Tag Archives: Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin: the Mutual Comedies DVD/Blu-ray review

Charlie Chaplin in One AM (1916)
Charlie Chaplin in One AM (1916)

This is not just a box set, more a lifestyle choice. Anyone who wants to spend a couple of hours laughing and crying with Chaplin can watch one of the features. But this new collection of the short films that Chaplin made at the Mutual Company in 1916 and 1917 offers a longer-lasting relationship with London’s favourite silent son.

Even at first glance, the BFI’s latest Chaplin release is a tempting treasure. The Mutual period includes some of Chaplin’s best and funniest shorts for one thing – the drunken ballet of One AM, the social bite of The Immigrant and Easy Street, the glorious mayhem of The Adventurer and The Cure. For the first time in the UK, all 12 Mutual films are presented on Blu-ray – and they have been newly, and immaculately restored too. These discs are a pleasure to watch. It beggars belief that these films are approaching their centenaries, because everything on screen is beautifully clear and impressively filmic, with rich detail and velvety blacks. Comedy this timeless defies age, and now the image of that comedy is every bit as immortal. I don’t have the recent Flicker Alley release to compare, but the word is that this improves on the quality of that set.

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Music for Charlie Chaplin: Carl Davis on scoring ‘The Mutuals’

This is a guest post for Silent London by Carl Davis CBE to celebrate the 126th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s birth. Renowned as a composer, Davis is a conductor with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and also regularly conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. He has written music for more than 100 television programmes, but is best known for creating music to accompany silent films – including his score for the Kevin Brownlow restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon.

In 2003 and 2004 the British Film Institute released, in two volumes, 12 comedy shorts by Charlie Chaplin, created by him at the contractual rate of one a month across the years 1916-1917. They are known today as “The Mutuals” after the company that produced them and, as in my case, they are often the first glimpse that people have into the art of Chaplin. My first adult look at this project occurred in 1983 while scoring the Thames Television three-part series Unknown Chaplin: virtually the entire first episode consisted of an analysis of Charlie’s working methods, brought to light after a hidden cache of Mutual out-takes had recently been discovered.

The next step forward occurred in 1989 after the successful experiment of transcribing the orchestral score and parts of the 1930 recorded soundtrack of City Lights for a live performance at London’s Dominion Theatre. The performance started a vogue, thriving today, of stripping the scores from the soundtracks of all manner of sound films and performing them live. After the London screening I found myself conducting City Lights around the world and subsequently I expanded my Chaplin repertoire with The Gold Rush and The Kid. Out of sheer enthusiasm I added the shorts The Immigrant and Easy Street to my list. But the real impetus to continue came in 2003 when I discovered that the BFI were planning to release the complete Mutuals. I declared my interest and our collaboration began.

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 8

City Lights (1931) © Roy Export S.A.S
City Lights (1931) © Roy Export S.A.S

By now, I think we agree that the global capital of silent cinema is Pordenone, and Charlie Chaplin is its patron saint. It was surely fitting that our last glimpse of the Giornate, on the capacious screen of the Teatro Verdi, was the little feller himself, in extreme close-up, at high risk of having his heart broken, smiling to the end. City Lights, our gala screening tonight, is not my favourite Chaplin feature but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have power enough to sweeten the end-of-the-festival blues. Rumours that certain of the delegates are likely to be found curled up in Piazza XX Septembre like the Tramp himself come Sunday’s dawning were unsubstantiated as we went to press …

The Last Edition (1925)
The Last Edition (1925)

Speaking of which! I can’t wait a moment longer to to tell you about my most hotly anticipated movie of the Giornate. We all have our foibles, and as a newspaper journalist of increasingly long years, I do like a flick about the inkies. The Last Edition (Emory Johnson, 1925), freshly restored by EYE and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, promised much joy for the unbridled newspaper geek. Shot on location at the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle, and with its full collaboration, this hotheaded movie is actually a rather clear portrait of the newspaper production process – from commissioning desk to printing press. Mostly the printing press. I was a bit bemused by the moment when the printer turns the masthead and headline upside-down on a plate that has already been made, just by turning a handle. Huh? But I loved the “rush the extra” sequence (“We’ve got eighteen minutes to change the story. C’mon boys!”), which follows the process of swapping in new copy at the last minute from the reporter filing to the copy desk, the typesetters and on to print. I’ve been there myself, with slightly different technology, but the same adrenaline, many a time. Although, needless to say, there were no female journalists in The Last Edition. All stonking if rather rough and ready and a fantastic picture of San Francisco in the 1920s too. I have no earthly idea why they needed to jazz up all this fascinating typesetting material with a plot involving gangsters, corruption and a massive fire at the newspaper office, but I may be slightly biased.

