Chaplin's 100th

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.

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....

``This resulted in a great deal of pain and loss for him,'' Silver adds, referring to the unpopularity of Chaplin's political views with many American moviegoers, and his eventual exile from the United States, his adopted country. ``But it's very important to me. I identify very strongly with the Tramp character. I've always viewed myself as an underdog or a fighter for lost causes.''

Chaplin emerged as a socially aware filmmaker in the early 1930s, as Silver sees it. The turning point, he says, was ``City Lights,'' the 1931 masterpiece about the Tramp's love for a young blind woman. ``If you look at the films before then,'' Silver asserts, ``Chaplin seems to be obsessed with nothing but his personal problems and his inability to find love. ... But with `City Lights,' you begin to see there is a concern with society and with looking outward.

``In his own life, he made several world trips in the '30s. He began to see what life was like in Europe and Asia and began to realize there was more to be interested in than his own personal life. He began to be obsessed with making a statement on it.''

As an entertainer and a thinker, Silver says, Chaplin was unique - and therefore his influence on later filmmakers is more a matter of suggestion than direct imitation. Silver points to the end of ``Manhattan,'' by Woody Allen, as an example of outright borrowing, in that case straight from the ``City Lights'' finale.

He also cites three French masters - Jean Renoir, Ren'e Clair, and Fran,cois Truffaut - as directors who achieved Chaplinesque moments. ``But because he was such a total creator,'' says Silver, ``and such a unique personality, it's hard to argue that he has disciples - as one could speak of John Ford's disciples or Howard Hawks's disciples.''

Is there a ``greatest of all'' movie in the Chaplin filmography? Silver says ``City Lights'' has ``a kind of perfection, structurally. It balances the dramatic and comedic elements almost perfectly.'' But he also admires ``some of the personal, perhaps less conventionally successful films like `The Circus' and `Limelight,' which are meditations on his art and his personal feelings. ... If you love Chaplin and see all his films, you come to appreciate the personal moments he brings to these - which aren't necessarily designed to appeal to every audience.''

In addition to its own merits, Silver feels that Chaplin's art recalls a time when movies in general were better than they are today. ``I don't see many contemporary movies,'' he admits. ``The ones I do see tend to be very cold and seem to be made by committees. There's no sense of a man or woman behind the camera who wants to communicate directly with me.

``I also find that some of the films so popular today are vastly more sentimental than Chaplin's films. Something like `Three Men and a Baby' is excruciatingly saccharine. It's paradoxical that audiences who think of themselves as too sophisticated for silent films or older films ... flock to see that.

``I think the values in Chaplin, though - what the Tramp represents - are eternal values about relationships, and feeling, and loyalty. I think we can never get too much of that. There is substance to his films that's lacking in most of the stuff coming out now.''

As for the old-fashioned feelings that pepper Chaplin's films, Silver sees no problem with them. ``I'm not sure I find anything wrong with sentiment per se,'' he insists, ``or even sentimentality. `The Kid' is a very sentimental film, but it transcends that because the performances are so beautiful, and there's such genuine feeling in the relationship between Chaplin and Jackie Coogan....

``The nature of great cinema is to grab people emotionally and sweep them up into the spectacle. I don't think there's anything wrong with that!''

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