Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Jason goes to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum for Charlie Chaplin Days

Last weekend was a big one in Niles, and I was there helping out in the museum gift shop both days. Tiring, but worth it for the great business we did. And Saturday night I was a regular paying customer there to watch and enjoy the movies, which of course were all Chaplin.

MAKING A LIVING (1914): Chaplin's first movie, made for Keystone. He hadn't invented the Tramp character yet (that came later the same year, when as legend has it he grabbed a pair of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's pants from wardrobe and the ill-fitting clothes became the basis of the character more than even the bowler hat and cane.) But he has some nascent tramp-ish qualities, particularly the rude, cheating qualities. He begs a ring from a gentleman, only to use it to woo a wealthy woman whom the gentleman was also planning to woo. But Charlie still has no money, so he looks to get a job as a reporter. To that end, he rushes off to a car crash where he steals the camera with all the great crash photos from...the same gentleman as before. Kind of rude and not very sympathetic (I much prefer the pathos he developed in his later films) but still pretty funny.

A NIGHT AT THE SHOW (1915): A Chaplin Essanay short he made in Los Angeles, with Charlie in a dual role as Mr. Rude and Mr. Rowdy. While Mr. Rude (sometimes called Mr. Pest) makes trouble in the orchestra, Mr. Rowdy (who is clearly drunk) makes trouble in the balcony, including dumping drinks and spraying a fire hose at Mr. Rude below. Meanwhile the parade of acts try to do their thing while both Chaplins and other audience members (including a fat kid who likes to throw pies) make it all a disaster. Barely structured at all, but very funny.

EASY STREET (1916): Chaplin with his famous leading lady Edna Purviance and famous giant foil (who died tragically in a car crash) Eric Campbell. Chaplin is in full Tramp character at the start. But when he goes to the local Mission, run by the beautiful Edna Purviance, he is reformed and goes to get a job as a policeman (he is so often chased by cops, it's a little weird to see him in a policeman's uniform.) His job is to clean up the ironically-named Easy Street, which is dominated by the bully Eric Campbell. But through cleverness and more than a little luck he turns it into a thriving and peaceful community. Pure comedy. It also showcases some pioneering use of the oft-repeated T-intersection set--a view looking down the street with buildings on both sides and buildings behind on the T-intersection cross street. Also, if you can believe the educational materials that came with one copy of this film, it features a "diabetic" thief with an "insulin" needle. Because that couldn't possibly be illegal drugs in that syringe, could it? And insulin makes a non-diabetic person run around like a maniac on drugs, right?

Anyway, then there was a brief intermission and finally our feature, which for the first time in a few years was not THE KID (don't read me wrong, THE KID is an adorable film, but it's nice to see something else, too.)

SHOULDER ARMS (1918): Chaplin's shortish feature (~45 minutes) about WWI. Yup, Chaplin is just the kind of comic genius that could make WWI funny while it was still going on. In Boot Camp he's in the "awkward squad" and the bit about his walk (with the pointed-out toes) while trying to march in formation are hilariously self-referential (reminds me of the bit in a Buster Keaton movie when he was told he "...better smile when you say that.") He gets shipped off to the front where he uses Limburger cheese as chemical warfare and captures 13 Germans by surrounding them. And he has a romance with beautiful French country girl Edna Purviance. There's also a great extended bit of him in camouflage as a tree, and a part for his brother (and business manager) Syd Chaplin. All around hilarious, and the whole series of the night really showcases his evolving comedic chops. Of course, some of his best work was still in the future--THE KID, THE GOLD RUSH, MODERN TIMES, THE GREAT DICTATOR, etc. But it's always great to see how he started out.

Total Running Time (approximate): 112 minutes
My Total Minutes: 328,821

Every Saturday night there are silent films with live piano accompaniment in Niles, and the end of the month is the big Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival--the biggest weekend of the year at the museum. More information can be found here.

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