Who better than a silent, black and white gentleman in an ill-fitting suit and strange mustache to drag me out of bed on a Sunday morning?
The rows of The Michigan Theater are filled with heads; bald heads, wrinkled ones, grey ones, coupled ones and many invisible ones that do not reach the top of the seat. The great big golden room is filled with the soft conversation and laughter that usually precedes highly anticipated operas and blockbuster films. To my left is a pair that looks to be in their ’80s and to my right a young girl and her parents. There are also some of that academic looking species sprinkled around the aisles, conversing with one another.
The gentleman responsible for our gathering, in case the description didn’t give it away, is Charlie Chaplin. On February 8, four of his short films were screened at the Michigan Theater as part of the theater’s Family-Friendly Film series, with live organ accompaniment from Andrew Rogers on the theater’s 1927 Barton organ. The films included “The Floorwalker,” “The Immigrant,” “The Masquerader” and “The Rink,” all made between 1914 and 1917 as part of Chaplin’s contract with Lone Star-Mutual (a division of the Mutual Film Corporation created solely for the purpose of making Chaplin’s films).
Over the course of his career, Chaplin starred in over 80 films, 65 of which premiered during the years of 1914 and 1915. He rose almost instantly to super-stardom, mainly through the popularity of his on-screen persona, The Tramp, who appears in these short films as well. “The Tramp” is a playful and mischievous character with a big heart, who often finds himself in trouble by trying to disguise his lower social status. Chaplin spends the last 10 minutes of “The Immigrant” scheming to find a coin to pay the daunting waiter at a small French café with his love interest beside him.
Chaplin’s childhood was defined by poverty and hardship. His father passed away, and his mother struggled with mental illness. By age 14, Chaplin had left school and turned his focus to acting. By the time of his work with Mutual, he was the highest paid movie star in the world and praised for his artistry.
His career was filled with many controversies, mostly surrounding his strong and often vocalized anti-capitalist beliefs. After leaving the U.S. for London in 1952, he was denied re-entry to the country, returning again for the first time in 1972 to accept an award.
On this Sunday, the theater roared with laughter at Chaplin’s antics, like the running staircase in “The Floorwalker.” The children giggled, the old man shook in his seat and the bald man in front of me threw his head back in amusement.
“So, what is it that makes someone an icon?” I wondered, awed by the ability of a silent film from a past era to draw such pleasure from this odd crowd.
Clearly, it’s more than just talent or an interesting look that makes someone stick. “Creative genius” is a weird phrase that people use without really knowing what they mean to say, except that they know when they see it. I use it here in this style.
Chaplin wrote, directed, produced and starred in nearly all of his films. His genius is magnified by the lack of speech in his work. The audience must rely on movement, gestures and grainy faces to understand the story. Chaplin silently directs the action of the characters around him, the force of gravity that keeps the narrative firmly grounded.
Music adds grandeur to the films. Rogers sewed transitions between the four with the familiar tune of Chaplin’s “Smile,” composed in 1936 for his film “Modern Times.”
The melodies help provide cues to direct the responses of the audience — sadness, shock, laughter, suspense. The experience is quite unlike anything today.
In a way, the magnificent progress of film in the last century has detracted from its purity as an art form; it has become something else all together. Special effects and CGI amaze, yet often distract. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just different. Returning to Chaplin’s work, almost 100 years old now, I feel as if I am viewing film with fresh eyes.
Chaplin created comedy that was dually a form of meaningful social commentary, a delicate balance that is not often achieved in the genre today with quite the same grace. On top of that, his films leave room for sadness and sympathy.
I’m relieved to avoid some kind of confession that silent film is after all, very boring; every opportunity to disprove criticisms of generation Y’s cultural apathy is a lucky one. Chaplin’s films are gems at the core of a medium that has come to dominate modern culture.
Whether it’s this important aspect that draws you in, the simple promise of a good laugh, the organ or even just an interest in the time period itself, Chaplin deserves your trip out of bed and a standing ovation.