Charlie Chaplin remains one of cinema’s most iconic figures. His innovations behind and before the camera have left a lasting imprint that can still be seen in contemporary culture. Chaplin’s life was also decidedly political, and his alleged communist sympathies earned him a tremendous FBI file and eventual exile from the US. Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and director Martin Brest joins The Chris Hedges Report to discuss Chaplin’s life and legacy.
Studio Production: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Intro Sequence: Cameron Granadino
Chris Hedges: Few individuals did more to shape modern cinema than the actor, director, and producer Charlie Chaplin. One of the greatest of all comic mimes, he also pioneered cinematic techniques and storytelling. His films with his iconic role as the beleaguered Little Tramp with baggy trousers, mustache, cane, and bowler hat were not only comic masterpieces, but unflinching looks at poverty, unemployment, capitalism, exploitation, the callousness of authority, the search for meaning and dignity in a hostile world, and the yearning for love and acceptance.
He argued that drama should be derived from the close observation of life. He refused to follow the conventions, including the penchant for exaggerated melodrama, perfecting his work with hundreds of takes, subtle acting, and nuanced facial expressions. He created full-length feature films with highly crafted plots and characters. He strove, he said, to put across the philosophical doubt I feel about things and people. His films, he said, were a metaphysical exercise, an attempt to unmask as absurd, antiquated, and unfair to humanity the idea that there exists a cosmos where humans were held responsible for their actions or the results of their actions.
The French filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard, wrote of Chaplin that “While remaining marginal to the rest of cinema, he ended up filling this margin with more things. What other word can one use, ideas, gags, intelligence, humor, beauty, movement than all directors together have put in a whole book.” Chaplin, the most famous silent film star of his era, swiftly earned the enmity of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, who saw in his poignant portrayals of the marginalized and forgotten political subversion. The FBI, which began investigating Chaplin in 1922 and would amass an FBI file of 1,900 pages on him for his alleged communist sympathies, finally drove him into exile. In 1952 while Chaplin was in London for the premiere of his film, Limelight, the US Attorney General revoked Chaplin’s reentry permit. This ended his Hollywood career. He would spend the rest of his life in Switzerland.
Joining me to discuss in the first of a two-part series, the importance and legacy of Charlie Chaplin, is the film director, screenwriter, and producer Martin Brest. Martin has directed numerous films, some of which include Midnight Run with Robert De Niro, which was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, Scent Of A Woman with Al Pacino, which won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture and four Academy Award nominations with Pacino winning for Best Actor, and the blockbuster Beverly Hills Cop, nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture, and the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
So, Marty, Charlie Chaplin comes out of Vaudeville, he’s British, and then the film industry begins to recruit from Vaudeville. We’re going to talk about the transformation of the film industry, much of it pioneered by figures like Chaplin, but describe to us what the film industry was like when Charlie Chaplin arrived in Hollywood.
Martin Brest: Well, he started in Hollywood in 1914, and films had been developing as popular entertainment for the previous 10 years in the US, but mostly let’s say six or seven years, so it was primitive. Comedy filmmaking was a new part of it that hadn’t established itself yet. There wasn’t a tradition of it. So when he got involved in 1914, it was as people were trying to figure out how to make comedic films, and everybody was learning on their feet. He started out doing what he was told for the first five minutes of his career, and his backlog of skill and sheer luminescent talent started to pull him in his own direction.
He decided that he wanted to direct his own films. So he was writing and directing and acting in it, and trying to figure out what this thing was, comedic films. Everybody was trying to figure out what this was. Film as an art form is unprecedented in the history of mankind. So this thing that was very, very, very new, storytelling on film, was now being taken to a whole new place. Trying to make comedic films on film and what that would be, what comedic characters should be, what comedic stories should be, and it was all unfolding as he entered. The timing is extraordinary.
Chris Hedges: Well, you had me watch Making A Living. 1914. Yeah. Is that his first film?
Martin Brest: Yeah, that’s his very first –
Chris Hedges: It’s not very good.
Martin Brest: – No. And he didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know what to do with him. He had more than 10,000 hours, he had this incredible career in English musical comedy and toured all over England and all over the US. He was a star in that world and a brilliant talent, and he had this reservoir of understanding of how to move an audience and how to make an audience laugh. So when he started, he didn’t know how to translate that into film, and nobody knew how to do it. There was no talent that was capable of directing him from the get-go. So it was a slightly awkward start. Not terrible. He was very, very young. He was 25 and he looked very young, so they tried to make him look older with facial hair and an awkward wardrobe. It wasn’t terrible, but he didn’t know what to do with his talent. He didn’t know how to put his talent in a framework. But he figured that out very, very, very quickly; Shockingly quickly.
Chris Hedges: Before we go on, this is from David Robinson’s biography, I want to talk about Vaudeville. He writes, “A musical act had to seize and hold its audience and make its mark within a very limited time, between 6 and 16 minutes. The audience was not indulgent and the competition was relentless. The performer in the musical could not rely on a sympathetic context or build-up. Sarah Bernhardt might find herself following Lockhart’s Elephants on the bill. So every performer had to learn the secrets of attack and structure, the need to give the act a crescendo, a beginning, a middle, and a smashing exit. To grab the applause, he or she had to learn to command every sort of audience from a lethargic Monday first-housed to the Saturday rowdies.”
He later said that because he was booed – He was quite, as you said, a sensation in Vaudeville – He didn’t like live audiences. Once he got into motion pictures, he wouldn’t do stage. But many of the people that he drew into his films once he began making them, which we’ll talk about, came out of that tradition. He was very physical, he was himself quite a fine athlete. But talk about that training and that reservoir of talent and what that talent could do and how it ultimately became successful within the film industry.
Martin Brest: Well, again, he was used to working in front of a live audience, thousands and thousands of live audiences by the time he was 25. Some of them, I would imagine could be very aggressive if things weren’t maintained at a certain level. He knew how to navigate that to the point where it was second nature to him. Then when he had to stand in front of a camera out on a street with maybe one cameraman and one director and an assistant cameraman, he had to call up, I imagine, the memory of how his actions would affect an audience seeing this thing in the theater. It’s an abstract thing, shooting out on the street with two people watching you. But he had the instincts that were developed from doing it live.
His imagination, coupled with his experience, enabled him to do the following: They would go out with their camera and have a little situation; a guy who wants to sit on a bench in a park and there’s a cop there and some little conflict of some kind. They would go out with that most minimal setup and he would have to look around and examine everything and see how he can fill it. So when you see a scene, it’s filled with delicious detail of how he moves his feet, how he bumps into a thing, how he picks up a thing and flips it, and how he uses some little detail on the set for some other thing – Like he’ll use something to buff his nails that’s not intended for that, and something to comb his hair that’s not intended for that – That imagination and ability to read the environment and figure out how to fill the moments with things that he knew were going to work in front of an audience was his skill. He took that to another level. There were a lot of people that could do that but he was looking for a larger context, which was the thing that started to separate him from the pack. Aside from the fact that he was the most skilled comedian at the time.
Chris Hedges: In 1914, he’s in this short film, Kid Auto Races At Venice. It’s a one-gag film where he goes in front of the camera, even though they’re trying to film a kid’s soapbox derby-type auto race, and he wants to be in front of the camera, but that’s when he first makes use of The Tramp costume. Let’s talk about that costume which became his trademark up until he made his first talking film.
Martin Brest: Well, it’s interesting, that film – Which was the third one he shot but the second one that was released, and they would make a film a week, these little one-realers, these nine or 10 minute films – It’s famous for the fact that that’s the first time he appeared in The Tramp outfit, which he was concerned about looking a little older than he was, so he put on a little mustache. He felt that the little mustache would add years while not hindering his ability to emote. The stories are numerous as to how he found each component: The shoes that were too big, the jacket that was too small, the pants that were too large.
But that film, they were trying to make films at such a quick pace that if anything was going on, like in that case there were these kids, soapbox racers – Kids would make little race cars out of wooden boxes, and they were having a little competition in Venice, California – So somebody at the studio said go out and make a movie, let’s use this afternoon event for production value. So they would go out. And the premise of the film is so hip; It’s almost like Borat in a way. It’s very advanced considering that film comedy was in such a primitive state.
