Wonder years: Tribute marks Charlie Chaplin’s debut

Charlie Chaplin launched his Tramp character in 1914’s Kid Auto Races at Venice. By 1918 he was one of the most famous and highest-paid people in the world. Photo courtesy of Virginia Film Festival. Charlie Chaplin launched his Tramp character in 1914’s Kid Auto Races at Venice. By 1918 he was one of the most famous and highest-paid people in the world. Photo courtesy of Virginia Film Festival.

On Saturday the Virginia Film Festival will screen a selection of short comedies starring Charlie Chaplin in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the legendary actor-director’s first appearance as the Little Tramp. Accordingly, the festival program eschews Chaplin’s better-known features in favor of five early short comedies.

“The program illustrates perfectly his progression as a filmmaker,” said Michael Hayde, film historian and author of Chaplin’s Vintage Year. “Over the years between Kid Auto Races and The Immigrant, Chaplin learned how to be a filmmaker, as well as how to strengthen his comedy by adding motivation, sentiment, and especially personality.”

Despite their age, Chaplin’s films remain just as lively and entertaining as when they were first released. “Children will always respond to Chaplin’s films,” Hayde said. “Even in his earliest Keystones, Chaplin would glance at the camera as if sharing a private joke with the theater audience. Kids reacted positively to that, and when children are captivated, adults will generally pay attention.”

The program is also of interest to cineastes because the material has been newly restored. Many of Chaplin’s films were later updated by the director himself, as he added his own synchronized soundtracks and chose color tints, ensuring that they would continue to play in the era of sound and color. This helped Chaplin maintain his life’s work and celebrity during his years in exile—but, controversially, it’s also allowed the (often litigious) Chaplin estate to maintain ownership over work that would otherwise have fallen into the public domain.

Hayde explains: “As with George Lucas, who would like his most recent editions of the classic Star Wars trilogy to be definitive, so does Chaplin’s family feel that the version of, say, Shoulder Arms (1918) that Chaplin assembled in the late 1950s, should also be the final word. But there’s an important difference—by the time Chaplin revisited Shoulder Arms, the negative for the original had been worn away. This is why over 70 percent of all silent films are lost. As it happens, an original 1918 print does exist in an archive, and perhaps one day it will be made available. Audiences ought to have a chance to see the film Chaplin originally made, as opposed to the one with which he was forced to make do 40 years later.”

“Luckily, the films from Chaplin’s first four years, which is more than half of his filmography, are widely available,” Hayde continued. “The fact that all have been in the public domain since the 1940s has worked toward their survival. Chaplin had the opportunity to buy the [original] elements for his [early] comedies, and decided against it every time. Had he done so, we might not be having this screening. The constant exposure of those 12 comedies, which are considered the greatest single series of short films ever made, kept Chaplin’s reputation alive while he took longer and longer to make his feature masterpieces.”

Kid Auto Races at Venice, The Masquerader, The Fireman, Behind the Screen, and The Immigrant will screen at the Regal Downtown on November 8.

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