(Sir) Charles (Spencer) Chaplin

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William Hunter

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Historically this remarkable film [Public Opinion (A Woman of Paris] is as important as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Potemkin. It was in its time a remarkable technical film. But its technique was concealed; it was rather an "emotional" than a "scientific" technique, an instrument for bitter comment rather than for the conscious construction of a filmic scene. [Chaplin's] technical gifts have been given to the cinema almost, as it were, unconsciously.

What is certainly more important than the accomplished technique of Public Opinion is the expression of an individual attitude. Such of the technique as is capable of transference has been assimilated by other directors, and if the film (as it does) remains, after nine years, of value, it is for intrinsic and personal rather than for technical reasons. Chaplin has a very remarkable personality, and in [Public Opinion] he has communicated a valuable experience with a considerable success. His instinctive knowledge of technique is used, not to construct "a work of art," but to enable him to say what he has to say as fully as possible. He has a deep and original knowledge of human experience. Not from a technical, but from any point of view of ultimate importance, Public Opinion must be placed in the same category as [Pabst's] Joyless Street, [Pabst's The Love of] Jeanne Ney, and [Pudovkin's] Mother. Like them, it is a symbolism of life, and a record of experience, as lived vitally by the creators of these films. (pp. 42-3)

City Lights is, in my opinion, [Chaplin's] finest film, and in this he often seems deliberately to disregard technique. The emotional and technical commonplaces of the pre-war cinema are reintroduced with a superb disregard of mechanical advance. The cinematic technique doesn't matter; there is no brilliant virtuosity …, no camera angles, no cross cutting, and the camera rarely moves. His decision as to the length of time a shot shall remain on the screen is far more instinctive than consciously scientific. The personality of Chaplin on the screen and the experience of Chaplin behind the cameras, giving life and vitality and point to the pantomime, are all that matter. (p. 43)

In all [his] films there is an attitude to life, and a tragic attitude embedded in comedy. There is an extraordinary and terrible cruelty in the trapeze scene in The Circus, and City Lights is the bitterest and saddest of all the Chaplin films. Only a man with a deep experience of human motives and behaviour could have made such a film, only a gifted artist could have communicated so successfully such an experience. At his best he introduces an element of fatality into his films; a sense of imminent and inevitable disaster, against which it is futile to struggle, a despairing realisation of the bitterness and cruelty of life; but a realisation against which one nevertheless struggles. For his concern with the under dog and the spiritual values which may lie behind failure is not pessimistic. His attitude is not a beaten attitude. (pp. 43-4)

Chaplin's films frequently contain the grossest sentimentality; but this, like his disregard of technical virtuosity, seems often to be a triumph rather than the disaster it might so easily be. He is the Dickens of the films. But never, even at his worst, is he so embarrassing as Dickens can be…. Of his later films, only The Gold Rush ends happily; the other two end inconclusively, trembling on the verge of sentimentality, but never, I think, quite tumbling over. The end of The Circus ,...

(This entire section contains 703 words.)

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for instance, is such a blending of attitudes, such superb, incredible gesturing, that for me at least it is a complete success. In this respect he is nearest the edge in his latest film,City Lights. But the communication of such genuine and deep feeling is rare in the cinema. Sentimentality is false; but here the helplessness, the tragedy which is implied in such a banal ending, is, rather, a complete success, his most profound realisation. His latest film is the most successful reconciliation of the most varied impulses and attitudes. (p. 44)

William Hunter," Charles Chaplin: 'Public Opinion', 1923, 'City Lights', 1931," in his Scrutiny of Cinema, Wishart & Co, 1932 (and reprinted by Arno Press, 1972), pp. 42-5.

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