An enthusiastic crowd packed the Castro Theatre solid yesterday, for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of Chaplin’s “little tramp” character. Featuring a beautiful lineup of films all played with live accompaniment (a piano accompanied the shorts, and the feature-length films were accompanied by 15 musicians from the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra), the San Francisco Silent Film Festival once again provided us with a world-class event, a moving portrait of love for a cinematic legend.
Often I find that even those people who have never seen a silent film know and are interested in Charlie Chaplin. There is something about Chaplin that we identify with, that speaks to the commonality of our experiences as humans. The honesty, sweetness, almost childlike quality of his iconic “little tramp” character is something intangible, representing a sort of universal goodness that we all strive for. To those who know his life story, his leftist politics and his fight for social justice having banned him from working in the United States for the latter portion of his life due to the Hollywood blacklist, this aspect of his character is simply a branch of who he was in real life.
“The Little Tramp” made his first appearance onscreen in a hilarious short called “Kid Auto Races at Venice,” in which he plays a spectator who, unwittingly or otherwise, keeps getting in the way of the camera filming an auto race event. It was filmed on January 11, 1914–100 years ago yesterday. It was the first offering at yesterday’s event, and the crowd went wild. Chaplin’s character in this is decidedly a bit more irate and cranky than what we are used to, as the character evolved over several years to become the character so widely loved today.
“Kid Auto Races at Venice” (1914)
We were then treated to 3 shorts that Chaplin made during his time at Mutual studios–“The Vagabond,” “Easy Street,” and “The Cure,” all very solid shorts that show the evolution of the character and Chaplin’s comedic trademarks. In “The Cure,” Chaplin plays an alcoholic spa-goer who gets himself and everyone else into a lot of trouble when his liquor is accidentally tossed into the curative waters. It is a very funny bit, and features prominently Chaplin’s gift for physical comedy–he teases the audience with nearly falling into the water several times, and we wonder when and if he will actually fall!
Next was a feature film, one of Chaplin’s most monumental hits and the first of his films to receive universally rave reviews. The Kid, released in 1921, was presented to us with Chaplin’s original score played by members of the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. Charlie Chaplin, a gifted composer, wrote many of his own scores and they are all magnificent. Festival artistic director Anita Monga told us that in order to procure the rights from the Chaplin family to show the film, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival had to agree to play it with the original score. Usually, the family requires that the score be played with the original instrumentation as well, but due to budget constraints the festival was able to talk them into allowing the chamber score to be played. So we heard 15 members from the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra playing Chaplin’s beautiful score to The Kid.
The Kid is a masterwork of simplicity and understatement. The plot is simple–a poor young man (the tramp) finds a baby and raises him as his own, becoming his surrogate father. When the child gets sick and he calls a doctor, the doctor finds out the situation and tries to send the boy away to an orphanage. The tramp loves the little boy so much he does everything to get him back.
Chaplin conceived this movie in the wake of the death of his own infant son, which makes the end product that much more significant. The little boy, 4-year-old Jackie Coogan, gives a startlingly beautiful performance and it’s difficult to fathom that this adorable child would grow up to play Uncle Fester on The Addams Family.
Last on the program was The Gold Rush, the film Charlie Chaplin said he would “most like to be remembered by.” After the success of The Kid, Chaplin set out to make an epic that would top it. Costing over $900,000, The Gold Rush was the most expensive comedy picture ever made up to that time and also the longest comedy, at 95 minutes in length in 1925. Also featuring some of Chaplin’s best-remembered sequences (including one where he eats a boot, goofs around making dinner rolls dance on forks, and battles a cabin about to fall off a cliff), this is one of Chaplin’s greatest achievements of his career.
The Gold Rush has an unusual history–originally released in 1925, Chaplin later composed a score for it, added narration, and re-released it in 1942. Thus, though it was a silent film, it interestingly received an Oscar nomination for Best Sound at the 1943 Academy Awards. At the festival last night, we watched the original version that is in the process of restoration by Photoplay Productions. So we saw the film without narration, as close to the way Chaplin had originally filmed it as possible given the restoration work being done.
Chaplin eats his shoe in one of the famous sequences. Note the narration that was added upon the film’s re-release.
As always, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival delivers. The full official San Francisco Silent Film Festival will take place over Memorial Day weekend this year, between May 29 and June 1. Please mark your calendars, because this is something that you will not want to miss. Thank you to Anita Monga, film historian Jeffrey Vance who gave informative talks before the screenings, and everyone at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for making The Little Tramp at 100 an event to remember.