Charlie Chaplin

Not Just the Silent Treatment: Frank Scheide Explains Why Chaplin’s Work is No Laughing Matter

A pioneer in the world of cinema, the work of Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977) defined the silent film era: while he was not the only master of physical comedy of the day, his Little Tramp character has become the best-known and most-beloved. He helped to stretch the bounds of filmmaking even before synchronized dialogue was added, doing more with the limited technology of the day than many would have done with twice as much. In addition to his work on-screen, he co-founded United Artists with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith, among the earliest filmmakers to seek creative control over their work in an industry that—then and now—has been dominated by financial types.
Frank Scheide is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville where he teaches film history and criticism.

Simply Charly: You’ve devoted much of your career to the study of silent film, particularly as it relates to the work of Charlie Chaplin. What sparked your interest in Chaplin?

Frank Scheide: While my older cousins grew up listening to the radio in the 1940s, my parents got a television when I was three at the beginning of the 50s.  In the days before videotape, early television relied a great deal on showing old films to fill air time between live programming, and I was particularly drawn to the way silent film communicated through non-verbal expression. As television focused on other subjects and given the political controversy surrounding Chaplin, it became increasingly difficult to see this comedian’s work in the United States. I was very excited when Chaplin’s autobiography came out in 1964 and finally was able to see many of his silent films by collecting copies released through companies like Blackhawk Films in Davenport, Iowa.

SC: Chaplin was one of the first directors to explore the medium of feature-length movies. What, if any, film techniques or innovations resulted from his work?

FS: While he was featured in the first successful feature-length comedy, Tillie’s Punctured Romance in 1914, this was more Mack Sennett’s film than Charlie Chaplin’s. Because Chaplin’s short pictures were so financially successful, the early film companies for whom he worked were reluctant to have him make features despite his desire to do so, particularly since Chaplin was taking increasingly longer to complete his films as years went by. The first feature film that Chaplin directed was The Kid in 1921 and his next feature, A Woman of Paris, would not be released until 1923. Consequently, Chaplin was a bit late in exploring feature filmmaking when compared to other directors of the period. That said, the tragicomedy of The Kid was particularly innovative in that it was believed that slapstick could not be blended with comedy before that time, and its success continues to influence films to this day. A Woman of Paris, a drama that Chaplin directed but did not star in, was hailed by other filmmakers for its subtlety and understated performance, and it had a major influence on the work of Ernst Lubitsch, among others. All of Chaplin’s succeeding features have been the focus of serious study.

SC: Along with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith, Chaplin founded the United Artists (UA) film distribution company in 1919, which was, undoubtedly, a daring move for its time. How did UA serve his interests as a filmmaker?

FS: With each succeeding studio contract Chaplin demanded more artistic freedom, as well as a substantial increase in salary. When Chaplin made The Kid while under contract with First National, that company was very opposed to his making features, even though this motion picture made a great deal of money for that studio. United Artists clearly served Chaplin’s interests as a filmmaker by allowing him to make his films when and how he wanted.

SC: How did the arrival of “talkies” impact Chaplin’s film career, since, until then, he was known as a silent film star?

FS: The coming of sound had a major impact on this filmmaker’s work and career.  Chaplin saw his famous “tramp” as a silent film character, and this concern influenced the four films he made from 1928 to 1942-The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940). While Chaplin believed that the tramp should not talk, he appreciated being able to control the music and sound effects in his films—something that previously had been left to the discretion of theaters that provided their own musical accompaniment. Consequently, the “silent” features that Chaplin made from 1928 through 1936 were quite innovative in their use of sound. The transition from silents to talkies occurred between 1927 and 1932, and Modern Times is considered the last major “silent picture” produced before Mel Brooks’s feature comedy Silent Movie, in 1976. Though Modern Times was financially successful, Chaplin decided his next picture would have to be a talkie. The comedian was particularly disturbed by the advent of Adolph Hitler, and used the similarity of the signature mustaches of the dictator and the tramp to satirize the autocrat at a time when Hollywood did not want to alienate the German market. The Great Dictator would be Chaplin’s most commercially successful film and one of his most important.

SC: During the McCarthy era, Chaplin was accused of “un-American activities” as a suspected communist. Was there ever any basis for this charge?

FS: Charles Chaplin was one of Hollywood’s most successful capitalists and not someone who was interested in giving up his fortune to the masses to live modestly. Chaplin was grateful to the United States for the success that he gained in this country, and moved to Switzerland rather than Russia after leaving America in 1952. As you note, these accusations occurred during the “McCarthy era” when many people were falsely accused of being communists because of their political views. Chaplin’s films and his personal philosophy championed the underdog, and he was not someone who would endorse everything the United States did despite his appreciation for the country that brought him fame and fortune. This propensity for expressing an opinion, which resulted in his making The Great Dictator at a time when criticizing Adolph Hitler was not popular, got Chaplin in trouble when McCarthyism became ripe.  In 1972, Charles Chaplin was invited back to the United States for a special Academy Award for his achievements as a filmmaker, and he was given a hero’s welcome.  I do not believe that there is any basis for the charge that Chaplin was a “suspected communist” other than the malice of the times when the accusation was made.

