26 July 2010

The Little Tramp

All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman, and a pretty girl.—Charles Chaplin

New York’s Film Forum is in the midst of a Charles Chaplin Festival and if you have never seen one of his films on the big screen, you don’t know what you’re missing. I was fortunate enough on a recent evening to catch two of his silents—The Idle Class (1921) and The Circus (1928). 

A scene from The Idle Class.

In The Idle Class, Chaplin plays two parts: the Tramp and the Husband. After sneaking onto a private course to play a round of golf, the Tramp winds up at a costume ball where the Neglected Wife, played by Chaplin regular Edna Purviance, mistakes him for her husband and general hilarity ensues. While the film may be short (30 minutes), it’s full of comedic moments. The scene where the husband enters the hotel lobby without his pants on is worth viewing for itself alone.

Those darn monkeys.

The Circus opens with a song, Swing Little Girl, sung by the man himself. Chaplin composed the song and a new score for the film’s 1969 re-release and the poignant strains of the elder Chaplin’s voice urging the girl on the screen to “never look down” make this version of the film a special treat.

While visiting a traveling circus, the Tramp is mistaken for a pickpocket and leads the police on a merry chase, including a brilliant turn in a hall of mirrors, before stumbling into the big top. The chaos he creates is thought to be part of the act by the crowd, and the Tramp is offered a job by the Ring Master. The Tramp soon falls in love with a circus rider, played beautifully by newcomer Merna Kennedy. When she declares her feelings for Rex, a tightrope walker, the Tramp takes to the high wire to prove his love.

Once again, the myriad comic scenes are too numerous to mention though I will admit that most of my favourites involve the Tramp interacting with animals, from the running joke of the donkey who always chases him to getting trapped in the lion’s cage to the trunk full of mischievous monkeys who wreak havoc on his balance (shouldn’t every film have a trunk full of monkeys?). 

The festival runs through August 5 and other Chaplin festivals are slated for Boston and Washington, DC. If you can get to the cinema, please do. There’s nothing like sharing in the trials and joys of the little Tramp with an audience of film lovers. 

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