I should mention that The Last Edition was preceded by a 1912 Thanhouser short The Star of the Side Show, about a young “midget”, who refuses to marry the neighbours’ boy, also short-statured, so gets signed up for the carnival instead. It is described in the catalogue as “a prototype for Tod Browning’s Freaks, only more endearing”. That about sums it up. A tricky film to love but another fabulously expressive performance from Marie Eline, the Thanhouser Kid in the lead role. No, in case you’re wondering, she was just a little girl …

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 4

The New Janitor (1914)
Charlie Chaplin in The New Janitor (1914)

Charlie Chaplin is in the house. Naturally, this being his centenary year and all. Naturally, also, he is speaking Japanese. Because all the characters in Charlie Chaplin films speak Japanese – to a Japanese-speaking audience that is. And also to us lucky types in Pordenone tonight who saw a programme of Chaplin shorts with the accompaniment of Benshi Ichiro Kataoka along with Gunter Büchwald and Frank Bockius. Clearly they had all been in cahoots and the riotous combination of voice and music was expertly judged. A little Benshi can go a long way with me, but that’s how it’s meant to be I think: exuberance squared. The Japanese movie fragment that preceded the Chaplins, Kenka Yasubei (Hot-Tempered Yasubei, 1928) was an inspired choice – all the brawling and boozing of three or four Keystones packed into a frenetic half hour.

Pansidong (1927)
Pansidong (1927)

There was yet more exuberance to come at the end of the evening with Pansidong (The Spider Cave, Darwin Dan, 1927). This Chinese silent, once thought lost but recently rediscovered in Oslo, was introduced charmingly by the director’s grandson, who was seeing it for the first time tonight. I hope he enjoyed as much as I did: it was a silken concoction laced with surprises in which a glamorous girl gang of “spider-women” entrap a monk in their cave, among the spirits. There’s magic, and swordfighting, and some very witty subtitles. Mie Yanashita accompanied tightly on the piano and percussion, including a clattering cymbal that made many of us jump – right on the nose of that wedding-night moment.

Keller-Dorian: Film Gaufré: Sonia Delaunay (1925)
Keller-Dorian: Film Gaufré: Sonia Delaunay (1925)

But it’s not time for bed quite yet. Here’s what else happened today. The short version: lots. I’m going to begin with something really quite beautiful. Several things in fact.

The leopard-skin trim on a Paul Poiret evening coat, scarlet fireworks in a sea-green night sky, vicious yellow flames engulfing a city tenement, a bowl of fresh oranges amid Sonia Delaunay’s sumptuous Orphist designs, gold sequins twinkling on a chorus line and a freshly dyed sugar-pink frock: the first shorts programme in the Dawn of Technicolor strand was a many-splendoured thing. Many different colour processes were on display from Kelley Colour to hand colouring to Natural Color to … far too many to name here. But this was as entertaining as it was instructional, and all beautifully and kaleidoscopically accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano, flute, accordion, and xylophone … at least. Married in Hollywood, the parting shot, was a Multicolor finale from a lost black-and-white sound feature. It must have been an impressive technical achievement, but it was also incredibly cheesy. Quattro formaggi.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 4

Sidewalk Stories review: buried treasure from silent cinema’s recent past

Sidewalk Stories (1989): Charles and Nicola Lane as The Artist and The Kid Photographer: Bill Dill
Sidewalk Stories (1989): Charles and Nicola Lane as the Artist and the Child. Photographer: Bill Dill

I barely knew a thing about Charles Lane this time last week. But since Saturday night I have been trying to find out as much as I can. Twenty five years ago, Lane directed a modern silent film of great style and bounteous charm, which was warmly received at the time, but has barely been heard from since. Like so much in the history of silent film, Sidewalk Stories (1989) is buried treasure, though from a rather more recent past. The good news is that the tail end of 2014 may finally be the time when Sidewalk Stories gets its due. The likelihood is that you will get a chance to see it soon, and I definitely recommend you take the opportunity when it arises.

As a film student, Lane was apparently very sniffy about silents, but when a chum insisted that he catch a screening of The Gold Rush, he relented. Chaplin worked his magic, and Lane was hooked for life. The influence of Chaplin is powerfully strong in Sidewalk Stories, a silent black-and-white comedy shot on the streets of New York; Lane directs and stars in the film, which has more than a touch of The Kid about it. Lane plays a street artist, who sleeps rough in a derelict building in Greenwich Village (yes, you might say he was a tramp), but, through some convoluted circumstances finds himself in charge of a small child. No messing about: the Artist’s foldup easel looks uncannily like the window-repair kit Chaplin equips himself with in the earlier movie. It’s clear that Lane has an eye for the most devilish of details. Lane’s two-year-old daughter plays the Child, and although it seems strange to critique a toddler’s performance, she’s fantastic and of course, utterly adorable. Sandye Wilson, an elegant woman with a devastating smirk, plays the Artist’s bewildering and benevolent love interest. Lane’s character is a cheeky one, all right, and a dreamer too: a nonchalant riff on Chaplin’s Tramp, which retains the sweetness and the acrobatics of the original but with a pared-down ego. Lane’s Artist is a more of an everyman than a showstopping clown: a little guy in a zip-up denim shirt and cargo pants with neatly cropped hair. Perhaps it’s because the big city is just a wee bit more terrifying in the late 80s. The Manhattan of this movie is perniciously hostile: crushing Lane’s character, and maybe squashing his performance a little too.

