved Tramp. In 1925 he released "The Gold Rush," a film satirizing Alaskan prospectors, and perhaps his greatest silent feature. The sound era was dawning, however, and Chaplin was faced with the daunting task of updating his purely visual comedies for audiences who demanded dialogue.
He entered the sound era with "City Lights." Rather than write dialogue, Chaplin used sound effects to emphasize the visual gags. The Tramp's efforts to help a beautiful blind girl regain her sight propels Chaplin through a series of odd jobs, eventually becoming a prizefighter who is befriended by a drunken millionaire, who cannot recognize him when sober. Class disparity again runs through "City Lights," and Chaplin reached a pinnacle in his use of pathos when the girl, her sight restored, meets her benefactor, who she had assumed was rich. The audience is left to wonder whether she will accept his poverty-stricken condition. By "Modern Times" (1936), the Little Tramp had a more utilitarian purpose: He was the innocent caught up in the dehumanizing effects of technological progress. The film is the first in which Chaplin is heard to speak, albeit for a scene where he sings in pidgin Italian.
Time and world events would prove Chaplin's next film to be his best. In 1940 he released "The Great Dictator," taking advantage of the remarkable resemblance between Adolf Hitler and his Little Tramp character to portray the dictator of Tomania, Adnoid Hynkel. The Tramp resurfaces as a Jewish barber who is mistaken for Hynkel, and at the end of the film must improvise a speech to avoid being discovered. Chaplin actually leaves character and directly addresses the audience with a 10-minute plea for understanding among mankind, and a united front against tyranny and facism. The scene was Chaplin's most passionate, if not one of the most passionate moments in the history of film.
The '40s marked the beginning of very trying times for Chaplin. He was slapped with a paternity suit, and although he eventually won, the experience was taxing. As the Cold War, began Chaplin became a target, stemming from his support of the Soviet Union at the onset of World War II. After releasing a black comedy, "Monsieur Verdoux," he absorbed the full brunt of a popular backlash against him. A planned London premiere for his next film, "Limelight" led to his traveling by ship to England. Two days into the trip, he heard over the radio that he was banned from the U.S., his re-entry permit revoked. After his last film, "The Countess From Hong Kong," failed at the box office in 1965, Chaplin withdrew from active filmmaking.
Chaplin will forever be associated with his on-screen persona. For a long time daughter Jane had a hard time connecting her father to the Little Tramp. Even her 10-year-old son thinks of them as separate people. "He said he had a grandfather and a grandaddy,' she recalls. 'His friends said, 'Who's the grandaddy?' and he said, 'The guy with the moustache.'"
A stern taskmaster to his children, her father had lighter moments in his waning years, recalls Jane. "There were times when he'd had a bit to drink, he'd loosen up," she says. "We had this old accordion, and he would take it and bring us out into the hallway. We would sit on the steps and he would play us old songs on the accordion, and the more we applauded, the more he played."
When Chaplin was having fun with the kids, school became secondary. Chaplin's anti-authoritarianism would surface again. "He'd say, 'Ah, the hell with school. They can go to school the following day'" -- a declaration cheered by the Chaplin children, says Jane.
Chaplin was knighted in 1975, but by Christmas of that year he began to retreat into self-imposed isolation. Jane remembers the exact moment at Christmas lunch when her father was bombarded with questions by a guest. "He wasn't paying attention to her, and all of a sudden he turned around and said, 'Look, I am 86 years old, I'm an old man. I don't want to talk anymore, would you please just ... shut ... up!'"
From that moment on he rarely spoke. A clash with his rebellious teen-age daughter was inevitable. Chaplin was adamant that his children be punctual for meals. One day Jane was late for lunch and took her place by her sister Geraldine. "All of a sudden he came in, had a sip of wine, and he slammed the wine glass on the table ... and declared 'YOU SHOULD NOT BE LATE! I can't stand people being late!'"
Jane leapt from the room, leaving Geraldine in tears, but her mother oddly thanked her for inciting the outburst."It opened him up," she says, "but then he shut down again. I guess he spoke to my mom, but to us, when he did speak, it was a whisper."
Sir Charles Chaplin died when Jane was 20, before she outgrew her rebellious stage. As she grew older, she became aware of her own sympathies towards humanism and socialism, as well her own strong anti-authoritarian streak. She says she feels his essence running through her today, a presence within her that never left, and she feels a strong spiritual connection that they didn't have time to develop when he was alive.
"Now it's more positive. Now, today, I think he's sitting right here at the table going, 'Oh Jane, yes! Go for it honey, go for it! Be brave! Say it!'' she says. "I feel I have a spiritual relationship with him now that I didn't have when he was alive."
Sidebar: The Chaplin Collection
Following are highlights of the films to be shown in the Charlie Chaplin retrospective Feb. 27-March 5 at Enzian Cinema and Cafe, 1300 S. Orlando Ave., in Maitland. Tickets for each screening are $6.50 ($4.50 for matinees); 629-1088.
"The Kid" (1921) The Little Tramp finds an abandoned infant, played by Jackie Coogan, and goes into business repairing windows that Coogan breaks for him. Chaplin excelled in his use of pathos for his first feature-length film. 2 p.m. March 1.
"The Idle Class" (1921) Chaplin's first use of mistaken identity. He plays both the Tramp and a bored, alcoholic aristocrat. Chaplin added the musical score in 1977. 2 p.m. March 1.
"The Gold Rush" (1925) Chaplin plays a starving, would-be gold prospector in Alaska. This film contains many of his most memorable scenes, including the dance of the rolls, a cabin tottering on a cliff, and his transformation (in the eyes of a hungry partner) into a giant chicken. 9:45 p.m Feb. 27, 4:30 p.m. Feb. 28 and 7 p.m. March 5.
"The Circus" (1928) Chaplin's last purely slapstick film, in which the tramp is chased through a fun house and gets locked in a lion's cage. "The Circus" won an Oscar for "versatility and genius" in the first year of the awards. 7:15 p.m March 1 and 9:45 p.m. March 2.
"City Lights" (1931) Chaplin's first sound film, and considered by many to be his most beautiful. Chaplin creates pathos as he attempts to earn money to pay for a blind girl's operation to restore her sight. Rather than add dialogue, he used sound effects to emphasize comic situations. 2 p.m Feb. 27, 9:30 p.m. Feb 28 and 4:30 p.m. March 5.
"Modern Times" (1936) Chaplin's most critical social satire, in which he uses the Little Tramp to portray the dehumanizing aspects of technology. Here the Tramp is heard for the first time, forced to sing in pidgin Italian when he is unable to memorize the lyrics to a song. 4:30 p.m Feb. 27, 7 p.m. Feb. 28 and 2 p.m. March 5.
The Great Dictator" (1940) For his first full talkie, Chaplin takes advantage of the Tramp's resemblance to Adolf Hitler to portray Adnoid Hynkel, fascist leader of Tomania. A Jewish barber, also portrayed by Chaplin, is mistaken for Hynkel, allowing Chaplin to make an impassioned anti-fascist speech at the film's conclusion. 7 p.m Feb. 27 and 4:30 p.m. March 1.
"Monsieur Verdoux" (1947) Chaplin abandons the Tramp in this black comedy about a Frenchman who marries, then murders, rich society women in order to support his wife and son. 7 p.m March 27 and 9:30 p.m. March 4.