Saturday, January 29, 2011

For ABC WEDNESDAY

"C" is for "Charlie"
Charlie Chaplin, that is.

If you were around in the year 1915 – and it’s possible you weren’t :-) -- you would have been very familiar with a young guy named Charles Spencer Chaplin.
Because if you went to the motion pictures at all at that time, and just about everyone did, you would have been aware that the young guy wasn’t just a big movie star, he was gigantic – his films were known throughout the world.
In those early days, when you planked down your hard-earned fifteen cents to see a film you may have felt you were taking a risk, because motion pictures were still a fairly recent invention and a lot of the available "flicks" were amateurish and boring. But with Charlie Chaplin you knew you were safe; you were about to be entertained by a master.

(He was the little tramp known as “Charlie” to most folks, but he was “Charlot” in France and “Carlitos” in Latin America.)
It’s worth adding that very few world-famous motion picture celebrities ever started out as low on life’s ladder as young Charles Spencer did.
His father, who had little to do with him, was an alcoholic who died of cirrhosis when Charlie was twelve; his mentally unstable mother was in an asylum. So the boy was raised literally in a London poorhouse.
But it’s obvious that he was a natural performer. At the age of eleven he wound up with a children’s theatrical troupe called “The Eight Lancashire Lads.”
For those vaudeville companies, you had to be able to sing, dance, act, do comedy and acrobatics and even pretend to be a Lancashire lad, along with anything else that might be needed.
Later Charlie graduated to another kid group, the Karno Company, and actually got to visit the U S; his roommate with the troupe was another young fellow, one Arthur Stanley Jefferson, later to become fairly well known as Stan Laurel.
Charlie’s act was caught by Mack Sennett of the Keystone Company, the Grand Panjandrum of movie comedy, and young Charlot found himself trying to adjust to the strange demands of the celluloid medium. It took a while, but soon the short films he made were a huge success – he became bigger than the Keystone Cops.

He created a character, the little tramp, who rapidly became world-famous. To audiences everywhere, the poor guy lived in abject poverty; they never got to see Charlie’s real home, a magnificent Southern California mansion.

For a full quarter-century, he specialized in illusion, turning out wagon-loads of movies, ranging from easily-forgotten slapstick stuff to a number of what many regard as among the best motion pictures ever made
As a person who made his living in the field of film production, I’ve always been fascinated by the way C. Chaplin worked. Once he had achieved his fabulous degree of success, he became king of the hill; as a writer-producer-director he could do whatever he wanted to do, work any way he liked, and he did. He was in a position to ignore financial problems and time constraints.

There’s an old saying: tragedy is easy, comedy is hard. It was hard for Chaplin, too. Watching him on the screen, he seems to create all the funny stuff with little effort. But there’s a fascinating documentary, “The Unknown Chaplin,” that reveals the secret of just what he went through when he created a motion picture.
His usual method was to start out with just an idea, a theme: “Charlie works in a pawn shop,” or some such thing, and then he’d improvise.
He begins without a script – there’s no executive producer to approve or reject it – and he starts production by having sets built and by hiring a large number of actors, sometimes as many as a hundred, and of course a large technical crew.
Chaplin then sets to work, which for him means he sits thinking. He may spend hours doing this. Some times a day will go by before he has worked out a suitable plot in his mind for a scene, complete with all the accompanying “business.”
The actors love this. They get hired and paid for doing nothing but play cards, talk sports with each other, and have a free lunch. And if they don’t get anything done today, that’s all to the good; they’ll be hired back tomorrow for another day’s “work.”
From time to time Charlie will assemble everyone and try out a scene to see if his latest idea will work. Then he’ll do it again. And again. He is known to have actually done a hundred different takes of a scene before he has one he feels is right.
No other writer-producer-director, as far as I know, ever worked like this.
If you’ve never seen “Modern Times” or “City Lights” or a couple of the other great ones, you should check them out. You’ll be seeing the work of one of the most remarkable film geniuses who ever lived.

(Also submitted to "Writer's Island" and "Sunday Scribblings")

34 comments:

lightverse said...

Thank you so much for the fascinating biography. It was a great and very informative read!

Roger Owen Green said...

i remember when he came back to Hollywood after many years essentially in exile. it was quite moving.

Leslie: said...

Although I've naturally heard of him and his Little Tramp character, I've never had the privilege of seeing any of his pieces. The portrait at the beginning of your post gives a different "look" to the man who probably will forever be remembered as that little tramp. Enjoyed the biography, learning a lot more about a fascinating man of history. Thx!

flaubert said...

Very informative piece, thanks.
Pamela

Pat transplanted to MN said...

Great history about him, more than I knew and some of which I had forgotten.

Deborah said...

I've always thought him to be a genius, it was so interesting to hear about his background...and this was just the place to come to find it! :o)

Old Altonian said...

