The Little Fellow

When I was in high school it was typical to have John Lennon or Mick Jagger up on your bedroom wall. I had Charlie Chaplin — a lifesize poster, as a matter of fact.  He may have been my grandfather’s age at the time, but for me he was that fey twenty-something in the films of his that I saw on public television.  Elegant, flirty, sweet, clever, and adorable.   As he charmed everyone in his day so he charmed me decades later.

My crush on Charlie has never left me and so I’ve been showing the Little Tramp films to my classes for decades.  These nine and ten year-olds adore him and pass the word on to other classes  with the result that my colleagues have been showing Chaplin too.  I love that this clown and these early films are so successful with today’s media savvy kids.

For years I’ve had in mind a book on Chaplin, a book that would send young readers straight to his films.  Sid Fleischman’s recent biography is solid, but he is showing the whole life of a complicated artist.  I want to do something different — to focus on Chaplin’s art more than his life.  I want to communicate to child readers the energy, wit, hilarity, and elegance in his early films that is Chaplin at his best. I have years and years of firsthand evidence that kids still find him hilarious.  The word needs to get out — born in the 19th century, Charlie is still funny, funny, funny in the 21st — hopefully I’m the one to do it.

And so this summer I’m deep into Chaplin, reading and viewing and thinking about how to do this.  Having been besotted with the man, his character, and his work for so long I figured I knew a lot, but I’m learning more every day.  In particular, I’m interested in his particular comedy, gags, and the methodology of early film making — the stuff that I know that kids will be interested in too.  And is the case with research (and made easier with the Internet), I’m easily led astray on one tangent or another.  But I’m having fun learning about vaudeville and early film making along with the little guy himself.

14 Comments

Filed under Chaplin, Film

14 responses to “The Little Fellow

  1. I’m good friends with the president of the Buster Keaton Society – be happy to put you two in touch.

    This sounds like a great book project (I loved Fleishman’s book, but you’re right about it being less about the art and more about the life).

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  2. karen

    Could you work with the Museum of TV and Radio to get short clips on a dvd to go with the book?

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  3. This sounds *wonderful* and I completely agree, and I think this post shows you’re the person to do it.

    (I have a tiny Chaplin flipbook that I’ve had since high school and when I’m stuck I use it as a kind of repetitive zen koan.)

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  4. delzey

    agreed on all fronts. i firmly believe that american education is lacking when it comes to arts and culture, and have been “supplementing” my daughters education with movies and music. they got a good dose of silent films when they were younger and have favorite films and pronounced preferences in comedians (one likes chaplin, the other keaton).

    someone else kids still find funny after all these years, but whose complicated lives make for a difficult biography for kids, are the marx brothers. i’m mulling that one over right now…

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  5. This seems to be a busy time for Chaplin research, with rediscoveries of previously unknown shorts like “The Thief Catcher” and this WW1 propaganda compilation coming to light. Interesting project!

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  6. Thanks, everyone! I appreciate your enthusiasm for the project.

    Lazygal, I may follow up on your offer down the line. Right now I’m trying to get the massive amount of Chaplin material under control!

    Karen, the rights for Chaplin films are complicated, but wouldn’t it be amazing to include some of the early ones some way? Maybe by the time the book is in production (years away) something will be possible.

    Gwenda, I think I have the same flip book!

    David, I believe we communicated about this when I did my series on old movies for kids a few years back. I get a mixed response from kids about the Marx Bros — some years they love ’em and some years they don’t. And I”m never able to sell Keaton. I think it is because they’ve fallen so hard for Chaplin that he is just too austere for them at that point.

    John, I did see mention of those lost bits coming to light. THE THIEF CATCHER is fun because Charlie plays an iconic Kop. So far I’ve just seen the still, but I’m guessing the film will eventually show up on youtube.

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  7. Kathy Shepler

    Oh wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a new genre of book/biography- one with the amazing addition of audio/visual with it. There is so much about multi-genre we could be exploring and a topic like Charlie is perfect for it. I’m thinking of expanding the use of inserted DVD? material or website? material like the Hugo Cabret author notes DVD in the audio book (eg Rocket
    to the Moon) Fun, fun project. Love it. Enjoy yourself!

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  8. Kathy, I admit I have a LOT of ideas regarding production of this book. Hubris-sorts of ideas. Better write it first, however:)

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  9. Which Chaplin movies do you show to your 4th graders?

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  10. HI Gail,

    I go into more detail about what I do with the fourth graders in this earlier post . I always start with the Mutual shorts (usually The Immigrant is the first one I show) then go on to The Gold Rush, Modern Times, City Lights, The Circus, and The Great Dictator — more or less depending on how interested they are.

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  11. Sounds like a fun project. Try not to reinvent the wheel though. So much non-biographical work has been done on Chaplin that you could spend 10 summers reading it all. Not sure where your research has taken you so far but I would suggest starting with Andre Bazin’s essay on Chaplin which you can find translated in the first volume of What is Cinema. Volume 2 also has some great insight on Chaplin in light of both the art of cinema and authorship. Here’s one of my favorite passages (from an essay on De Sica)
    There is no way of completely understanding the art of Flaherty, Renoir, Vigo, and especially Chaplin unless we try to discover beforehand what particular kind of tenderness, of sensual or sentimental affection, they reflect. In my opinion, the cinema more than any other art is particularly bound up with love. The novelist in his relations to his characters needs intelligence more than love; understanding is his form of loving. –Andre Bazin, “De Sica: Metteur en Scene” 1952

    There is an out-of-print collection of Bazin’s Chaplin essays simply titled Essays on Chaplin that would be worth hunting down. Raymond Durgant’s The Crazy Mirror: Hollywood Comedy and the American Image is another great source for some grounding in cinematic comedy history and critical theory.

    Good luck with your project!

    As for Fleischman’s new bio, I was disappointed with the omission of Woman of Paris (my favorite Chaplin directed feature) and Fleischman’s negative reception of King of New York which I think is due for a rediscovery.

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  12. Thanks, Eric. I’ll check those out.

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  13. Pingback: Sid Fleischman’s Sir Charlie: The Funniest Man in the World « educating alice

  14. Pingback: Happy Birthday, Charlie! « educating alice

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