The other day, lettered and I watched The Gold Rush. There was no little consternation on our part, discovering the 1942 reissue (and, I believe, the primary DVD source) contained Chaplin's narration and music, which I find interesting from a historical/personal perspective but really rather horrible to actually watch/listen to. While it is ably performed--the synchronization and the sound effects, especially, were well-done--the whole thing really takes away one of the joys of silent pictures. And that is the interaction with the viewer when it comes to interpreting the text. With silent films, there is a constant conversation being held between the film and the spectator, because while the pantomime should be obvious, it is not put into words. And it's the audience's job to determine how many words they need, or whether they are watching on a more elemental level. Sometimes I can read their lips, but most of the time I'm participating on the level of gesture, suggestion. I don't want to know the Tramp's thought processes--it takes away part of the magic, for me. (It also highlights Chaplin's weaknesses as a scriptwriter, because his added dialogue is far less charming than what I might have put into his mouth.) That said, the thought of Chaplin revisiting this some 17 years later and commenting on "the Little Fellow" as he called the character is intriguing.
Luckily, the bonus disc has the original 1925 "restoration" on it, so we switched about 20 minutes in. It's not my favorite, not by a long shot, but it has some lovely stuff in it. I love, on the most basic level, the idea of the Little Fellow going off to the Yukon in his exact outfit--he's freezing, and everyone else has these huge fur coats, but he's just convinced apparently that a bowler and a cane are appropriate accouterments. I love the fantasy sequence with the rolls (the best thing about it is, of course, his facial expressions), and his pathetic attempts to make a lovely New Year's dinner (he's very domestic--he also does the chores for Big Jim). And he's consistently delightful in his mannerisms and in what he chooses to acknowledge with gesture and not. I confess that seeing him walk through the little town made me try to imagine him walking into Deadwood (and Deadwood) and my brain stopped for a minute.
What's interesting about this, and other films--and I don't want to get too armchair psychiatrist, here--is that Chaplin made such sport of being hungry and being fed. Over and over he's starving, stealing food, eating food, being given food. Since he grew up poor, it's both a familiar subject and an interesting one for comedy, but I think it speaks to his basic unstoppable combo: humor and pathos. His poverty can be funny because he always survives, he always goes on as before, almost as if it is a choice. He made for himself a character who the world wanted to feed and enjoyed watching get fed, and it's terribly effective. You need to love him. You need to cheer for him when he stoops to whatever means necessary to get warm, when he fakes passing out outside another man's cottage so as to be brought in and revived. That he is able, through his faintness, to add sugar to his tea is both charming and embarrassingly ungrateful. And he seems, in most cases, to take it as his due. In that same scene, he immediately starts in on the good Samaritan's own dinner, without asking and indeed with expectation that he deserves it. Which is interesting, because the Tramp is one of the worst workers I've ever seen on film. Mostly this is for comedic effect, but taken as a whole Chaplin's Tramp films seem to be not anti-capitalist but anti-work. He's not a commie, he's an anarchist. And while most comedians tend that way, I think, it's interesting given his reputation in the press at the time of his notoriety.
The Tramp is never stingy with his good fortune, and especially in the later films he's all too eager to take a hit for a pretty girl. But it's often got a selfish motivation as well; the gamin's bread theft in Modern Times is convenient reason for him to go back to jail, for instance. But he doesn't seem to think about the people he might be taking food from. Understandably, he's out for himself, and he's charming about it. But he's not redistributing the wealth on a Marxist, or even Robin Hoodian, scale. Which perhaps is what makes him palatable, mythic and not-quite-human as he is. He's a man-child, the mustache hiding the Peter Pannish self-centeredness of childhood.
I've also been reading some about him. There's an excellent volume of reaction and criticism entitled The Essential Chaplin, edited by critic Richard Schickel. What's great about it is that it collects contemporary reactions to him, and thereby records not only his career but part of the trajectory of film writing. It's fascinating to get a glimpse of how people wrote about film when there wasn't yet a canon to write about. And the figuring of film in popular culture and art. I will say that the book is one of the WORST proofed professional volumes I've ever read, with glaring typos throughout. Also, Schickel's introductions to the essays and reviews are helpful context, but he's extremely dismissive of some of the contributors for my taste, outright derisive at times. But it's an interesting book.
I've yet to find an actual biography that doesn't fall directly into either the "godlike genius" or "perverse hack" categories most bios of creative people seem to be unable to avoid.
And, because... I don't even know: