Bright Lights Film Journal

Looking at Charlie — First National, Shoulder Arms, and The Kid: An Occasional Series on the Art and Life of Charlie Chaplin

“LOST CHILD WANTED — Last seen with a little man with large flat feet and a small moustache”

In 1917, for the first time in his life, Charlie Chaplin took a break. Despite his extravagant spending, the twelve shorts Chaplin had made for Mutual in 1916 were enormously profitable. Mutual had paid Chaplin more than $600,000 to make the twelve and sought to renew. Instead, Charlie signed with First National for $1.25 million to make eight. Still in his twenties, he was one of the richest entertainers in the world.

In his films, Chaplin now had the opportunity to achieve “greatness” — to tell a story, drawn from his own experiences, that would have the emotional impact of films like Birth of a Nation and the theatrical triumphs he had heard his mother describe as a small boy.1 Unsurprisingly, there were a number of misfires along the way. All eight of the First Nationals have their moments, but some have few indeed. Fortunately for Chaplin, the second film he made under the new contract — Shoulder Arms, released while World War I was still in progress — was an enormous hit and the fifth — The Kid, his first feature — was universally regarded as a masterpiece. Throughout the twenties, the iconic shot of Charlie and Jackie Coogan peering around the corner, while the unseen cop (Tom Wilson) looms censoriously behind, symbolized everything that people loved about the movies.

Freedom has its drawbacks. Chaplin’s personal life, which had always been firmly subordinated to his career, began to swing dangerously out of control. Chaplin had, it seems, enough energy for three different sex/love lives. First, there was the “great love” he bore for Edna Purviance (right). Purviance certainly meant more to Chaplin than any other woman. In 1923 he would direct her in A Woman of Paris, trying to make her a star in her own right.2 But in 1917, after only two years, Chaplin was losing interest in the “real” Edna. He was in love with the chubby nineteen-year-old he had known in 1915, when he and pictures were brand-new, not the too-plump twenty-one-year-old3 he was chained to now that he was huge.

Charlie’s eros was straying and it was straying in the direction of ever younger girls — first the seriously young Mildred Harris (16 when Chaplin met her) and then the seriously too young Lita Gray (all of 12 when Chaplin dressed her up as a vamp and kissed her in the strange dream sequence that concludes The Kid.) Chaplin ended up marrying and divorcing both women, in both cases marrying them because he believed them to be pregnant (true in the case of Lita but not Mildred, although she did get pregnant soon after she and Charlie were married).

At the same time Chaplin was chasing an inner, private world of innocence, he was also turning out to the greater world around him. As a boy Chaplin had almost no formal education, but at some time in his life he must have decided that he needed to be educated. He must have taught himself how to read and write, and, like a number of other great comedians, became a persistent autodidact.4 In his earliest days in Hollywood Chaplin became friends Robert Wagner, a Hollywood reporter/socialist organizer who talked politics with Charlie and gave him a copy of Upton Sinclair’s exposé of the meat-packing industry The Jungle.

The Jungle‘s picture of dog-eat-dog (and, occasionally, man-eat-man) capitalism5 fit very well with Chaplin’s own experiences. Chaplin saw all of society as a sort of conspiracy against the individual, an attitude reflected over and over again in his films. World War I, then raging in Europe, aroused no sense of patriotism in him whatsoever,6 and he was also opposed to America’s entry, though he appeared in War Bond rallies with Douglas Fairbanks as a PR move, and bought about $350,000 in bonds himself as insurance against either deportation or the draft.

While the war was still in progress, Chaplin became fascinated by an outspoken critic of the war, Max Eastman, “The Byron of the Left,” as Eugene O’Neill called him. Eastman had twice been charged with obstructing the draft, but, conducting his own defense, had won acquittals from sympathetic juries in both trials. Eastman, former editor of the fabled publication The Masses,7 came to California on a speaking tour and introduced Chaplin to the heady mixture of Greenwich Village bohemianism — anarchism, socialism, free love, and free expression.

