Charlie Chaplin’s in the air these days – a Chaplin at Keystone DVD set just came out, a Modern Times Criterion is impending, and the retro that hit Film Forum this Summer is now at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, prompting this overview piece from yours truly. It kind of came together fairly quickly (the article, not the retro), and I wasn’t able to watch all of the films again, so forgive me if I made any silly mistakes. None of that should detract from my main point, which is that these movies are awesome, and residents of Nashville (and anyone else with a DVD player, really) should do whatever they can to see them (again, if necessary).
One thing did strike me as I was writing it, though. As I note in the piece, a lot of Chaplin’s films strike me as being in some way shape or form about identity – there’s nothing too complicated about this observation, since many comedies are built on the idea of someone pretending to be someone else, and a lot of our fondness for the Tramp comes from the fact that we like to watch him enact different roles while remaining, essentially, himself. But could this also just be an effect of the fact that Chaplin, even in his features, was essentially working in a vignette-based form? You could easily see a lot of the features as being comprised of a series of shorts, roughly speaking. Mind you, I don’t consider that a criticism; the main drawback to this approach is that it might set a film's rhythms off, but Chaplin's films already have a beautiful and unique sense of rhythm of their own. (In a brief but insightful piece on a couple of Chaplin DVD releases a few months ago, Glenn Kenny wondered aloud if “Chaplin ever really made a proper feature film, other than City Lights.” I don’t know if this is what he meant, but it does get me thinking.)
Speaking of identity, amid all this Chaplin love, I was intrigued to read the following in the book Conversations with Brando, by Lawrence Grobel, in which Marlon Brando talked about his appearance in Chaplin’s Countess from Hong Kong, the director’s final film (and generally considered his weakest):
I tried to do [the film], but I was a puppet, a marionette in that. I wasn’t there to be anything else because Chaplin was a man of sizable talent and I was not going to argue with him about what’s funny and not funny…I was miscast in that. He shouldn’t have tried to direct it – do it himself or just write his memoirs. He was a mean man, Chaplin. I saw him torture his son…[Y]ou have to always separate whatever a man with talent is and his personality, that has nothing to do with it. A remarkable talent, but a monster of a man.
There you go, from one asshole genius to another.