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Monday, October 11, 2010

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.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

My experience with programming taught me that festivals die.

Early on in 1968 I programmed A Marx Brothers Film Festival, etc..

Hardly anyone turned out after the first film.

Then I brought them back and promoted them one at a time.

That led to packed houses for each film.

4:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back in those day The Janus stood alone as an oasis in the otherwise parched desert of Carolina venues. Revival and art house fare showed up on college campuses down South, but rarely at local theaters. Thanks for the fond memories.

7:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another wonderful post...having missed the "golden age" of revival theaters myself, I found myself nostalgic for something I'd never experienced!

The closest I came was seeing THE GREAT DICTATOR at the Lincoln Art in NYC in '72.

I remember when Blackhawk Films licensed the Chaplin First National/UA films in the '70's. They came with limited ownership...after a given time, you were supposed to return them to RBC, or sign an affidavit that they were destroyed. I wonder if anyone ever did?

8:38 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson e-mails about Chaplin and recalls TV's "Charlie Chaplin Theater," which our Channel 9 in Charlotte used to run. Anyone else remember it?:

Now I'm feeling guilty about not frequenting my local revival palace (the Stanford in Palo Alto). And I still haven't made the pilgrimage to the Silent Movie Museum up the road in Niles. The classic movie mecca of my youth -- outside of college film showings -- was the Vitaphone, an old neighborhood theater in Saratoga. The manager / projectionist would come down to the front of the house between features and offer some random comments, first opening a can of cat food for the theater's feline mascot, George. The Vitaphone didn't fade away, but went out with a pot luck for the membership when the building owner wanted to redevelop the site.

Do you recall a syndicated TV series, titled "Charlie Chaplin Theater" or something like it? It was running in the early 60s, although it may well have been an much older series. That was my introduction to the little tramp.

Not sure if Robert Youngson was involved, but it had wall-to-wall narration approximating -- badly-- the Youngson features, plus sound effects and extremely familiar stock music ("An old football player, Poppa makes a pass." Slide whistle. "This is a rare opportunity to see the young Chaplin without a moustache.") I suspect Chaplin wasn't involved -- I recall Keystones, Essanays and Mutuals, but not the later films.

"Silents Please", a network show that ran abridged versions of features, had already faded into memory (recollections of "The Black Pirate" on that one). That was it for access to silents until more serious showcases began turning up on PBS (small local efforts as well as the celebrity-hosted classics), followed by my discovery of Blackhawk Films in the late 60s.

Sunday night I happened to run "The Pawnshop" for my brother. Gratifying to hear it get laughs, even from one cranky relative.

9:31 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Wow, how well I remember the late 60's-early 70's explosion of film societies, campus showings and revival theaters, all filling houses with old time slapstick. The Chaplin re-releases, of course, played main stream cinemas (as did Marx Brothers double features). One of my fondest recollections was sitting in a packed Minneapolis theater watching the first of his re-issues, THE CIRCUS. Everything I had ever read up to that point had assured me this was a lesser feature. I was astonished not only at how damn funny it was, but also at the wild reaction of the audience around me. This was probably the first time I enjoyed a silent comedy in a truly huge crowd. The rhythm of such an experience is really kinda unique; laughter doesn't come in waves, while the audience pauses to hear the next line of dialogue, but builds continuously during those great 1920's comedy climaxes. Naturally, seeing these things for the very first time in such a situation maximizes everything even more! After you've memorized the Chaplins, Keatons and Laurel and Hardys, you can never quite recapture that rush. Seven or eight years ago though, the re-release of most of Harold Lloyd's great stuff gave us that opportunity. A couple of friends and I saw WHY WORRY? for the first time in a decent sized movie theater, standing room only. I can honestly say I have never been in an audience that laughed so hard so continuously. Great experience!

9:39 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Most everything is better with a house. While visiting Minnesota for a Sons of the Desert function, I saw a 35mm theatrical revival of Laurel & Hardy in BLOCK-HEADS, with an audience of maybe 500 people. About 60 percent of the people were the fraternity of Laurel & Hardy buffs who knew the picture backward and forward, with the remaining 40 percent the general public attracted by the Laurel & Hardy names.