Sidewalk Stories (1989)
Sidewalk Stories (1989)

No matter. Here’s why Sidewalk Stories is easily worth 97 minutes of your precious time. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s very clever and it has a quite remarkable lightness of touch. There’s some virtuoso material here, including some fantastically choreographed fight scenes and (a first for a silent movie?) a fantasy slapstick sex nightmare. There’s not a single intertitle here either. Most impressive of all perhaps is a sustained tracking shot early on that takes us from one end of a street in the Village to another, from the panhandlers and street sleepers, to the Artist’s patch where he and his fellow dancers and magicians are busy making believe that they are anywhere but urban hell. There’s some comic business with a piece of string and two beds that is simultaneously hilarious and terribly sad. I also enjoyed the way that a laugh-out-loud, but silly, gag at the start of the movie with yuppies grappling over a yellow cab (it’s the 80s, I’m allowed to call them yuppies) was replayed later on with a more sinister meaning. I particularly liked the fact that the second time around the carfight takes place during a chase that’s straight out of Harold Lloyd’s Speedy – Lane was clearly in close touch with his New York silent forebears.

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A Night at the Cinema in 1914 – review

A Night at the Cinema in 1914
A Night at the Cinema in 1914

This is a guest post for Silent London by Juliet Jacques. Jacques is a freelance journalist who writes about gender, sexuality, film, football and literature. She writes for the Guardian, the New Statesman and the LRB and her new book Trans: a Memoir will be published by Verso in 2015. 

Film historians often credit DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) with popularising the full-length feature film, if not inventing it – changing both the language of cinema and the way it was seen. Adapted from Thomas Dixon’s US Civil War novel The Clansman, it opened with “A Plea for the Art of the Motion Picture”, attempting to create new formal techniques that drew on literature and drama. Distancing it from the fairground sideshows at which Edison, Méliès and other pioneers showed their works, aiming to attract more middle-class viewers, Griffith’s epic screened in theatres with an interval and printed programme, and a three-hour score by Joseph Carl Breil, which combined original music, familiar melodies and classical compositions, notoriously Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries during the ride of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Birth of a Nation was not the first full-length feature, historical epic or literary adaptation: Giovanni Pastrone’s 200-minute Cabiria, set in ancient Carthage and Sicily, inspired by Flaubert’s Salammbô and written by poet and novelist Gabriele d’Annunzio, was released a year earlier, and several Italian studios took such risks, by now assured of their audience. So 1914 – that seismic year for Western culture – marked a turning point for cinematic convention, departing from the collections of single or double-reel comedies, adventure films, travelogues and newsreels shown at music halls, shop fronts and penny gaffs during the early 1900s.

Marking the centenary of the First World War, A Night at the Cinema in 1914 attempts to recreate the atmosphere in one of Britain’s 3-4,000 “picture houses”, featuring 14 short films from the BFI archives, curated by Bryony Dixon, all in good condition, with an improvised score by pianist Stephen Horne that references music of the time, it invites 21st-century viewers to imagine when movies would have provided not just a social occasion, with rowdier audiences happy to talk not just between reels but also during them, but also the chance to catch up with the world, illustrating what had been covered by the newspapers.

Several newsreels open the collection. First, a “light” item about British pilots Gustav Hamel and Bentfield Hucks Looping the Loop at Hendon, in March. This lasts just a few moments, but shows how bracing aviation must have been, the rickety box-planes flying low, the pilots exposed. What seems most amazing now is that just months later, 11 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, these were used in warfare. (Less surprising is that far more British pilots died in training than combat.)

Emmeline Pankhurst arrested outside Buckingham Palace in 1914
Emmeline Pankhurst arrested outside Buckingham Palace in 1914

One of the biggest pre-war political concerns features in Palace Pandemonium (May), which shows Emmeline Pankhurst marching to Buckingham Palace, held by police who barely hide their contempt, to petition George V for women’s suffrage. This reminds us how high-profile the campaign was, but Austrian Tragedy immediately shifts the agenda, chronicling the Austro-Hungarian royal family’s efforts to carry on after the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

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A Night at the Cinema in 1914 – in August 2014

This is a really fascinating idea, and a hugely entertaining hour and a half of anyone’s time. The BFI has compiled a typical “mixed” cinema programme from a century ago, and is releasing it theatrically this summer. It’s called, of course, A Night at the Cinema in 1914, and it comes out in August. Yes, you may be seated in an air-conditioned room with comfy seats and Dolby 5.1 sound, but you’ll be able to watch a variety bill of drama, actuality, comedy, serials and travelogues – just like your own great-grandparents in the Hippodromes of yore.

Charlie Chaplin in A Film Johnnie (1914)
Charlie Chaplin in A Film Johnnie (1914)

Some of the titles in the bill will be familiar to you, but there are a few surprises too – and the cumulative experience of watching 15 films in one sitting is wholly refreshing. There’s Chaplin, Florence Turner and Pimple larking about, but also newsreel footage from the front, and from suffragette demonstrations in London, and Ernest Shackleton’s preparations for his Antarctic voyage. Of course, there’s a segment from The Perils of Pauline, and an opportunity for a singalong too. Music is provided by an expert – Stephen Horne has recorded an improvised score for the whole shebang.

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Wish Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp a happy 100th birthday with David Robinson and Claire Bloom

Claire Bloom and Charlie Chaplin in Limelight (1952)
Claire Bloom and Charlie Chaplin in Limelight (1952)

Don’t tell me you missed the fact this year, this February in fact, we are celebrating 100 years of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. Kid Auto Races, Chaplin’s first screen appearance as the anarchic scruff, was released on 7 February 1914. It’s a cinematic centenary of the best kind – one that affords the opportunity for screenings of wonderful films and some clever-clever comment and analysis too. An event at the BFI Southbank on 4 February will add a little star power to proceedings, as well as some new insights into the Tramp and his creator.

