Chaplin Comes To Carolina
I made a Chaplin odyssey to Durham last week to see 35mm prints of six short comedies plus The Circus. The drive was two hours, but worth it. Brochures said this was the only such Chaplin festival in North Carolina. There were ones nearly four decades ago after CC received his special Academy Award, at which time features he owned were put back in theatres. I attended those lots during the seventies, and wondered if this trip might rekindle excitement of seeing them then. Well, of course, it couldn't. I'd watched many times over intervening years, and too often alone, to be aware of how folks today respond to Chaplin. Indeed, much of last weekend was spent judging the presentations and counting heads in attendance. The sense of wonder is long gone enough that I don't grieve over it anymore, yet part of me wanted to be nineteen again to see these for a first time, rather than clocking laughs from crowds a fraction of what used to come out for old films. Seems I'm to a point where revival shows are more stress than fun ... will people show up? ... have they got the screen ratio right? These weren't concerns when Charlie roared back to big screen life in 1972 with Greensboro's Janus Theatre offering first look since forever at the best and rarest of his comedies, a perfect moment and place for introduction to Chaplin at his peak.
The Janus, opening doors in 1968, merged a beatnik coffee house atmosphere with hippie commune aesthetics to redefine moviegoing for a changed culture. Various rooms had screens no larger than home theatres now, and new ones were carved out often. You could sit on seats, couches, beanbags, or the floor. They'd run oddities like Freaks and Un Chien Andalou for late shows. It was the perfect site for a Chaplin fest and highlights like Modern Times and City Lights squeezed patrons into aisles. All this amounted to thrill of something new. None of the Chaplins, outside scratchy shorts, had been on television, and theatres had mostly shunned him since before we were born. Was there something about 60's/70's sensibilities that made young people more receptive to old films? I remember howls of delight going up among Janus-ites when Charlie did his cocaine gag in Modern Times. Here was drug humor thirty years ahead of Saturday Night Live. Chaplin was with-it and needed no allowance for vintage of his work. The Janus scored big with the package and leased it outright for a year, during which Chaplin was in near-constant rotation among the theatre's ever-increasing screens. I suppose circumstances that made these click are long past now. The Janus was torn down for condos and its successor, The Carousel Cinemas, presently runs what's called a "Mixed Tape" series of great CLASSIC movies, full of thrills, chills, spills, and laughs (their promotion), including The Breakfast Club, Army Of Darkness, Die Hard, and Boogie Nights. Only two of the thirty-five scheduled were released before 1970.
I wish everyone who loves Chaplin could have been in Durham last week. The Carolina Theatre, housed in a historic downtown building (above), did splendidly presenting the nine programs. All were 35mm and looked brand new. Thirty-eight people besides me watched The Circus, enough for Charlie to light up and earn spontaneous applause for the finish. I reflected on my 8mm bootleg print from 1971, followed in 1974 by a renegade 16mm upgrade. So much personal history with The Circus made Durham's revisit all the more gratifying. The fact a 2010 audience (including teenagers) laugh anew at a comedy made eighty-two years ago is remarkable even if not unexpected (The Circus tends to play well with crowds). For such care taken by distributor Kino Films and Chaplin's estate, this festival resembles a traveling art exhibit. Interesting how sharp original prints can compensate for weakness of a film. We saw six of CC's First National shorts, all of them, in fact, save The Idle Class, and I realized again what a mixed bag these are. Coming after a winning streak that was his Mutual series, you'd have thought Chaplin's FN's would be his best yet, and based on the first one, A Dog's Life, merit of shorts to come must surely have looked to be onward and upward, but somehow, for me at least, they falter from there forward. Shoulder Arms seems disjointed now, with parts excellent but not necessarily the whole. No Chaplin had been so popular in its time. It was sort of the Great War's Buck Privates, only much more so.
Remaining First National shorts, including Sunnyside, A Day's Pleasure, Pay Day and The Pilgrim, were released between 1919 and 1923, which meant they played in competition with the best two-reel comedies from Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Roscoe Arbuckle, and others gaining fast on Chaplin's lead. Considering how good theirs were, and how much his had slipped, it may have been more necessary than expedient for CC to get into features where he could dominate once again (and did, of course, with The Kid). The one that surprised me this time was The Pilgrim. Next to A Dog's Life, I think it's the best of his late short subjects, although at four reels, running time was not far shy of The Kid. Was Chaplin finally weighed down by adulation, a forced marriage, and pressure to devise gags? He said later that the Mutual period had been his happiest. Maybe success got out of hand by the time he linked with First National. Buster Keaton was asked once what he and Chaplin talked about when they got together. Mostly gags and how difficult they were to dream up, was Buster's recollection. Sunnyside and A Day's Pleasure made me wonder if maybe Charlie was approaching a wit's end for humor, yet these, along with his other FN's, were promoted to skies (as reflected by original ads here) and topped bills wherever they played. I've read of a then-public's disappointment at the drop-offs and can't help speculating how long Chaplin would have stayed aloft had he continued doing shorts only. The Durham audience I was with voted with their laughter and chose A Dog's Life and The Pilgrim as two best of the six. I might have guessed preference would go that way, but how can you really know without sitting among live bodies? Durham's festival was opportunity to do just that and appreciate once again Chaplin's timeless way with an audience.