The premise of the film is very simple – And it’s a 10-minute film, it’s very primitive – Which is there’s a cameraman and a director out trying to shoot a documentary of these auto races, and some character keeps getting in the way of the camera. Chaplin is The Tramp, and the director of this little documentary is always trying to get him out of the way. But as far as the audience at the time goes, they think this is actually happening. They think somebody is screwing up this little documentary. So it’s a meta-comedy for its time. It’s very sophisticated.
Chris Hedges: At the very end of the film, there’s this close-up where he mugs –
Martin Brest: Well, I have a theory about the end of the film. In a lot of Chaplin films and a lot of silent comedies, people do all these very physical things; They kick each other, they punch each other, they fly in the air and land on their backs, and you don’t know how they’re doing it without getting injured. The guy who was directing that film was appearing in the film as a director and they were shooting it in continuity, like in the order that it appeared in the movie, trying to figure out the story as they went. And this director in the movie is getting physical with Chaplin, kicking him out of the way, et cetera, et cetera. And at the very end of this thing, he gives Chaplin a kick. As Chaplin’s walking away he gives him a kick in the rear end and sends Chaplin flying.
Now, all the guys that Chaplin would work with, all these Vaudevillians and musical hall performers, they were almost like circus performers. They knew how to do this stuff without injuring each other, and they knew how to fall, they knew how to kick somebody. This guy was not an actor, he was a director. I’ve watched it a thousand times and it looks like he really gave him a kick, and Chaplin really went flying, and when Chaplin got up, he looked pissed. It’s a real moment and the movie ends abruptly right after that. So I have a feeling that might’ve been a pivotal moment when Chaplin decided he wanted to direct his own movies, but I don’t know that for sure.
Chris Hedges: Well, part of Chaplin’s genius is that he realized that much of the shtick, especially the exaggerated gestures, the melodrama was not, at least for him, going to work on film. And that’s a constant. So he brings in these incredibly talented Vaudevillian actors who act with him for years. But he understands the intimacy of film very early and his portrayals – We talked about that beautiful scene at the end of City Lights, certainly one of the most poignant scenes I’ve ever seen in cinema – He very quickly grasps the language of the camera. In this biography by Robinson, he talks about how in many cases, he likes to work with people who aren’t actors because he shows them how to do it and that people who are actors, especially if they have been schooled in that melodrama, he finds very frustrating. So talk about his understanding of the language of film and how to bring that nuance and depth to filmmaking.
Martin Brest: Well, he had to figure it out for himself. One of the most extraordinary things I find about Chaplin – Which I responded to at a very early age, and audiences responded to, that I never heard discussed – Is he found a way to weld your consciousness, your concerns, your very spirit, to his character’s spirit. He would figure out a way and give time and create moments where he could create that bond so that you were with him every step of the way. It took me years and years and years even to notice this because I felt it without noticing it, that he would look into the camera but wouldn’t make eye contact with the camera. There’s a difference because then it would break the fourth wall.
But he would look into the camera in a way – Let’s say he’s eating or something, he’s looking down and he would look into the camera as he’s doing it – Without you perceiving it, it creates a bond between his spirit and your spirit. It’s a magical thing, I don’t know how he came up with it. It’s invisible but you can feel it. You can’t notice it. So that was a magical thing that he developed. In terms of his film technique, it’s weird when people talk about the great directors, rarely is he mentioned. People call Hitchcock and this one, and that one, and this one, and that one, but his name rarely came up as a great director. Which to me is to miss the point, because he directed some of the greatest movies, some of the most potent movies of his time.
