For the last several weeks I’ve been circling around the legacy of Charlie Chaplin, with posts about him, his influences, and his contemporaries. This week I return to where I started, the man himself, to look not as Chaplin’s aesthetics but his ethics. There’ s something very important about the little fella I haven’t remarked on, and now is the time.
Let’s just start by saying that The Immigrant is my favorite Chaplin film, but that it got to be that by earning the spot. You see, I used to go around to elementary schools with a 16mm projector and put on an hour-long show of short comedies. I’d originally intended it to be a rotating selection, chosen by my mood at the moment and whatever tied in best with what the class was working on at the time. Sometimes I might include Big Business if it was Christmastime, or some Melies shorts if the class had been studying France, and so on. But very quickly on, I realized that for every class and every time I did this, The Immigrant got the biggest reaction. It became the tentpole of the show, by default.
I’ve had kids come up to me, years later, and recognize me—you’re the guy who showed us that Charlie Chaplin film. I showed a bunch of stuff, but that’s the one they remember. Keaton’s One Week, the two reel version of Harold Lloyd’s Hot Water, Harry Langdon’s Remember When—those were fleeting, ephemeral moments. Chaplin’s The Immigrant made an impression on these kids, and I decided to start studying it closely.
It’s March 1, 1916 (or its November 1915 if you want to be pedantic and argumentative. I know who you are, and I’m ready for you). Let’s start again: It’s March 1, 1916. There. This is the day that the first film in the “Mishaps of Musty Suffer” series is released: Cruel and Unusual.
For the next two years, Musty Suffer’s mishaps will unspool over a raucous cycle of unruly two-reel shorts, full of surreal imagery and violent slapstick. Largely forgotten today, but available to the curious in an outstanding set of DVDs, the Musty Suffer films are remarkable both for what they are and also for what they are not. They are artifacts of what happens when talented and inventive people go significantly out of their way to take the road not traveled. And to understand just why these singular oddities deserve special attention beyond their immediate joys, we need to focus on the significance of that date—these would make sense if they’d been a few years before, or a few years after. But 1916?
That’s just nuts.
There’s an autographed photo of Charlie Chaplin, inscribed “To the one and only Max, “The Professor”. From his disciple, Charlie Chaplin. May 12th 1917.”
The “Max” in this scenario was Max Linder, the seminal French comedian. Chaplin was often stingy about acknowledging his debts to his various collaborators and peers, but he was never shy about praising Linder. When Max Linder, died, Chaplin shuttered his studio for a day out of respect.
Linder’s influence extended far beyond Chaplin, though. His screen comedy laid the groundwork for the entirety of the silent comedy era that followed: he made films full of absurd sight gags and slapstick, grounded in character and driven by farcical situations. There’s scarcely a comedian who came in his wake whose work does not bear an overt and demonstrable debt to Linder’s.
That being said, Linder’s films are not nearly as well known as you’d expect given that background. Some of his best works show up on TCM from time to time and are available on DVD; some of his pioneering early shorts are available on a Blu-Ray box set from France—true, true. But being available and being watched are two different things.
Linder’s legacy is clouded, you see, by the unsettling facts of his life. If I tell you “Max Linder is a genius of comedy, go see his films,” your next question is going to be, “Sounds great—tell me more about him.” At which point, this whole conversation takes a sudden dark turn, and that’s the problem.
Lately I’ve been enjoying the outstanding Blu Ray box set from Flicker Alley of Charlie Chaplin’s Essanay films from 1915-1916 (do you own one of your own? Why not?). And while watching them, I found myself falling down a rabbit hole. It’s a rabbit hole that other Chapliniacs (Chapliniados? Chaplinners? Chaplinians?) have fallen down before—some have even pursued it to absurd, quixotic lengths. But, being the obsessive fella that I am, I burrowed down this well-worn path too, and finally emerged for air. I’d like to take this week’s post to share my journey, perhaps to help spare some other poor sod from wasting as much time as I did.
This is the story of three movies. One of these movies was never made. The second was made, but has at times been alleged to be a wrongheaded bastardization of its creator’s true intentions. The third film is most decidedly a wrongheaded bastardization, but was deceptively promoted as being the real deal.
