"The cinema is cruel like a miracle." -Frank O'Hara

Mademoiselle Charlot [Chaplin, 1915]

I love this poster for the French release of Chaplin’s short film A Woman, in which he cross-dresses to fool the father of a girl he met in the park. He even shaves his iconic moustasche, and I have to say, he makes quite the handsome woman!

You can view the film here and here.

P.S. Anyone know anything more about the Himalaya Film Company? They seem to have distributed almost all of Chaplin’s early films in France.

Clothes Make the Tramp

In January 1914, when Chaplin had been at Keystone for a few months, Mack Sennett asked him to come with some new ideas for gags. It was at this time that Chaplin invented the character of the tramp.

Kid Auto Races At Venice [1914], in which Chaplin’s “Tramp” character makes his debut.

I was in my street clothes and had nothing to do, so I stood where Sennett could see me. He was standing with Mabel, looking into a hotel lobby set, biting the end of a cigar. “We need some gags here,” he said, then turned to me. “Put on comedy make-up. Anything will do.”

I had no idea what make-up to put on. I did not like my get-up as the press reporter. However, on the way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small moustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression.

I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the make-up made me feel the person that I was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on to the stage he was fully born. When I confronted Sennett I assumed the character and strutted about, swinging my cane and parading before him. Gags and comedy ideas went racing through my mind.

The secret of Mark Sennett’s success was his enthusiasm. He stood and giggled until his body began to shake. This encouraged me and I began to explain the character: “You know this fellow is many-sided, a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure. He would have you believe he’s a scientist, a musician, a duke, a polo player. However, he is not above picking up cigarette butts or robbing a baby of its candy. And of course, if the occasion warrants it, he will kick a lady in the rear — but only in extreme anger!”

– Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography [1964]

Being Bit By Charlie [Chaplin]

So I’m coming off the high that was Film Forum’s Charlie Chaplin Festival and I can’t stop thinking about what makes Chaplin so singular as a performance artist for me. Perhaps there are no words — fitting for a mostly silent star. As I learned over the course of the series, Chaplin also shone brightly in speaking parts, but his true genius is centered mostly in his body as a threshold for human movement — especially as movement gathers force in his seismographic face. I could wax on for hours about that exquisite piece of tissue — framed by those twitchy brows and set off with an iconic exclamation point of a mustache — and its mimetic power. When Chaplin smiles, the audience cannot help but smile with him. In James Agee’s essay on Monsieur Verdoux he expresses regret that his words can only approximate Chaplin’s greatness: “I can only hope that these notes may faintly suggest the frame-by-frame appreciation; the gratitude; and the tribute which we owe this great poet and his great poem.” In that spirit, here are a few of my favorite Chaplin moments, film by film.

MODERN TIMES: Chaplin must perform a song to a packed house. He forgets the words and makes up something that sounds vaguely Italian, complete with saucy gestures. Side-splittingly funny.

THE CIRCUS: A slew of monkeys make a late entrance and predictably steal the show.

CITY LIGHTS: The tramp and his rich tippler of a friend sit down to eat. Spaghetti, confetti, what’s the difference?

THE GREAT DICTATOR: Chaplin as Der Phooey is full of hot air.

THE IDLE CLASS: This short contains one of my favorite Chaplin moments of all time. Watch it all the way through — there’s a big payoff that involves a cocktail shaker!