Little Tramp at 100 - The San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Castro Marquee on a drizzly day (photo courtesy Kimberly Kinser)
I had the delightful pleasure of attending the 100h Anniversary of the birth of The Little Tramp spending this past Saturday at the Castro Theater enjoying the winter program of The San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  Chaplin's Tramp was, more or less, officially born on January 11, 1914.
Chaplin during his early days at Keystone
The first program was three of Chaplin's short films made for Mutual Film Corporation in 1916 and 1917.  Staring with The Vagabond (1916), Easy Street and The Cure (both 1917).  All featured Chaplin regulars, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell and Henry Bergman.  The prints were all digitally screened.  The films themselves were beautiful restorations that, I was told, will be made available on blu-ray later in 2014 for home viewing.  I love The Cure, it is one of my favorites, how I wished that The Adventurer had been chosen for the short lineup, as well. 
This period of Chaplin's life had been declared by Chaplin himself that it was one of the happiest creative periods of his career.  He had great freedom, he was in a relationship with his leading lady, life was good.  On screen it certainly shows.  I confess, it is Edna that I love seeing Chaplin with.  There is a sweetness, a lightness, a rapport with Edna that you never see with any of Chaplin's future leading ladies.  As a pair they were well-matched on screen and it is a beautiful thing to see, this rapport, this affection.
The trio of shorts were accompanied by Jon Mirsalis ably at the piano.  His deft fingers matched the balletic action on the screen.  1916’s The Vagabond does not have too much of a plot.  The opening sequence of the vagabond violinist at the salon is hilarious and his meeting and becoming smitten with Edna is tender.  Not to spoil it, but the happy ending here belies the almost trademark image of Chaplin’s tramp walking alone down life’s highway.

Easy Street is another delightful film in which the tramp becomes a policeman in his attempt to reform and change his life.  Unfortunately, his beat is on “Easy Street” which in reality is anything but.  It’s ruled by the thuggishly huge and fearsome Eric Campbell.  Campbell is, however, no match for the savvy and quick study policeman.  He not only succeeds in reforming himself, he reforms the entire neighborhood and wins Edna in the end. 

Chaplin and Edna in The Cure

The Cure is a departure back to the music hall performer in which Chaplin plays an inebriate who is taking the waters for a cure for his addiction to alcohol. He starts his journey battling with a revolving door (a running gag through the breezy film), Eric Campbell as his foe in winning Edna’s affections and Edna is also his foe since she is encouraging him to give up drink. When his giant trunk, i.e., his travelling bar is discovered, the contents are unceremoniously dumped into the well of healing waters, with predictable and hilarious results.

Before screening the 1921 film, The Kid, we were treated to the debut of The Tramp character in the 1914 Keystone Kid Auto Races. The premise is simple, a small crew with a camera is documenting the kid auto races, Chaplin’s supercilious tramp is essentially annoying them by constantly getting in the picture. In today’s parlance, you’d call it photo-bombing. While I’ve known of this film historically, I think this was the first time I’d actually seen it. It was a beautiful print and the delight really lies not only in Chaplin’s ease and movement in and out of the camera, his attitude and then watching the spectators watching him. As Jeffrey Vance noted in his intro, you get to see Chaplin’s character get his first laughs on screen. Accompanied by Jon Mirsalis, this is another historic cinema moment to check off my bucket list.

Kid Auto Races, the crowd is watching Charlie, not the races
The Kid marked a big change for Chaplin. It was the last film he costarred with Edna and it was his first feature length film. Of course, he directed Edna in the 1923 film A Woman of Paris, which I quite like. And he famously produced The Sea Gull which starred Edna and was directed by Josef von Sternberg. The film was aborted and whatever was footage existed, Chaplin had destroyed. I digress, back to The Kid.

The film is charming and heartbreaking. What a raw talent was the four year old Jackie Coogan. Chaplin worked hard to win his trust and all that hard work (and adoration on Coogan’s part) really shows. It is also heartbreaking, in retrospect to see the tender farewell to Edna in Chaplin’s films. She is sweet and moving as the young mother and later as the well to-do singer who gives back because of the child she lost.

Douglas Fairbanks visited Chaplin during the making of The Kid and
this is one of my favorite candid photos of all time.  Coogan and Chaplin's delight at Fairbanks' antics is a joy to behold.
Coogan went on to an incredibly successful career as a child star throughout the silent era. Sadly, he was also one of the first documented screen stars who was pretty much bilked out of his fortune by his parents. Coogan’s lasting legacy for child actors is what is now known as the Coogan Law, protecting their trust funds and earnings.

The treat for this screening was Timothy Brock conducting the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra playing Chaplin’s score for the film, arranged by Brock for a smaller orchestra. It was a terrific coup by the SFSFF and worked really well. I was not the only person who shed tears at the close of the film.

The last film of the day was The Gold Rush. Chaplin shot much of the location work in Truckee, CA (a good substitute for the Yukon) for the snowy scenes. Though only a few years on from The Kid, you can see how Chaplin’s personal life had changed him, he aged a great deal in four years with his marriage to Lita Grey (the vampish angel in the dream sequence of The Kid). Grey was originally slated to play Georgia inThe Gold Rush, but pregnancy forced her retirement from the screen. She was replaced by Georgia Hale.

The Gold Rush has many legendary set pieces, the “dance of the rolls” the shoe leather dinner, and the tipping cabin. Chaplin working with Mack Swain is delightful but one cannot help by wonder how it might have been played by Eric Campbell in a more sympathetic role.  Campbell died tragically young in 1917 in a car accident. Supported by Timothy Brock and the SF Chamber Orchestra, the film went off without a hitch. What looked like a fully packed house of adults and children was rocking with laughter. It was a great end to a fun day.

I must also add what a special day it was because I got to at least say hello to some fellow bloggers, like Lisa at Backlots and Beth Ann at Spellbound by Movies.  The other special added bonus was sharing the day with a dear friend who is a Chaplin afficionado who had not seen Chaplin's films on the big screen, as they are presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  It was like looking at the films through new eyes and it was a real joy to share it.

See you in May for the full festival at the Castro.  Passes are already on sale at their website.


This is great! I know the Silent Movie Theatre in LA is doing a similar series, though sadly I don't think they have those restored shorts you've described here, which sound fantastic. I guess I'll just have to see the movies they do have and then grab the blu-ray when it's out! What a fun experience!
Page said…
Easy Street, The Cure, you have wonderful taste! : )

Listen, I adore Charlie and I get a bit teary eyed whenever I think of how brilliant he was then how horribly he was treated by Hollywood, leading to his exile.
I would give anything to see just one of his films on the big screen. Perhaps one day.
In the meantime thanks for sharing this event celebrating his 100th. He's so deserving of any and all tributes.
Always great to see other fans of his early work as well.
See ya soon!
Tinky said…
It sounds amazing; I'm so glad you were able to go and share the experience. And what my grandparents said is true: my mother DID look like Jackie Coogan when she (and he!) was little.
FlickChick said…
I LOVE Charlie & Edna - she was by far his most charming female co-star. It sounds like a wonderful event - lucky you!

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