Apparently, they weren’t overtly dazzling from a technical standpoint. They actually were, he just didn’t do fancy things with shots. He laboriously created things to occur within a shot. So it seems simplistic directorially when in fact it’s totally advanced, completely advanced, and to this day, dazzling. One of the things I find extraordinary is that when you watch movies of that period, so much of it is trapped in time. Even for instance, in a film like The Kid, there’s a scene in The Kid at the very beginning where Chaplin’s wandering through an alley and he sees this little baby wrapped up lying next to the garbage. You’re right there with Chaplin, and then there’s the bad guys who left the baby there. And when you look at them, you realize you’re watching a movie from 1920. They have this makeup, this Halloween makeup, and you realize that’s the period you’re watching. It just so happens that Chaplin transcends the period and it’s happening in the present as far as the viewer goes. So that’s a product of a genius and a technique that he developed that directorially, he never got enough credit for.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about The Tramp. The Tramp is in all of these films, he reminds me of that E.B. White story, Stuart Little. Chaplin himself was very small, 5’2″ and 125 pounds. He has nothing, he’s living in poverty, he’s constantly being hounded by the police. In several films, he ends up in jail. And of course, Chaplin himself grew up in dire poverty, and he and his half-brother Sydney, who worked with him, were sent off to boys’ homes because his mother who had mental health issues couldn’t take care of them and their father had left. But that figure, which becomes iconic, has built within it a profound class consciousness.
Martin Brest: Yeah. I don’t think it would be an overstatement to say that he was traumatized by poverty in his youth and his mother was dealing with mental health issues. It was a humiliating upbringing and an upbringing of deprivation. And as he found his voice as an artist, he naturally went to that well and used it. And it wasn’t a contrivance, he was coming from a memory of pain, deprivation, and humiliation, especially in the face of the haves. That contrast is in a lot of his work.
Chris Hedges: He wrote, in 1915, an essay called “The Illusion Of The First Time Acting,” and he says, “The guiding principle for the actor is that they always strive to convince the audience that what they’re doing, they’re doing for the first time.”
Martin Brest: Yeah. Even concert pianists have to do that. If you’re playing Chopin, one of the things is to make it feel like you didn’t know what the next note was going to be until you hit it. That would be essential, otherwise, it would seem stiff and airless. The nature of the scenes that he created with his collaborators was such that in a way, sometimes they were doing things for the first time in front of the camera. They had certain parameters and they would use whatever was around as they went from take to take to try and improve it and add delicious complexities to it and improvisations within the confinement of the material. But you have to make it seem like it’s the first time.
Chris Hedges: So as someone who’s directed many films, how do you achieve that? Because I assume you, like Chaplin, would do sometimes well over 100 takes, take after take, after take, after take. How do you achieve it?
Martin Brest: It’s interesting. I had to introduce Beverly Hills Cop at a big screening in L.A. 15 years ago or something, and the whole cast was there: Eddie Murphy, John Ashton, and Judge Reinhold and I thought, what am I going to say? I don’t know what to say. And before I realized it, what I said was – And I’ll introduce it by saying that that film was an improvisation. We had a script, but it got thrown out and we invented –
Chris Hedges: Well, that’s very much like Chaplin. That’s how he worked.
Martin Brest: – Well, I didn’t realize that, but I came up with a step outline for the whole movie, but not the dialogue and everything to fill it up. So we were shooting with the step outline the day before, trying to create a script to shoot and then get to the set and improvise. And what I said when I introduced the film was that I remember hearing that in the Silent era, the Silent Comedians, Chaplin, et cetera, would have an outline and they’d get to the set and they’d look around and see what can they use? And they’d try this, but that doesn’t work. Then they’d shoot it this way, that doesn’t work. They’d shoot it that way. Oh, that’s good, let’s build on that. And they’d do their thing. And it isn’t possible, but one would never think it would be possible in current-day Hollywood, or the Hollywood, in this case, of the eighties, in the studio system where you’re supposed to have a locked-down script and shoot it as good as you can and edit it as good as you can.
But because of the circumstances that led to that movie being put together, I was able, without realizing – And I only put it together when I introduced the film – That I was able to make a contemporary Hollywood comedy using silent film comedy techniques, which is getting to the set with a bunch of, in that case, funny guys, and go through the things, see what you can come up with, try it, then try it again. Oh, that’s good, let’s do this, let’s do that. And build it scene by scene by scene, and then put it together. And the fact that it looked like a complete movie was amazing. I remember they asked me to do the second one. I thought I could never pull that off again.
