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Chaplin's 100th

By David Sterritt / April 14, 1989


MOVIEDOM doesn't have an international holiday. If it did, April 16 is surely when it would be observed. That's the 100th anniversary of Charles Chaplin's birth, making this Sunday a day of nostalgia, tribute, and celebration for film lovers around the world. Chaplin's reputation has seen ups and downs since the heyday of his career in the '20s and '30s. When his fellow comedian Buster Keaton had a critical revival some 20 years ago, for instance, many critics took to praising Keaton's ``cinematic'' and ``cerebral'' style over Chaplin's more ``theatrical'' and ``emotional'' approach.

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Chaplin's light has never dimmed much, however, in the eyes of audiences who feel his films represent cinema in its truest and most straightforward form. His 100th anniversary finds his reputation - and his movies - still alive and well on the wide screen.

To mark the Chaplin centennial, I visited a man who's both a recognized Chaplin expert and a hearty Chaplin fan: Charles Silver, supervisor of the Film Study Center at the Museum of Modern Art - and such an enthusiast that he has fantasized about changing his middle name to (you guessed it) Chaplin.

To pay his own Chaplin tribute this year, Mr. Silver has written a thoughtful book called ``Charles Chaplin: An Appreciation,'' lavishly illustrated and handsomely published by the museum. Other centenary activities by the museum include a Chaplin gallery exhibition on view through June 30, and a film retrospective beginning today and ending April 27.

Silver has felt a special affection for Chaplin since the mid-1960s, when several major Chaplin films were revived in a Manhattan theater after years of neglect. He attributes his love partly to the fact that, in addition to directing his films, Chaplin is ``up there on the screen, as few directors are. So there's a kind of direct communication that's not possible even with other great filmmakers - whom you don't seem to feel as a personal friend, or as someone who's directly speaking to you.''

One of the most striking insights in Silver's book has to do with a tension built into Chaplin's artistic personality: between his love of freedom to the point of anarchy, embodied in his famous Tramp character, and his respect for discipline and control, qualities that were essential to the excellence of his filmmaking.

In the classic ``Modern Times,'' according to Silver, the Tramp was in ``a perpetual state of compromise'' between the opposite poles of orderliness, on one hand, and rejection of all authority, on the other. Chaplin resolved this conflict - or rather, acted it out - in ``The Great Dictator,'' playing both the oppressor (a Hitler caricature) and the oppressed (a harmless Jewish barber) in the same story. He then reunited his split personality in the controversial ``Monsieur Verdoux,'' where he played the most contradictory character of his career: a mass murderer with the mildest and gentlest of manners.

``In his personal life,'' says Silver, discussing this aspect of Chaplin, ``he was not a person who would like taking anyone else's direction, or having any kind of constraints. ... He was, generally speaking, a very free spirit. Yet he exercised a lot of control in his work. He was aware that he was kind of a tyrant in his profession, forcing actors and technicians to do things his way. I'm sure he would not have responded well to being in that position, though. And at some point I think he must have looked at this and found it intriguing.''

Silver's admiration for Chaplin is based not only on his acting and filmmaking, but on a conviction that his art went beyond entertainment and self-expression. ``Chaplin, both on screen and off, was ahead of his time as a social crusader,'' Silver says. ``Comedy is not supposed to `be serious' or `say something.'

``But if you look at `Modern Times,' you see it's one of the major contemporary statements on the depression. `The Great Dictator' was a courageous antifascist movie at a time when antifascist movies weren't being made - before America's entry into the war. `Monsieur Verdoux' deals with the then-incipient arms race, which has come to haunt us over the last 40 years. He was in the forefront of speaking out on important social issues....