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Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Keep Em' Laughing - Comedy Gold

Charlie Chaplin was a genius - there can be no doubting that. He created the little tramp character and whilst on the surface it may seem nothing more than an oversized pair of trousers, Hitler's facial hair and a funny walk, but there was a certain undefinable magic in the character and movie fans took him so deeply into their hearts, that Chaplin became the most famous movie star in the world, and even today he has hordes of fans - in 1999 the American Film Institute placed him at number 10 in a list of the greatest screen legends of all time - in front of Gary Cooper and just behind Spencer Tracy.

The Little  Tramp debuted during the silent film era in the Keystone comedy Kid Auto Races at Venice (released on 7 February 1914 and embedded below). However, Chaplin had devised the tramp costume for a film produced a few days earlier but released later (9 February 1914), Mabel's Strange Predicament. Mack Sennett had requested that Chaplin "get into a comedy make-up".

"I had no idea what makeup to put on. I did not like my get-up as the press reporter [in Making a Living]. However on the way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small moustache, which I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born."    Charlie Chaplin on the creation of the Little Tramp

There is something special about Chaplin's comedy that still resonates today - in terms of physical comedy he was superb thanks to skills learned in the Music Halls of London where he would often be planted in the audience, as a drunk theatre goer, and proceed to throw himself around, falling over chairs, or from the balcony before taking his place on the stage. Though there was much more than slapstick and Chaplin often used pathos in his comedy and several of his longer works contain social commentary. Politically he leaned to the Left and this was often obvious in his movies, and  his beliefs got him into trouble with the American Government during the McCarthy era.

Although Chaplin had his major successes in the United States and was a resident from 1914 to 1953, he always maintained a neutral nationalistic stance. During the era of McCarthyism, Chaplin was accused of "un-American activities" as a suspected communist and J. Edgar Hoover, who had instructed the FBI to keep extensive secret files on him, tried to end his United States residency. In 1952, Chaplin left the US for what was intended as a brief trip home to the United Kingdom for the London premiere of Limelight. Hoover learned of the trip and negotiated with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to revoke Chaplin's re-entry permit, exiling Chaplin so he could not return.

Me playing at Charlie
"Since the end of the last world war, I have been the object of lies and propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who, by their influence and by the aid of America's yellow press, have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted. Under these conditions I find it virtually impossible to continue my motion-picture work, and I have therefore given up my residence in the United States." Charlie Chaplin.

It was not until 1972 that Chaplin did return to the US in order to collect an honorary Oscar.

Chaplin died in his sleep in  Switzerland on Christmas Day 1977.


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