"A film with a smile, and maybe, a tear"
Charles Chaplin's first full-length film, "The Kid," celebrated its world premiere on January 21, 1921. A Jahr100Wissen / 100 years ago interview with the research assistant at the Faculty of Design and Art in the Audiovisual Media Design Study Program, Till Müller.
On January 21, 1921, the film "The Kid" (dt: Der Vagabund und das Kind) celebrated its world premiere. The film is considered as one of Charles Chaplin's most autobiographical films ever. How do biographers come up with this?
Müller: Charlie Chaplin sends his still world.famous character, the Tramp, on a special mission in "The Kid". The film tells the story of how the little Tramp becomes the surrogate father of an abandoned child. The involuntary father makes some peculiar efforts to get rid of the baby and the responsibility. But, over the time, the egoist develops into a devoted father who raises the boy like his own child. Later, he even fights back hard when the child is to be taken away from him. Against this background, the biographical references become clear very quickly.
Charlie Chaplin himself did not grow up in a sheltered home either. Since his father drank too much, his mother seperated from his father after his birth. She had two more sons with another man. This man took one of the children away from her as a baby, in order to raise the baby himself. It was not easy for his mother to support the family on her own, especially since she was a singer and was losing her voice. Charlie and his brother had to go to the poorhouse, when their mother was hit by illness and depression. Charlie then grew up in homes and boarding schools. However, it is now interesting to see, in which situation Chaplin gets the idea for an adaptation of this childhood.
"In 1918, he had hastily married a young actress. This, according to his own account, had completely crippled his creativity. She became pregnant and had a child, who died three days after birth. This traumatic event apparently frees Chaplin from the creative blockade.
Only ten days after the funderal of his newborn, Chaplin already is casting babies for the film in the studio. One can calculate under which emotional circumstances the pre-production and the shooting took place. As a result, the marriage broke up, which led to a curious post-production phase for ""The Kid"". The production company was in payment dispute with Chaplin. They tried to assert claims through the ex-wife during their the separation dispute, which is why Chaplin fled to another state and edited the film under adventurous conditions in a hotel room."
The film is the first fusion of social drama and comedy in history. In the trailer it is advertised "A film with a smile - and maybe, a tear". What was so special about it?
Müller: Most comedies of the silent film era did not deal with serious subjects and hardly took their characters seriously. Previously, Chaplin had also produced countless short films that tended to focus on physical, sill jokes. In those, he was much more impressive for his body control and timing.In 1915, already six years before "The Kid", Chaplin then goes beyond this pure "physical comedy" with the film "The Tramp" and adds another element to his character, the pathos. At the end of the film, the Tramp has to realize that he has misunderstood the signs of the woman of his dreams and that she loves someone else. The Tramp is sad, but does not let it get him down, shakes off the grief and moves on. The moviegoer, who actually wanted to watch a slapstick comedy at the time, must have been very surprised by this touching moment at the end.
In any case, "The Tramp" was a huge success. From then on, this mixture of joy and affection was typical for Chaplin's films: The smile and the tear. Moreover, Chaplin is said to have a special talent to break off the pathos at the right moment, before it becomes too painful. He knew how to redeem the sympathetic audience with a laughter at the right moment. Without a doubt, "The Kid" combines comedy with social criticism. A child is taken away from a man, just because he is poor and is not trusted to raise a child. A rich woman is entrusted with the child directly, although we know from the beginning of the story that this woman was poor as well. However, Chaplin had already demonstrated serious engagement with social deficiancies in the role of the Tramp before. In 1916 in "The Immigrant" or in 1918 in "Easy Street" and "A Dog`s Life" or "Shoulder Arms", with which he, for example, mocks militarism. "The Kid" is thus not the first story to combine social criticism with comedy.
Chaplin created a cinematic icon with the Tramp. How did this character come into being?
Müller: Chaplin embodied the Tramp in so many films that today it is the case that we immediately think of the Tramp's appearance when we think of Charlie Chaplin: hat and cane, baggy pants and shoes that are much too big, narrow upper lip beard and waddling gait. Chaplin literature knows numerous versions for the origin of the costume alone. Today, one can not say which of them is true. Chaplin himself told several variants. The fact is, Chaplin already gained experience with sketch performances on his mother's stage at the age of five and also acted in various clown groups. The above-mentioned utensils serve a visual comedy in many ways. He could trip over the too big shoes, he could pull the hat reflexively when he bumped somewhere. We see the figure equiped in this way for the first time as early as 1914 in a film called "Kid Auto Races at Venice". There, he already has the waddling gait and the little stick with which he hits himself. That was the dry run for "The Tramp" a year later. The main character of this film was inspired by a real incident. Chaplin had met a tramp in San Francisco whose calmness and cheerfulness in the face of his difficult life made a lasting impression on him. After the success of this film, Chaplin embodied the tramp for twenty years and refined it again and again.
