Chaplin Ascendant; Chaplin Ascending

The Gold Rush: written and directed by Charles Chaplin; narrated by Charles Chaplin; starring Charles Chaplin (The Lone Prospector), Mack Swain (Big Jim), Tom Murray (Black Larsen) and Georgia Hale (Georgia) (1925; 1942 sound re-release): Chaplin thought this was the one movie he’d most like to see survive forever. It’s certainly the most purely comic of all his full-length movies, with the maudlin and the mawkish mostly excluded from the proceedings. Well, the original, silent proceedings.

This is the 1942 re-edited version, with narration by Chaplin replacing the title cards. Chaplin’s re-edit trimmed about ten minutes from the original. Eliminating title cards eliminated another ten minutes! So you get a 72-minute, trimmed-to-the-bone piece of Chaplin. Unfortunately, Chaplin’s tendency to the maudlin and the over-stated overpowers some of the narration. He also has a tendency to tell you basic things that you can already see on the screen.

But the monumental nature of the comic set-pieces here still charms and amazes and amuses. Chaplin wasn’t great at exploiting the filmic aspects of film as Buster Keaton was: editing and camera movement are not his stock in trade. But he knew how to fill a shot and stage a scene. His command of motion and of mise-en-scene was top-notch. I also always get a kick out of the cabin perched on the edge of an abyss. Easily one of the hundred finest English-language movies ever made. Highest recommendation.

Tillie’s Punctured Romance: written by Hampton Del Ruth, Craig Hutchinson, Mack Sennett, A. Baldwin Sloane, and Edgar Smith; directed by Mack Sennett and Charles Bennett; starring Marie Dressler (Tillie), Charles Chaplin (The Stranger) and Mabel Normand (Mabel) (1914): Writer/director/producer Mack Sennett (of Keystone Cops fame) was the first director to have the young Charles Chaplin in his films. Chaplin would move on soon after this movie to control his own productions. Thank God.

The top-billed star, though, is Cobourg, Ontario’s own Marie Dressler. Dressler was already 46 when this movie was released, and her career would decline up until the introduction of sound into film. Then she would undergo an amazing renaissance while in her sixties, winning a Best Actress Oscar and being named the top female box-office draw for three straight years before dying of cancer at the age of 66 in 1934. Her girl-hood home is a historical site in Cobourg.

There’s lots of fairly basic slapstick here, much of it literally involving slapping, hitting, punching, and kicking. The rudimentary plot involves Chaplin’s stranger eloping with rural naif Dressler in order to steal her money. Hijinks ensue, and the Keystone Cops make a late-movie appearance.

Sennett was not the man to discover any of the possibilities of the camera. Most shots are static, proscenium-arch set-ups from roughly the same vantage point in relation to the characters in the shot. Editing is rudimentary, and in-shot camera movement non-existent. There are a few close-ups, if you’re counting, but not many.

The static camera will begin to wear on one after awhile, as will the haphazard relation of the locations of one shot to the next. The rules of Classic Hollywood shot-to-shot geography and geometry were just at the start of being formulated; get ready for characters to seemingly run the wrong way out of one shot and into the next. Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it.

Chaplin is as good as possible with what he has to work with, as is Dressler — they’re both gifted physical comedians. If you’re going to watch this, you may want to do so in two or three sittings. At 70 minutes, it feels awfully long. Recommended.

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