10 years ago, I was possibly, very temporarily, the world’s leading expert on Chaplin’s work. I was making my silent, 1918-period film War Story, an homage to Chaplin’s oeuvre, though with a modern twist (you can see a clip of it at the end of my reel at JohnBaumgartner.com). Within a month or two, I had watched, at least twice (but in many cases a half dozen times), every film Chaplin had ever made – his Keystones, Mutuals, First Nationals, and right up to the ones for United Artist, the company he co-founded. I had become friends with the man who restored and owned many of Chaplin’s early work, David Shepard; had spoken to the grandson of Chaplin’s cinematographer Roland H. “Rollie” Totheroh, who knew an amazing amount about his grandfather’s methods; had pitched the project to Chaplin’s estate for their blessing; had hit up Carl Davis to do my score (he’d done the amazing reconstruction and recording of Chaplin’s gorgeous City Lights score – he declined, but what resulted from Mike Petrone was even better, I believe); read all the books, etc, etc.
I mention all this to say that I love Chaplin’s work. It was an easy obsession for me – from the first film that I studied of his I was hooked on his mix of sharp, always surprising humor and his sense of humanity and pathos. Bathing in his work helped me create a film that was both steeped in his sensibilities but also uniquely mine, springing freely from my subconscious. It was a beautiful, intense experience, and the appreciation I have for his films will always improve and inform mine, I think.
There are so many moments of Chaplin’s that one could show and write about, but this one has as much to do with the shot as the performer, so I thought it the most appropriate. By the time Chaplin had risen to fame and signed his unprecedented contract with the First National company, he was the highest paid entertainer in the world. (He had just come off his series of shorts for the Mutual company, which I think are arguably his sharpest, though certainly not his deepest.) This meant that he had a lot of power and wiggle room in his craft, enough to really allow him to experiment.
How Chaplin gets it Right
He was known to shoot in the morning, view his dailies at lunch (he had his own film lab), and go back to work in the afternoon re-casting, re-staging, even completely reinventing whole sequences until he would get it just right. (This is incredibly well documented and presented in the fantastic documentary on his work, Unknown Chaplin – which reconstructs his working methods through the study of a miraculously preserved batch of outtakes, something Chaplin would have always burned, but these were secretly squirreled away by Rollie, if I remember correctly.)
So it’s in that spirit that we see this delightfully clever sequence from Pay Day, in which The Tramp takes a job as a brick layer, and we see just how quick-witted and agile The Tramp is. One can imagine the amount of experimentation that went into this shot, and one wonders which take # this actually is!
Here it is – watching from the beginning sets up all you need (including the rules of gravity). I think you’ll figure out quickly which shot I’m pointing out today!
EXTRA! EXTRA! I thought it would be fun to reverse the reverse – that is, show what Chaplin was doing on set before the film is reversed. It’s pretty funny. Here it is here!