I have never heard such hysterical laughter in my life. The tiniest gags got laughs instead of chuckles, and the big gags were greeted with roars. What amazed me was how much the Laurel & Hardy fans enjoyed such a familiar show. Even though they knew exactly what was coming, they just exploded. It was a delightful experience.

While I was in college I was the projectionist for a double bill of Laurel & Hardy's SWISS MISS and Chaplin's MODERN TIMES. SWISS MISS, which is generally regarded as one of the team's lesser features, got huge laughs. I remember chortling that if SWISS MISS was doing so well, Chaplin would kill them. Was I surprised. MODERN TIMES got exactly five laughs. I counted them.

John, when you invoke the bemused exhibitors of bygone days who can't account for an audience's reaction, I know just what you're talking about!

11:34 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Reg, the festival idea was something I never even attempted, mostly for reasons you indicate. I too was afraid the first shows would click and following ones would tank.

Anonymous, the Janus was home away from home for me in the 70's ... when I could get there. Remember the Keaton festival they did? Marion Mack from "The General" was there, and so, of course, was Raymond Rohauer.

William, I never got an RBC Chaplin from Blackhawk, having gone to 16mm before these were released. I'd love to hear from someone who actually sent their print back in when the lease period expired.

Dave K, I like what you're saying about the continuous laughter at these comedy revivals. I would think modern viewers are shocked when they see these for a first time and hear such response. I'm still amazed at reaction films get that I've seen so often before, and that's always a pleasing experience.

Scott, I would so much have liked being there for the "Swiss Miss" show. I've heard of how such lesser L&H can come to life with audiences. It's been a long time since I've watched this team with a crowd. Can the Laurel and Hardys still even be rented in 35mm?

2:12 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

thruout most of the 70s here..We had 3 old theatres that ran classics,one ran them day and night,mostly the Warners and Paramount films of the 30s and 40s.One of them mixed all the current foreign and arthouse films,the other doubled as a spanish speaking theatre during regular hours and Classics for midnight one of the first run theatres ran classics at midnight..High school and college kids would turn out in droves to these films..
I can absolutely believe Laurel and Hardy drawing bigger laughs than Chaplin(something about those boys!)altho..I've laughed hysterically at Modern Times and City Lights..not so much the silent 2-reelers from Chaplin..

6:45 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

At the risk of pummeling that dead horse, let me add, yes, Stan and Ollie can bring an audience to life, even when represented by the least of their efforts. I've been at some raucous Sons of the Desert functions screening the Boys' Fox features. A group approximating Scott's 60-40 mix went wild over THE BIG NOISE!

9:40 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

To Donald Benson: A "Charlie Chaplin Theater" print of Work (1915) is circulating on at least one of the budget-line Chaplin DVD releases that have been issued by Madacy,

6:45 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

"Was there something about 60's/70's sensibilities that made young people more receptive to old films?"

One thing worth noting: they were looking back about 30-40 years to those films. Which is about how far, say, new wave rockabilly revivalists in the 80s and 90s were looking back, or somebody like Amy Winehouse is looking back to 60s soul... or Meet Me in St. Louis and Life With Father were looking back to their eras.

In other words, there seems to be something fixed about looking back to, roughly, what was right before your parents.

10:25 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

I think maybe part of the reason is that classic films were playing on television day and night in the 60s and 70s,thats all their was besides a few 60s films and a little later 70s films sandwiched in between...Kids saw them as a novelty at first..then an obsession..For me..I had always loved the universal monsters since they made the big comeback in the early 60s and the Little Rascals,but I didn't particularly like the era they were from in fact i hated it(tho I often got the our gang antics mixed up with my own,they were so real!)..It wasn't until I was 14, home,sick from school, watching an old pre-code on the early show,an old George Raft film..Pick -Up I think..might have been Supernatural with Lombard,that something strange made up my mind for me..that I really love this era and wish I lived then.Since then I would watch nothing but old movies.

1:03 AM  

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