At The Centenary of the Little Tramp David Robinson will be talking specifically about how Chaplin drew on the music hall tradition of his youth to create his signature character – and how those influences stayed with him and found a beautiful expression in the gorgeous 1952 film Limelight.

This special event marks the centenary of the birth of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘little tramp’. One hundred years ago this week the iconic character first stepped in front of the camera at the Keystone studios. David Robinson, Chaplin’s official biographer, presents his latest thoughts on Chaplin and the tramp and celebrates the launch of his new book ‘The World of Limelight,’ commissioned by the Cineteca di Bologna, which draws on previously unpublished material from the Chaplin Archive.

Robinson will be launching his book at the event and I think copies will be on sale after the talk with perhaps a booksigning too. A particularly well-informed little bird tells me that Chaplin’s co-star in Limelight, English actress Claire Bloom, will be in attendance also. In fact, Robinson’s book is dedicated to her. Here’s a little more about the book:

Limelight was first cast not as a film script, but as a long novella, Footlights, with the supplementary Calvero’s Story.  Both are here published for the very first time – the ultimate raison d’être of this volume.  Out of these Chaplin extracted a screenplay which passed through several drafts before being transferred to the screen.

The accompanying commentary in this volume explores the documentary reality of the world which Chaplin recreated from his memories and evoked for posterity – London, the music hall and ballet at the end of an era, the outbreak of the First World War.  The book is illustrated with images from the author’s own collection, and reproductions of documents and photographs from the Chaplin archives, which clearly depict the development  of the film LIMELIGHT that David Robinson so intricately describes.

The event takes place at 6.20pm in NFT3. For more details, see the event page on the BFI website.

Further reading

The 11 best silent movie dance sequences

Silents by numbersThis is a guest post for Silent London by Alison Strauss, director of the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema, Bo’ness. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.

Our Dancing Daughters (1928)
Our Dancing Daughters (1928)

Our Dancing Daughters (1928, Harry Beaumont)

The moment when fun-loving flapper Joan Crawford launches herself on to the dance floor and sets the party alight with a high-tempo Charleston, ripping her skirt to a more liberating length as she goes.

Danse Serpentine (1896, Auguste and Louis Lumiere)

The 45-second kaleidoscopic record of a vaudeville dance – created by pioneering dancer Loie Fuller – in which an anonymous performer elegantly whirls her arms in the long-flowing fabric of her costume to mesmerising effect, thanks to the immaculate hand-tinting work of the Lumiere Brothers’ army of finely skilled women behind the scenes.

Pandora’s Box (1929, Georg Wilhelm Pabst)

Trained dancer and former Ziegfeld Follies girl, Louise Brooks is electrifying as Lulu, especially when, with all eyes on her, she takes to the floor at her own wedding with yet another admirer – a female guest – and the pair dance in a sexually charged vertical embrace.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921, Rex Ingram)

Another raunchy tango, this time with Rudolph Valentino in a sequence that launched him as a legend.  The woman in Julio’s arms submits to his overpowering masculinity in this iconic routine that set the standard for all subsequent movie tangos.

(Watch from 14 mins, 50 seconds)

That’s My Wife (1929, Lloyd French)

Stan Laurel is persuaded by Oliver Hardy to masquerade as his wife in order to secure the bequest of a rich uncle.  In one of the funniest sequences Stan, looking lovely in an evening gown, dances the two-step with Ollie in an effort to shimmy a stolen necklace down through his undergarments!

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The 10 best short films for silent cinema novices

Silents by numbers

This is a guest post for Silent London by Kelly Robinson, and the first in a new series of posts bringing you very personal top 10s from silent cinema experts and enthusiasts.

From a programming point of view, it’s always good to have a few shorts up your sleeve: either to accompany a feature or to make up a shorts programme, which are always a good way to introduce new audiences to silent film. I’m trying to write short screenplays at the moment and I’m inspired by these film-makers, several of whom spent the majority of their careers working on shorts.


How to be an American Citizen (Alice Guy-Blaché, 1912)

Made in the US by Solax, film pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché’s production company, this is such a brilliant darkly anarchic comedy. View the version on the Retour de Flamme (06) disc by Lobster Films for one of the most inspired accompaniments to a silent film.

Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926)

Breathtakingly stylish (talk about Eisenstein’s “kino fist”!) but also heartbreakingly moving, this is avant-garde cinema of the 1920s at its most profound. The scene on the bench is as poignant as anything by Chaplin or more recent master Krzysztof Kieslowski. Unforgettable.

Kid Auto Races (1914)
Charlie Chaplin in Kid Auto Races (1914)

Kid Auto Races (Henry Lehrman, 1914)

Chaplin’s Keystone films are sometimes written off as unsophisticated fare, preceding a more nuanced approach to style and content at later studios. However, Chaplin’s performance here is pure clown, and shows why contemporary audiences immediately wanted more, more, more of “The Little Fellow”.

Leave 'em Laughing (1928)
Leave ’em Laughing (1928)

Leave ’em Laughing (Clyde Bruckman, 1928)

I just have to think about the final sequence of the Laurel and Hardy classic and I start chuckling madly to myself.

Daisy Doodad’s Dial (Florence Turner, 1914)

“The Vitagraph Girl” pulls a face at being one of the first screen stars.

