Even if you've never seen a Charlie Chaplin film, you know the figure of the Little Tramp, with his bowler hat, loose-fitting clothes, cane and, of course, that mustache.
But that's only a portion of his body of work—and if you've never experienced a Chaplin film before, or only seen them on TV or video, the Carolina Theatre offers a special chance to check out pristine prints of Chaplin's work on the big screen.
The series, which began Sept. 27 and will continue through Oct. 7, features Janus Films' Charlie Chaplin Retrospective, with new 35 mm prints of Chaplin's best films from 1918 to 1957, all of which include a synchronized optical soundtrack.
The films range from Little Tramp shorts from 1918 to 1922 to such comic classics as The Circus and The Gold Rush, from sentimental features such as The Kid and City Lights to the later, more bitterly satirical Chaplin, such as The Great Dictator and A King in New York.
To get some insight into what to see and why Chaplin remains popular, we e-mailed novelist Glen David Gold (Carter Beats the Devil), whose 2009 novel bears the name of one of Chaplin's odder shorts, Sunnyside, which screens at the Carolina five times beginning Wednesday, Sept. 29. Gold also did introductions for the Chaplin series when it played San Francisco's Castro Theatre earlier in September.
"During the eight years I spent researching Sunnyside, I watched all of Chaplin's movies dozens of times on my computer or on DVD or on YouTube," Gold says. "I thought I'd seen Chaplin. I hadn't. There is no substitute for sitting in a theater and hearing people around you start to laugh. It's a communal experience, on a par with the first time you go to a dance or a concert by your favorite band."
Gold has advice for choosy filmgoers. "If you can only see one film, make it The Circus," Gold says. "I think that's his most consistently funny, and it has the most bittersweet ending besides City Lights."
Gold takes a contrarian view of City Lights, which Chaplin defiantly made as a silent film several years after the advent of talking pictures and contains what may be his single most famous image. "It was indeed a triumph for Chaplin to be silent and funny in 1931, and the critics were guilty of falling all over themselves for a film that's a bit long," Gold says. "It's a very good film whose reputation is elevated by having the most astounding last shot of all comic cinema."
Gold has a few other favorites in the lineup. "The biggest surprise for me was The Idle Class, but The Pilgrim has a wonderfully modern use of a bratty child, a set of gags you can't imagine anyone would be mean enough to think of in 1923," Gold says.
"A King in New York has a poor reputation, but it's actually quite funny. I think people expected to see the Little Tramp and instead they got a very cranky Chaplin giving the finger to the U.S. The targets (those kids and their darned rock 'n' roll) are low-hanging fruit, but it made me laugh."
Gold says that the extent of his impact in popular culture is not fully understood by many people. "It's hard to really grasp this, but Chaplin was famous in a way no one else has been famous before or since," Gold says. "In 1914, he was just another comedian, but by the end of 1917, his face was the best-known face in all of human history.
"He's been called a genius and dismissed as a sentimentalist, and both accusations are pretty much true. But both mummify him, make him seem like he's probably something you 'should' see, something Great-Grandma would have laughed at because, well, Great-Grandma was kind of an idiot.
"Nope. He really is that funny."