Second Time Around

Chaplin at the Castro
Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp -- as studied and artificial a creation as the cinema itself -- was unquestionably the most popular artifact of film's first half-century, from his inspired concoction of the mustachioed vagabond in 1914 to his farewell to it in 1936's Modern Times. (A five-day series of Chaplin films at the Castro Theater begins Friday. Modern Times screens Sunday.) In 1936, as in 1914, homeless men roved the highways of America, and the Tramp's drift away from public consciousness in the years after the star/director's exile from America in 1952 might have something to do with the lack of homelessness in our late lamented postwar welfare state. Our renewed familiarity with that phenomenon may lead to renewed recognition for the once-famed figure. Or it may not, given that the character uncomfortably reminds us of our new permanent outcast class, and as such is to be scorned for his tatters, his spirit, and his kinship with such fellow outcasts as dogs and orphans.

A Dog's Life and The Kid, two early works screening Saturday, demonstrate that kinship quite satisfyingly. 1931's City Lights (Friday, with The Gold Rush) presents, however, perhaps the most perfect example of the filmmaker's ability to jerk laughter and tears in one go. The heavy sentiment worked up for Chaplin's character here (as he sacrifices himself for a blind flower girl) and elsewhere has been taken by many as a sign of the star's rampant narcissism and self-pity. But this is merely to underestimate the artistry of Chaplin the filmmaker, the disembodied creator who worked his own body like a puppet to get this effect or that. Chaplin the artist was in fact a demon perfectionist who sweated out his pantomime routines in exhaustive detail as he committed them to film. Like any great athlete or dancer, the effort doesn't show -- certain routines in these films (the human statue sequence, for example, in the relatively obscure The Circus, also on Saturday) come as close to perfection in their acrobatic timing as anything you'll see at Nagano this winter.

Chaplin's post-Tramp films, from The Great Dictator (1940, screening Tuesday) on, are in some ways his most interesting work, Chaplin the actor taking to talkies with a loquacious vengeance with a light, foppish voice that does wonders for his characterization in Monsieur Verdoux (Monday). Of these late films 1952's Limelight (Sunday) is probably the best, a valediction to the delight Chaplin had taken in pleasing audiences for 30 years in the guise of a sentimental tribute to the English music hall. All programs in this excellent series are highly recommended. Have I mentioned how funny they are?

-- Gregg Rickman

For a complete schedule, see Reps Etc., Page 72.

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