Chaplin and Eastman (right) were fascinated with one another. Each saw the other as a “real man,” a man of action. Chaplin saw himself as only a player, someone who pretended, who hid anything might prove offensive to the public, while Eastman spoke his mind fearlessly, exposing himself to physical assaults and criminal prosecutions. Eastman saw himself as only a writer, a poor pencil pusher and dreamer, while Chaplin was a man of power and success.

Eastman was involved in a classically passionate, “free love” affair with an actress named Florence Deshon. Eastman was fascinated by Hollywood and hoped that Deshon could build a career there. When Deshon came west she found her path mysteriously smoothed for her — the studios couldn’t do enough for her. Eastman joined her. Charlie, married to Mildred by now, was spending a lot of time with a woman named Margarethe Mathers. The four of them became inseparable and hosted endless evenings of high-speed conversation and competitive charades.

Later, Eastman would travel back to New York and become involved in another passionate, “free love” affair with an “Isadorable,” a young woman in Isadora Duncan’s modern dance troupe. Chaplin drifted into an affair with Deshon, who ended up shuttling back and forth between both men, rather hoping for a marriage proposal from one of them but not getting one from either.

While Chaplin was learning the joys of high-minded promiscuity, he was also learning to talk like an intellectual. Like many other gifted actors, he was a superb mime of both the body and the soul, and could indulge in high-flown cant for hours at a time.8 The critic Benjamin De Casseres recorded some of it in a 1920 article for the New York Times:

I once had a day vision. I saw at my feet in a huddled heap all the trappings and paraphernalia of my screen clothes — that dreadful suit of clothes! — my mustache, the battered derby, the little cans, the broken shovel, the dirty collar and shirt. I felt as though my body had fallen from me and that I was leaving behind an eternal seeming for a vast reality.

That day I had resolved never to get into those clothes again — to retire to some Italian lake with my beloved violin, my Shelley and my Keats, and live under an assumed name a life purely imaginative and intellectual, but the instinct to be other than I really am, which is universal, is so strong in me, and I went in for just one more picture — the last; like the drunkard’s last drink and Patti’s eternal farewell.9

Chaplin’s first picture for First National, A Dog’s Life, was probably intended to rub America’s nose in the ugliness of the modern world, in a manner similar to Chaplin’s previous abortive feature for Essanay, the film he wanted to call “Life.”10A Dog’s Life begins with “Dawn,” but not the dawn of hope, the dawn of despair. A faint sun breaks through the smog of the urban sky to show us Charlie, sleeping in a vacant lot, curled up against a board fence. An ingenious attempt to steal a hotdog for breakfast lands him in trouble with the law. He escapes, of course — no cop can catch Charlie — but he’s still hungry. Cross-cutting shots of “Scraps,” a homeless mongrel, lets us know that Charlie has a four-footed counterpart.

While Scraps fights for scraps, Charlie fights for a job, and both are pushed aside. Charlie, at least, is able to get something to eat, snatching breakfast cakes from brother Sid Chaplin’s lunch wagon, in a brilliant scene that is the comic highlight of the film. Eventually, Charlie rescues Scraps from a dogfight, with no real explanation of why Charlie intervenes.

Although penniless, Charlie decides to celebrate Scraps’ rescue with a visit to the “Green Lantern,” a café where the waitresses are floozies and the customers a random collection of marks, sharps, and thugs. The Green Lantern maintains a “no dogs” policy, requiring Charlie to stuff Scraps in the seat of his baggy pants for safekeeping. The Green Lantern scenes feature Edna as a singer, whose rendition of an old weepie is the occasion for some heavy-handed humor as the copious tears shed by Henry Bergman (in drag) drench Charlie. Later, when the café owner forces Edna to flirt with Charlie, her naughty wink is so forced that Charlie thinks she must have something in her eye.

