DVD Review Of Chaplinís Goliath

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/14/06

  The Time: Mid-1970s, summer vacation, 1 am.

  The 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.
  The best 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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