Chris Hedges: Well, that’s interesting because that’s how Chaplin worked. And he talked about how he would be inspired by the physical surroundings, whatever the props were. There’s that scene, where is it? Maybe it’s in The Kid where he’s with another great Vaudevillian actor whose name I forget, but they’re workmen, and he has the soap, he’s trying to wash up.
Martin Brest: Oh, yeah.
Chris Hedges: Is that from The Kid?
Martin Brest: No, that’s from Modern Times.
Chris Hedges: Yeah, Modern Times.
Martin Brest: Ben Turpin was the other guy.
Chris Hedges: It’s brilliant. It’s absolutely brilliant. But he improvised all that. They both did.
Martin Brest: Well, I don’t think he improvised that scene because that scene had some little on-set special effect to blow bubbles –
Chris Hedges: No, no. But he and the other actor created it. I read in the biography that it wasn’t supposed to be, but then the two of them went off and started –
Martin Brest: – Maybe they rigged up that thing.
Chris Hedges: – Yeah.
Martin Brest: Well, it’s funny. I did another film using that technique. I don’t know if you could do it anymore, which is if you have a solid outline and a good script – It works better for comedy, I wouldn’t attempt this in a drama necessarily, although I guess one could – But every time you do a scene, you try and keep tweaking it and tweaking it and tweaking it and tweaking it and see what you can bring to it that you didn’t anticipate. And then judiciously edit it together to create the impression that that’s how it always was intended. It doesn’t look like it was invented, like the stuff in Chaplin movies, it doesn’t betray the creative use of chaos that went into its inception.
Chris Hedges: So One A.M., this is a classic theme of Vaudeville, the drunk and the pawn shop. Let’s talk about those quickly. And then he explodes as a star. But let’s talk about those, which you both had me watch and you underlined, “Watch silently.”
Martin Brest: Oh, yeah. To explain, I gave you a list of films to prepare for.
Chris Hedges: Yes, I watched them all.
Martin Brest: And some I specify that you should watch silently. The reason for that is a lot of silent comedies, silent films in general, somebody comes along and thinks that people want sound for it, and they come up with their own soundtrack. I’m sure their intentions are sweet but the music that goes along with a silent comedy or any film becomes essentially the narration. It’s very determinative of how the film is interpreted. So to have someone, who knows who, write a little score in 1987 for an old comedy and put it on YouTube, you’re better off watching them silently; it’s closer to the original intention. And you’ll find that you don’t need music, that the silent comedies and probably silent dramas, the good ones, don’t need music. They have their own music because of the rhythm, not only of events and movement but the rhythm of how it hits you, a certain rhythm that’s meticulously created that provides its own internal music.
So to have somebody else’s music screw it up is not a great thing. Some of the films he made with music like Modern Times and City Lights, and later on he had the foresight to own the rights to some of his films. The films were ephemeral, nobody thought that a film had any value two years later, they didn’t have any value whatsoever. But somehow he thought that it was a good idea to make sure that he owned the films and preserved them. And sure enough, years later, he re-released them with scores that he wrote.
Chris Hedges: He was quite an accomplished musician. He played the cello, he played the violin very well, and his aunt, I remember from the biography, felt it was a shame that he didn’t become a musician because he was so talented. And we talked about this earlier, but if you watch the films, they’re so incredibly choreographed, and I want you to address that. But he of course would often film, although these were silent films, to music. Sometimes bringing in musicians to play. But there’s that boxing scene, that’s right? Which is remarkable. There are all sorts of scenes. He was so dexterous, obviously a very good athlete. He lived at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, and he worked out constantly.
Martin Brest: Well, this is another aspect of Chaplin’s movies that is not given enough attention, which is as films were silent until the late twenties, 1927-ish, and all of a sudden they started to have dialogue and music in them, and the use of music was being explored, like how do you use music in movies. And Chaplin, I would go so far as to say he was the only director – I don’t know if this is true, but I’ll bet it’s true – Of that early period who was on top of the music for his movies in a way that didn’t happen in film probably until the sixties, until Stanley Kubrick, in a way.
