Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Charlie Chaplin: "A Day's Pleasure" and The Kid

Janus Films has been shuttling a collection of restored Charlie Chaplin films around the country for about a year and a half now, and ArtsEmerson's Paramount Theater is actually their second time landing in Boston (they were at the Museum of Fine Arts last summer). They'll be playing Saturdays through the end of October, generally pairing a short and a feature as they did last weekend (at least, until they get to the longer features). They are being shown on 35mm and generally look pretty good, and hopefully it's a forerunner to more Criterion Chaplin Blu-ray releases (right now, they have only released Modern Times and The Great Dictator on Blu-ray).

Parents are bringing kids, too, which is nifty. One thing I suspect (though finding a sample for a test is tricky) is that kids respond to Chaplin's Little Tramp more than they do the likes of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Personally, I like Keaton and Lloyd better, but their brand of silent comedy was kind of deadpan and technical - you have to figure out just how amazing their stunts are and laugh at their lack of reaction, and that takes a bit of context. Chaplin, meanwhile, isn't stoical at all; his movements are broad, his face is expressive, and the Tramp's costume says more about him than Keaton's straw hat or Lloyd's glasses. There's something about the tramp that even the youngest kids can immediately grab on to right away that the other two silent stars lack.

"A Day's Pleasure"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 October 2011 in the Paramount Theater Bright Screening Room (Charlie Chaplin Revisited)

Indeed, when Chaplin isn't in his "Little Tramp" mode, he suffers a bit; "A Day's Pleasure" actually threw me because... Well, actually because I didn't realize there was going to be a short before the feature, and I was wondering how this set-up led to the images that everyone has seen from The Kid. It was still a bit underwhelming once I realized my mistake; Chaplin is playing a part which superficially looks like the Tramp (same mustache, similar but less-ragged coat), but is instead a sort of typical suburban family man rather than the distinct, individual character we associate with him.

In fact, Chaplin's trying to do the Harold Lloyd-style domestic comedy here, and it's not very surprising that he's neither as good at it as Lloyd is or as good as he is at his own thing. The title of "A Day's Pleasure" is ironic, of course, as "Father" endures a series of irritations in giving his family a day out, and Lloyd's mild surprise or Keaton's effortless ability to turn things around are a lot more entertaining than Chaplin's expressive crankiness.

The gags are okay, though - I think that Kenneth Branagh straight-up lifted a bit with a folding chair for Much Ado About Nothing from this, and while there are occasional flaws in the logic leading to the various slapstick bits, the execution is almost always exacting.

The Kid

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 October 2011 in the Paramount Theater Bright Screening Room (Charlie Chaplin Revisited)

Imagine, if you will, a screenwriter or producer making a pitch to a Hollywood executive for a heartwarming family movie about a man who unexpectedly becoming a father, raising the child in an unconventional way, and then facing losing that child due to a busybody who frowns upon their unusual home life. Wouldn't the world be a much better place if, in order to get his money, the pitcher was forced to explain how this improved upon what Charlie Chaplin did in this movie?

Without color.

Or sound.

Ninety years ago.

With a run time of less than one hour (and that kind of padded).

Of course, that basic story likely had a few whiskers on it by 1921, so we get into it fairly quickly: An unmarried woman (Edna Purviance) gives birth, and attempts to leave her baby with a wealthy family. She soon reconsiders, but the boy instead winds up in the care of a certain penniless tramp (Chaplin). Five years later, the kid (Jackie Coogan) is helping his dad out on a little grift, but when he falls ill, the doctor (Jules Hanft) looks at the state of the Tramp's apartment and calls the authorities.

Movies with this basic plot tend toward the mawkish and ridiculous these days, and most would probably be much better if they took a lesson from The Kid and didn't worry so much about the story arc and plot. The bulk of the Tramp's transformation occurs in the first ten minutes, as he tries to give someone else this responsibility before embracing it, while at the other end of the movie, Chaplin gives us the ending that feels right without expending a lot of effort on just how one realistically gets there. He certainly doesn't drag the audience into a courtroom for an impassioned plea. Sure, part of that is because it wouldn't work in a silent movie at all, but it's not like anybody likes those scenes in talkies, either. He knows what the audience wants, and finds economical ways of giving it to them.

Full review at EFC.

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