With almost any other filmmaker, the one-two punch of 1925's The Gold Rush and 1931's City Lights would be impossible to top. But The Belcourt's Charlie Chaplin retrospective is only in its second weekend, and there are still several of the greatest comedies ever made coming up. Bilge Ebiri provides a Chaplin 101 in this week's Scene:
The Chaplin narrative formula was famously simple and effective, and it speaks to part of his talent for connecting with his audience: A down-on-his-luck tramp stumbles into a situation that appears to be well beyond his talents or his station, and chaos (not to mention a healthy dose of pathos) ensues. In The Circus (which kicked off the series on Oct. 30-31), he's mistaken for a thief and winds up inside a circus where he becomes part of the act; in City Lights (which screens Nov. 5-6), he helps out a drunken, suicidal millionaire and winds up becoming the man's partying companion, only to be rebuffed every time the guy sobers up. In The Gold Rush (Nov. 5-7), he's somehow made his way to the Klondike as an inept prospector. Occasionally, the situation is one of the Tramp's own making: In The Kid (Nov. 15-16), he actually plays a con man (albeit a lovable one) who works in tandem with Jackie Coogan's titular tyke.
But despite that simplicity of conception, the actor-director's domineering perfectionism was unmatched. It wasn't until after his death that outtake footage emerged showing how Chaplin would painstakingly work his scenes out on film, sometimes doing more than 100 takes to get everything right, driving his cast and crew crazy in the process. That the work didn't "show" may have contributed to his reputation for artlessness; that the work was there, however, certainly had a hand in his mind-bending success.
"Success" doesn't quite do it justice. Charlie Chaplin was not just the most famous entertainer but the most famous person in the world from the 1910s through the 1930s. Through two depressions, at least two cataclysmic wars, and all the ups and downs in between, he was there. Clearly, there was something more going on.