I don’t know. Directors may have worked with composers, probably not in the thirties and forties, but maybe in the fifties and sixties. Music was done by the studio. So for a director to be on top of how his movie was going to be scored when a piece of music was going to start, when it was going to stop, when that theme was going to be repeated in another place, what should that music be? He was doing that in a way that wasn’t done until Stanley Kubrick did it. Everybody thought it was amazing when they saw 2001 and all that amazing music that he used in that.
And then directors like Scorsese and people that are on top of the specifics of the music in their movies. Now it’s a normal thing, but back then it wasn’t done. And his control over the music in his films was extraordinary. The music was extraordinary, how it was used was extraordinary, and it was at a level that was, I hate the word, but it was like auteur-driven. It wasn’t wallpapered in by the studio later on, sometimes brilliantly or sometimes not.
Chris Hedges: This is your theory – Which makes complete sense. No, it does – And I know from reading the biography that he often frequently had live music playing while they were filming.
Martin Brest: Well, in that day people would use music to help them emote. They’d have off-camera music to help them get in the mood. But as we discussed, there are certain scenes that I’m convinced that when you watch them, they have an uncanny precision to the choreography.
Chris Hedges: They’re remarkable.
Martin Brest: Yeah, and they involve sometimes two, sometimes three people doing things with incredible precision. For instance, a character will turn away and he’ll turn back at a precise moment in relationship to the other person’s action that there’s no way to cue. And these things play out in one shot of duration.
Chris Hedges: Well, it’s like the scene we were talking about. Is it City Lights or is it A Dog’s Life where the dog is eating the hot dogs, but he’s eating these little cakes, but he has to take it at the precise moment?
Martin Brest: In A Dog’s Life where he’s eating little cream puffs, he’s stealing them off of a food cart. His half-brother’s playing the other actor. And it’s extraordinary. What it is for those who haven’t seen it this guy has a food cart, and he suspects Chaplin is a shifty character. And when the owner of the food cart turns away, Chaplin steals a little cream puff. And the guy is getting wise to it and he turns around as Chaplin gets it in his mouth, and the timing of it over the whole course of the scene is phenomenal. The guy always turns when Chaplin has done it, and has hidden the cream puff away in his mouth. And you wonder, how is this possible? And I’m sure that they rehearsed it to music.
Chris Hedges: It’s also that boxing scene –
Martin Brest: The boxing scene in –
Chris Hedges: – Which is brilliant.
Martin Brest: – City Lights. I’m sure that too, clearly. You could see them dancing in a rhythm.
Chris Hedges: He describes for him, acting as a dance, fundamentally a dance.
Martin Brest: That’s interesting.
Chris Hedges: I may have butchered that quote but he describes being on the set as a dance.
Martin Brest: Yeah. Well, sometimes you see him enter a scene, for instance, and before he engages in a specific action of a scene, he’ll do all these things that are phenomenal. And it is like a dance. He moved better than anybody in film. He was extraordinary. And again, it wasn’t for the flash of it. Everything was about engaging the audience’s attention to the dilemma of the character.
Chris Hedges: But when you watch it or re-watch it, there are all these subtle, tiny gestures that are hilarious that you miss the first time around. Everything is so incredibly choreographed. There’s a real artistry.
Martin Brest: Yeah. It’s like fishing; he never lets slack in the line. The line in this case being the audience’s bond with his character’s dilemma and it follows that dilemma throughout the course of the movie.
Chris Hedges: Was there any other director of his caliber during that time period?
Martin Brest: Not when it came to comedy. Buster Keaton co-directed to some… It’s a little blurry but Buster Keaton, I would say, is the closest to having that total determination of a project. They were the two titans.
Chris Hedges: You had D.W. Griffith.
