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Posted March 1, 2012
Reviewed by Hal Erickson
Another book on Charlie Chaplin, the most written-about film personality of the 20th Century? YES! And hooray for author James L. Neibaur, who in the tradition of his earlier books on the “forgotten” films of Buster Keaton, sheds new and fascinating light on the three dozen comedies made by Chaplin during his one-year apprenticeship at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios.
Fresh from a successful run with Fred Karno’s British stage troupe, the 24-year-old Chaplin was signed by Sennett in late 1913. After an inauspicious film debut in the stereotypical role of a dandified con artist in the one-reel Making a Living (1914), Chaplin decided to formulate a unique makeup and costume to set himself apart from the rest of the Sennett stock company. Thus it was that in his second film, the hastily assembled Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. (1914), Charlie unveiled his immortal “Little Tramp” for the first time. But as author Neibaur carefully points out, Chaplin’s postage-stamp mustache, battered derby and oversized shoes were at first merely window dressing. It would take several more films before this seminal comic outline would emerge as a full-blown character—and to accomplish this, Chaplin would have to wrest the megaphone from such Sennett directors as Henry Lehrmann and George Nichols and begin directing his films himself.
In contrast with the broad knockabout antics of the other Sennett comedians, Chaplin methodically adopted a subtler, more intimate form of pantomime, transforming his Little Tramp into a universally appealing human being with a heart and soul—albeit tempered with a refreshing streak of harmless sadism. It was a remarkable evolution, and Neibaur does a remarkable job in tracing its development. Unlike so many other authors who have dismissed or ignored Chaplin’s Keystone comedies, treating them as throwaways in comparison with his later masterpieces, Neibaur finds much to admire in such 1914 Chaplin efforts as The Property Man, His New Profession and Dough and Dynamite, noting Charlie’s ever-maturing expertise in the art of staging and framing comedy for the camera, and spotlighting individual gags and situations that would later be honed and refined into the comedian’s best and most memorable routines. The fact that in recent years virtually all of the Keystones have been restored to their original form (or very nearly so) by the British Film Insitute is a blessing to both the author and the reader: Not only can we see the films Chaplin actually made rather than the chopped-up dupes that have been circulating for decades, but we are also treated to excellent frame captures of those restored prints.
Each of Charlie’s Keystones is analyzed in its own individual chapter. Included is an entertaining essay on a recently rediscovered (in 2010) Chaplin appearance as a Keystone Kop in the 1914 Ford Sterling vehicle The Thief Catcher, and some fresh insights on Her Friend, the Bandit, the only “lost” Chaplin film. The volume concludes with two appendices: A biographical listing of Chaplin’s coworkers at Keystone (Mabel Normand, Roscoe “Fatty’ Arbuckle et. al.) and a tally of the comedian’s post-Keystone film apperances.
Early Charlie Chaplin is a welcome addition to the Chaplin canon, and a “must-own” book for serious film buffs and casual comedy fans alike.