Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Films of Charlie Chaplin at First National Pictures

The most tender scene in The Kid (1921) with Charlie's co-star Jackie Coogan.

The time: 1917. Charlie's contract with Mutual had ended and he was growing immensely as an artist and filmmaker. He decided to sign a contract with First National Pictures wherein they would finance Charlie's films, but he would have complete creative control. Finally, Charlie was able to work in the way he wanted, and it would show in his work. One change that Charlie would make is his pace. He was severely uncomfortable with the unrelenting pace of his previous films (especially at Keystone) where he would have no room to breathe. When he would have more control at Essanay and Mutual, he allowed a slower pace to his liking. But when he would sign with First National, he would take it down to his preferred pace. He made 36 films with Keystone, 15 with Essanay, and 12 with Mutual, but he would only go on to make 9 pictures with First National. He was ordered to make shorts, but Charlie would take a risky move and extend most of his shorts into longer near-feature length films. He would also go on to make his first actual feature-length film: The Kid, which is undoubtedly his most memorable and successful film at First National, as well one of his best and most heart-wrenching films of his career.

Charlie at last could work however he wanted and it allowed him to stretch his artistic prowess to it's maximum, and it would show in his work. His films at First National were certainly his most effective and masterful up to that point, and would become some of his best work overall.

A Dog's Life (1918)
Producer/Writer/Director/Composer: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Sydney Chaplin
RATING: 95/100
One of Charlie's most lovable qualities is his ability to interact with everything from inanimate objects to animals to people in such a uniquely charming way. He showcases that ability (the middle part mostly) in A Dog's Life when the Tramp acquires a new canine pal that brings his life into perspective, and even helps him land a girl.

A Dog's Life is an extremely cute and amusing short with Charlie in his best comedy shape. His chemistry with the dog is adorable and the story is fun and entertaining. It's not really a hilarious film, but it has so many brilliant moments that gives you a glimpse into Chaplin's genius as a physical comedian. There's one scene where he has a conversation with a man only using his hands. Only Charles Chaplin could pull that off. And he does. Brilliantly so. Then there's that scene with his brother Sydney which is also the first time they would appear together on screen. And it's magical. There are lots of other great and brilliant funny moments, and the entire experience is good fun and simply happy-tear-jerking . And of course, another heart-melting ending, just as everything you'd expect from the master of heart-melting endings.

The Bond (1918)
Producer/Writer/Director: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Sydney Chaplin
RATING: 80/100
The Bond is perhaps Charlie's most different film. That's because it's a propaganda film. During the time this film was released, Charlie and along with a couple of his close celebrity friends, Douglas Fairbanks (Yup) and Mary Pickford (Yup yup), toured America and even internationally, trying to help sell US Liberty Bonds and promoting their cause during World War I. The Bond is a film Charlie made to assist in his tour. A little trivia, Charlie was often criticized for not enlisting in the British Army, despite Charlie telling people that he tried to enlist, but was rejected because he was too small, being only 5'5'' and underweight. Also the Army felt he would be more effective touring and making films. They were right. Charlie's next film, Shoulder Arms, would be evidence of this. (see below) Anyway, back to The Bond.

I feel a bit strange reviewing a propaganda flick, but for your benefit, I will.

Anyway, The Bond is perhaps Charlie's most artistic and unique effort. The film entirely consists of expressionistic skits, shot on a set of props with a black backdrop. It's a truly intriguing experience, and it's wonderfully strange to see a film like this, being it is so different than his other films. I'm not the most politically savvy person in the world (in fact, I'm probably the least), so I'm a little indifferent when it comes to the film's message. I didn't really "get" what the film was about, but it was an interesting experience to see Charlie in such a different environment. It wasn't very funny, but I don't think it was really meant to be a laugh riot. All in all, I feel it's a must-see for any hardcore Chaplin fan, if you can manage to forget the propaganda, you'll find the experience very interesting.

