When Charlie Chaplin comes to town

The silent Keystone comedy, Kid Auto Races at Venice, should have been exactly that — a newsreel documenting a soapbox derby race. But as children race along an audience-lined pathway, a curious fellow wearing a bowler hat and baggy pants emerges into the frame, constantly interrupting the shot.

The man is Charlie Chaplin. In cinematic terms, he was the original photobomber.

Released in February, 1914, the film marks Chaplin’s first publicly screened appearance as the Tramp, and this week’s Toronto Silent Film Festival celebrates this centennial by paying homage to one of the most recognizable characters in film history.

Some of Chaplin’s earliest shorts will be screened alongside the main attractions, which feature Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command and Seven Years Bad Luck, starring Max Linder, who was a major influence on Chaplin.

On Saturday, the festival screens Chaplin’s The Circus (1928).

The film was originally released amid much personal turmoil: a fire at the Chaplin studios that shut down production, the death of his mother, a bitter divorce, as well problems with the IRS. “It’s no wonder he barely mentions the film in his autobiography,” says festival director and founder Shirley Hughes, who has always preferred Chaplin over other famous clowns of the silent era like Buster Keaton or Stan Laurel.

What The Circus offers are some of the funniest moments in Chaplin’s career, a filmography that stretches from 1914 with Making a Living, where he played a top-hat-wearing villain, to 1967’s A Countess From Hong Kong, which starred Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren.

“The opening sequence of The Circus, with the chase and the hall of mirrors and the final tightrope sequence, are among the most elaborately staged and most sustained moments of uninterrupted comedy that you’ll find in any of his features,” says Columbia University’s Rob King, author of The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture.

Released at a time when theatre chains across the U.S. were converting to sound, Chaplin’s silent film was a smash nonetheless. Three years later, when musicals and tough-talking gangsters of the sound era ruled, Chaplin remained true to the silent arts, releasing City Lights, which featured a synchronized score.

Local audiences had long adored Chaplin since his first Toronto screen appearance in 1914, in the feature-length comedy Tillie’s Punctured Romance, which played the Strand Theatre on Yonge St. But when City Lights premiered in 1931, Toronto audiences couldn’t get enough, resulting in the Loew’s Yonge St. Theatre opening for 9 a.m. screenings. The film was held over for 12 weeks, a record at the time.

Toronto looked a little different during the silent era, and the festival aims to showcase the city’s history in Silent Toronto Photoplays, which precedes several of the screenings and is co-presented by Heritage Toronto. Culled from nearly five hours of archival footage courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives, the clips, which feature early Toronto aviation as well as footage from the disastrous 1904 fire, are curated by media archivist Christina Stewart. “I think people will be amazed when they see the smokestacks of billowing black smoke from the heavy industry on the east waterfront,” says Stewart, who for several years led a project digitizing the Canadian National Exhibition’s film archive.

While many of the newsreels being presented feature static shots, Stewart was impressed by the cinematography in some of the material she selected. A TTC-focused newsreel, shot atop a building at King and Yonge, “has those great optical transitions, the swirling transitions coming together or pulling apart,” notes Stewart.

But Hughes, who launched the festival in 2010, says some things look very much as they do today. “Gridlock was clearly a big problem back then, and you can see that the streetcars were packed. We keep seeing the same problems over and over again.”

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star, April 3, 2014.

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