The Last Charlie Chaplin Days of 2020

It’s kind of weird to wake up, eat breakfast, and go into my home office for a film festival. Here’s what I watched on the last day of this year’s Charlie Chaplin Days.

The Whiz Bang Talent Show, Trivia Quiz, Lookalike Contest and Goodtime Hour!

As with Saturday, I started with a 10:00am Zoom event. And as the title suggests, this one wouldn’t be too serious.

Rena Kiehn opened the show, bringing in Nigel Dreiner and Jason Allin. They discussed the myth claiming that Niles is “the original Hollywood.” Soon all three agreed that New Jersey is the real early home of American movies.


Nigel Dreiner

I learned some interesting facts. The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum can now do their own digital restorations. Even more interesting: Al Jolson died in the San Francisco Hotel Room where Fatty Arbuckle ruined his career.

We played a Charlie Chaplin trivia game, using Zoom’s Chat feature. I knew most of the answers, but others typed faster. One question was about whether Chaplin, Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy worked with the others. Of course everyone knew that Laurel and Hardy worked together. Pretty much everyone knew that Chaplin and Laurel worked together on the live stage. But I was the only one who noticed that while Chaplin and Hardy never worked together, they did share the same mustache.

And then came the video of Chaplin fans from all over the world. Chaplins here and Chaplins there. We met a doctor in India who proscribes Chaplin DVDs. We watched the Google doodle made in Niles. There were songs about Chaplin. But my favorite was a little girl, from I not know where, who did an amazing imitation.

The event ended with Dan Kamin’s pandemic-themed card trick.

Short documentaries

Moving over from Zoom to YouTube, I watched three interesting short documentaries. As I write this, these are all available to anyone with an Internet connection.

Making the Tramp: Actor and Chaplin impersonator Jason Allin shows us how he put together his costume and creates his makeup to become the Tramp.

Max and Charlie: Lisa Stein Haven discusses the life and work of the French comic Max Linder, whose work inspired Chaplin’s. Although Linder became famous first, Chaplin was the first to come to America and became the most famous. The two were close friends until Linder’s suicide.

Charlie’s Strange Predicament: Long ago, I read that Kid Auto Races in Venice was Chaplin’s first performance with the make-up and costume we all know. But one could argue that Mabel’s Strange Predicament was the first Tramp film.
Mabel went into production first, but Kid Auto Races was completed and released before the other.

Red Letter Days & Shoulder Arms

Charlie Chaplin came to the movies only months before World War I broke. In another Zoom lecture, Dan Kamin discussed these two overlapping phenomena. Kamin also discussed the magazine Red Letter Days, which frequently covered Chaplin.

But technical problems made it difficult to follow Kamin’s talk or study the slides he provided. I couldn’t tell you whether the problem was at Niles, my home, or anywhere in between (that’s how the Internet works). But when it cleared up, it was fascinating.

And then Kamin presented a newly discovered, longer version of Chaplin’s war comedy, Shoulder Arms. We had a choice of watching it on Zoom, or on YouTube (my choice). Either way, it was accompanied by Jon C. Mirsalis’ excellent new score.

This is one of Chaplin’s funniest shorts. Charlie tries to waken his numb foot, getting more and more worried that he can’t feel anything…until he discovers it’s someone else’s foot. There’s a sequence in a half-destroyed house where, despite the lack of walls, everyone insists on using the door. Best of all, there’s Charlie disguised as a tree, chased through a forest.

After the movie, we had a fascinating discussion on the movie. Kamin started by mentioning that this was probably the first war comedy in cinema. This was all the more daring since the war was still raging when it opened. We talked about war comedies, the specific horrors of that World War I, and how Chaplin turned misery into comedy.

The Final Shorts

The festival closed, at least for me, with two historically interesting Chaplin shorts, available on YouTube for the next few days. Each has an introduction in a separate video.

The Professor: Chaplin wanted to get out of his First National contract, but the distributor wanted another Chaplin two-reeler. So, Chaplin took scenes he’d cut from Soldier Arms and Sunnyside, created one new scene, added a few intertitles, and tried to palm them off as a new movie. First National rightly refused to run it. It’s a fascinating look at Chaplin trying something he rarely did – a shortcut. But one sequence, where Charlie gets his army physical, is hilarious.

The Bond: Chaplin made this wartime one-reeler piece of propaganda to sell war bonds during World War I. I didn’t laugh once.

I enjoyed this year’s Charlie Chaplin festival, even if I had to experience it through Zoom and YouTube. Next year in Niles!

One thought on “The Last Charlie Chaplin Days of 2020

  1. Thank you for the kind review of our event! Very happy you enjoyed it and we hope to see you in person at the museum when it opens up again. :)

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