Tag Archives: charlie chaplin

Live From the TCM Classic Film Festival Day 3: CITY LIGHTS (1931), I REMEMBER MAMA (1948), HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941), Hollywood Home Movies, THE WOMEN (1939), FREAKS (1932)

On what was my busiest day of the festival thus far, my film experiences yesterday ran the gamut of human emotion. From the laughs and tears of City Lights to the nostalgia of I Remember Mama, to delight at the naughtiness of The Women to the uncomfortable but ultimately triumphant horror of Freaks. It was quite a long day and so, dear readers, I was compelled to begin writing this post on the morning of the last day of the festival, in the name of sleep and sanity.

The first film of the day yesterday was City Lights, a 1931 Charlie Chaplin masterpiece that is one of his many tours-de-force and happens to be one of my personal favorites of all time. It tells the story of a blind girl who is befriended by Chaplin’s “little tramp” character, and when she is unable to afford her rent, he goes through a series of precarious (and often hilarious) circumstances to get the money for her. The movie is laugh-out-loud funny, but with a certain poignancy in Chaplin’s scenes with the blind girl, a poignancy that serves to give the tramp character his humanity. This is typical of Chaplin–right when we are about to write the tramp off as nothing but a silly clown, we are shown a side of him that is so sweet, gentle, and kind, we cannot help but relate to him in some way and think of him on our own human terms.

The ending of City Lights is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful endings ever in the history of the movies. For those of you who have not seen it and prefer not to have the ending spoiled, skip this paragraph and clip! But for those of you who don’t mind spoilers, I will show you an ending that is sure to melt the coldest of hearts. When the tramp is with the blind girl at one point in the movie, she discusses the possibility of surgery on her eyes so that she may see. It is inferred that with the money that the tramp gives her for her rent (he manages to get her a lot more than her rent required, by enlisting the help of a millionaire friend who, through a series of circumstances, ends up not remembering him and the tramp is thrown in jail for extortion), she is able to afford the operation, but as the police believe that the tramp stole the money, he ends up in jail and unable to see the girl until he is out. Autumn comes, and the tramp is out of jail…disheveled with raggedy clothes on, he sees the girl, who has had her operation. This is the scene:

Needless to say, it was an emotional moment in the theater. It is rare that a movie can make you laugh so hard, and then tug at your heartstrings with such grace and beauty.

Next up was I Remember Mama, a glimpse into the life of a Norwegian immigrant family in San Francisco in the early 1900s. The plot is simple–a young woman recounts her childhood in flashback, recalling the days with her family, the good times and the bad times. TCM’s theme this year is “Family: The Ties That Bind,” and they couldn’t have picked a more appropriate addition to the festival than I Remember Mama. The film earned Irene Dunne her final Academy Award nomination, and in my personal opinion she was robbed that year. Though the competition was tough–she was up against Olivia de Havilland for The Snake Pit, Barbara Stanwyck for Sorry, Wrong Number, Ingrid Bergman for Joan of Arc, and the ultimate winner, Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda–Irene Dunne’s performance as the devoted Norwegian mother is flawless. She speaks with a convincing Norwegian accent, and in one scene in which she has to leave her child alone in a hospital, you can feel her pain and guilt. It is a remarkable movie, and a love poem to mothers everywhere.

Maureen O’Hara and Walter Pidgeon in HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941)

I was concerned about getting into the next movie, as there would be a special guest–and not just any special guest. The legendary Maureen O’Hara was slated to appear at the screening of How Green Was My Valley, and as I expected, the line was the longest I had ever seen at this festival. I did end up getting in, and they showed a beautiful montage of clips from Maureen O’Hara movies before Maureen came out–teary-eyed with emotion. At 93 years old she is still strikingly beautiful, and speaks elegantly with a touch of an Irish brogue that came and went during her film career but now seems here to stay. I had the great privilege of meeting Maureen O’Hara several years ago when I was in Ireland, and she is truly a larger-than-life personality. A great lady with great convictions that are apparent whenever she speaks.

How Green Was My Valley is a touching coming-of-age story set in a Welsh mining town, and Maureen O’Hara plays Angharad, sister of main character Huw (Roddy McDowall). The film makes a great many points about family and fairness, especially in regard to labor and treatment of others. It is a simple film that doesn’t put on any airs, yet it won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1942–winning over Citizen Kane.

The next activity was a showing of several Hollywood home movies from the Academy Film Archive, including home movies from the Ziegfeld family, footage from Hearst Castle, the set of Oklahoma, and rare backstage footage of a young Jean Harlow. Accompanied by a live piano, the silent clips were shown with live commentary from special TCM guests, including, notably, the great-granddaughter of Florenz Ziegfeld and Billie Burke.The Academy Film Archive is a treasure trove of films, newsreels and film clips, and their selections for the festival are always fascinating. This is becoming a yearly event at the TCM Classic Film Festival, and I always make it a point to go. The audience was enraptured and enthusiastic, and it was great fun to experience.

After having coffee with fellow blogger Vincent Paterno, who is in town for the festival, I headed off to see The Women, a movie readers of Backlots are quite familiar with by now as I have written about various facets of the movie on many different occasions. It is one of the smartest, wittiest movies of the 1930s and, I would argue, of all time. Yesterday’s screening featured a talk with Anna Kendrick, Oscar-nominated actress who happens to be a huge fan of The Women. Kendrick spoke intelligently and passionately about this movie, and she and Ben Mankiewicz (who interviewed her) clearly have a great rapport. It was a lot of fun, and the talk went overtime because Kendrick had so much to say.

