Favorite Movie Stories (Part One)

Naming my favorite movie is an impossible task. But naming my favorite story about the movies is much easier. Still, hedging my bets, I’ll say that one of my two favorites is the extraordinary story of Charlie Chaplin, and I’ll be sharing it during our next classic film program at the Easton Public Library on Wednesday evening, Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. (My other favorite film story will be discussed later in our current series. Stay tuned!)

The first story is a tale that could have been written by Charles Dickens: A young man spends part of his youth in a home for destitute children and rises quickly to become one of the most recognizable figures in the world. In 1915, a short year after Chaplin’s first films appeared, Motion Picture Magazine, the first publication for film fans in America, featured an article entitled “Chaplinitis” reporting: “Once in every century or so, a man is born who is able to color and influence the world. . And now in these laughter-loving days, a little Englishman. . . Charlie Chaplin. . .quiet, unassuming, but supercharged with dynamite. . .is doing it with pantomime and personality.”

“Chaplinitis,” from the July 1915 issue of Motion Picture Magazine. Courtesy of archive.org.

What Chaplin did for the movies is even more than what the movies did for him. Saul Bellow opined, “Chaplin’s Tramp character is possibly the greatest fictional representation of a human being produced in the twentieth century.”

As we watch scenes together from movies over a century old, you’ll see for yourself the power of Chaplin’s emotive force. We’ll discuss the roots of Chaplin’s genius and ponder together how a boy with hardly any schooling could evolve into one of the most important creative forces in the development of film language.

Like a Dickens novel, the story is complex. Like Dickens himself, Chaplin was able to transform into art the painful memories of loneliness and deprivation that went along with his growing up impoverished on the streets of London. Also like Dickens, part of Chaplin’s personality stood in marked contrast to his work. Chaplin, the star, was a tortured soul, often difficult to be around. He emotionally shut out his first two young wives, while at the same time he created films in which his Tramp character exemplified ideals of love and empathy.

By the time he had been in Hollywood two years, Charlie Chaplin had gained complete creative control of his movies. As the director of all but the very first few films, Chaplin regularly acted out the other actors’ roles, showing exactly how he wanted each to be performed. He painstakingly shot each of the individual scenes over and over (and over) until he got them just as he envisioned. His 20-minute short subjects took two, sometimes three times as long to produce as a regular full-length feature. And it shows. Over 100 years later, those movies still speak to audiences, making us laugh. And think.

We’ll discuss Chaplin the artist and Chaplin the man when we get together on Wednesday, Sept. 21 at the Easton Public Library. And, of course, we’ll watch examples of some of his best work, including the brilliant short “The Immigrant”(1917); followed by a beautifully restored copy of “The Gold Rush”(1925) his second feature-length film, and arguably the greatest film comedy of the silent era.

Won’t you join us?

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