Eventually, Charlie is tossed from the café for lack of cash, but that’s soon remedied when Scraps unearths a fat wallet stolen and hidden by thieves Albert Austin and Bud Jamieson. Charlie heads back to the Green Lantern to find Edna, explaining to her that now they can retire and live in the country.11 However, the thieves show up and knock Charlie out and retrieve the wallet. They celebrate the recovery with a drink at the café, giving Charlie a chance to outwit them. Eventually, Charlie and Edna do make it to the country, and we see Charlie looking surprisingly bucolic, planting a vast field by hand. When he’s finished he goes inside their little cottage, where Edna, wearing a Dutch cap perhaps inspired by Irene Castle,12 greets him enthusiastically, leaping on his back for joy.13

A Dog’s Life seems like an idea that got away from Chaplin.14 After an early, sentimental scene of Charlie treating Scraps to some milk, there’s little emotion or tension in their relationship, or in Charlie’s with Edna. The tacked-on happy ending, similar to the one Chaplin used in The Immigrant, deprives the film of any real intensity.

Shoulder Arms, though often funny enough,15 doesn’t have much depth either. Chaplin originally planned it as a feature, shooting extensive footage of Charlie as a family man prior to enlistment,16 but then released the film as a three-reeler. Luckily for Chaplin, he hit the public at exactly the right time, and Shoulder Arms became an essential part of the World War I experience.17

Chaplin married Mildred Harris three days after the release of Shoulder Arms. It was not a happy occasion, for Chaplin at least, and he kept the event strictly private. Their brief honeymoon consisted largely of deep-sea fishing (Chaplin caught a 174-pound Marlin) and three weeks later, Charlie left to go on location for a new film, Sunnyside(right).

Chaplin was probably happy to leave Mildred behind, but he was also under pressure from First National, who had contracted for eight films and had gotten two. From Chaplin’s point of view, they had asked for eight two-reelers. He had given them one four-reeler and one three-reeler, so in fact he was almost half way through the contract. But First National didn’t see it that way. Despite the huge success of Shoulder Arms, they wanted more product.

Sunnyside starts off as a rural version of A Dog’s Life, a mordantly satirical take on the pieties and banalities of small-town American life. Tom Wilson is a grasping, heartless farmer who kicks hired hand Charlie out of bed at three-thirty in the morning to milk the cows.18 When Charlie’s still tying his bootlaces at a quarter of four, Wilson growls “The boy’s not up yet and the forenoon’s half wasted”!

But once the cows are milked and breakfast is made (more or less), we aren’t on a farm any more. Wilson’s house is apparently attached to a sort of hick hotel, so hick that Charlie has to mow the grass in the lobby. There’s also a general store and a barber shop. When he isn’t milking cows and collecting eggs, Charlie watches the front desk, sells merchandise, and also wields a sharp razor.

Once he’s mowed the lobby, Charlie sets off to take the cows to pasture, while the respectable folk go to church. But Charlie doesn’t need organized religion.19 He walks behind the herd, reading from an open book (presumably, the Bible), “with the sky his church and the landscape his altar,” a title card tells us. Unfortunately, Charlie loses contact with the cattle, who return to the town and interrupt Sunday services. When Charlie catches up with cows, the town elders take after him, and he flees to the countryside once more.

His escape leads to a classic bit of Chapliniana. Falling off a bridge, he awakens to see a band of naiads, welcoming him with flowered boughs. Delightedly, Charlie joins in their arboreal revels, prancing through the woodland in ecstasy, free from all worldly cares.

Sadly, the interlude is all too brief, both for Charlie and us. After another spill off the bridge, Charlie revives to encounter not naiads, but the braying town elders, demanding that he return to his “real” life of senseless burden and toil.

But instead of returning to work, Charlie goes a-courting (Edna, of course). Charlie challenges Edna’s tedious brother to a game of blind man’s bluff, and sends the dumb hick off to play in traffic. After some indifferent comic bits, Edna’s father routs Charlie, who returns to the hotel. A city man in a fancy car (Tom Terriss) has a wreck and takes up residence in the hotel. Naturally, Edna catches his eye and he overwhelms her with his sophisticated city ways and props, including a walking stick with a cigarette lighter hidden in the knob. Too cool!

In a funny bit, Charlie sets out to mimic the dude, but his act (naturally) is a flop. Edna bids the simple life farewell and heads for the bright lights of the big city. But wait! It was all a dream, or rather nightmare! Instead of taking Edna, the dude gives Charlie a (very) fat tip, so fat that now he and Edna can get married!