SC: In his autobiography, Buster Keaton stated that Chaplin was the greatest comedian that ever lived and the greatest comedy director. Do we know how Chaplin felt about Keaton?

FS: One of the great moments in film history was when Buster Keaton performed with Charlie in the climactic scene of Chaplin’s 1952 picture, Limelight. Chaplin had a very high opinion of Keaton, or he wouldn’t have put him in this sequence, and their ensemble acting is a wonderful thing to see. There are critics who have accused Chaplin of cutting some of Keaton’s best material due to jealousy. I feel that Chaplin, as the director, chose the footage that he felt worked best for this picture. Either way, there is no denying this scene’s effectiveness. Though appreciated in his day, it took longer for Keaton to achieve the critical acclaim that both artists now receive. Consequently, when the great works of Keaton were rediscovered, and he enjoyed major recognition in the 1960s, some claimed that Keaton was better than Chaplin. While Charlie was not pleased with this development, he did not denigrate his fellow artist. Chaplin and Keaton had a strong mutual respect for one another.

Charlie Chaplin

SC: In addition to his filmmaking, Chaplin wrote the musical scores for most of his most popular films, such as The Kid, City Lights, and The Great Dictator. Did he have any musical training?

FS: Actually Chaplin wrote the score for the re-release of The Kid, and production demands resulted in his turning over most of the musical score for The Great Dictator to Meredith Willson. Other than The Great Dictator, Chaplin wrote the music for the initial release of all his features starting with The Circus (1928).  Chaplin could not read music and did not have any musical training as such, but would play the piano, violin, and cello for his own amusement.  When composing, Chaplin would pick out tunes by humming or hitting notes on the piano, and a trained musician, primarily Eric James in later years, would help him translate these compositions into a score. Chaplin’s background in the English music hall—the equivalent of American vaudeville—featured live music, and this experience had a major impact on his work. Lauded as a film composer, it is interesting that Charles Chaplin’s approach to musical composition was based on improvisation, which is also how he developed much of his visual comedy.

SC: In 2001, you began cataloging 70 hours of previously unavailable outtakes from the films of Charlie Chaplin for the British Film Institute. These outtakes were supposed to be destroyed on Chaplin’s behest. But fortunately, they got into the “wrong” hands and are now seeing the light of day. Can you tell us the story behind this discovery? And how significant are these outtakes?

FS: I began the cataloging in 1999 and finished in 2001. The best source for the history of the outtakes is Kevin Brownlow’s 2005 book The Search for Charlie Chaplin, which documents the role this footage had in the making of his award-winning documentary series Unknown Chaplin. Mr. Brownlow also provided a fascinating history of the outtakes in a special feature interview in the 2005 DVD release of this series. To give you a brief overview, the outtakes were in the Chaplin vaults in Los Angeles when the comedian moved to Switzerland, and he ordered them destroyed. The typical method for disposing of film would be to melt down the unwanted footage to retrieve the silver. Film collector Raymond Rohauer heard about the plans to dispose of the outtakes and offered to buy this material for what the silver would have been worth. When Chaplin heard what happened, he demanded that the footage from those films still under copyright be returned, which Raymond Rohauer proceeded to do. However, Rohauer kept the footage considered to be in the public domain, which included the outtakes from the films Chaplin made for the Mutual Film Corporation between 1916 and 1917. It was the Mutual footage that Kevin Brownlow and David Gill primarily used for the first episode of Unknown Chaplin.

As is indicated in the opening narration of Unknown Chaplin, this director was very secretive about his working methods, and these outtakes provide a fascinating key to appreciating his creative process. For the Mutual films, Chaplin would take an idea and improvise on camera instead of working from a completed script. By viewing these outtakes sequentially, one can see how Chaplin’s films evolved into polished classics. I know of no other documentary that has had such an impact on forever changing the critical understanding of the work of a major film artist.

SC: As an expert in the work of Chaplin, you’re often invited to speak at Chaplin conferences around the world. What actually occurs at these conferences? And how are you advancing Chaplin studies?

FS: Great art speaks to everyone, and new insights can be obtained from repeated encounters by those who wish to learn more. While Chaplin’s comedy is immediately accessible to a wide audience on a number of levels, his art is made up of many complex layers. The Chaplin conferences are opportunities for specialists to share their research and learn about current critical perspective. Those engaged in this discussion hope to advance their appreciation and understanding of this artist and his art. Besides the work I’ve done with the outtakes, my particular focus has been on how Chaplin’s background in English music hall influenced his later films.

SC: What would you say is Chaplin’s legacy?

FS: This artist adapted the discipline of clowning, which had evolved from centuries on the stage to meet the demands of a new medium, the motion picture, to produce classic comedies that continue to withstand the test of time.

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