REVIEW: Charlie Chaplin Short Films

Have you ever shut off the volume on the TV because you were tired of listening to commercials, only to find that the show has sneakily come back on? Now you watch in silence and people are dancing about on the screen, mouths are moving, dogs are chasing postmen, and you don’t know a single thing that they are saying. But that’s the fun! You start creating your own dialogue and suddenly, a tense chase scene turns comic with every pun you fling about the room.

Silent films increase creativity, I’m sure of it! I definitely felt like my mind was more active than usual when I sat in the magical Michigan Theater watching a silent black and white Charlie Chaplin tumble and twirl his famous little bowler hat on the big screen.

Charlie Chaplin made the majority of his vaudeville films from 1920-1940, and is known widely as one of the most influential filmmakers of all time. He wrote, directed, produced, edited, starred in, and wrote the music for most of his films. He was a do-it-all kind of guy. His films were silly, inventive, full of plot twists and long-drawn out humorous scenes (think of those Family Guy moments when Brian and Stewie go back and forth for five minutes), just the kind of entertaining distraction people living through the Depression and World War 2 needed. But all of his films mostly serve as a response and encouragement to the condition of the people. His protagonists are mainly poor and are treated badly, but remain upbeat and kind, which was also just what I needed on a dreary cold winter day!

A very talented man on the vintage Barton Organ sat down and began to play Chaplin’s own accompanying score as the lights went down. At first, it was very strange to see the actors’ mouths moving without knowing what they were saying. It was like I was watching a poorly-timed Anime movie, but even worse, an Anime movie that had forgotten to put the sound in altogether! There were hardly any slides of “dialogue” – where the films cuts away from the action and includes a line of dialogue directing the audience how to interpret a certain scene. Without many clues, we were forced to pay attention to the mood invoked by the organ music. At times of suspense, it rushed along with anticipation. In dreamy moments or love scenes, the organ might play a variation of the Wedding Song. It’s amazing how the brain soon adapts to missing elements of everyday life (talking), and normalizes a new way of enjoying life.

For that hour and a half, I didn’t miss talking at all. In fact, I was quite pleased to create my own story to match what I saw before me. I watched the other movie-goers and wondered if their stories were similar to mine. But I realized that it didn’t matter. And anyways, I wouldn’t dare break the silence to ask them! Here we were sharing a public space, but experiencing very different movies in our head. It was the first time it hit me: that films are intrinsically private journeys. Private journeys that Charlie Chaplin believed the world should go on together.