I won’t delve into the movie in this write-up, as I would be writing about it all day and you can read my varied analyses of this movie here, here, and here, but suffice it to say that it’s one of my favorite films to discuss. I am especially fascinated by the the influence that designer Elsa Schiaparelli had on the film’s costume designer, Adrian, evidenced in the fashion sequence and throughout the movie.

My final viewing of the night was a midnight showing of Freaks, a dark look into the world of circus sideshows that ultimately brings light to the way people with disabilities were treated within the confines of so-called “freak shows.” It is a movie whose concept makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and I think it’s partly because there is a misunderstanding of the film’s title from those who have not seen the movie. It is often passed over by people who are either offended by what they assume the movie will be, or by those who fear the dark and bizarre subject matter. But at its core, Freaks is a movie that turns stereotypes upside down. Previously (and since), actors who had some sort of physical disability were often cast as villains or characters to be feared. In Freaks, it is the disabled characters who are the “good guys,” and the able-bodied characters are the ones to be feared. It is quite an unusual and progressive scenario. Tod Browning spent much of his life working in circuses, and knew this world very well, which makes his interpretation all that more fascinating. In addition, nearly all of the characters were portrayed accurately, by disabled actors or real life sideshow performers.

Tod Browning with some of the cast members of FREAKS (1932).

Today, as the last day of the festival, is a bit of a lighter day, but there are some good things on the horizon to look out for tomorrow! See you then!



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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.

THE LITTLE TRAMP AT 100 Celebration–January 11 at the Castro Theatre

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Tomorrow, locals of the San Francisco Bay Area will be treated to a very special event at the Castro Theatre. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Little Tramp’s first appearance onscreen, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is putting together a program honoring Chaplin’s iconic character, featuring two landmark Chaplin films as well as several shorts from his time at the Mack Sennett studios.

I will be in attendance to keep you up to date on what is happening throughout the day, through live tweets and posts on the official Facebook page and the Backlot Commissary. As with all festivals, I will make a post at the end of the day talking about the event and what it was like. Stay tuned!

From THE KID, one of the films to be screened on Saturday.

If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, it would be wonderful to see you there. For more information on the program, check out the Little Tramp at 100 site, as well as Mick LaSalle’s wonderful article for the San Francisco Chronicle last week.

For those of you who are not able to make it, I look forward to talking with you on social media or through the comments section of this post. For those who are coming, I will see you there!

2013 at Backlots–A Year in Review

A big thank you to my readers for making 2013 a true banner year for Backlots. Here are some of the things that happened on the blog this year:

My attendance at the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival was far and away one of the highlights of the year. A true movie lover’s paradise, the TCM Festival attracts classic film aficionados from the world over, and TCM certainly delivers the goods. It was great fun interacting in person with my fellow bloggers, whose work I know so well online, and making new classic film friends. A wonderful experience!

For the second year in a row, Backlots covered the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this past summer. As usual, it was a fantastic event with presentations unparalleled in their quality. Highlights for me included a screening of the hilarious Marion Davies movie The Patsy, an interactive talk with Winsor McKay expert John Canemaker,  and the breathtaking gamelan accompaniment set to the Balinese silent film Legong: Dance of the Virgins by the Sekar Jaya Gamelan Ensemble. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival never disappoints. Stay tuned next year’s festival which will be held over Memorial Day Weekend, and on January 11 for their special celebration of The Little Tramp at 100–celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first appearance of Chaplin’s The Little Tramp. I will be at both events!

Last month, I was honored to be invited to blog for the Warner Bros. 90th Anniversary Tour. We bloggers were treated to a day of exploration at the studio, led by a professional guide, and topped off with lunch at the commissary. We had special access to the costume department and several areas off limits for regular tour members, and it was indeed a special day. Again, I met so many fellow bloggers and had such a good time. Thank you, Warner Bros., for organizing this wonderful day for us!

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The classic film community was graced with several magnificent new books this year. I had the pleasure of conducting interviews with Victoria Wilson, author of A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940, and Kendra Bean, who is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait and a personal friend of mine. Both of these works are great monuments in and of themselves. A Life of Barbara Stanwyck is a gargantuan book that features 860 full pages of text and another 200 for source notes, and has proven to be the quintessential, definitive book on the actress. My reading of this book, though it took me less than 2 days, is one of the highlights of my year. Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait is so chock full of previously unseen photos of this staggering beauty that the reader simply cannot put it down. It is displayed prominently, face forward, on my shelf so as not to obscure its beauty. I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to interview these two gifted writers, and I thank them for their interviews with me. Read Victoria Wilson’s interview here, and Kendra Bean’s here.

In what was perhaps my most meaningful personal success of 2013, I had the great privilege to interview Joan Fontaine in honor of her birthday. This was her last birthday, and her last interview. Joan was frail and her health declining, so she kept her answers short. The length of her answers does not matter to me. My interview with Joan Fontaine remains the single greatest privilege Backlots has ever had. Click here to read it. Rest in peace, dear Joan.

This is the video I made in memory of Joan Fontaine. I hope you enjoy it.

Wow, readers. What a year. 2014 is already shaping up to be an equally marvelous year! Here’s to what’s to come, and to you, loyal readers, for helping to make this blog what it has become.