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The Unselfish Joy of Laughter
by Jon Schuller

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The first motion pictures, near the end of the 19th Century, scared some audiences who were confused when a train came toward them. Or, many people looked behind the white sheet as an image of a crowd of people, shown walking in a park on a Sunday afternoon, came toward them. Once the audiences realized they were watching images of real people and places, they demanded more and more. Suddenly nickelodeons were popping up everywhere so films could be shown anytime as movies became the rage. The technologies that were making airplanes and automobiles popular were also entertaining common men and women around the world. We, ourselves, in today's constantly-changing, technological 21st Century, are bombarded every day with new gadgets, especially in communications. The first film audiences wanted stories they could understand and relate to. What had been plays and books for centuries, became – almost overnight – the bases for movies, complete with music and recognizable characters. If a movie gained acceptance and popularity it was because people liked what they saw and who the characters were. Funny books, plays and stories were the most in demand. Then, just as now, ordinary people needed an escape from their daily lives; they needed to laugh at the foibles of others – especially the rich and well-to-do. A few actors began to gain prominence and popularity because they were so adept at making everyone laugh. One man rose to fame rapidly, first in the music halls of England and then becoming the most recognized actor and character in the movies around the world: Charles Chaplin. On December 25, 1992, a British-American film about his life premiered
starring Robert Downey, Jr. and an all-star cast, featuring Marisa Tomei, Dan Aykroyd, Penelope Ann Miller, and Kevin Kline; plus, Geraldine Chaplin as her own paternal grandmother, Hannah Chaplin. It was directed by Sir Richard Attenborough with music by the great John Barry. It was appropriately titled Chaplin.

To make a movie about the man who is still, arguably, the most famous actor and creator in the movies had to take some daring and resourcefulness. He practically invented the movies as we known them. There were others who actually invented motion pictures and the processes to make them: William Friese-Green in England, Thomas Edison (though he stole a lot of others' work) in the United States, Georges Méliès and Auguste and Louis Lumière in France. Let's not forget George Eastman in Upstate New York and his processes for making photographic film. Chaplin was born in 1889 in (what is believed to be) East Street, Walworth, in South London at the same time as all of these men were beginning their experiments and so, by the time he was teenager, movies were becoming popular and easily accessible.

The film shows Chaplin as an elderly man, discussing his life with his biographer, George Hayden (Anthony Hopkins). In the 1890s an English entrepreneur and theatre impresario named Fred Karno (John Thaw) created the pie-in-the-face form of live, on-stage comedy in English music halls. Chaplin, and another soon-to-be universally famous comedian named Arthur Jefferson (who became Stan Laurel), worked for Karno in one of his traveling troupes, along with Chaplin's brother Sydney. In the movie, we see Charlie making audiences laugh with delight as
he perfects a falling-down drunk act. Eventually, Karno tells Chaplin that they're to go to America and work with the then-reigning king of comedy, Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd). Chaplin does his drunk act on the spot when he meets Sennett shooting a film in California. Sennett realizes the talent in Chaplin and puts him to work. Chaplin actually was able to direct over 20 films for Sennett because Sennett's partner and leading lady, actress, Mabel Normand, who was beautiful and talented but couldn't direct. She convinced Sennett to keep Chaplin at the studio.

Chaplin eventually leaves Sennett and works, with his brother, Sydney, to become an independent film maker. By the time he reaches his 30th birthday, he's known around the world and has his own movie studio. Cutting back and forth to the present, speaking with his biographer, Chaplin discusses his many affairs with young actresses, which caused him major problems as he gets the sort of attention he doesn't want. Chaplin's close friend is Douglas Fairbanks (Kevin Kline) who warns him about not only his affairs but his ideas about immigrants, of which he is one. He gets too much attention from the F.B.I.'s J. Edgar Hoover, who sees communists everywhere and believes that Chaplin is one himself.

In 1921 he travels back to England, re-unites with Fred Karno and attends the premier of his monumental film, The Kid. His first true love, Hetty Kelly, has died while he was away and he regrets not marrying her when he had the chance. His films become better but Charlie's personal love life interferes again and again as Hoover insists on investigating his private life. Doug Fairbanks had suggested to
Charlie that he looked like Adolf Hitler which prompts him to make The Great Dictator, released in 1940, satirizing the real person. Chaplin kept fighting against talking pictures the whole decade of the 1930s. City Lights, without sound, is one of his most memorable films, premiering in 1931. The immortal scene where the blind girl, who can now see, realizes The Tramp paid for her operation, is one of my favorites.

Eventually, Chaplin and his last wife, Oona O'Neill, go to England but cannot return as Hoover forces the US Attorney General to revoke Chaplin's permit to return. Eventually, Chaplin is honored at the 1972 Academy Awards with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Robert Downey, Jr. captures Chaplin as an actor, a film maker and a human being. His personal trials and tribulations did not stop his boundless creative energy and his abilities to make original and immortal movies, beloved around the world. He knew how to tap into everyone's hopes and fears and display his own unique sense of irony and humor. He not only acted in his films, he wrote the scripts and the music as well. His work is still studied and enjoyed more than 100 years after he began. The film's cast features well-established stars but also introduces actors who were just starting their careers in the 1990s. You'll recognize Nancy Travis, David Duchovny, Milla Jovovich, Diane Lane, Penelope Ann Miller and James Woods, to name just a few. Chaplin was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, with Robert Downey, Jr. winning the Best Actor Award. John Barry's main theme for the film is among his best compositions. Like the immortal man it's about, Chaplin will stay with you once you've seen it.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Another Great Year for Movies

Some Guy Says You Get Power With Money.

Homage: Respect or Reverence Paid

There's a Call for You. Please Tell Them to Wait.

20 Before. 20 After. 20 Since.

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 29 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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