Martin Brest: Yeah, who had zero sense of humor. D.W. Griffith had Biograph Studios, they were on 14th Street in Manhattan. He had this one assistant who said, why don’t we make comedies? This was in 1911 or 1912. Why don’t we make comedies? Comedies would be good. Or maybe even 1909. And D.W. Griffith didn’t have a comedic bone in his body. And this guy said, we’re making movies, let’s do it. And it never happened. This guy tried to make some comedies for the company D.W. Griffith was the star of, and I don’t think it worked out, particularly. So the guy who went out to California and started his own company, his name was Max Sennett, and he became the Henry Ford of film comedy. And that’s who Chaplin went to work for. He was the first guy that industrialized the development of film comedy in America.
Chris Hedges: Chaplin became so big, and we’ll talk about this in the second segment, that he founded his own studio, produces his own films. Let’s talk about the constraints that he faced within the studio system at the time. First of all, they were churning out one film after another. They didn’t do many takes. I remember reading every film had to end with a chase. But talk about the constraints that he was under.
Martin Brest: When you say the studio system or what we think of as a studio system, it started in the late twenties, early thirties, and he was starting in the mid-teens. So it was a different system, which was Max Sennett who had this lot and a thousand wacky comedy guys, circus guys, bathing beauties, animals, and all kinds of people: And certain people would go out and make these movies once a week. So he had to do it within that constraint and because at the very beginning, he didn’t have the pull, he had to fit into their way of doing it.
As I said, very early on, it was apparent that he was a special thing and he wanted to do things in a more precise way than they were used to. When people think of things like The Keystone Cops which was Max Sennett – Which has become synonymous with very broad slapstick, which is considered very low – When I watch them, I’m in shock at the artistry and the precision. Stuff that nobody could do today. There’s nobody that could –
Chris Hedges: Is that because they came out of Vaudeville? So they were essentially trained.
Martin Brest: – They came out of Vaudeville. Some of them were circus performers, they were essentially all stuntmen, and they knew how to do very complicated, dangerous, physical things safely and comedically. So it seems very low, but the precision involved is awesome. Even in these dopey, Keystone Cop chase movies. When you see what these guys do, the stunts and things that play out in a long, continuous shot that involves dangerous hits and people missing each other, barely, it’s spectacular.
But Chaplin very quickly decided he wanted to do something that was more based around a very specific character that he was developing, and wanted to make sure that anything funny, any gags, any shtick would suit the character, not be there for itself, not be there for any other reason than to help the storyline and his character’s arc progress forward. Obviously in the beginning he wasn’t as strict about it, but he was concerned about developing the integrity of a certain character and a certain emotion around the character, the certain story around that. And all that happened very quickly. He started in 1914, and it was already by 1915-1916 he was doing that. And nobody had ever seen anything like it.
Chris Hedges: Well, in the film studios, because he’s so popular, they have to give him more and more leeway because they didn’t like to do… And they wanted these things churned out on an assembly line.
Martin Brest: But very quickly they saw what they had and he became the most famous person on the planet. Because the films were silent, there was no language barrier. He was everywhere. So his salary started to go up, and he got control. And he used that control in a way that, again, I think of a director like Kubrick who insisted on and developed a right to have that total control at a time when directors didn’t have that control. And he did everything. He was the alpha and omega of decision-making in his films. Chaplin started that in the teens, which was unprecedented and he was very successful at it. And that kept building his power base and his ability to make bigger and more complicated films at a scale that wasn’t of their time.
Chris Hedges: Was he the first to put… You had Birth Of A Nation, I don’t know what year that was.
Martin Brest: I think that was 1914.
Chris Hedges: Was it that early?
Martin Brest: I think so, yeah.
Chris Hedges: So, that was the full-length feature-type film. But they weren’t doing that in comedy, were they?
Martin Brest: Well, there was one, it was Tilly’s Punctured Romance. Chaplin was in the first feature-length comedy but that wasn’t his movie and it wasn’t followed by a lot of them. Yeah, he started developing longer and longer movies that were against the grain of what was going on, but the box office rewarded it.
Chris Hedges: And that’s what we’re going to talk about in the second segment. That was film director, screenwriter, and producer Martin Brest. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, David Hebden, and Kayla Rivara. You can join us for part two of our discussion of Charlie Chaplin next week and you can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.