Some classes happily go on to the Marx Brothers after finishing up with Chaplin. This year’s class would have none of them, but last year’s class couldn’t get enough. You just never know.
I begin by telling the kids a bit about the four brothers: the talkative Groucho, the silent-harp-playing Harpo, the fake-Italian-novelty-piano-playing Chico, and the occasional-straightman Zeppo. Then I tend to start with A Night At the Opera since many consider it their best. Here’s a neat NPR feature on the creation of the film. And here’s that famous stateroom scene:
Others that have gone down well with my students are Horsefeathers (lots of football hijinks) and Duck Soup (my personal favorite). Oddly enough, I can’t find any kids’ books about them!
At the time I first fell in love with Chaplin the rest of the world seemed more taken with Buster Keaton. Evidently he was more cerebral (as much as a slapstick comedian can be called that) and at my college there were often screenings of Keaton, never of Chaplin. Now I do like Keaton yet I have had little luck getting my students to connect to him. Once they have fallen for Chaplin, no one else, it seems, will do. (Is my own teen-crush to blame? Possibly.)
At any rate, this year I’m more hopeful because of a remarkable new picture book biography of Buster Keaton. When I read Betsy Bird’s enthusiastic review of Catherine Brighton’s Keep Your Eye On The Kid: The Early Years of Buster Keaton I was eager to see it for myself. Happily, the publisher sent me a copy and it is everything Betsy said and more. The illustrations are amazing with angles and perspectives that echo those of Keaton’s films. Within the illustrations are wonderful references to other illustrated stories such as Little Nemo in Slumberland and Struwwelpeter. It is a spectacular book and I can’t wait to read it to my students, show them One Week, Our Hospitality, The General, and more to get them hooked!
Here is the memorable scene with which Brighton ends her book:
In Edgar Eager’s Half Magic, a much beloved childhood book of mine, there is a mention of the four kids hating Charlie Chaplin. I can only speculate that Eager, having set the story in the time of his own youth, was remembering being dragged to a Chaplin picture when he wanted to go see something more adventurous. I remember this because in high school I fell in love with Chaplin: I had a large poster of him plastered on my bedroom door, read his autobiography and other books about him, watched those old collections of shorts whenever they were shown on one of the local public television stations, and went to see his refurbished features when they were shown in art cinemas.
And so when I became a teacher I recorded those collections of shorts still being shown on pubic television and showed them to my class where they were instant hits. These days my classes still can’t get enough of Chaplin (now in beautiful DVD editions). We begin with the shorts and then move on to classics like The Gold Rush and Modern Times. What pleases me tremendously is that my kids babble about them to their parents and friends in the other 4th grade classes and so those kids soon insist that their teacher show his movies to them as well. Chaplin lives!
To provide some context, I tell my students a bit about Chaplin and about movies in his time. Because he was an immigrant and they’ve already seen some of the silent movies of Ellis Island, I always begin with The Immigrant which they adore. Chaplin does such a great job making fun of the whole experience which he knew of firsthand.
I also read aloud Silent Movie by Avi with illustrations by C.B. Mordan and Mack Made Movies by Don Brown; both give the kids still more of a sense of how Chaplin lived and worked.
So give ol’ Charlie a shot! He still entertains kids today, I can assure you.