Chaplin, Now and Then


Me and the old ball and chain were talking about Chaplin (1992) recently, and nearly watched it before we realized it was five hours long. I’ve seen it anyway, and it’s kind of terrible. RDJ is very committed and affecting as always, but the script is seriously unreal in its mediocrity. As always, I think Ebert says it best:

The screenplay, by three writers, is a whirl of name-dropping and arch dialogue, in which famous Hollywood names alternate with Charlie’s latest conquests. The plot structure is so ancient it creaks…There must have been more. (He) must have been more complex and more interesting than this movie shows him. If the screenwriters in their research couldn’t find more intriguing insights into his life and art, they should have made them up; the movie would have been no more false than it is now.

I guess when I first read the review a few years ago, I was detached from Eebs’ frustration because I didn’t really connect with Chaplin. I don’t usually make it my business to watch films made before 1960 because I don’t understand the style, the language, the references. I’m a creature of habit and I like my formulas.

But I did decide to watch City Lights (1931) because I went on a little Youtube binge and found Charlie to have wayyy more charisma than I’d noticed back in my media studies classes. I’m 70 years late on the zeitgeist, but he is incredible! Behind his every decision, even slapstick physicality, there’s deliberate genius. His elocution and passion in The Great Dictator (1940) is awe-inspiring, but the Chaplin magic indeed shines much brighter, pre-talkies. He knew the real power of a silent film, which has unfortunately been lost to distracted and shallow future generations — like me.

Please watch this gorgeously photographed last scene of City Lights. Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill have such delicate chemistry, which thrives most in the long pauses between word cards.

The very last shot also zings me right in the heart bone. He’s got so much behind his face. Only in these old silent films does the camera linger long to show you an inner life. Amazing.

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