Charlie Chaplin on Blu-ray at the Knox County Public Library

In Arts & Culture, Movies & TV, Shelf Life by Chris Barrettleave a COMMENT

It may seem incongruous to pursue silent films—films made using cameras which were often unsteady, hand-cranked at low and inconsistent speeds, and which have suffered variously in attics or archives for a century or so—in editions remastered for low-compression/high-definition viewing. It may seem so, that is, until you do.

Until the late 1920s, the only audio information related to films consisted of music, generated erratically and independently of the projector, usually by a live pianist of unreliable skill. The entire narrative content of these films is contained in a flickering series of rapidly changing still photographs. The better those images look—the greater the level of discernible detail—the easier and more pleasant it is to engage with the story and its tellers. In the case of a storyteller like silent-era Charlie Chaplin, subtlety and nuance are everything. Chaplin slays on Blu-ray, and his work is worth the fuss and time spent rewatching.

Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies 1915
These 17 comedy shorts were made 100 years ago, and the restored versions represented here have been more than a decade in the making. They are worthwhile for a few reasons. When Chaplin left Keystone Studios (where Mack Sennett hailed him as “just the greatest artist who ever lived”), he made history by signing a contract at Essanay for $1,250 per week. Of course, he would be handsomely paid to make other sorts of history over the next several decades. The Chaplin you meet here is the emerging genius, still in the shed, so to speak, testing and trying. His skills and physical vocabulary do not separate him much from his co-stars. But his promise is obvious. In the early frames of several of these films, before any action or pratfalls, Chaplin’s radiant magnetism makes
it clear he’s the one to watch.. And the quality of the restored footage is fantastic. It seems less like history
or nostalgia than like access to a
new world.

City Lights (1931)
Chaplin directed, starred in, and scored this silent feature as Hollywood moved its money and talent to talkies. It’s a brilliant fairy tale about love and lessons and ways of seeing while not seeing, and posterity has proven the wisdom of Chaplin’s judgment. Virginia Cherrill portrays the blind flower girl for whom Chaplin’s Tramp endures boxing, prison, and the vexing friendship of a drunken millionaire (Harry Myers) who only recognizes the Tramp when he’s sloshed. The acting here is the opposite of what you find in the Essanay shorts. Chaplin mimes blushing, among other subtle human expressions and emotions that black-and-white photography should not have been able to capture. James Agee thought that the ending contained the best acting ever seen on film. It’s hard to argue while you have it fresh in mind.

The Kid (1921)
Chaplin’s first feature may be his finest film (which, again, he directed, starred in, and scored). The Kid introduces the 7-year-old child star Jackie Coogan, whose casting risked diminishing the Tramp’s mystique in a couple of ways. Coogan could nearly match Chaplin in silent charm and pathos—his infant-left-in-limousine-by-unwed-mother character offered some automatic, maybe unfair advantages—and the kid might have easily upstaged a less confident and competent star. And by playing opposite Coogan, Chaplin couldn’t help but tip his hand by revealing how often he mesmerizes viewers by simply becoming a child. The visible bond between father and adopted son is sweet but not too much so, and no sensible person would envy the social services types who endeavor to come between them. And, again, the quality of restored footage is impressive and transporting.

Chris Barrett's Shelf Life alerts readers to new arrivals at the Lawson McGhee Library's stellar Sights and Sounds collection, along with recommendations and reminders of staples worthy of revisiting. He is a former Metro Pulse staff writer who’s now a senior assistant at the Knox County Public Library.

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