Attaboy Berowne! A beautifully done 'potted biography' of one of the all-time greats, and a personal favourite of mine. His sentimental 'Limelight', and the quirky 'M. Verdoux' are on my list of favourite films.

jaerose said...

Thanks Berowne - to spark an interest in a man who feels like a caricature/icon rather than a 'real' person - maybe it is because we don't know the other side of his life means he was a truly great actor (and businessman?) Jae

Wendy said...

What's not to admire? After all, today's actors are helped along by multi-million dollar budgets. They have scripts written by intelligent script writers. Yet I would argue that the majority have no idea how to truly convey emotion. For Chaplin, all it took was facial expression. he was the master!

Margaret Bednar said...

I have a newfound appreciation for Chaplain. Enjoyed the film with Robert Downey Jr., however wonder how close it followed reality. My son Will admires Chaplin and reintrodcuced me. Thanks for this insight!

Abigail Bunting said...

I've never seen any of his films, but now I want to!

"On Paper Wings"

oldegg said...

I loved Charlie Chaplin and as I grew up I also saw many of his full length features. Although lauded at the time these later works do not compare with his brilliant comic shorts. He was a master of the silent era and hopefully will be remembered for that work. Thanks for the memories.

Berowne said...

lightverse: "...a great and very informative read!"
Thanks for the comment, lightverse.

Berowne said...

flaubert: "Very informative piece." Pat: "Great history." Old Altonian: "Attaboy, Berowne!" Thanks for the encouragement, friends. :-)

Trulyfool said...

Berowne,

Over the years, I accidentally find out more and more about Chaplin. Although we're a 'movie family', my daughter hardly knows him.

Love your histories -- they're sound and smart.

Trulyfool

Lilibeth said...

I appreciated this very informative piece; it made me want to see some of his movies...and that's saying a lot as I usually ignore all movies as well as I'm able.

Jeanne said...

Fascinating!

Berowne said...

Jeanne: "Fascinating!"
Good to hear from you, Jeanne. Thanks.

Hildred and Charles said...

I wondered what you would choose for C and was so pleased to see this wonderful piece on Charlie, - I do enjoy your posts!

Kay L. Davies said...

So interesting, the part about how he worked: having the actors wait until he arranged it all in his mind. Self-imposed stress and pressure like that must have been very hard on him, maybe physically as well as mentally, but nobody thought of such things in those days.
-- K

Kay, Alberta, Canada
An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

Jedediah said...

I love The Great Dictator, it's absolutely hilarious. Although I must admit I like Buster Keaton better, he was amazing and doesn't deserve to be so forgotten.

EG Wow said...

Charlie Chaplin was very funny but I had no idea he had to work hard at it. He DID make it look easy.

Nanka said...

Who can never love the charming Tramp- Charlie Chaplain!! He remains in my early childhood memories, have seen quite a few flicks and still can catch an odd show sometimes even now. Truly he was a 'cinema institution' of those days.
Enjoyed!!

Berowne said...

Hildred and Charles: "I do enjoy your posts!"
As I enjoy your comments. :-)

Gigi Ann said...

What a delightful post today for C day. I haven't seen the movies you recommended. Do they ever get shown on TCM channel. If so I will keep an eye out for them, and watch them.

Thank you for your visit to Ann's Moody Blues, and the encouraging comment. Comments are always appreciated. I visit each week, but sometimes fail to comment. Bad me!

Joy said...

My Father was a big fan, so I got to watch quite a few films when they used to show them on the television. Eating the shoe in Gold Rush is comedy genius. Interesting post of his history, what a perfectionist.

Eryl said...

This is so interesting. I knew some of this, his tragic start, followed by immense wealth and fame, but had no idea of his working process. Odd too, that Chaplin keeps being nudged my way. I didn't get him when I was growing up, unlike my brother, so never took an interest in any of his films. Until recently, when a) I saw a picture of him and thought him rather beautiful, b) my son began to mention him as a genius, c) iTunes offered a copy of Modern Times free so I downloaded it, and now this, the most interesting thing yet. Thanks.

Tumblewords: said...

I wasn't around at the same time he was, but have watched many of his wonderfully wacky presentations and never met one I didn't like!

Berowne said...

Gigi Ann: "What a delightful post today for C day."
I really appreciate your interest...

Wanda said...

You truly have some clasic pictures here. What an interesting story of this icon. Amazing how a spash of ink, making an eye and a mushtache can depict a person so well.

☺lani☺ said...

One of my favorites! Thanks for posting him today! Happy Midweek1

Pat said...

As a child I remember watching him on lantern shows at Sunday school, in the thirties.

Greyscale Territory said...

Enjoyed your lively writing style capturing the essence of Charlie Chaplin! An informative and entertaining post!

Snow Leopard said...

That was a very informative biography of the great performer.

 
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