Sunnyside is Chaplin’s most confused film. Presumably, he followed his usual practice of filming whatever idea came to him, but ultimately ran out of either time or patience and instead of persevering until he came up with a finished film bundled all the pieces together and tacked on a happy ending in the manner of The Vagabond, The Immigrant, and A Dog’s Life. The use of a “bad” dream to create suspense was perhaps Chaplin’s laziest plotting device yet. For whatever reason, he had a very hard time creating a believable romance with a happy ending. The Bank (1915), an early short for Essanay in which Charlie wins Edna in a dream but loses her in real life, was the most emotionally honest of his early films. The classic Easy Street (1916, for Mutual) is unique for “earning” its happy ending.

But if Sunnyside was Chaplin’s most confused film, his next short, A Day’s Pleasure, was his worst. Charlie’s married in this one, to Edna, with two sons, both sporting derbies. There’s some fun in the beginning, and the end, with Charlie atypically behind the wheel of a Model T,20 but the long middle stretch, devoted to a sea cruise, is almost devoid of laughs. The scene where a black musician turns “white” with nausea due to the rocking boat has always been a particular embarrassment to Chaplin fans.

Chaplin was struggling, both on screen and off. The topper to his humiliating marriage to Mildred was the revelation that she wasn’t really pregnant after all! But before Chaplin could gather his resources to obtain either a divorce or annulment came the topper to the topper: no, she hadn’t been pregnant before, but now she was! Farce turned to tragedy when the child died at birth.

It was in this atmosphere of personal turmoil that Chaplin, for whatever reason, chose to undertake his first feature, confronting his childhood demons more directly than ever before in The Kid. One stimulus to the film was entirely external. Chaplin had seen the five-year-old child performer Jackie Coogan and had marked him as a distinctive talent. Chaplin’s own first appearance on stage occurred when he was five, although he did not pursue any sort of career until he was in his teens.

Chaplin worked on The Kid with enormous slowness, shooting fifty-three feet of film for every one he used. First National was getting ready to bail and ultimately Chaplin had to borrow $500,000 on his own credit to finance the completion of the picture. Luckily for him, it was a huge hit, grossing over $2 million in the days when a $1 million gross was considered the gold standard.21

The Kid begins with Edna, a woman “whose only sin was motherhood” — a reflection, of course, of Chaplin’s own illegitimate status — staggering out of a charity hospital with her babe in arms. In case you can’t tell whose side Chaplin is on, he cuts from Edna to a depiction of Christ carrying the cross.22 As she continues, she passes an elegant church where a young woman is being married to an elderly man in an elaborate ceremony. A rose falls from the bride’s bouquet as the couple descends the steps and we get a close up of the old man’s polished shoe crushing it.23

Chaplin leaves Edna briefly to show us the uncaring father, an artist (Carl Miller, right), reminding us of the poet who took Edna away from Charlie in The Tramp and the artist who almost took her away from him in The Vagabond. The heartless schmuck accidentally knocks Edna’s picture into the fire, pulls it out, and then tosses it back in. Hey, it’s history, right?

Edna staggers on. She sees a limousine parked outside a mansion. Impulsively, she puts her baby in the car, attaching a note to its blanket (“Please care for and love this orphan child”), and rushes away. Fate, in the form of a pair of car thieves, intervenes. They hijack the car24 and head downtown, looking for a little privacy while they decide how to market their latest find. The baby, which has conveniently kept quiet until now, starts bawling. They ditch the kid, and drive away. Charlie, out for a stroll, through an understandable series of misunderstandings, is identified as the child’s father, or at least its owner, and has to take it home — one of the few times that Charlie actually has a home.

Chaplin cuts away from the tramp and the kid to show Edna suffering remorse, rushing to the mansion and then fainting when she learns that the limo has been stolen. Her baby is lost forever!25

Five years pass, and we finally meet Jackie Coogan, instantly adorable, giving himself a careful manicure while sitting on the sidewalk. He’s dressed in an oversized outfit that makes him look even shorter and chubbier (more “neonate”) than he really is.

