DVD Review Of Chaplinís Goliath
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/14/06
The Time: Mid-1970s, summer vacation, 1 am.
Place: My dining room, in front of a small 15Ē black and white Philco tv.
On WOR, Channel 9 in New
York City, there is a 90 minute talk show called The Joe Franklin Show.
It is unlike any of the other talk shows of the era. It is not like Phil
Donahue, Mike Douglas, David Steinberg, Dick Cavett, David Susskind, nor Johnny
Carson. For one, it will have old Vaudevilleans and circus acts as guest, as
well as odd rock bands and B film stars. In a sense, it is almost an SCTV-like
parody of the talk show genre before SCTV even existed. Yet, it offers something
that no other show before nor since has. It runs, between its guests, old silent
films. It is watching this show, through the summers of my pre-teen and ten
years, that I will become acquainted with such personae as D.W. Griffith,
Douglas Fairbanks, Mabel Normand, Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, F.W. Murnau, but,
most especially, the old time comedy stars, from The Keystone Kops, Fatty
Arbuckle, Laurel and Hardy (apart and together), Ben Turpin, but most especially
the Holy Trinity of silent film comedy giants: Buster Keaton- the Great Stone
Face, Harold Lloyd- the daredevil boy next door, and most of all- the
incomparable Charlie Chaplin.
It has become fashionable,
in recent decades, to condescendingly dismiss Chaplin as a mere sentimentalist-
as someone who was just a schmaltzy bore, and lionize Keaton and Lloyd by
comparison. But, as much as I love Keaton and Lloyd, the fact is the very thing
that separates Chaplin from his two peers, and gives him relevance today,
whereas Keaton and Lloyd are merely ingenious artifacts, is the fact that he was
skilled at mixing true sentiment with comedy, and not using mere sentimentality.
Neither Keaton nor Lloyd succeeded in mixing those two elements, nor did they
conquer sound the way Chaplin did, and neither of them had feature length films
that had the depth and complexity- emotionally, narratively, and character-wise-
of any of the great films of Chaplin. Think of The Kid, The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times.
And, despite its often reviled ending, could Keaton or Lloyd ever have done
anything as daring and relevant as The Great Dictator, much less Monsieur Verdoux,
or Limelight- where Chaplin helped resurrect Keatonís career for a new
generation of television watchers? And for flat-out, sustained comedy, neither
Keaton nor Lloyd have films that can touch The Circus, Chaplinís
woefully neglected and timeless gag-filled romp that still is one of the
funniest films ever put to screen.
Yet, even if we accept the
current vogue in denigrating Chaplin in deference to his two great rivals, one
merely has to seriously look at the early shorts Chaplin did, for the Essanay
and Mutual film companies, to see that his Tramp character was more mischievous,
devious, and cruel than any of the characters done by Keaton and Chaplin. Plus,
many of the greatest gags done by Keaton and Lloyd were done by Chaplin, before
they did it, and often never bested. Keatonís famed and brilliant Electric House
is merely an extension of Chaplinís earlier One A.M., and how many of
Lloydís Ďdangerí shorts were inspired by the felicity of Chaplinís
skating antics in The Rink, or building climbing theatrics in The Fireman?
Fortunately, the wave of DVD
releases in the last few years have restored many of the great silent films, and
there is a superb collection of Chaplin films, from The Blackhawk Films Collection,
called The Complete Restored Essanay & Mutual Collection. Yet, best
of all, on top of the many Chaplin classics, there is a 94 minute 1996
documentary, on a separate disk, called Chaplinís Goliath: In Search of
Scotlandís Forgotten Star. It chronicles the life and abrupt early death
of Chaplinís greatest onscreen nemesis, and close offscreen pal, Eric
Campbell, who through eleven Mutual shorts from 1916-17, played the huge
antagonist The Tramp was continually and cruelly besting.
Watching the old Joe
Franklin Show, years earlier, I was entranced, and put to laughter, by the
bug-eyed witlessness of the many villains Campbell portrayed. This documentary,
written and directed by Kevin McDonald, traces the art of the giant, as well as
Campbellís rise in the British Music Hall scene (the U.K. equivalent to
Vaudeville), where he met the Brothers Chaplin- Sydney and Charlie, while
starring for legendary impresario Fred Karno, and how he was trying to
transition to become a singing star, when, while appearing on Broadway, Chaplin
signed him to star in his new series of films for Mutual, after himself signing
a record-breaking financial deal.
In the course of just the
first few films with Chaplin, easily the biggest film star in the world,
Campbell himself became famous. Recall the scene where The Tramp literally
gaslights Campbell in Easy Street? Itís still one of the funniest and
most memorable sequences in screen history. His thick, animalistic eyebrows, and
patented slow burn, soon inspired imitators of himself (Oliver Hardy was one of
them), just as Chaplin inspired imitators- one of them ironically being Stan
Laurel, who knew Campbell and Chaplin from their days with Karno. So, flush with
cash, Campbell brought his wife and daughter to Hollywood. Then, in an all too
Hollywood fashion, disaster struck. Campbellís wife died suddenly, his
daughter was in an accident, Campbell remarried a golddigger a month after his
first wifeís death, then divorced her two months later, and then himself died
in an early morning drunken driving accident, in December of 1917. Chaplin never
again had such a great onscreen foe and partner, and never again was The Tramp
so delightfully wicked, which led to the detractors of Chaplinís success and
greatness arming themselves with his perceived flaws, and conveniently ignoring
the brilliance of his anarchic Essanay and Mutual days.
The documentary does dig up
many outtakes from Chaplin films, and the onscreen and offscreen chemistry
between the two men is palpable. There are many archival documents, from
Campbellís childhood in
Dunoon, Scotland (although his exact date of birth is unknown- anywhere from 1878-1885, and his full name was Alfred Eric Campbell) to Campbellís
second wifeís hilarious petition for divorce, claiming cruelty that includes
exposure to hula dancing. There are the requisite experts, such as Campbellís
daughter, and Chaplin expert David Robinson. But, the best thing about the film
is nothing within the film, but simply that it exists.
thing about the prevalence of DVDs is that they provide an affordable way to
preserve the history of the dominant art form of the Twentieth Century, and its
oft-forgotten contributors- major and minor. Eric Campbellís star may never
have been as big as his frame, but, without him, would the mustachioed David of
silent comedies ever have appealed to a young boy, decades later, in the silent
hours of morning, or had the later greater stones to toss to the masses?
[An expurgated version of this
article originally appeared on The
Moderate Voice blog.]
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