Saturday, July 25, 2015

CANON OF FILM: CHARLIE CHAPLIN'S MUTUAL FILMS

CHARLIE CHAPLIN’S MUTUAL FILMS (1916-1917)

Director: Charlie Chaplin
Films Included (Alphabetical order) 
"The Floorwalker" (1916)
"The Fireman (1916)
"The Vagabond" (1916)
"One A.M." (1916)
"The Count" (1916)
"The Pawnshop" (1916)
"Behind the Screen" (1916)
"The Rink" (1916)
"Easy Street" (1917)
"The Cure" (1917)
"The Immigrant" (1917)
"The Adventurer" (1917)




One thing that we forget is that feature length films that we are used to now were at one point exceptionally rare. The medium was young, and shorter films were produced sometimes at a rapid pace. Mack Sennett directed films for the Keystone Corporation, and his films involved quick slapstick scenes, which usually ended in cop chases. He sometimes made 2-3 a week. (Hence the term, “Keystone Cops.”) Chaplin’s earliest films were made by Sennett, he then moved on to a company called Essanay, which gave him more control over his films, including casting and directorial work. He didn’t have complete control of his work until his contract with Mutual, where he made what maybe 12 of his greatest shorts ever. They are just magical.  In these films, the fully developed character of “The Tramp,” as more than just a comic foil is exposed. The Tramp becomes an image of poverty, an ultimate chameleon who can make fun of the rich by traveling up and down the social ladder, and a character who feel both sadness and pain. “The Immigrant,” for instance is one of the most touching pieces of film ever made. He and Edna Purviance, (who often played the female love interest in his films, who was also one of his wives) are immigrants arriving to America on boat, and then they’re struggle to survive in America, told simply through a chance meeting later at a restaurant. Even though most of these films have Chaplin in his Tramp persona, occasionally he steps out of it. In both “The Cure,” and “One A.M.” he plays a rich, aristocratic drunk, who revels in his struggles with drunkeness. In “One A.M.” in particular is ingenious because the entire short consists of Chaplin playing a drunk who arrives home very inebriated and tries to go upstairs and get to bed. And that’s it. Chaplin’s brilliant improvising and use of props make this special not just because he’s outside his Tramp character, but also because the entire with the exception of a small part by Eric Campbell as a cab driver, is entirely Chaplin.

What distinguishes Chaplin from most filmmakers even today is the amount of control he had over all of his projects. By the end of his career, he acted, directed, wrote the screenplay, produced, edited, and even wrote the musical score for all his films. (The only competitive Oscar Chaplin ever won was for best Best Dramatic Score for “Limelight.”, although he won 2 honorary/special Oscars.) Only Stanley Kubrick could even be compared to the amount of power one person had in order to make their own works. These twelve Mutual Films are the first examples of the man who would become to the film world as the first true “auteur” of cinema. Even he will slyly play with the power he has. In “The Pawnshop,” he take ten minutes to slowly, hilariously, and methodically tries to fix a broken clock, until finally after using every tool he can think of gives up. It’s a sly commentary on how the production company heads complain about him using too much time to finish his films. He pokes fun at numerous institutions, sometimes obviously, sometimes not-so-obvious. He didn’t just make us laugh, he also made us feel, helping to keep film as the most beloved art form for the last hundred years. More than that, the reason the Mutual Films should be brought together is that they essentially show the growth of Chaplin as a filmmaker, as well as all his amazing storytelling and entertaining talents. 


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