This is the story of Life, Police, and Triple Trouble.
Posted by David Kalat on June 29, 2013
I used to say that Slapsticon was the most wonderful time of the year—but then last year it didn’t happen at all.
It’s like Christmas was canceled. So its return this year is doubly sweet—it’s the most wonderful time of two years!
For the uninitiated, Slapsticon is a putatively-annual four-day classic film convention dedicated to slapstick (mostly silent) comedy. But that doesn’t properly describe it—it’s unlike any other classic film fest I’ve ever encountered. For one thing, it’s all movies. Other fests are mostly dealers’ rooms with an ancillary screening room attached. Slapsticon allows its luminaries to hawk their own books and DVDs, but 99% of the thing is a bunch of film geeks packed into a screening room.
Posted by David Kalat on May 25, 2013
This past week TCM debuted a package of rare Harold Lloyd films from 1917-1919, including one especially eye-opening treat, The Marathon. Of all the thrilling discoveries shown that night, this was the one that quickened my pulse the most.
For those who missed it, let me show you a clip to set the stage for the discussion that follows:
Yup, it’s the mirror gag, made famous by the Marx Brothers in Leo McCarey’s Duck Soup:
Posted by David Kalat on May 18, 2013
This week TCM debuts some super-rare Harold Lloyd shorts from the early years of his career. I cannot overstate the significance of this find.
I was asked by TCM to write some material for the web site to introduce Harold Lloyd in general and some of these shorts in particular, but the specific remit of that assignment was kind of limiting, so I have a lot else to say about these films that didn’t fit into the website content. But hey—I have a blog!
Posted by David Kalat on February 9, 2013
While we’re on the topic of great animators, it’s well past time I got around to saying a few words about Winsor McCay.
He’s rightly hailed as one of the early pioneers of animated cartoons. You can’t call him the creator of cartoons–not only did others get there a little before he did, but really, every single movie ever made is animation. Real life proceeds seamlessly, continuously, while movies sample intermittent fragments. Live action takes samples at the same rate at which the resulting sequence of stills is going to replayed–the interstitial moments can be safely ignored. But anytime you extend that interstitial gap, and replay the footage at a different rate than that at which it was taken, you are invoking the principle of animation. This is the gimmick that underlies Melies’ trickery as much as it is the way that drawings can come to life.
But that didn’t stop McCay from staking out a claim for himself as the first cartoonist in his 1911 movie debut, Winsor McCay the Famous Cartoonist of the NY Herald and His Moving Comics.
Posted by David Kalat on January 21, 2012
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been exploring competing claims on the creation of movies. The Lumière brothers hold a sizeable claim, for having pioneered the exhibition model that became the norm–and even if modern trends are moving back towards the Edison-style intimacy of one-movie-one-viewer, the bulk of film history belongs to the Lumière tradition. I’ve also given props to Louis LePrince for his role in innovating the technology by which movies are recorded, even if he doesn’t get the credit for that.
But if we talk about the creation of movies as being all about the technology of cinema, or the business models of exhibition and distribution, we leave out the heart of the matter–it is the content of movies that enthralls audiences and creates shared dreams. And if we want to talk about who pioneered what movies ought to be about, then it’s time to talk about George Méliès.
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on January 15, 2012
Before delving into some highlights for my upcoming calendar film program, which has everything from singing cannibals and Robby the Robot to sex addicts and Pam Grier (in-person!)… I’d like to back-track a little. In my last post I wrote that the venues where I screen films were akin to a leaky rowboat. While this statement remains essentially true, especially when we are compared to any state-of-the-art dedicated film theater, I would like to amend the metaphor a bit. In retrospect, I feel it would be more accurate to say that the film series I program is more like the Orca boat commandeered by Robert Shaw in Jaws. It’s big enough to chase large game, but you still can’t help wishing you had a bigger boat – especially when you get a clear glimpse of the challenge ahead. When I previously said that we do a lot with very little, the “we” in that statement referred to the small crew that has kept this particular boat from becoming an artificial coral reef on the ocean floor, and this despite staying afloat long past its expiration date. [...MORE]
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