Friday, August 8, 2014

Artist at Work: Charlie Chaplin in 35mm
on Sunday, Aug. 10 at Somerville Theatre

Chaplin, here with co-star 'Scraps,' amps up the poverty in 'A Dog's Life' (1918).

This weekend finds me doing music for Charlie Chaplin on the big screen of the Somerville Theatre's main theater.

The show, consisting of the first four of Chaplin's comedies released by First National, is on Sunday, Aug. 10 at 2 p.m.

Of course you don't need a specific reason to show Chaplin. But if one was required, the year 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of Chaplin's entry into the movies, and also the 100th birthday of his iconic 'Tramp' character.

So there! Happy birthday, Charlie Chaplin. Maybe someone should bring a cake.

Coincidentally, the Somerville Theater opened 100 years ago this year. So lots of centennials to go around.

And here's another: one film on the program is Chaplin's 'Shoulder Arms' (1918), a daring comedy set in part in the trenches of World War I, which began 100 years ago this summer.

Because of all this, we're charging a fee of $100 a ticket. No, wait—the Somerville management has just informed me that ticket prices will remain at the usual $15 per person.

About the films: besides 'Shoulder Arms,' we're also screening 'A Dog's Life' (1918), 'Sunnyside' (1919), and 'A Day's Pleasure' (1919).

I'm told the 35mm prints the theater received are virtually brand new (struck in 2010) and have excellent black & white density, so what's on the screen promises to be just about as good as what audiences saw nearly a century ago.

The films themselves are interesting in that they show Chaplin trying at a turning point in his growth as a filmmaker.

In just four years, Chaplin had gone from unknown newbie to the funniest man in the world. Really!

What to do next? Chaplin could keep cranking out the funny short comedies, but somehow that wasn't enough.

And so, starting with the films he made for release by First National in 1918, he began searching for something richer, more complex—different.

As outlined in Walter Kerr's great book 'The Silent Clowns,' Chaplin began to take his 'Tramp' character in new and challenging directions, testing his behavior in various situations.

And sure enough, each of the four films on Sunday's program show Chaplin exploring different paths and new ideas, pushing boundaries and stretching possibilities.

In 'A Dog's Life,' he amps up the realism and adds a dose of pathos: the Tramp is depicted as genuinely penniless, and in a menacing world that looks like it was designed by Charles Dickens.

'Shoulder Arms' tries to find comedy in current events—in this case, the notably unfunny topic of World War I, still raging when Chaplin started the film. (It was released as the fighting was dying down in late 1918, and became a smash hit.)

'Sunnyside' (1919), set in an idyllic rural landscape, finds Chaplin exploring pastoral fantasy, in the form of an extended ballet sequence.

And 'A Day's Pleasure' (1919) returns to the knockabout style of his earlier comedies, although Chaplin is now saddled with a wife and two kids.

W.C. Fields once referred to Chaplin as a "god-damned ballet dancer." A scene from 'Sunnyside' (1919) might be one reason why.

Four films, four very different directions. Yes, they're all funny. But beyond the laughs, what was Chaplin up to?

We can't know for sure, but I think Chaplin answered this question in the film he made right after these four comedies: 'The Kid' (1920), his first full-length feature.

A feature film demands things that a short comedy doesn't. It demands a solid story. It demands characters rather than caricatures. It demands planning and pacing and depth.

In his first four First National comedies, Chaplin was pushing himself into new places to test his character in different environments. In effect, he was laying the groundwork for 'The Kid' and the other features that would be his crowning achievements.

The process that got him there is clearly visible, I think, in the quartet of comedies we're screening this Sunday at the Somerville. If we needed a slogan for the show, it might be this: ARTIST AT WORK: CHAPLIN'S FIRST FOUR FOR FIRST NATIONAL.

But then I see this contains a weird internal palindrome: FIRST FOUR FOR FIRST. That's bad karma, and confusing, too.

So let's just say it's a program worth catching if you're anywhere within traveling distance of Davis Square in Somerville, Mass. on Sunday, Aug. 10.

And don't pay any attention to the weather, which is supposed to be gorgeous. We've had way too much great weather all summer long in our part of the world, so you won't be missing anything.

And besides, how many chances do you think you'll get to see some of Chaplin's best work on the big screen in 35mm with live music and an audience?

See you there!

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