The slightly undersized bowler hat. The black eyebrows. And that tightly cropped moustache. “His face had higher image recognition than anyone else’s on earth, for a while,” says Dr. David Cook, department head of Media Studies.
Charlie Chaplin is a key figure in Cook’s textbook “A History of Narrative Film,” now in its fifth edition. Cook shows a couple of Chaplin’s short films made for Mutual during the first sequence of his film history courses (MST 520-521). He shows “The Immigrant” and “One A.M” – and sometimes “The Rink,” where Chaplin shows off his acrobatic grace on skates.
“The dexterity and precision of some of those stunts are unbelievable,” Cook says.
Dr. Jim Fisher, department head of Theatre, notes the echoes of older forms of European theatre. When he sees Chaplin films, he sees parallels with commedia dell’arte theatre of the 16th and 17th centuries. The acting troupes would develop farcical stock characters with no language. Examples include Pantalloon, Harlequin and the German “Jack Sausage” stock character. In 19th century England, the music hall theatre tradition emerged – with the traditions of stock farcical roles and little dialogue. And an emphasis on physical comedy.
This was Chaplin’s background; he was part of a long tradition. “Be funny or starve,” was the saying during that era. He wasn’t always The Tramp, Fisher says. A look at his early films shows various roles. With much work, he developed the character that would work for him – the Little Tramp – and he refined it. Even when movies developed sound, he stuck with that silent character.
When he was at the UNCG campus in 1918, that is the character people hoped to see. One report said students looked to see if he wore the Tramp’s huge shoes. Another says a boy specifically called out for him to do the Tramp’s distinctive walk.
“He’s a — ballerina,” W.C. Fields once said about Chaplin, notes Fisher. Only Buster Keaton rivalled him as far as physical expressiveness, he explains.
“He’s directing, he’s starring, he’s composing music,” Fisher says. The poignancy of “The Kid” will just break your heart, Fisher adds. And his greatest work? “‘City Lights’ may be my desert island film,” he says. And there’s “Modern Times” too.
Fisher received his undergraduate degree at UNCG in the 1970s. He was exposed to old and new in the world of drama: the counter-culture of the era mixed with such learning opportunities as a visit from legendary Eva Le Gallienne, who formed an acting company in New York City in the 1920s. Fisher’s own teaching looks back as it looks forward as well.
While Cook prefers the more-cerebral-though-less-funny Buster Keaton to Charlie Chaplin, he says students’ tastes have evolved. They don’t readily connect with slapstick comedy – it seems so unsophisticated. But that’s not so.
Chaplin was “a perfectionist, a professional,” Cook says. And he was well on his way to financial success. As a member of the Keystone film company, he had been drawing $150 a week in 1913, he explains. “By the time he was here [at the 1918 war bonds rally at UNCG], he was getting million-dollar contracts for the production of just a few shorts.” Soon, he’d be making only features.
His rising fortunes allowed him to set up his own studio. There, he would shoot scenes over and over again, till he was satisfied.
Chaplin was also a shrewd self-promoter, Cook says. While he’s sure Chaplin wanted to sell war bonds, he notes the 1918 tour to promote war bonds – which brought him to the UNCG campus – was also a big publicity vehicle for him.
It was certainly a big event for this campus. With more than 5,000 people massed around him, Charlie Chaplin became a part of UNCG’s history.
By Mike Harris
Visual: Promotional shot from 1918 film “A Dog’s Life,” from Wikipedia Commons.
Thanks to many archivists and librarians who were helpful during this five-story series: Jennifer Motszko, Hermann Trojanowski, Kathelene Smith, Beth Ann Koelsch, Stacey Krim, Erin Lawrimore, David Gwynn, Carolyn Shankle and Bill Finley (UNCG Libraries) and Elise Allison (Greensboro Historical Museum)