Charlie Chaplin is probably the most important filmmaker of the 20th century. And filmmaking history. And when I write important i don’t mean it in a pompous intellectual way – but in practice. The guy invented how we do things. He is the Tesla of filmmaking. Without him the movie industry would be nothing.
When he started there was no industry. Very few people watched movies. He joined the Keystone Company that made shit for the Nickelodeons. You put a nickel in a machine and people moved around in it for a few seconds. Or you watched a cast of untalented extras fall on their asses for a few minutes in a tent. Because there where no theatres. Keystone dabbled in stereographic images and that was how they had started. Charlie had to invent everything. Give it substance and direction. He had to see what movies could become. The sign of true genious. He had to figure out a way to bring the stories that flew around in his head and his heart onto a screen in a way that no one had done before him.
Charlie made movies a hundred years ago that still resonates with a large audience. When you google him he’ll have twice the number of hits compared to Spielberg and Lucas. If you have kids that are sceptical of watching black and white movies without sound – have them watch Chaplin. The Kid. Modern Times. His visual storytelling transcend time.
Watching his films now you realise how crude the gear and process he had to use was. Shooting on explosive nitrate film that needed an enormous amount of light just to get exposure. Yes, it was in fact explosive. If you had a cigarette nearby you could die. Sometimes it just self ignited. Many a movie studios burnt down to the ground that way. He had cumbersome, primitive wooden tripods. No fluid head like today. He couldn’t pan or tilt. Everything had to be locked of. Which demanded a lot of thinking and planning. He was extremely limited in the coise of lenses. Usually there was just one lens. And you had to set the focus on that in a different way than today. You couldn’t just rack focus. And you couldn’t see through the lens. You had a viewfinder beside the camera that gave you an approximation of what you where getting. The lights you absolutely had to use at all times to get exposure was something out of Frankenstein. Primitive lights that actually blinded a lot of actors during those days. And to top it off – in those days you worked with tiny teams. It is nothing like today with lines of trucks with equipment and hundreds of people working on a shoot. Charlies crew would be what you would use for a TV interview today.
But Chaplin had this very, very special talent for storytelling. He knew how to tap straight into the hearts of human beings. Extremely developed sensibilities. He brought tears to your eyes but he was never a tear jerker and the explanation lay in his childhood.
All moviemaking today in influenced by Chaplin in one way or the other. Camera placements, the flow of scenes, structure and character dynamics. And the comedy. There is not a physical comedian alive that was not influenced by Chaplins classic sticks.
He was born in 1889. The same year the Eiffel tower opened to the public. Charlie himself claimed he was born in South London – but there are no birth records. His parents where both Music Hall entertainers and the family struggled with hardship and poverty. He lived in the stories of poverty in his films. And he knew that not giving up and having hope was how you would survive – despite heartache and an empty stomach. Charlies mother was committed to an asylum where she died in 1928 having suffered mental illness for a large part of her life.
Charlie became a stage performer as well. First as a kid, child labouring at the Music Hall. He started honing his craft of timing and physical comedy at a very early age. Making people forget their miseries became a way to survive in a brutal, depressed, dirty London by the turn of the century. He was only 16 when he made a name for himself on British theatre stages playing Sherlock Holmes.
A theatre tour brought him to the US. And after staring work as a bit player for the Keystone Company he was off. Hiss success on the silver screen gave him means to take control of his own productions. Become independent and self reliant. Watch everything you can get your hands on. Watch it again. There is no greater film school.