Charlie Chaplin Provides Another Religious Experience

For my recent birthday my dear mother got me a surprise gift: one of the five billion low-price Chaplin collections. I’m sure you’ve seen them clogging up the discount area of your local retailer, along with those fat 20 MOVIES IN ONE compilations with films like “Emanuelle’s Deadly Oasis” or “House of the Bleeding Night (Camera della notte di spurgo)”. There’s often some pretty good stuff in those cheapo collections, and the price is so damned low you can shrug off the stuff you already have or don’t like. One niggling problem: print quality.

So I found two films on the Chaplin set that I didn’t already have. One was a heavily abridged version of “Tillie’s Punctured Romance”, which was Chaplin’s first appearance in a feature-length comedy. Conveniently, it was also the first feature-length comedy. Back in 1914 a lot of people doubted that comedy could possibly be sustained for more than a half-hour or so; given some of the comedies I’ve seen, I occasionally think they’re right, but that’s beside the point. I decided to watch the other film I hadn’t seen, “Mabel’s Married Life”, a Keystone one-reeler from early in Chaplin’s film career. The ‘Mabel’ of the title is Mabel Normand, who was one of Keystone’s hottest stars at the time, as well as a screenwriter and one of the world’s first female directors. She did not survive long past the silent era (literally: she died in 1930 at the age of only 37), but she was a bigger draw than Chaplin in 1914. Chaplin doesn’t even have the tramp costume down quite right yet (the earliest version of the costume was, according to legend, suggested by the awesome Fatty Arbuckle who was also a star/writer/director at Keystone the time; he’d later get Buster Keaton his start in film, then watch his own career spontaneously combust in one of the silent era’s more infamous scandals).

Anyhow, I settled down to watch people falling over (the very bedrock of Keystone comedy), but the contrast on the print was way too high. Charlie and Mabel seemed to be glowing with inhuman light, as if the Keystone Lot had just finished up with the prior evening’s nuclear tests, and now it was back to their day job. It got worse. And yet, it seemed so oddly familiar somehow. Finally, the brightness of Chaplin’s face had eliminated all of his features, and I knew what I was looking at: Jack T. Chick’s faceless God, wearing baggy pants and a top hat! It was God: The Silent Years! My mind reeled as I imagined God tripping on banana peels, falling off ladders, hitting elderly ladies with doors! Then all of His Angels would pour out of Heaven, hop into their jalopies, and give reckless chase! They’d pursue all manner of Catholics and Homosexuals, so smug in their mustaches and bowlers! I bet Jesuits would be trying to tie the devout to railroad tracks under orders from the Black Pope, their cloaks flapping in the desert breeze! And of course: Satan himself (Mack Swain), that crazy jackanapes! Eventually everyone would wind up in a huge mud puddle, slipping and sliding. And then the sinners would be cast into the Lake of Fire to suffer for all eternity. Formula, you know?


But I did manage to finish the film. Chaplin plays a drunk, and he’s good at it. The funniest bit was when he’s finally had enough of a local rough and his gang, so he beats the tar out of the guy, beats the snot out of his whole gang, then floors the bartender just for the hell of it, then slams down a bottle of liquor. Now that’s classic comedy. Mabel spends most of the film bouncing around in her pajamas, which is also a plus, but Chaplin is easily the locus of energy in the film; such is his charisma.

Meanwhile, back in the Republic of Comics:

Marc Singer offers one of the more compelling ‘Eightball #23 as geopolitical satire’ arguments I’ve seen. I thought the book worked best mainly as an examination of personal self-gratification, and how an ultimate power would effectively remove most barriers against such gratification, with only the human mind left to rationalize, to justify. I do see how such themes could be expanded to apply to international politics without a lot of alteration, though, depending on the extent to which you find the United States’ actions to be comparable to Andy’s. I liked Marc’s catching this meaning in the “United States of Andy” heading… I initially read that as Andy projecting his ‘protection’ throughout the whole nation, not Andy being indicative of the attitude of the nation itself. It’s really great to see so many divergent readings of such a rich book.