Charlie Chaplin, Director
Publication Year: 2014
Charlie Chaplin was one of the cinema’s consummate comic performers, yet he has long been criticized as a lackluster film director. In this groundbreaking work—the first to analyze Chaplin’s directorial style—Donna Kornhaber radically recasts his status as a filmmaker. Spanning Chaplin’s career, Kornhaber discovers a sophisticated "Chaplinesque" visual style that draws from early cinema and slapstick and stands markedly apart from later, "classical" stylistic conventions. His is a manner of filmmaking that values space over time and simultaneity over sequence, crafting narrative and meaning through careful arrangement within the frame rather than cuts between frames. Opening up aesthetic possibilities beyond the typical boundaries of the classical Hollywood film, Chaplin’s filmmaking would profoundly influence directors from Fellini to Truffaut. To view Chaplin seriously as a director is to re-understand him as an artist and to reconsider the nature and breadth of his legacy.
Published by: Northwestern University Press
Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote
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I think I’m a better director than an actor,” Charlie Chaplin told an interviewer for Life in 1967. There is perhaps no statement with which Chaplin’s critics have disagreed more. He received no shortage of praise, of course, during and aft er his career. George Bernard Shaw famously called him “the only genius developed in motion pictures.” For Andrew Sarris, he is “the single most important artist produced by the cinema.”...
Part I - Chaplin in Context
1. Chaplin at Keystone, Griffith at Biograph
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Charlie Chaplin’s directorial debut marks a seemingly inauspicious start to a monumental career. Twenty Minutes of Love (Keystone, 1914) is a “park” film like any number of others produced by Keystone during the early teens, when Los Angeles’s Echo Park and Westlake Park (now MacArthur Park) provided easy alternatives to studio-based shoots.1 Chaplin plays an early version of his Tramp character, first introduced two months prior in Henry Lehrman’s...
2. The Slapstick Exemption
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In 1908, the year that D. W. Griffith began directing films at Biograph and six years before Charlie Chaplin joined Keystone, the French film studio Pathé Frères had one of their greatest successes on the American market with the comic short The Runaway Horse (1907). It was of course only one of many comic films to be released that year, though for Richard Abel it helps identify the moment when “Pathé’s prominence on the American market probably reached...
3. Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and the Classical Style
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In 1915, only one year aft er Charlie Chaplin entered the film industry, the magazine Photoplay ran a four-part series on his career, already proclaiming him “the most popular comedian that the motion picture industry has yet produced.”1 Chaplin, the magazine contends, never fit in with his cohorts at Keystone, which he left at the end of 1914. “Chaplin introduced a new...
Part II - The Silent Era
4. Chaplin’s Filmmaking Technique
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In an interview with the London Times in 1925, Charlie Chaplin predicted that the filmmaking industry, which had changed considerably since he first entered it in 1914, would continue to undergo substantial developments. “We’re only just beginning,” he told the interviewer in response to a criticism of the lack of “beauty” in the recent motion pictures put out by Hollywood. “Try to intimate to the public that our medium is new, that we are young at...
5. Chaplin’s Filmmaking Philosophy
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When the French film director Robert Florey took a job assisting Charlie Chaplin late in Chaplin’s career, he expected to learn a great deal from one of the world’s most famous filmmakers. But he was shocked by what he saw when he began to work on set. In a typical anecdote from one of Florey’s later accounts, Chaplin makes a series of what seem like bizarre and irreconcilable demands. He wants his “head in the foreground in the whole...
6. A Masterpiece of Mediation: City Lights
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In 1973, when Charlie Chaplin was eighty-four years old, Peter Bogdanovich asked him if he had any personal favorites among his films. He replied quite simply: “Oh, yes. I have. I like City Lights.”1 Chaplin was not alone. The film has had its critics, but ever since its opening in 1931 praise for the picture has ranged from exuberance to extravagance. Alexander Woollcott was one of the first to offer fulsome support, declaring it Chaplin “at his incomparable best”...
Part III - The Sound Era
7. Dangerous Voices: Modern Times and The Great Dictator
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Modern Times may be the only film in history that reversed its course creatively and changed, mid-production, from a sound picture to an essentially silent film—the opposite of Harold Lloyd’s silent-to-sound film Welcome Danger. Despite the critical fanfare and financial triumph of the dialogue-less City Lights, Chaplin was originally convinced that he could not repeat the trick, and in 1934 he began shooting his next film as a talkie. Gone was the bravado...
8. Substituting Speech for Style: Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight, and A King in New York
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For an artist who made his reputation in a silent medium, Charlie Chaplin loved to talk. More specifically, he loved to hold forth on serious thinkers and serious ideas. Chaplin had little formal education, but he was remarkably (and somewhat ostentatiously) well read. Even from his Karno days, he was known to keep well-placed copies of Schopenhauer or Emerson in his dressing room, turning to them between shows. In an interview from 1920, ...
9. Return to Form: A Countess from Hong Kong
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A Countess from Hong Kong received, without exception, the worst reviews of any film that Charlie Chaplin ever made. “The nadir of one of the greatest figures in movie history,” “not one trace of his former genius,” “stiff and clumsy,” and “a sad and bitter disappointment” are just a few of the most common critical reactions.1 Bosley Crowther’s review in the New York Times is sadly representative. After some initial throat-clearing about “how if an old...
Epilogue: The Chaplin Century
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In his 1952 essay “Some Ideas on the Cinema,” which functions as a kind of manifesto for the Neorealist movement, screenwriter Cesare Zavattini names those directors he considers to be most associated with the radical new approaches to filmmaking that he practiced and advocated: Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti. And, at the end of the essay, he cites with reverence exactly one director outside of the movement: Charlie Chaplin...
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Page Count: 373
Illustrations: 35 b/w
Publication Year: 2014