Jeffrey M. Anderson
The Little Tramp at 100

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"I don’t need interesting camera angles," Charlie Chaplin once said, "I am interesting." He was right; Chaplin’s artistry always springs from the figure at the center of the frame rather than the arrangement of objects within the frame. Chaplin’s "Little Tramp" character, with twirling cane and little moustache — and his too-tight coat and hat and too-loose shoes and pants — was always an outsider longing to get in. He spent every second of every film looking for the Dream: a good meal, a nice place to stay, and people to love him.

This weekend the Castro Theater is celebrating The Little Tramp at 100, which does not indicate Chaplin’s birth — which was in 1889 — but rather his movie debut in 1914. Presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, there will be three shows on Saturday, January 11. The 1 p.m. show comprises three shorts, The Vagabond (1916), The Cure (1917), andEasy Street (1917), with live music by Jon Mirsalis on piano.

At 4 p.m. comes the great double bill of The Kid (1921) and Chaplin’s first film as the “Tramp,” Kid Auto Races at Venice(1914). The music will be provided by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra with Timothy Brock conducting.
Running six reels (about 50 minutes), Charlie Chaplin’s first feature film, The Kid was instantly hailed as a masterpiece. It still is, though Chaplin’s longer works The Gold RushCity Lights and Modern Times tend to overshadow it today. The very simple plot has the Little Tramp rescuing a baby on a doorstep (deciding to keep it to avoid attracting the attention of a nosy cop) and raising him for five years. At that point, officials attempt to take the child away. Critics at the time praised the film for its effortless combination of comedy and pathos, which is not as easy as it looks. Filmmakers today are still trying to come up with that winning combination and failing more often than not. The Kid's memorable highlights include breaking and selling windowpanes, Chaplin's fight with the neighborhood bully, and the truly bizarre dream sequence with the vampish fairy. The most famous clip is the one in which the kid cries and calls to Charlie from the back of the orphanage truck, and it's a truly stunning, heartbreaking moment. In the role, Jackie Coogan surely gives one of the all-time great juvenile performances, and for a while he became as big a star as Chaplin. Coogan's next best role came a year later, opposite Lon Chaney, as the title role in Oliver Twist (1922). Decades later, he became known to a new generation as Uncle Fester on “The Addams Family” TV show. In the 1970s, Chaplin composed a beautiful new score for The Kid, and it’s the one that’s still used today.
With Kid Auto Races at Venice, Chaplin’s ”Tramp” persona was already nearly fully formed. That film is not only remarkable for the first appearance of the Tramp, however. It’s a remarkable film by any standards; it has to be one of cinema’s first attempts at post-modernism with its acknowledgment of the camera and camera placement. As the races are being filmed, The Tramp keeps trying to maneuver himself in front of the camera, even if he has to walk out onto the track in front of speeding go-carts. (Later films would take place on movie sets, but did not feature the same kind of self-awareness.)
At 7:30 comes The Gold Rush (1925), with more music by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra with Timothy Brock conducting.

Chaplin’s expensive, mega-production The Gold Rush was one of his purest comedy-fantasies, with humor coming from places of discord: the little tramp and his big cabin-mate (Mack Swain), the humble tramp and the beautiful dance hall girl (Georgia Hale), the poor tramp and the high stakes he’s after. Likewise, Chaplin dealt with these off-kilter dualities all throughout his career: art versus commercialism, directing versus acting. This constant balancing fed his career, and his best work.

In The Gold Rush, Chaplin the prospector spends a good deal of his time stuck in a cabin, freezing, and without food. In one of his most brilliant set-pieces, his companion sees him turning into a chicken. In another, he cooks, and they dine on, a shoe (made, apparently of black licorice). I’m always amazed and tickled by the scene in which Swain and Tom Murray wrestle over possession of a shotgun; Chaplin scrambles all over the room, but the barrel always remains squarely pointed at him. The film’s finest moment, however, comes during a fantasy sequence, when Charlie imagines entertaining Georgia on New Year’s Eve with his beautiful “dance of the dinner rolls” (which is even more remarkable in context). 

Tickets to these events are $22 for adults and $10 for kids.
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