LIFE (1915)... Charlie relived boyhood memories of sleeping in shelters. He later re-used those same memories in his autobiographical masterpiece THE KID (1921). Also, note how Chaplin establishes eye contact with the audience. He makes Charlie's plight an intimate shared experience with his viewer. We (the audience)_ bond intimately with his screen character and in doing so sympathize automatically with those emotionally traumatic childhood experiences which Chaplin's uncompleted film LIFE attempted to recreate visually (see below).
The two most noteworthy projects Chaplin worked on during this all-important turning point year at Essanay
were The Tramp
. The Tramp
was a two reeler he did make and Life
(see lower two photos) was an explicitly autobiographical feature film which he never completed.
A broken-hearted love story with a signature Chaplin finish in which his screen character goes it alone down life's highway for the first time ever (photo top left), The Tramp
was instantly hailed as a major artistic breakthrough. Until this first distinctively chaplinesque
comedy, slapstick comedies were flimsily plotted, gag-packed, breakneck paced sitcoms with one-dimensional characters and no real storylines.
An opus rather than a magnum opus, The Tramp
told the tale of a wistful, but out-of-luck wanderer's experience of unrequited love. Drawing on his extensive British music hall training on the use of serio-comic counterpoint and combining it with an in-depth character study of the real-life experiences of an American hobo whom he interviewed, Chaplin introduced a bittersweet ending in this hilarious romantic comedy. He also employed a running series of broad slapstick gags in order to regulate and deflate the potentially excessive sentimentality of his love story. He even included that old secretly shirtless Burlington Bertie-gag from Making A Living
which he re-introduced in this film to underscore ironically the little tramp's heroic image as a would-be knight errant nobly setting out to rescue a damsel in distress (played by gorgeous Edna Purviance who Chaplin was head-over-heels in love with by then).
Chaplin was the first silent filmmaker to explore fully the paradox of how slapstick could be made funnier by making it more serious. At Essanay, he started to mature from a brilliant entertainer with bits and shticks into a talented comic actor. He also began to evolve from an encyclopedically brilliant sitcom gag "writer" into a gifted storyteller whose films would soon be compared to Shakespeare and Rabelais by the critics. That literary recognition was a remarkable achievement for a grammar school dropout with a fourth grade education.
Chaplin was also starting to explore and define the fundamentals of film acting technique by teaching himself to scale down and moderate purposely exaggerated Delsartian stage acting methods into much more subdued and minimalistic camera dramatization portrayals which were much better suited to the new medium's power to magnify enormously the human face and emotions. See the next essay on audience-performer relations in British music hall and the essay following that on eye contact and movie audience-performer intimacy. (Also consult Chaplin A Life
Chapter VI for an in-depth discussion of these issues).
Just as Chaplin strove to achieve restraint and naturalism in his film acting, he also wanted to inject social realism in his film stories. The "real" story he most wanted to tell - employing his alter-ego screen character as his mouthpiece - was that of his own London boyhood.
Having verbally recorded that remarkable childhood story in a 29-part newspaper series in the San Francisco Bulletin in the summer of 1915 (it was later re-published as Charlie Chaplin's Own Story
), it was only fitting that he wanted to visually record that same autobiography (Life
) the following winter. Long-forgotten memories of Charlie's South London boyhood had recently begun to re-emerge in the course of his spinning those colorfully exaggerated and theatrically dramatized newspaper interviews of his Dickensian adventures as an Oliver Twist-like innocent and Artful Dodger-type trickster. It is also noteworthy that Chaplin experimented briefly with trying to capture screenplay ideas by installing a dictaphone by his bedside and recording fleeting images whenever he woke in the middle of the night.
But Charlie bit off more than he could chew. Life
ended up as a brief series of flop house shots of a grimy urban underworld populated with tubercular patients, alcoholics, social misfits, stick-up artists, pickpockets, homeless mentally ill and dementia victims. Hardly the subject matter of traditional slapstick comedy - this rogues' gallery of social outsiders harkened back to young Charlie's workhouse, poorhouse, flop house and orphanage experiences. Like his all-time favorite author Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist
, Chaplin wanted his opus (Life
) to pose the question: Who are the real criminals?
Neither artistically nor emotionally prepared to handle effectively such explicitly autobiographical material, Chaplin abandoned Life
and condensed some of its scant footage into his artistically flawed two-reeler Police
. In that film, his little tramp was portrayed as a discharged convict: the first in a long list of de-institutionalized screen characters that future Chaplin audiences would encounter in The Kid, City Lights, Modern Times
and The Great Dictator
The most enduring lesson Chaplin learned from his failed experiment with Life
was the future critical importance of gaining complete control over every aspect of the filmmaking process. Although he already was free to shoot what he pleased at Essanay, he was a salaried employee and his employers were also free to edit and butcher those films (which they later did with Police
). Chaplin vowed to never let it happen again. And with Syd's help as his business manager, he was eventually able to do so.[click here
But it was with the invaluable assistance of Essanay's highly efficient publicity department that Charlie Chaplin first attained the worldwide fame that Sydney Chaplin was later able to capitalize on. His meteoric rise to fame in 1915 - the miracle year of "Chaplinitis"--laid the groundwork for everything that followed.