Continue reading The 10 best short films for silent cinema novices

The 10th Slapstick Festival, January 2014: a centenary salute to Chaplin

City Lights (1931)
City Lights (1931)

The funniest weekend of the year is back: Bristol’s own rib-tickling Slapstick Festival. This year marks not only the 10th year of the festival but, as you all very well know, the 100th anniversary of Chaplin’s iconic Little Tramp. The Slapstick Festival will be celebrating the tramp in fine style with an orchestral gala screening of the the wonderful City Lights (1931), recently voted into the Top 10 Silent Movies by the Guardian and Observer. The screening will be introduced by comedian Omid Djalili and music will be provided by the 39-piece Bristol Ensemble.

There’s a full weekend of funny films beyond the Chaplin too. Check the listings below for details. Notable screenings inlcude the Societ laugh-riot The Extraordinary Adventures of Mister West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924), the rarely shown Raymond Grifffith romp Hands Up! (1926) and a chance to see Constance Talmadge in Her Sister From Paris (1925). And don’t miss Harold’s Lloyd’s classic Safety Last! (1923) with Radio 4’s Colin Sell on the piano.

Max Davidson
Max Davidson

More treasures are to be found in the talks and lecture events: David Robinson on the Tramp, Kevin Brownlow on Chaplin and the Great War, all three Goodies on Buster Keaton and Graeme Garden delving into the work of German Jewish comic Max Davidson.

There will be some modern work featured too: from Wallace & Gromit (naturally) to The Meaning of Life and Withnail & I. Yes, Tim Vine will be offering a tribute to Benny Hill too!

The 10th Slapstick Festival will be held at various venues across Bristol from 24-26 January 2014. Visit the website for more details, or read on for full listings and ticket information.

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Help to save Chicago’s Essanay Studios

UPDATE 13 December 2013: Sad news – St Augustine College has pulled the plug on the restoration project.

We’re all saddened by the idea of silent film heritage sites falling into decay and disrepair. So I thought you would like to know about this crowdfunding campaign to restore the historic Essanay Studios in Chicago. As if you don’t know, the Essanay Studio was a major player in the first years of the American movie industry. Stars associated with the studio in its infancy include Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, Ben Turpin, Francis X Bushman and, of course, Broncho Billy Anderson, who funded the company in 1907 with George Kirke Spoor.

The studio building is now a college, and is seeking help with funding for renovations, and to transform itself into an arts centre, with a studio, performance space and an area where people can come and learn some silent movie history.

Before there was Hollywood, there was Chicago. This initiative seeks to preserve and revitalize one of the world’s first and last remaining silent film studios and a unique piece of a great city’s history. The restoration and rebirth of the Essanay Film Studio Complex will provide an opportunity for people of all ages and backgrounds to learn and experience the magic and mystery of early film-making and Chicago’s unique role. It will also extend and expand the studio’s cultural legacy by providing a community space for the performing arts.

If you want to donate to the restoration project, click here to visit Essanay Studios’  Indiegogo page. Find out more about Essanay Studios here.

Charlie Chaplin, fashion icon

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Alexa Chung is described as an “It Girl” so often that it is safe, with apologies to Clara Bow, to go ahead and call her that. Which means that when she appears on the cover of British Vogue, as she does this month, the fashionistas take note. The Vogue cover story in question is a couture fashion shoot styled by the magazine’s fashion director Lucinda Chambers and photographed by the legendary Patrick Demarchelier. Did I mention that it is inspired by and named after one of our very favourite silent films: Chaplin’s heartbreaking, hilarious The Kid?

According to the pages of Vogue, “Alexa Chung channels her inner Charlie Chaplin in the the season’s most magical designs”. The outfits featured combine couture gowns by houses including Chanel, Valentino (!) and Versace with vintage hats (something of a trademark for Chambers), and classic Chaplinesque touches – oversized boots, baggy pinstripe trousers and even a spindly bamboo cane. It’s a fashion shoot rather than a fancy-dress act, so the source material has been interpreted, not replicated: Chung wears a peaked cap that’s more Jackie Coogan than Little Tramp, for example. But it’s not entirely fast-and-loose. You could view those designer dresses, embellished with pearls and sequins, as a nod to Edna Purviance’s upper-class character in the same film  – meaning that Chung encapsulates the whole family. More likely, the Chaplin look has been chosen to offset all that opulence and to capitalise on Chung’s gamine beauty. She has long been celebrated for a certain “street-urchin” look that’s pure The Kid. In fact, she told Glamour magazine in 2012 that Chaplin inspired her dress sense, captioning a selfie with the words: “This is my Charlie Chaplin look – black trousers with suspenders and an Yves Saint Laurent shirt. Putting weird pieces of clothing together is what I’m good at.”

Alexa Chung's 'Charlie Chaplin' look (Glamour.com)
Alexa Chung’s ‘Charlie Chaplin’ look in 2012 (Glamour.com)

If you think it strange to see a woman taking fashion tips from a fictional tramp, played by a bloke nearly 100 years ago … well that does sound odd when you say it loud. But it’s not so off-the-wall as all that. Chaplin’s early years were spent in London music halls – that’s where he first performed, and where his parents had worked too. Male impersonators were popular in the halls, and fashion historian Amber Jane Butchart writes here about the immaculately turned out Vesta Tilley. When Chaplin first picked out his Tramp outfit, he may well have been thinking of this female twist on a masculine suit. The Tramp is in a kind of drag himself – in clothes that don’t quite fit, an outfit with aristocratic pretensions undermined by ragged hems.

Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp costume at the V&A museum
Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp costume at the V&A museum (aquamarinejo.wordpress.com)

Film and fashion expert Pam Cook wrote about the Tramp outfit, and how its “collage” of disparate items is a pastiche of different social types and their respective dress codes, in 2011:

According to Chaplin’s autobiography he created the Tramp’s outfit from deliberately contradictory elements: baggy pants, tight jacket, oversized shoes and small derby hat provided by fellow actors and whangee cane owned by himself. Accessories such as the high-collar shirt, check waistcoat and tie are not accounted for, but Chaplin claims to have added a moustache to make himself appear older. In this first manifestation, the Tramp is scruffier and less affecting than he became later. The cigarette adds to his louche appearance and the cane is a parody of gentleman’s attire. Chaplin gives a professional clown’s performance in the tradition of the North American Tramp/Hobo; his costume is based on a collage of mismatched pieces that appear to have been randomly collected from discarded clothing … While the dissonant parts of the Tramp’s outfit do not cohere into a sartorial whole, their recombination indicates the character’s aspirations to be a dandy.

The Tramp’s clothes draw attention to the social significance of dress as well as to his affectation, which Chaplin developed as a feature of his performance. The collage effect, deriving from popular forms such as the circus and street theatre, resonates with the aesthetic strategies of the Surrealists and others. The pastiche of styles portrays the character as a fabrication, a social type rather than a rounded individual. While the rudiments of psychological motivation are there in the costume’s ridicule of the Tramp’s desire to belong to a higher class, the emphasis on disguise focuses the viewer’s attention on Chaplin’s self-presentation as star performer … The Tramp and his costume become the spectacle.

For a woman to dress up as Chaplin may seem drab (the dark colours, the masculine cut) but that is far from the case. It’s a look that demands attention, and playfully blurs gender and class divisions, which is sexy and provocative in itself. In fact, aspects of the Chaplin look are hugely feminine and easy to wear: tight jackets and baggy trousers are flattering to many women’s body shapes. The tailoring can be softened by the casual fit, or even a buttonhole flower and lots of smudgy eyeliner. Just check out how many women on the fashion site Polyvore are channeling their own inner Chaplins. Female celebrities from Jessica Alba (when pregnant) to Brigitte Bardot have raided the costume box to pay homage to the star. And female Chaplin impersonations multiply on screen – including Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard but going far beyond that. Remember Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim? And the ultimate in tomboy-chic, Diane Keaton in Annie Hall – her tennis-date outfit has Chaplin fan written all over it. More recently, Melanie Laurent’s character Anna, having lost her voice, adopts a Chaplinesque costume in the romantic film Beginners.

Mélanie Laurent in Beginners (2011)
Mélanie Laurent in Beginners (2011)

Vogue’s Chung cover is hardly the only high-fashion take on Chaplin. Of the examples available online, I particularly like this Indonesian shoot – and this Brazilian video preview:

In 2011, Comme Des Garcons put female models in androgynous cut-up coats and jackets that reminded many onlookers of Chaplin’s Tramp. This spring, Vivienne Westwood called for a Climate Revolution in a sequined oversized bowler and Magic Marker moustache. Supermodel-of-the-moment Cara Delevingne, no less, also claims to be a Chaplin devotee – it must be the eyebrows.

Miss Chaplin by Rio Surya Prasetia for Amica Indonesia
Miss Chaplin by Rio Surya Prasetia for Amica Indonesia

So Chaplin is big news in the fashion world right now, but this look isn’t just for the ladies. In a recent, and typically eloquent, post for Mr Porter, fashion writer Colin McDowell reclaims the silent star as a style leader – offering a neat precis of his career and particular qualities as well as his appreciation for film costume and his fastidious off-duty fashion. From spring/summer 2011,  John Galliano presented a menswear collection inspired by the slapstick greats, in particular the urban-industrial attire of the Little Tramp – the models sported silent-era Hollywood makeup reinvented as gothic facepaint, with overalls, boots, prison stripes, moustaches and shocks of dark curly hair.

So why Chaplin in 2013? Well, the extent of Chaplin’s fame means that he will never disappear as a cultural reference point. The fact that his image has been protected by the Chaplin association all these years means that the source of his signature style remains intact and undiluted, no matter how many fashion shoots, fancy-dress parties or street imitators get their hands on it – so he is always ripe for a speedy revival. I need not mention how The Artist nudged the silent era back into mainstream consciousness, nor that 2014 will mark the anniversary of the Little Tramp’s creation. The acting success of Chaplin’s granddaughter Oona Chaplin (who was also photographed by Patrick Demarchelier for a very slinky shoot in Vanity Fair last year) may have given him another boost in fashion circles.

But if you break the Tramp’s look down into its constituent parts, as Cook does in the extract printed above, you’ll see exactly why he resonates in a time of austerity measures, bank bailouts and Occupy camps. These days Chaplin’s bowler hat and pinstripe trousers signify something more specific than “gent” – the modern bogeyman, the City Banker. Just as Chaplin remixed the attire of the upper classes to cock a snook at their pretensions, we can dress up as his character today and thumb our nose at the financial institutions that so often determine our fate. To distort the armour of the City, with rags or sequins, with a smile and knowing wink, is to expose a chink in it. Chaplin would enjoy that, don’t you think?