Jackie goes inside to catch up with Charlie and lay plans for the day’s work: Jackie breaking windows and Charlie repairing them.26 Charlie’s workmanship isn’t all that impressive, but the housewives love him, a little too much, unfortunately. Charlie’s into some heavy flirting when husband and policeman Tom Wilson comes home after a hard day of chasing Jackie. Tom puts Jackie and Charlie together and chases the two all over town. Naturally, they elude him and return home to a massive, though scarcely appetizing meal of what appears to be beef stew. One gets the strong sense that Chaplin was thinking of the days when having plenty to eat, plenty of anything,seemed like an impossible dream.

Fortunately, the larder in their hovel is well-stocked. The next morning finds Jackie taking over the role as cook, preparing another gigantic meal, pancakes stacked over a foot high. While Jackie labors, Charlie lies in bed, reading the comics and smoking. In his autobiography, he recalled the memories behind this scene:

I would awaken to a tidy little room with a small fire glowing and see the steaming kettle on the hob and a haddock or a bloater27 by the fender being kept warm while she made toast. Mother’s cheery presence, the coziness of the room, the soft padded sound of boiling water pouring into our earthenware tea-pot while I read my weekly comic, were the pleasures of a serene Sunday morning.

This charming idyll is shattered by Edna, of all people, now “a star of great prominence” and devoted to charity. She encounters Jackie and is charmed by him, though of course she doesn’t realize who he is.28 Edna tries to bring the law of charity and Christian forgiveness to the inner city when Charlie clashes with a surly bully (Charles Reisner),29 though Charlie ultimately resolves matters with a brick.

While Charlie is finishing off the bully, Jackie conveniently falls ill, leading Edna to summon the authorities, who, of course, determine to drag Jackie off to the workhouse. Jackie is thrown in the back of a flat-bed truck like a dog, shouting “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!”

Upstairs, Charlie is struggling with against an army of suits. When he hears Jackie calling he stares directly into the camera in pure desperation, capturing, surely, the emotions Chaplin felt when he was separated from his mother and sent to the workhouse.

Charlie throws off his oppressors and escapes out the window onto the roof. From his perch Charlie sees the truck depart and he sets off to follow over the roof tops. He climbs up a steep slope and immediately slides back down, but after this one gag his pursuit is resolutely heroic. Charlie leaps from roof to roof like a mountain goat, and punches out his adversaries with a fervor worthy of Douglas Fairbanks himself. He rescues Jackie and embraces and kisses him passionately.

Unfortunately, they cannot return to their apartment and so are forced to resort to a flophouse, always the symbol of misery in Chaplin.30 As Charlie checks into his bunk he’s groped by sleeping pickpocket in the adjoining bed, whose tentacle-like arm seems to function independently of his owner. Once he and Jackie fall asleep, the manager sees a notice in the paper (a late edition, apparently), seeking information on a “lost child.” He spirits Jackie away while Charlie slumbers. Charlie awakens too late and spends the night desperately searching for Jackie.

In the morning we see Jackie sitting forlorn in the police station. Edna has learned of his true identity, thanks to the note she left on his blanket, which Charlie has kept for these past five years. She rushes in and embraces Jackie. Meanwhile, Charlie, exhausted from his search, has fallen asleep on the stoop to his apartment. Chaplin delays the inevitable reunion with a strange dream sequence — he’s reunited with Jackie in heaven. Everyone wears white sheets and angel wings, and all the cops and bullies are now his friends.

Chaplin deliberately makes this transformation as childlike, artificial, and innocent as possible. The little tramp stares with wonder at such marvels as an angel dog, sporting wings and flying in on invisible wires. The gag — the audience sees through the illusion but Charlie doesn’t — is one that Shakespeare used with his rustic clowns and it’s one that Chaplin will use again.

This heaven, however, proves no more resistant to corruption than Eden. Some union-suited31 devils find a willing Eve in Lita Gray, and Charlie falls prey to her wiles. His wickedness is unmasked, of course, and went he attempts to fly away, policeman Wilson shoots him dead and Charlie, a “fallen angel,” collapses in the same doorway where he fell asleep.

When Wilson comes over to examine the body, the dream fades, and it’s the cop waking Charlie up. A silent Wilson leads Charlie away and puts him in a large car. They drive until they come to a large mansion. Wilson takes Charlie to the door. The door opens and there’s Edna with Jackie! They embrace, but Chaplin shoots the action quickly, and from a middle distance. The real emotion — the loss of Jackie and his rescue — have come before.

