Chaplin’s movies will live as long as the movies themselves. His first rush of cinema pantomime — more than 30 short films for Keystone churned out in a single year, 1914 — established not only a star but the whole idea of the star system in an industry hitherto dominated by company logos and brands. These films never went out of circulation — indeed, by 1918 the original negatives had been printed to death and new copies of films with the most recognizable and lucrative man in the world had to be sourced from badly worn and scratched projection prints. This was only the beginning. Chaplin’s silent comedies remained familiar and beloved long after the talkie revolution. They circulated in every conceivable format, from 8mm prints ordered out of the back of a magazine to public domain DVDs at the corner bodega.
The movies remained popular — screening constantly, sought out by film collectors, schoolchildren, intellectuals, and everyone in between — while the man himself was in eclipse. Raked over the coals of the gossip rags, denounced by red-baiting politicians, and harassed as a matter of government policy until his ultimate exile from his adopted homeland, Chaplin suffered no shortage of public humiliation. His politics were not terribly radical, but his survival was.
The movies today? They’re funny. They’re sentimental. Above all, they’re throwbacks — blackout sketches seemingly tossed off and bashed together. The original faux primitive, the apparently artless Chaplin would make dozens of takes of the most pedestrian shots. As the years passed, his new films became more infrequent and otherworldly — crusades against encroaching menaces (industrialism, capitalism, mass murder, talking pictures, America) that had already handily won the day. Pitched as alternate histories of the present day and prevailing cinema, Chaplin’s movies were made wholly for himself but happened to speak to the whole world. In describing his autumnal Limelight, Dave Kehr has summed up Chaplin’s achievement: “overlong, visually flat, episodically constructed, and a masterpiece — it isn’t ‘cinema’ on any terms but Chaplin’s own, but those are high terms indeed.”
We will be screening brand new 35mm prints of Chaplin’s features and First National shorts. Up until last year, quality prints of these American classics had to be imported from France for theatrical screenings.