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Chaplin Fills the Bills

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charles Spencer Chaplin, creator of the greatest movie character ever to grace the screen, was known the world over as The Tramp, The Little Fellow, Charlie, Charlot, The Little Tramp.

“How well we know the image of Charlie in flight,” critic and author Parker Tyler has written, recalling how he turned a corner “somewhat like a sailboat, frantically holding on to his hat and pivoting on the immobile axis of one foot . . . the cane at arm’s length to maintain balance.”

Chaplin’s film career, spanning 81 movies between 1914 and 1966, gets a weeklong mini-retrospective beginning Friday at the Port Theatre, 2905 E. Coast Highway, Corona del Mar.

Some of his most famous pictures will be screened in double and triple bills: “Modern Times” (1936) and “The Great Dictator” (1940); “City Lights” (1931), “The Kid” (1921) and “The Idle Class” (1921); “Limelight” (1952) and “The Gold Rush” (1925). $4.50-$6. (714) 673-6260.

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“All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policemen and a pretty girl,” Chaplin once said, though he might just as well have pointed out that all he needed was a barroom, a beautiful woman and a handsome rival, which figured equally often in his pictures.

Born in London in 1889, he began performing in English music halls as a child. At 24, he started out in movies at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Film Co., appearing in two-reel silents with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Sennett and many other stars of the period long since forgotten except by movie buffs.

By the time Chaplin left Keystone a year later in 1915, he had made 35 pictures, and the public already had begun to identify him in his self-invented role and trademark costume: derby and cane, tight coat, baggy pants, floppy shoes and tiny black patch of mustache.

In an interview with film historian Kevin Brownlow, Keystone regular Chester Conklin has pinpointed the moment the seeds of Chaplin’s screen persona were planted. It happened before filming commenced on “Mabel’s Strange Predicament,” which starred Normand and Conklin, in January 1914.

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Chaplin wandered into the dressing room one rainy morning during a game of pinochle, Conklin recalled, went to the makeup bench, found a piece of “crepe hair” that he liked and stuck it on under his nose.

"[He] went over and got Arbuckle’s hat and pants, my coat,” Conklin told Brownlow. “He took his own cane and went out on the set . . . and started clowning around doing the drunk act he’d done in vaudeville. He’d get his foot stuck in the cuspidor and couldn’t’ get it out. Everyone had gathered around and was laughing.”

Sennett stood in the back of the crowd and watched. “Finally, he went up to Charlie and said, ‘Listen, do what you’ve been doing when we shoot this picture with Mabel and Chester.’ Well, of course, it wound up that he stole the picture from us.”

Within five years, Chaplin became not only the biggest star in Hollywood but also reportedly the world’s highest-paid employee: His salary was $1 million a year. No star attained his dominance of the movie industry before or since--not even Mary Pickford, who came closest and co-founded United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks (whom she married), D.W. Griffith and Chaplin.

Nor has any filmmaker ever attained his level of artistic achievement. He wrote, directed, produced, edited and starred in most, if not all, of his pictures. He even had a hand in composing the music for them.

Chaplin also had a genius for many things besides filmmaking. According to his biographer, David Robinson, “he was particularly fascinated by economics.”

After reading “Social Credit,” by Major H. Douglas, Chaplin “was so impressed by its theory of the direct relationship of unemployment to failure of profit and capital” that he took growing U.S. unemployment as a warning and “in 1928 turned his stocks and bonds into liquid capital, and so [was] spared at the time of the Wall Street crash” of 1929.

In “Modern Times,” which he began filming in 1933, Chaplin anticipated the droll humor of Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Two tramps on a park bench solemnly discuss the world economic crisis and their fears about going off the gold standard: “This means the end of our prosperity--we shall have to economize.”

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In the 1930s and ‘40s, the protean artist became a target for ultraconservatives who reviled his morals--all four of Chaplin’s wives were teenagers when he married them, including two who were 16--as well as his left-wing politics.

During the McCarthy period, while on a trip to London for the 1952 world premiere of “Limelight” with his fourth wife, Oona (the daughter of Eugene O’Neill), and their children--the 63-year-old Chaplin was barred by the U.S. attorney general from reentering the country. (He subsequently moved to Vevey, Switzerland, but returned in triumph in 1972, invited back by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.)