Afterwords

Image Entertainment has released all Chaplin’s work for First National on two DVDs, one devoted to The Kid and A Dog’s Life and the other devoted to the remaining six. At least some of the films are available from other companies, but from what I’ve seen Image is the best.

The Unknown Chaplin, a three-disc set of out-takes, interviews, and other material, compiled by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, is now available on DVD and is well worth buying or renting.

Chaplin’s My Early Years, out of print but available second hand through the web, makes fascinating reading. His My Life in Pictures, also out of print, has wonderful photos and memorabilia. Joyce Milton’s 1996 biography Tramp regards Chaplin short of idolatry, which is as it should be. Jefferey Vance’s Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003) is pricey but has wonderful photos as well and probably can be gotten second hand at a reduced price.

Jackie Coogan was Hollywood’s most successful child star until the rise of the almighty Shirley Temple, earning about $3 million for his parents. When Jackie turned 21, they informed him that they were keeping all the cash, and, since he was no longer a child, they wouldn’t be supporting him any more. An outraged California state legislature passed the “Jackie Coogan law,” protecting future child stars, but poor Jackie was born too early. He definitely struggled, starring in the infamous Mesa of Lost Women in 1953, but took advantage of TV to become famous all over again as Uncle Fester (above right) in The Addams Family.

  1. Chaplin’s mother, Hannah, had been a successful music hall singer when she was young, but lost her voice when Charlie was five. In his autobiography, Chaplin told how his mother “would perform before us, not only with her own vaudeville material, but with imitations of other actresses she had seen in the so-called legitimate theatre.” The scenes, often drawn from florid Victorian melodramas of Christian suffering and self-sacrifice, stayed with Chaplin throughout his life. []
  2. Edna was not much of an actress at all, and the film, unsurprisingly, was a complete flop. Chaplin starred in all of his remaining films, except the last, The Countess from Hong Kong, also a complete and unsurprising flop. []
  3. In 1959 Chaplin released a compilation film The Chaplin Revue, with a spoken commentary that includes a not-very-funny joke about Edna’s weight. In the picture book, My Life in Pictures,released in 1973, he made another one. “Forgive and forget” was not in Charlie’s lexicon. []
  4. W. C. Fields and Groucho Marx, who similarly lacked much formal education, were both reportedly great readers, though it’s difficult to know how many of the stories told about them are true. Certainly neither Fields nor Groucho were politically active in the way that Chaplin was. []
  5. According to Sinclair, an unfortunate worker who fell into a vat of boiling fat would ultimately emerge as “Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard!” []
  6. Chaplin was panicked by reports that English schoolchildren were singing songs about sending him to the Dardanelles, the ill-conceived, ill-executed, and monstrously bloody campaign in Turkey that was Winston Churchill’s least finest hour. []
  7. The entry of the U.S. into World War I split the Left, and The Masses was one of the casualties. []
  8. Marlon Brando had a similar ability. Sometime in early 1970s in an interview in Playboy Brando poured forth an endless stream of 1950s Greenwich Village existentialism, a ponderous, hyper-intellectual broth that was equal parts Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, James Joyce, and T.S. Eliot — and also the precise opposite of the sex, drugs, and rock and roll ethos of the seventies. Mike Nichols and Elaine May did a beautiful parody of the mind set in “Bach to Bach,” a six-minute skit that was made into a short in 1967 but is not available on home video. []
  9. Chaplin’s favorite author, and likely source for at least some of these sentiments, was the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. Chaplin read Schopenhauer’s magnum opus, The World as Will and Representation, as though it were the Bible, dipping into it constantly without ever reading it through. Schopenhauer, who cultivated a great contempt for the vanity of human wishes, was the favorite philosopher of both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, though for my money he’s no Spinoza. (I’m drawing a blank for “Patti’s eternal farewell.” Running a google will get you a lot of weird shit, much though not all of it dealing with Patti Smith. []
  10. Much of the footage that Chaplin shot for “Life” ended up in the Essanay short Police. []
