Over the next nine days the Biograph Theatre will screen 32 shorts and 10 feature films of Charlie Chaplin, representing virtually all of his total output, in the most complete retrospective to date of the great film comedian.
The compilation, titled "Chaplin: Lost and Found," is touring 35 American cities and includes such familiar Chaplin features as "The Kid" (1921), "The Gold Rush" (1925), "City Lights" (1931) and "Modern Times" (1936). But the real discoveries of the program are the rarely seen shorts -- the early work Chaplin did for Mack Sennett at Keystone and the two-reelers for Mutual, Essanay and First National (he hopped from studio to studio as the money got sweeter).
Kino International, a New York-based distributor of art and classic films, has distributed the Chaplin features for the last seven years. The firm has created new 35mm prints from the best extant negatives, gleaned from collectors, museums and the Chaplin estate -- which controls the features. Some of the Mutual shorts have been reconstructed with negatives found in Japan. Musical soundtracks have been added to those shorts that lacked them.
The process of pulling the program together began last December. "Joe Papp's Public Theater came by and said they wanted to do a complete retrospective of Chaplin," said Don Krim, president of Kino, "and I had already been investigating the possibility of getting the material. Plus Chaplin had been out of everybody's mind for the last five or 10 years. So it seemed ripe to get people to take another look at Chaplin."
Most nights combine a feature with several shorts. The festival opens tonight with "The Kid" and a string of Keystone comedies. "City Lights" is slated for Friday night and "Modern Times" for Saturday, each with four of the classic Mutual shorts.
Chaplin grew up in garrets, the progeny of two vaudevillians, and the poverty of his background accounts for the persistent social satire of the films. Is a retrospective of his films peculiarly appropriate in the Age of Reagan? "Without making a speech, his shorts are really a comment on the class system," said Alan Rubin, who runs the Biograph Theatre. "I think President Reagan would like them, although he'd probably have an entirely different take on it."
Taken as a whole, the films reveal how dependent Chaplin was on the silent form. Both "The Great Dictator" and the black comedy "Monsieur Verdoux," which Chaplin called "the cleverest and most brilliant film I have yet made," seem didactic and stagy by comparison. The staggering celebrity that struck Chaplin early in his film career eventually transformed him from an artist to a lecturer, and the films never recovered.
It is in the silent films that Chaplin's moralism was at its most powerful. "Of all comedians," wrote critic and friend James Agee, "he worked most deeply and most shrewdly within a realization of what a human being is, and is up against."