The separation scene between the Tramp and the child is the strongest scene in the film. Why?
Müller: The film reaches its emotional climax when the law enforcement officers want to take the son away from the father. Up to this point, our protagonists have proven that they can overcome all of life's challenges and adversities together as a duo. But now, an antagonistic force enters the scene. It has a legitimate motive, and the viewer knows it. The law enforcers are, after all, only the extended arm of the youth welfare service. They in turn act in the interests of the biological mother, who in the meantime has taken a respectable place in society. She could give the boy a life away from the streets, where he would not have to scam for a living. One secretly knows what would be best for the boy and also wishes that the mother would get her child back. Still, you wonder how father and son might have a future together after all. At that moment, this is also so cruel. In addition, the actors' performance in this scene is really very believable. Not only Chaplin's performance is appreciated by critics, but also that of his co-star Jackie Coogan, who embodies the boy.
Chaplin directed his actors by playing the emotion directly to them. He demanded an exact take on the emotion, gestures and facial expressions. He immediately looked for substitutes if an actor did not follow his instructions. Is emotion even more important in silent films than in sound films?
Müller: That can not be said in such general terms. Of course, the sound film can convey information and pathos through language, and thus perhaps has it a bit easier than the silent film. Chaplin himself was horrified by this idea. According to him, the emerging sound film destroyed the art of pantomime. He found the spoken word fundamentally embarrassing. The fact that Chaplin treated his actors in this way is, in my opinion, rather evidence of a compulsive will to have everything under control. We know about his films that he was not only a performer, but also a producer, writer, director, editor and film composer. There was a consensus among his colleagues that if he had been able to, he would have played every role in every film himself. And so the only option left to him was to look for actors who could unconditionally imitate what he showed them. Jackie Coogan was still a child and able to imitate Chaplin's facial expressions and gestures at the drop of a hat. So, he was the ideal actor for Charlie Chaplin.
The sensitively staged story unfolds dramaturgically cleverly along various slapstick scenes and still criticizes the social conditions of the time. What makes the film still worth seeing today?
Müller: With my students, I observe that slapstick scenes from back then still elicit a smile for some. On the whole, we certainly expect more with our current viewing habits. Personally, I am impressed by the attitude with which Chaplin makes the film, which is also laid out in the Tramp. Not only the general social conditions were difficult at that time, but also in his private life, as I said, it had hit the filmmaker hard. Nevertheless, he does not let it get him down, keeps his calmness, his sense of humor and overcomes the crisis. This is a message of timeless relevance. If we look at the world today and how we deal with current crises, this is certainly a reason to watch the film or other films by Chaplin again.
"The Kid" is Chaplin's first feature-length film, which has grossed over $60 million worldwide to date. He borrowed money, wrote, edited and produced the film himself. He also composed his own film music, as he did for most of his later productions. Mr. Müller, in the past you have offered a seminar on narrative and dramaturgy in 20th century film editing. Can the silent film still be an inspiration for today's generation?
Müller: When I think of this question, I first think of the partially silent film "The Artist," which won Oscars and other awards in 2012. Yes, silent films can still be an inspiration today, because they still exist. Films are increasingly used on info screens and social media, where they have get by without sound. The classic silent film was not silent and was always presented with music. Even today the moving image with purely musical background is presented. For example, in music videos, commercials, trailers, etc. The silent film is still a part of our teaching in the Audiovisual Media Design Study Program. Apart from my film theory courses, it is also part of the film practice.
At least in such a way that I suggest to switch off the sound or to fade out the dialogue. As a method for checking the script or the editing version I recommend to watch the film as a silent film to see if it still works. In this way, aspiring filmmakers can quickly determine at which points they have relied too much on the language, to convey the story. But that is not "cinematic," as I always say. Conveying a story solely through language is something that literature or radio plays can also do. Telling stories with moving images is a different matter. Here, we are part of a tradition that was established a good 100 years ago by filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin.
Uwe Blass (Interview on December 9, 2020)
Till Müller studied Design Technology with a focus on Media Design and Art at the University of Wuppertal. Since 2013, he has been teaching in the fields of Film and Media Theory as well as Film Practice and Technology as an academic advisor in the Media Design and Interior Design Department in the Audiovisual Media Design Study Program.