  11. Presumably, it’s a very fat wallet. []
  12. If you’re dying to know more about Irene Castle (probably not), check out my review of The Vernon and Irene Castle Story (Fred and Ginger’s last B&W for RKO). []
  13. I don’t think Edna had lost any weight for this picture. There wasn’t much Chaplin wouldn’t do for a gag. Whatever you want to say about Charlie, he was a trouper. []
  14. According to online critic Clayton Trapp, “the entire thing presages the Led Zeppelin saga,” but I have my doubts. []
  15. Particularly hilarious are Charlie’s swishy parade ground maneuvers (right), producing consternation (and something more?) in his grizzled drill sergeant. []
  16. A fair amount of this footage survived, and is included on the Image Entertainment DVD, A First National Collection, which has all of the films Chaplin did for First National except A Dog’s Life and The Kid (available together on a second DVD). []
  17. Perhaps the ultimate piece of WWI kitsch is Edward Streeter’s deservedly forgotten Dere Mabel, a series of lame, semi-literate letters written by a doughboy to his hometown sweetheart. These dreary pieces were still included in high school textbooks in the early sixties, and I can remember my grandmother laughing with delight as she recalled them. []
  18. Perhaps the ultimate piece of WWI kitsch is Edward Streeter’s deservedly forgotten Dere Mabel, a series of lame, semi-literate letters written by a doughboy to his hometown sweetheart. These dreary pieces were still included in high school textbooks in the early sixties, and I can remember my grandmother laughing with delight as she recalled them. []
  19. When Charlie’s mother lost her voice, plunging the family into poverty, she sometimes attended evangelical services in the hope of divine assistance, giving Chaplin a life-long hatred of preachers.The Pilgrim, a four-reeler he completed for First National in the early twenties, constitutes his most complete statement on religious matters. []
  20. Chaplin was too nervous and self-absorbed to drive. Cars, and the Ford Model T in particular, were an essential part of silent screen comedy, but Chaplin never used the sort of thrills and chills gags that other comedians thrived on. Both Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd loved to demonstrate their mastery of virtually any kind of vehicle, from bicycle to locomotive. []
  21. Huge, but not that huge. Even The Kid‘s success was dwarfed by The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Rudolf Valentino’s breakthrough film, which grossed over $7 million. Jackie was cute, but Rudolfo was stunning. []
  22. In his autobiography, Chaplin described his mother “…reading, acting and explaining in her inimitable way the New Testament and Christ’s love and pity for the poor.” []
  23. Is Chaplin criticizing his own marriage? It seems unlikely. The metaphor is very mixed here. []
  24. It’s a Pierce-Arrow, if you care. Once the most famous American luxury car, the make expired in the mid-thirties. []
  25. When Chaplin re-released The Kid with a sound track in the thirties, he eliminated much of the early footage devoted to Edna, because of its old-fashioned content. (He may have built up her role in the first place to prepare her for an independent career, which she failed to achieve in A Woman of Paris). I prefer the original, available from Image. []
  26. Before they set off, Charlie gives Jackie’s face a scrubbing, similar to the one he gave Edna in The Vagabond, although Charlie has Jackie turn his face away from the camera, so that we can’t really tell if he’s scrubbing out Jackie’s nostrils, as he did to Edna. Chaplin had very bitter memories from his orphanage days when, as an “infant,” he was bathed by fourteen-year-old girls. Are these scenes some sort of convoluted payback? Again, the metaphor is too mixed to say. []
  27. A herring cured by bloating, you twit. []
  28. This unknowing encounter between mother and lost child is echt Victorian tear-jerking, but if you’d rather you can trace it back to Shakespeare’s last plays — A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest,for example — or the ancient Greek “new comedy” of Menander. In any case, it’s an escape from broken, adult reality to the seamless world of childhood. []
  29. Reisner’s bizarre appearance is intended to indicate that he is Irish. []
  30. I’ve never read that Chaplin ever had to spend a night in a flophouse, but he uses them frequently in his early films as the symbol of the “lower depths,” a world of dog-eat-dog depravity. []
  31. Union suits, top and bottom united in one, are what I grew up calling long underwear. Jokes about union suits were pretty common before World War II. []