Charles Spencer Chaplin (1889-1977), also known as Charlie Chaplin, stands for many as the greatest comedian and is declared a genius and my personal hero. He wrote, directed, produced, edited, starred in his movies and sometimes even composed!!! the music for them. He layed the foundation for the film industry as we know it and his career spanned for more than 75 years. The invention of the little Tramp is the work of a genius. His every move carries the very essence of imagination, dedication and dignity. If he is eating a boot in Gold Rush or shaving someone in The Great Dictator he combines music, dance, play and poetry in a unique way. (One of his melodies became one of Nat King Coles greatest hits: „Smile“!) Charlie Chaplin connects tragic with humor and can transform a tear into laughter and the other way round. „The Kid“ opens with the words „a picture with a smile and perhaps a tear“. It is said that Nijinsky visited Chaplin in his studio in California for a longer period just to watch him work, watch his every move, in Nijinsky’s opinion he - Charlie Chaplin - was the greatest dancer of all times. His movement can speak and always tells a story. The language he created, the stories he told are timeless. His movements are as delicate and exact as they are unique and universal. And in the end that is what artists try to achieve, finding and developing their own language regardless of the art form - literature, dance, music, acting, or painting - a language that is both individual and universal. Charlie Chaplin created art that is essential to all kinds.
He was born in London and his childhood was marked by poverty and deprivation. His father drunk himself to death, his mother raised Charlie and his brother Sydney on her own, moving constantly from basement flats to work houses and back to basement flats until poverty and desperation drove his mother to lose her mind. Chaplin on his childhood: "I was hardly aware of a crisis because we lived in a continual crisis; and, being a boy, I dismissed our troubles with gracious forgetfulness." Both of his parents were acting and singing. When he was five years old, he got onstage for the very first time. His mother, a gifted actress, singer and dancer herself lost her voice during a performance and Charlie had to get out there, got up and entertained the crowd. It was his mother’s last and his first time being on stage. His mother supported his talent and awoke in Charlie the enthusiasm and passion for stories and theatre by reading to him: „In this dark basement room in Oakley Street my mother ignited for me the most gentle light, the world has ever known and that literature and theatre has given the grandest and richest issues: love, compassion and humanity.“ Young Charlie and his brother Sydney began working as artists in Fred Karno Vaudeville troop. The troop traveled to the United States and in 1910 Charlie set foot on American ground. Within the troop he quickly became the crowd favorite by playing a drunk. A movie contract with keystone came as a result of it, and Chaplin's silent film career was started with a total of 35 films in the first year. In the film'' Kid Auto Races at Venice'' (1914) the little Tramp occurred for the very first time. Charlie decided on the costume for the Tramp on the way to the wardrobe department; He wanted contrast: small hat - big shoes, baggy pants - little jacket. He describes how the costume conjured the character and states: „By the time I walked on the stage, he was fully born.“ Chaplin as the tramp with big, baggy pants, too big shoes, bowler hat, cane and a small mustache, would become his trademark and a worldwide icon. He drew from the world he observed and experienced. “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it.” In all of his movies you’ll find and see connections to his own life and the people around him. And my suggestion is to watch as many of his movies as one possibly can, my favorites are: The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City lights (1931) Modern Times (1936) and the Great Dictator (1940). He was the only film-maker continuing to make silent films into the period of sound films. His formation with Griffith, Fairbanks (who was his best friend) and Pickford as United Artists marked the birth of independent film production. Charlie addresses social and political issues by the stories and adventures of the little Tramp. For example „Shoulder Arms“ is a film about the tramp serving in world war I; He offered it to theaters around the world without charge and provided military hospitals with much needed comic relief - often the films were projected on the ceiling for patients unable to sit up. The last time the Tramp appears is the first time you hear his voice - at the end of Modern Times when he starts to sing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0daS_SDCT_U „The Great dictator“ starred, written, produced, scored and directed by Chaplin is probably the most significant and courageous political satire ever made. It was released in !!!1940!!! and is a condemnation of fascism and the Nazis. Charlie is playing both leading roles: a fascist dictator and a persecuted Jewish barber. It was his first true talking picture. He improvised his „German“ and planned and choreographed every move of the incredible dance scene with the globe. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YqyQfjDScjU His speech in the final scene is more current than ever: „…We want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery. We don't want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone…Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers!“ In the 40s he was accused of communist sympathies. An FBI investigation was opened and he was forced to leave the United States. He settled in Switzerland with his wife Oona O’Neill. They were married from 1943 til his death in 1977. Chaplin received three Academy Awards: in 1929 an Honorary Award for "versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing, and producing The Circus" In 1972 (it was the first time he got back to the States after his unfounded ban) a second Honorary Award for "the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century" and one for Best Score!!! in 1973 for Limelight.
No matter what kind of art form one decides to pursue, Chaplin is an inspiration and a pioneer in all of them and one can learn so much by simply observing him. The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator continue to be ranked on industry lists of the greatest films of all time.
In the end I couldn't help but to create my own imaginary interview with Mister Chaplin by putting some of my question together with some of his original quotes:
What do you expect from an artist? Anyone who creates something new must have an adventure. Out of excitement and enthusiasm comes invention. Without these ingredients an artist cannot create work of a unique kind.
Do you believe in the word genius? Genius is an individual stylist who does things remarkably well unconsciously.
What is your most important tool? Instinct and timing.
What is missing in movies nowadays? Personality had a different value in silent movie, the story is the background in which this precious thing called personality functions, my concept of pictures is the idea of getting somebody who has personality, distinction. they were more unreal in a way - now movies have much more to do with actual reality and sometimes they are so realistic that there is very little left to imagination; poetry as a fundamental element got lost; art form is only a great form by virtue of its limitation, like paintings in two dimensions; the moment we put language to it, it hurts them.
Do you like jazz? When I was working with keystone I made three movies a week, sometimes two in one day, short ones, each one for 25 dollars, so my work was always based on improvisation, instant composing - if you will - based on perfect timing and movement using a story as my framework to give the personality the opportunity to explore and form. Isn't this how jazz works - the song is the framework and the player uses his artistry to explore and form also based on timing and movement. So you see, in the end it comes down to the very same components in order to create. How can I not like it?
Some of my all time favourites:
The bread roll dance - when Gold Rush premiered they stopped the film at the bread roll dance scene, rewinded it and played it again!!!!! : )
Shaving scene (The Great Dictator):
PS.: If you got hooked I can recommend Mr. Köhlmeier's incredible book: "Zwei Herren am Strand" about the friendship of Churchill and Chaplin!
PPS.: If you wanna see my version of the bread roll dance ; )...