Monday, 1 December 2014

Laugh-in… The Sound of Chaplin, Barbican with BBC Symphony Orchestra

To fully connect with silent film you need to watch it in a picture house and with a live accompaniment and to really appreciate silent comedy you also need a live audience to laugh with. There’s something special about the primal response to physical comedy and you always laugh louder when you’re part of an audience egging each other on, getting the jokes together, relieved as you collectively affirm that the world’s funny and not just cruel.

The importance of this communal comedy was never more marked than during wartime and tonight’s four Chaplin films were all released from 1914-18… it’s surely no co-incidence that this was the period when the lad from Kennington became simply the most famous person in the World?

Charlie and Edna
This event at London’s Barbican represented one of the high points of the Chaplin Centenary celebrations and was aimed at showing the importance of music to his comedy. Neil Brand introduced the show and highlighted Charlie’s musicality – he played the violin from an early age and was able to pick up tunes by ear as well as composing his own, including pop hits like Smile and Lamplight. After 1921’s The Kid Chaplin also composed all of his own scores and showed a depth of musical understanding that ranked alongside his other core competencies as a performer, writer, producer and director…

But the early works did not have a Chaplin score – at least on release, he returned to Shoulder Arms later in his career – and so tonight we were treated to new scores composed by Timothy Brock and Mr Brand and performed by the mighty BBC Symphony Orchestra.

The films on show tracked the irresistible rise of Chaplin from his Keystone beginnings to the increasing control of the Mutual years then to the almost complete freedom he was afforded at First National.

A near miss...
Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)

Planned host Paul Merton (who sadly couldn’t make it due to illness) had said that this short was filmed in less than an hour which says something for the production finesse of Mack Sennett as well as his commercial imperative: keep ‘em coming! It’s no classic but, like say Love Me Do for The Beatles, it announced the arrival of a major talent and, in Chaplin’s case it was also the first film to be released featuring his “Little Tramp” character in just his second film.

As you’d expect it’s primitive Charlie in the drunken version of the tramp – staggering between shots and determined to stay in front of the camera supposedly filming the kid’s auto race.  Directed by Henry Lehrman, who also plays the Director, it features repeated shots of Charlie being kicked and thrown out of the way but he always returns.

This Charlie looks almost deranged but with a very modern determination to stay in frame and to let the new social media deliver him a slice of fame.

Street wise...
 Easy Street (1917)

By 1916 when this film was produced, Charlie was at Mutual and directing as well as writing and acting.

Charlie plays a derelict who is drawn into a mission by the sweet sounds of a woman singing. Turns out it’s Edna Purviance and with a single glance the down and out’s world view begins to change… he wants to steal the collection money but there’s something inspiring about this woman and he agrees to go straight.

Charlie becomes a policeman taking advantage of some unlikely rapid-training scheme and is posted to Easy Street, the most violent of slums in which the police are regularly battered by the locals led by the fearsome physical presence of a very big Bully (the excellent ogre, Eric Campbell). Charlie not knowing what he’s doing, manages to best the Bully through the aid of a gas lamp.

Gaslighting Eric Campbell
He meets the Mission Girl and goes to the aid of a family with many small children including, improbably, Erich von Stroheim Jr. as a baby (shame it wasn’t senior!).  But the Bully awakes and easily escapes the attentions of the Police as he heads back to the street for revenge…

Chaplin directs with skill, building up the tension with parallel cutting and choreographing the chases through the tenements with perfect timing: these films have a rhythm all of their own and the movement is impossible to imagine without music.

Neil Brand said that he felt this was a very “London” film and drew a possible connection between the East Street Chaplin has lived in and the far from Easy Street in the story. Brand had aimed to channel the spirit of Charlie for the score of one of his favourite Chaplin shorts and the romance and rugged violence were under pinned in style. I don't think I've ever seen a silent musician move so fast as he ran on the stage to take a well deserved bow - a labour of love rewarded!

Charlie and Edna on board

 The Immigrant (1917)

This was another Mutual film with Chaplin doing all the work ably abetted by a number of stock players and the estimable Edna P. They make a good couple but Ms Purviance is perhaps more important than any of his future, younger, prettier, female co-stars. Edna acts as the perfect foil for Charlie, a strong actress who can anchor the drama letting her pal take care of the comedy.

Here the two are impoverished immigrants sailing into New York with little money and even less hope. There are some great scenes on the boat, especially dinner time when Charlie slides across the cabin as it tilts furiously from side to side: the timing is perfect as he slides on the greased wooden deck.

Eric Campbell threatens Charlie over the bill
In New York the couple encounter each other sometime later, having both fallen on harder times. Once again Eric Campbell is involved as an unforgiving head waiter whom Charlie must outwit to get a meal for them both… It doesn’t quite have the crash-bang of Easy Street but The Immigrant is no less impressive as a feat of comic construction.

Here and on Kid's Auto Races, Timothy Brock’s music perfectly melded with the action, as you’d expect from the score preservationist for the Chaplin family. Perhaps one of the highest complements you can pay is that even with the power of the massed BBC SO, you focused on the film and not the music – but the film through the music.

Shoulder Arms (1918)

Neil Brand described Shoulder Arms as one of the best films about the Great War, full stop and it’s certain that it hasn’t had the reputation it deserves.

Even at this stage – year four of the global phenomena – a few people were pushing back against Chaplin’s popularity yet, as the New York Times said in its review: “Most of those who go to find fault with him remain to laugh. They may still find fault, but they will keep on laughing."

It’s a film that addresses the conflict head on with jokes made from exploding shells, going over the top and even chemical warfare by means of cheese… There’s a narrative safety valve which I won’t reveal but even with that, any film that shows the soldiers sleeping almost under water in flooded trenches was a bold one given that the audience would all have been affected by the losses in Europe.

In the trenches
It was this honesty and the fact that Charlie was still viewed as “one of us” that ensured the massive success of the film at the time.

Edna pops up as a French girl in need of a rescue whilst Charlie’s brother Syd plays his sergeant as well as the Kaiser! The Germans are lampooned, especially their commanding officer who is tiny even next to Charlie and whilst there's also a variety of daft beards, chubby dullards and other misfits they’re not all evil just very, very silly…

Chaplin wrote the score in the late fifties and his music bridged the 40-year gap with ease. We’re used to modern scores but duetting with your 29 year-old self must have been a challenge for the septuagenarian. But for a man who couldn’t write musical notation this was impressive allowing his younger self’s images and intent to be enhanced and not over-written.

Charlie's just smacked brother Syd
A splendid evening all round which culminated in hand-bruisingly intense applause – you can’t beat the surround sound of a full orchestra and an auditorium laughing in unison! There should be more nights like these please Barbican…

Do I have to do everything?

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