Shoulder Arms (1918)
Producer/Writer/Director/Composer: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Sydney Chaplin
RATING: 85/100

Allow me to refer to my previously used formula gag: Shoulder Arms = The Tramp + Army Battle = Merriment. Therefore, by the transitive property, Shoulder Arms = Merriment. This First National short places The Tramp behind enemy lines, fighting the good fight, and other war-themed expression. It's a rather daring satire that delves into the silliness and absurdity of war, a setting and story somewhat similar to what Charlie would revisit in The Great Dictator.

At first glance, the film just feels like a mindless 35 minutes of slapstick and silliness. But it's political satire (though not my cup of tea) and it's brilliance becomes apparent upon reflection. Once I realized how daring it must have been to criticize and poke fun at the war effort at the time, the previously insurmountable respect that I had for Charlie became surmounted. But it's more than just satire, this film was one of the reasons why Charlie became such a global phenomenon. At the time this film came out, the entire globe was ravaged by war, poverty and violence. The only light at the end of their tunnel was Charlie Chaplin. He brought people's spirits to a height that allowed them to trudge on, literally saving lives with his playful silliness in the midst of tragedy and horror. Shoulder Arms is a testament to that. American soldiers even saw and adored this film.

The jokes are brilliant and hilarious, and the entire experience is a great time. It's not a masterpiece, as it lacks some of Charlie's trademark marriage of comedy and pathos, but it's still a really fun experience, with some rather clever writing and a handful of hilarity. And if you're a big fan of Chaplin such as I, then you will get a big kick out of seeing the Tramp strut around in his military uniform. Just as always, he's cute and amusing and displays his status as one of the greatest entertainers of the century.

Sunnyside (1919)
Producer/Writer/Director: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Henry Bergman
RATING: 93/100
Sunnyside has this incarnation of the Tramp being a farmhand at a quiet little town in the country. His work is a bit tough, but it's worth it to be near his beloved. But that all comes into jeopardy when a rich upper-class gentleman waltzes into town and attempts to destroy the Tramp's chances with the woman.

Wow! What a charming adorable little short this is! Sunnyside is in the upper echelon of Charlie's better shorts, much like his other work at First National. There are some great moments of hilarity and the romance is heart-warming. Although there are a few moments of downtime, but even the downtime is enjoyable. The overall experience is fun, cute, and amusing, just as you'd expect from Charlie Chaplin in top form. Although, it's not him in erm.. "most top form" as he is in his masterpieces, but this is pretty close to it.

The Kid (1921)
Producer/Writer/Director/Composer: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Jackie Coogan
RATING: 100/100

Charlie's first feature-length film and his first masterpeice. As well as being his second film to be included in the National Film Registry, The Kid tells the story of the Tramp finding an abandoned baby and raising him as his own. They have a rough life, but they find bliss in their bond, sadly, it all changes when an orphan asylum tries to take Charlie's boy away.
The Kid is one of the most achingly beautiful stories and produces some of the greatest moments in not only Charlie's career, but in movie history. It's perfect blend of heart-rending drama and hilarious slapstick is legendary. The Kid is the very first feature film of it's kind to blend the genres in that way.. It's also what made Charlie Chaplin legendary as well. The Kid is just a masterfully crafted story, with such a painfully beautiful score, stupendous performances, and one of the most emotionally captivating films of all time. Making these sort of declarations seems exaggerated, but in my opinion, they ring true.
The film is just one of Charlie's best. In a way, it paved the road for Charlie to create some of his other absolute masterpieces. And in that same way, it's not perfect. But it's a wholly enthralling experience, one that feels like perfection. It's not one of Charlie's funniest, but it's actually more of a film that focuses on the story. Don't get me wrong, there are loads of incredibly hilarious moments, but it's when the film gets down to the grit of the story that it really shines. There's an astounding blend of drama and comedy, but it actually doesn't feel as balanced as Charlie's absolute best. But that's no reason to knock down this film. It's definitely up there with his best.
Not only is the story absolutely captivating, but so are the performances. Charlie shows us his tender side, and it's probably the reason why there have been so many modern-day comedians that go on to do dramatic roles. Because Charlie showed them how. And he is astronomical in his delivery and commitment to the role. Little Jackie Coogan was one of the first child stars ever, and his role here justifies that greatly. He is an absolute joy and the way Charlie interacts with him is simply magical.
The Kid is also one of the first films that he composed the score for. And what a way to introduce your composing talent. The score for The Kid is indescribably beautiful and only exemplifies the most incredible moments. Charlie rips open your chest with his story, clutches at your heart with his performance, and then viciously rips it out with his music. Charlie Chaplin was a grandmaster of film.
The Kid is Charlie's first real masterpiece. It's his first film that is so unbelievably beautiful and funny at the same time, that you can almost feel the genius of Charlie Chaplin exuding from this film. It's simply a triumph of cinematic beauty.

