Friday at Charlie Chaplin Days

I experienced my first virtual film festival Friday. While it’s nowhere as fun as the real thing, it has its advantages. No commuting.

The festival I’m following from home is Charlie Chaplin Days, run by the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum. I’m writing this quickly, so if I let through some spelling or grammatical errors, please forgive me.

There were no Zoom conferences yesterday, which meant I didn’t have to watch anything at a particular time. Everything I streamed is still available on YouTube, and will remain there for a few days later.

I started out with the symposium on Richard Attenborough’s biopic, Chaplin.

Robert Downey, Jr. as Chaplin

This two-part video from 2017 helped me understand why the 1992 film was so brilliantly cast and acted, yet so terribly written. Attenborough planned it as a miniseries, but just before production, he was forced to cut it down to a 140-minute feature.

Physical comedian Dan Kamin discussed how he trained Downey to act convincingly like Chaplin. Film Historian Sam Gill and David Totheroh – grandson of Chaplin’s cameraman, Rollie Totheroh – rounded out the group.

Since I hadn’t seen the biopic since 1992, I skipped the Post-screening discussion.

Other presentations were made specifically for this year’s virtual festival, all shot in the speakers’ homes. Performer/writer Trav S.D. discussed vaudeville, British music hall and their relationship to Chaplin. Michael J. Hayde’s talk on Chaplinitis, which was something like Beatlemania (if you’re old enough to remember that). And, of course, the brilliant John Bengtson explains where Chaplin shot his Bay Area films and how Bengtson figured out the locations.

David Totheroh had a funny story to tell about The Great Dictator. The Festival recommended that you see the film beforehand. It’s available on the Criterion Channel (if you haven’t subscribed, there’s a 14-day free trial). This was Chaplin’s first talkie – made a decade after the silent era died.


Chaplin as Der Phooey

Chaplin made his one good talkie on his first attempt, playing dual roles as a Jewish barber (basically the tramp with a voice), and Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Tomania. Slapstick and dark satire seldom work well together, but they do here. Many people criticize the final scene, but I’ve seen audiences burst into applause at it. With Paulette Goddard (Chaplin’s wife at the time) as the barber’s romantic interest, and Jack Oakie as the Mussolini-like Napaloni – Dictator of Bacteria. I give The Great Dictator an A-.

Chaplin made five short comedies in the Bay Area early in his movie career. The festival is streaming all five, each with a new introduction. The films are A Night Out, The Champion, In The Park, A Jitney Elopement, and the film where Chaplin really discovered his character, The Tramp.


The Tramp

Of the five, only The Champion and The Tramp are really good, but they’re all interesting from a historical perspective. The others have their moments. The introductions are in separate videos, which is kind of annoying.

Now on to Saturday.

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