Sunday, June 20, 2010

Lovecraft Loved Chaplin

Here is a rare ad for a Chaplin movie of 1916. There is a high probability Lovecraft saw this movie as he enjoyed Chaplin. Note these is a Western and serial added to the bill. The month is not given but it seems to have been released October 2, 1916. For some reason it is today referred to as "The Pawnshop" and is available for viewing as it is public domain.

Newspaper ad for Charlie Chaplin "flicker" at the Nickel Theatre, Westminster Street, Providence, RI

By 1916, just two years after appearing in his first motion picture, Charles Chaplin had become the most famous entertainer in the world. Buoyed by his enormously successful comedies for Keystone and Essanay, he was offered the largest salary ever extended to a motion picture star—$670,000 for a single year’s work—to make twelve two-reel comedies for the Mutual Film Corporation. For Mutual, Chaplin produced what many film historians believe to be his best works.

In the sixth Mutual film, Charlie is a pawnbroker’s assistant in a pawnshop that evokes the London of Chaplin’s childhood. The film is rich in comic transposition, a key element to Chaplin’s genius. The apex of such work in the Mutuals is the celebrated scene in The Pawnshop in which Charlie examines an alarm clock brought in by a customer (Albert Austin). Playwright Harvey O’Higgins cited the sequence as an ideal illustration of “Charlie Chaplin’s Art” in the February 3, 1917 issue of The New Republic:

He is a clerk in a pawnshop, and a man brings in an alarm clock to pledge it. Charlie has to decide how much it is worth. He sees it first as a patient to be examined diagnostically. He taps it, percusses it, puts his ear to its chest, listens to its heartbeat with a stethoscope, and while he listens, fixes a thoughtful medical eye on space, looking inscrutably wise and professionally self-confident. He begins to operate on it—with a can-opener. And immediately the round tin clock becomes a round tin can whose contents are under suspicion. He cuts around the circular top of the can, bends back the flap of tin with a kitchen thumb then, gingerly approaching his nose to it, sniffs with the melancholy expression of the packing houses. The imagination is accurate. The acting is restrained and naturalistic. The result is a scream. And do not believe that such acting is a matter of crude and simple means. It is as subtle in its naturalness as the shades of intonation in a really tragic speech.

The sequence with the alarm clock in some ways prefigures Chaplin’s most celebrated use of comic transposition, the famous scene in The Gold Rush (1925) in which Charlie treats his old boiled boot in every detail as if it were a delicious Thanksgiving feast.

The pawnbroker was played by Henry Bergman in his first film for Chaplin. Bergman became an indispensable member of Chaplin’s team, appearing in every subsequent film up to Modern Times and remaining on the Chaplin Studios payroll until his death in 1946.

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