- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2003

W.C. Fields, the celebrated curmudgeon from Philadelphia who rose from a hardscrabble youth to fame and fortune in Hollywood, expressed little but scorn for Charles Chaplin, whom he regarded as an upstart. Ten years older, Fields already was an international vaudeville star when Mr. Chaplin was still an obscure teenage apprentice in London music halls. Legend has it that the senior comedian was once lured into a Chaplin movie and stayed long enough to volunteer this grudging compliment: “He’s a … ballet dancer.” Having revisited the four Chaplin features now packaged in a Warner Home Video DVD set called “The Chaplin Collection” (to be enlarged with another four titles in the fall), I find it’s hard to argue with him. Numerous highlights in “The Gold Rush” (1925), “Modern Times” (1936) and “The Great Dictator” (1940) might be described, without much exaggeration, as dance interludes. Starting with “The Gold Rush” is always advisable when recalling Mr. Chaplin at his most appealing. The tramp character is imagined as “a lone prospector” attracted to Alaska during the gold rush of 1898. Upon entering the Monte Carlo Saloon, the shy and lovelorn hero is smitten with a dance-hall beauty named Georgia (Georgina Hale). Hastily enlisted as her dance partner, he endeavors to maintain his dignity while circling the room in a very correct two-step. It isn’t easy. When his baggy britches start to fall, he cleverly uses his cane to prop them up. Then, without missing a stride, he borrows a length of rope and improvises a belt. Bad idea: The rope turns out to be attached to a nearby dog. Tangled in the leash, the tramp takes a pratfall. Later, of course, Mr. Chaplin performs a dance solo from a sitting position, spearing two dinner rolls with forks and using them to simulate a ballerina’s toeshoes and legs. With the implements tucked close to his breast, he gives the appearance of being a short-legged marionette. “Modern Times” begins with Mr. Chaplin gainfully but precariously employed on an assembly line. The floors are so clean and shiny that they seem to be awaiting a movie dance number. Slightly unhinged by a combination of repetitive-motion jitters and an accidental plunge into a gigantic gear mechanism, the tramp emerges in a dotty condition that seems to provoke parodistic ballet steps. In and out of correctional custody during much of the film, the erstwhile manual laborer works a shift as night watchman in a department store. Discovering the toys, Mr. Chaplin “dances” adroitly on roller skates, paired during part of the scene with Paulette Goddard, his vivacious real-life consort at the time. Childlike vagabonds who first meet in a paddy wagon, these nameless waifs actually flirt with appropriate employment as entertainers near the end of the movie. Miss Goddard’s gamin gets a job as a dancer at a nightclub and talks the manager into hiring the tramp as a waiter, which obliges him to become a singing waiter, setting up an inimitable solo in which Mr. Chaplin combines a funny dance posture — sliding along on one leg while his rump protrudes conspicuously — with a song delivered in Italian gibberish, his belated concession to the introduction of talking pictures about eight years earlier. The most accomplished sequence in “The Great Dictator,” Mr. Chaplin’s burlesque of fascist demagogues modeled after Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, isolates the star as Adenoid Hynkel, the Hitler caricature, with a large inflatable globe, which he gracefully tosses and catches around a palatial, high-ceilinged office until his toy suffers a puncture. There is no finer pas de deux on the theme of the self-infatuation of despots, lyrically transported by the sensation that they have the world at their fingertips. After embracing a dialogue track decisively in “The Great Dictator,” in which he spouts German-inflected gibberish whenever Hynkel is on an oratorical rampage, Mr. Chaplin, then in his early 50s, became a cinematic chatterbox and pontificator. As a result, it’s best to save the last movie in the DVD set, “Limelight,” a self-pitying swan song from 1952, until last. The positive side of Mr. Chaplin’s conversion to sound can be heard in one of the two copies of “The Gold Rush” included in the collection. While each title in the set is being revived in a two-disc album, only “The Gold Rush” can be observed from start to finish in different versions — the 1925 original, restored and augmented by a new piano score, and the 1942 reissue. The latter has an orchestral score and narration by Mr. Chaplin himself, who takes the delightful liberty of not only replacing, but also embellishing, the intertitles from the original silent version. Mr. Chaplin’s speaking style is so quick it keeps you on the alert. He deftly anticipates one sight gag — a knothole blown from the side of a shack by the force of the wind outside — a split-second before we see the payoff. The setup line, which sounds happily improvised as well as expertly timed: “And there he sat resting his weary bones, as the icy wind blew through the knothole.” Curiously, this is the very audio-visual interplay that kept misfiring in the pedantic biographical documentary “Charlie,” recently premiered at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre. Eminent admirers were recruited by producer Richard Schickel to describe characteristic gags from Chaplin comedies, but time and again, the tedious verbal buildups smothered the visual joke. The voiced-over prodding made it seem as if the producer didn’t trust Mr. Chaplin to get a laugh on his own. Yes, some context is helpful when showcasing the silent pioneers for new generations, but it’s best if the filmmaker himself controls the context. At a suggested retail price of about $30 (bought singly; the set of four is priced at about $90), the double edition of “The Gold Rush” is a good value. The quality of the bonus material supplementing the other three films in “The Chaplin Collection” is much iffier. The most interesting fragment consists of home movie footage shot by Sydney Chaplin, the actor’s elder brother (and business manager) during the production of “The Great Dictator.” Its silent color footage provides a fresh, on-the-spot view of certain scenes in a famous black-and-white production. The formative stages of Mr. Chaplin’s film career can be reassessed in a different collection, consisting of restored prints of the comedy shorts he made for two companies, Essanay and Mutual, between 1915 and 1917. A three-part historical compilation, “Unknown Chaplin,” may not be available on DVD yet, but it’s the best single source for observing Mr. Chaplin’s production methods. Given extensive access by the Chaplin estate to outtakes, Kevin Brownlow and David Gill compiled a treasure trove revealing how certain shorts evolved out of prolonged rehearsal and improvisation. Mr. Chaplin liked to film all his rehearsals, and enough behind-the-scenes documentation was preserved to make “Unknown” invaluable. A recent Brownlow backward glance, “The Tramp and the Dictator,” is part of the Warner edition of “The Great Dictator.” Unfortunately, it oversimplifies or obscures substantial portions of the political backdrop to the movie. The film began production shortly before Nazi Germany invaded Poland; it reached theaters during the life of the infamous Nazi-Soviet “nonaggression” pact. That pact’s hypocrisies are reflected to some extent in the incoherence of Mr. Chaplin’s closing polemical monologue, which ranges from idealistic boilerplate to call-to-arms and contradictory call-to-disarmament. Perhaps it’s some kind of tribute to the lasting effect of corrupted political thought that Mr. Chaplin’s admirers, 60 years later, can sound every bit as confused and evasive as he was.

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