Silent films at the Luna Cinema, Holland Park, 11 August 2013

Luna Cinema, Opera Holland Park
Luna Cinema, Opera Holland Park

No I am not about to tell you to spend more of this glorious summer tucked away in a dark and musty cinema rather than out in the park. Holland Park’s Luna Cinema is hosting an evening of silent cinema at its open-air venue – which is what we call a win-win. It promises to be a great night, with classic films starring Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy on the big screen. You’ll be even more impressed when you hear that the musician and host for the evening is Neil Brand.

The Luna Cinema, the country’s leading producer of pop-up cinema, presents a night celebrating silent cinema to Opera Holland Park on the 11th August.  The stunning summer theatre, in Holland Park, with its velvet seats, bars and beautiful canopy (in case of bad weather) will host the Luna’s giant screen for a very special night of classic silent films.  We will have silent film expert Neil Brand hosting the evening and providing live musical accompaniment to an array of classic silent films including Charlie Chaplin’s most famous work, “The Immigrant” – it’s a rare opportunity to see this 1917 comedy showcasing Chaplin at his very best.    Amongst other classic shorts we will also be screening “Liberty” – one of Laurel and Hardy’s most famous comedies and considered to be their greatest silent work before they moved to the “talkies”.

The Luna Cinema’s silent film night takes place at Opera Holland Park, London on Sunday 11 August. Tickets cost  £9.50 – £19.50 and they are available through thelunacinema.com or by going straight to the Opera Holland Park box office (operahollandpark.com or 0300 999 1000).

Win tickets for a silent movie night at Hackney Attic

The Lucky Dog (1919)
The Lucky Dog (1919)

Competition time again, Silent Londoners, and this time I am giving away tickets for a night of silent film and live music at one of our favourite venues, Hackney Attic. The lucky winner can look forward to an uproarious evening, featuring Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy (in their first film together) and even Felix the Cat – plus a surprise! This latest event in the Filmphonics series has been put on by the silent film fanatics at the Lucky Dog Picturehouse. Here’s what they have to say about it:

The Lucky Dog Picturehouse specialise in providing an authentic 1920’s silent film experience, with live piano soundtrack. Collecting together 5 of the best silent film shorts ever made by some of the world’s greatest silent stars. Buster Keaton attempts to build his new flat-pack home in the stunt-filled ‘One Week’. You’ll find a love-lorn Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Pawn Shop’. Laurel & Hardy team up for the first time ever in ‘The Lucky Dog’ (featuring a dog to rival Uggie from The Artist). To balance the dog ‘Felix the Cat’ makes a madcap appearance. And the final film is “TBC” but it might involve a certain “Trip to the Moon”. All of the films will be scored by live keyboard accompaniment. Just as they were supposed to be seen.

Lucky Dog Picturehouse

To win a pair of tickets to the Lucky Dog Picturehouse night, simply email the answer to this simple question to silentlondontickets@gmail.com with Lucky Dog in the subject header by noon on Friday 17 May 2013.

  • In which British town was Stan Laurel born?

The Lucky Dog Picturehouse night at Hackney Attic is on Sunday 19 May at 7.30pm. Tickets start at 7pm for members (with £2 off if you book for The Great Gatsby the same day). Click here to book and for more information.

The Silent London podcast: Maurice Elvey, City Lights and unsilent films

City Lights (1931)
City Lights (1931)

It’s podcast o’clock once more. This time I’m joined in the studio by the marvellous Pete Baran, and in the pub by Lucie Dutton, who tells us all about British silent film director Maurice Elvey. All that, plus a guest appearance by Otto Kylmälä, film-maker and festival organiser, praising the “subtle brilliance and mature beauty” of his favourite silent movie, Chaplin’s City Lights.

Is City Lights a silent film? Perhaps it’s an “unsilent film” – we’ll be talking about them, as well as discussing your suggestions for the best silent films for small children and taking a look at the listings too – including the British Silent Film Festival’s 2013 incarnation and not forgetting Napoléon.

There’s also a lot more Robocop than you may expect. Don’t ask.

silentlondonpodcast5

The Silent London Podcast is available on iTunes. Click here for more details.  The music is by kind permission of Neil Brand, and the podcast is presented in association with SOAS radio.

If you want to get in touch with us about anything you hear on the podcast tweet @silentlondon or leave a message on the Facebook page: facebook.com/silentlondon.

Modern Times at the Royal Festival Hall: tickets for a tenner

Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard in Modern Times
Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard in Modern Times

This date should already be in your diaries. Charlie Chaplin’s wise and heartwarming not-so-silent silent film Modern Times screens at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank on 22 March, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Carl Davis. It’s a magnificent movie: a slyly hilarious portrait of Depression-era America, with a tremendous score written by Chaplin himself. There’s a lot to love about Modern Times – not least the final screen appearance of the Little Tramp and the debut of Chaplin’s song Smile.

If you’d like to see Modern Times, and who wouldn’t, you can take advantage of this special offer and get best available seats for just £10 if you quote FILM when booking online or by calling 0844 847 9910. Find out more and book online here.

Charlie’s London: a change of address

Charlie Chaplin in Easy Street (1917)
Charlie Chaplin in Easy Street (1917)

This is the final Charlie’s London post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London. Charlie’s London is now moving to its own site!