Pay Day (1922)
Producer/Writer/Director: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Mack Swain
RATING: 90/100
Here, The Tramp is translated into a hard-working-man with a nagging wife and then celebrates his paycheck with drinks with his friends, much to the disdain of the Mrs.

Pay Day is one of the funniest (perhaps, THE funniest) Charlie Chaplin short I've seen. It even rivals the features (which are his masterpieces) in side-splitting hilarity. The story is mostly ordinary but the film isn't boring at all. Charlie manages to create ingenious hilarity from simple situations, and displays his amazing ability to mix his charismatic talent, his comedic timing, and his skillful construction of jokes. There are a handful of magnificent scenes that make you want to cry because they're so funny.

The Pilgrim (1923)
Producer/Writer/Director/Composer: Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Mack Swain, Sydney Chaplin
RATING: 95/100
The Pilgrim takes Charlie's Tramp as an escaped convict who gets mistaken for a reverend at a small western town. And of course, trouble (and hilarity) arises when he tries to fulfill his duties as the reverend and then is discovered for who is.

This is another one of Charlie's more daring films. I'm not sure how normal it was for comedians to poke fun at religion back then, but I imagine it's about as risky as it is today, maybe even more. The film doesn't really outwardly criticize religion so much so that it just places some of Charlie's trademark gags in a religious setting, with uproariously funny results. The humor isn't as steady as you might hope, but there are numerous moments that make this film worth watching, such as Charlie displaying his pantomime skills by telling the story of David and Goliath without any words, or the whole "hat-cake incident" among others. Oh, and let's not forget the "awwwwwww" ending, that just melts you heart away. A Chaplin film isn't a Chaplin film without it.

It's a charming, entertaining, and thoroughly enjoyable film, with a fairly amusing story, some brilliant funny moments, and Charlie Chaplin in all his slapstick glory. In other words, it's got nearly everything that his masterpieces do, but just needed a bit more of a stretch to get there. Some of the jokes are a bit flat compared to the great ones, but it's a good time nonetheless and never gets boring. Oh, and the music is phenomenal. Being another one of the films he composed, Charlie again showcases his multitude talents, including his music-writing abilities.

First National is a fanatstic moment in Charlie's career, one that any fan should not pass up. The Chaplin Revue among many other DVD collections are a must-buy for any true fan. You can buy them at Amazon.

Finally, the genius of Charlie Chaplin had arrived. At First National, Charlie had climbed to that peak. He hadn't exactly reached it, but he was a stone's throw away. Or maybe a feather's throw away. You know, because it's really hard to throw a feather, and when you do, it often doesn't go very far. I wonder why. It probably has to do with the resistance of the individual feathers against the-wait. What was I talking about? Oh yeah. Charlie had made the climb. He just needed to take that final step. And he would at United Artists, where we would create his absolute best work, and some of the best films in the history of the industry. Haha. That rhymes.






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