Welcome to the last edition of Charlie’s London on Silent London. I had been thinking for a while about what would be the best goodbye post for a site I hold so very dear. Without Silent London, Charlie’s London would not have an audience and I would not have had the platform to express my love for one of the greatest artists/comedians/directors/humanitarians the world has seen.

Chaplin means something different to everyone. To me he has somehow become part of my family history! From little William in that workhouse to seeing my very own godson fall in love with his films, I can honestly say Charlie never leaves me. Recently I was lucky enough to attend the Southbank showing of The Circus and as I sat in what really is Charlie’s London I felt very honoured and emotional. It was not just because it was a Chaplin film, but because my grandmother and I had watched this film many times when I was a child. I clearly remember her singing “swing little girl” to me on more than one occasion; I wish she had been able to sit in one of those deckchairs with me and enjoy it for herself.

Charlie Chaplin in The Circus (1928)
Charlie Chaplin in The Circus (1928)

There has been so much written about Chaplin the film-maker, the genius of cinema. There has been even more on Chaplin the man. What has interested me throughout my time writing this blog is Charlie the Londoner. It is true that most of his london no longer exists, but his presence still lingers those streets, even if people do not realise it. Poverty is still a massive problem in inner-city areas around the world, and South London is no different. Chaplin saw all this. For him it was a different age, a different life, but not a different London. You can see this in every one of this films: Easy Street, The Kid, Modern Times and right up until Limelight, Chaplin never forgot his roots.

While writing this blog I have learned an awful lot about my own family history, and myself too. I have enjoyed many chats with my mother into the early hours that often resulted in tears of laughter. The stories of my great grandmother and her false teeth! My own Nanna listening to Chaplin’s 1943 address to his Lambeth, my own rainy saturday afternoons with One AM and Kid Auto Races. Every street corner we turned in our Chaplin journey I would hear something about my own roots: my great grandmother being in a workhouse, my Uncle Fred living just off Methley Street and my mother remembering the bustle of East Lane Market.

Continue reading Charlie’s London: a change of address

Charlie’s London: Sydney Chaplin

Sydney Chaplin
Sydney Chaplin

This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.

Today I am going to look at the importance of another figure in Charlie’s life, his brother Sydney, whom I feel should never be overlooked.

Until the groundbreaking biography by Dr Lisa K Stein (Syd Chaplin: a biography), Sydney’s story was only really told as a piece of the Charlie Chaplin jigsaw puzzle. She has completely changed this, showing Sydney as an individual who helped to create his brother’s career. Stein’s book allows us to see Sydney like never before. Her work is a testament to the extensive resources in the Chaplin archives in Bologna, as well as her own personal collection and enthusiasm for her subject. For me, it shows that the information is all very much still there for us to all see, it’s just a question of knowing where to look, having the guts to challenge what is already known, interpret it differently and give a new dimension to further Chaplin research.

Four years older than his famous brother, Sydney would look out for his younger brother for the rest of his life. Born in 16 March 1885 to the 19-year-old Hannah Hill, and originally known as Sidney John Hill, Syd become a Chaplin when he was a few months old upon the marriage between his mother and Charlie’s father. The bond these brothers or the rest of their lives was a powerful one. Their shared time in south London workhouses and poorhouses, while their mother suffered with mental illness, required great courage. These events would later shape the brothers’ outlook on their art and their lives – although in different ways. Sydney Chaplin junior, Charlie’s son by his second wife Lita Grey, would reportedly later joke that his father’s choice of name for him was very apt. Whereas Charlie lived and breathed his work until its completion, Sydney senior would adopt a much more laidback approach and enjoy the fruits of his labour. In my humble opinion, Sydney felt he worked hard so he could play hard, Charlie however felt he had to hold on to his tragedy, because it helped mould his comedy.

Continue reading Charlie’s London: Sydney Chaplin

Charlie’s London: Chaplin’s women – part two

Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance
Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance

This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.

Hi everyone. Welcome back to another edition of Charlie’s London.

As promised I will be looking at two more women who I believe shaped his life, both on screen and off. Last time I looked at Chaplin’s mother and Mabel Normand, this week I will look at Edna Purviance and Oona O’Neill. I have to confess, Normand never used to be a favourite of mine, even though I consider her contribution to be important and often overlooked. Now, I have to say, I’m really in her corner. People have often said that Chaplin and Normand hated each other. People have also often said Chaplin and Mary Pickford hated each other too, for me, these relationships are one and the same. Their relationships were creative ones: if they clashed, let’s call it artistic differences.

Normand not only directed Chaplin but also acted as his leading lady too: a role taken most often by Edna Purviance, who appeared in 33 of his pictures including extra parts in Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight. Purviance was first cast opposite Chaplin in 1915 after a chance meeting with one of his associates in a Tate’s Cafe in San Francisco – the director was looking for a new female lead for his Essanay comedy A Night Out. Even after her final film with Chaplin, A Woman Of Paris in 1923, Purviance stayed on the company payroll right up to her death in 1958.

Chaplin and Purviance were romantically linked for many years, and unfortunately this is how some film enthusiasts and historians seem to want to remember her. I completely disagree with this. Chaplin would never have another leading lady like Purviance – Paulette Goddard comes close, but they don’t have the same bond on screen.

Continue reading Charlie’s London: Chaplin’s women – part two