Many of the pictures in the Port’s mini-retrospective, “Between Laughter and Tears,” are readily seen on video. (“Limelight,” incidentally, has a scene with Buster Keaton, the only time the two greatest comedians of silent pictures appeared together, Robinson notes, “and the only time since 1916 that Chaplin had worked with a comic partner.”)

But this is a chance to catch Chaplin where he truly belongs--in a movie house on a screen that offers the proper treatment of his larger-than-life vitality and pathos.

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Elsewhere in Orange County:

Jeff Himpele and Quetzil Castaneda’s ethnographic video “Incidents of Travel in Chichen Itza” (1997) will be screened tonight at 7:30 at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, 2002 Main St., Santa Ana. Free with museum admission of $2-$6. (714) 567-3600.

Himpele, who teaches at Cal State Fullerton, will present the screening and lead a discussion afterward.

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He and Castaneda made the 90-minute documentary during the spring equinox “when a shadow said to represent the Mayan serpent-god Kukulkan appears on a temple pyramid” in the antique Mayan city of Chichen Itza. More than 40,000 people went to witness the solar phenomenon.

The documentary “depicts how New Agers, the Mexican state, tourists and archeologists all contend [for] the site,” Himpele notes, “while the local Mayas themselves struggle to occupy the site as vendors and artisans.”

At UC Irvine, the season-long festival of “Post-Colonial Classics of Korean Cinema” calls it a wrap Friday with an all-day rap session among panelists who will explore how Korean filmmakers have interpreted South Korea’s post-colonial realities.

But the world premiere of Hong Sang-Su’s “The Force of Kangwondo” has been canceled and replaced by Kim Ki-young’s “Iodo” (1977), which previously screened at the Korean Cultural Center in Los Angeles. No reason for the cancellation was given. “Iodo” is set on an imaginary island populated by an avaricious society and surrounded by a polluted sea.

The free panel discussions--9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m.-5 p.m.--do not require registration. They will be moderated by film scholars from UC Irvine, UCLA, Occidental College and UC Berkeley. At UCI’s Humanities Instructional Building, Room 110, West Peltason Drive. (714) 824-1992. “The Force of Kangwondo” screens at 7 p.m., at the UCI Film and Video Center in the same building, Room 100. $4-$6. (714) 824-7418.

The Jewish Film Festival screens “A Life Apart: Hasidism in America” (1997)--9:30 a.m. Sunday (with 9 a.m. breakfast reception)--at the AMC MainPlace Six in Santa Ana. $20. (714) 654-2720.

The documentary, narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker and Leonard Nimoy, looks into the Hasidic communities that sprang up in the U.S. after World War II. Made by Oren Rudavsky and Menachem Daum, it explores Hasidic religious beliefs, laws and shtetl life destroyed by the Holocaust in Europe, which has been transplanted in this country.

After the screening, a discussion of the issues in “A Life Apart” will be served up by television-and-film writer Michael Berlin (“Murder She Wrote,” “The Commish,” “Mafia Vendetta”).

The festival is not quite a bagels-and-lox affair. “We can’t afford the lox,” says Harriet Botwinick, who has headed the festival since 1993. “We’ve got bagels and cream cheese, juice and coffee. It’s a continental breakfast.”

Over the years, the festival has included films from Argentina, Mexico, Israel, Norway, Germany, France, Russia and Canada. Most have been contemporary and tend to focus on cultural relations between Jews and non-Jews, and among Jews of various sects.

Botwinick is still searching, however, for a film about the descendants of the hidden Spanish Jews--the Marranos--who were forced to convert to Christianity during the 15th century Inquisition.

“Many are Catholic and have no idea that some of their customs indicate they may have had Jewish backgrounds,” Botwinick noted. “Some still light Sabbath candles, for instance, but may not be aware that they’re practicing a traditional Jewish ceremony.”

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In L.A and beyond:

The American Cinematheque’s “The Outsider: The Films of Jerzy Skolimowski,” begins Friday at 7:15 p.m. at Raleigh Studio’s Chaplin Theater. It kicks off with “Deep End” (1971), one of the masterpieces from the Polish emigre director who has aptly said of himself, “I have the talent to create panic all around.”

Indeed, Skolimowski, who is as disciplined as he is impassioned, is the master of emotionally charged, beautifully evoked atmosphere. Skolimowski will be present to discuss his films at all screenings.

“Deep End” deals with a youth on the brink of manhood, but the hero’s wryly comic encounters move from poignancy and charm to unexpected tragedy. In the process, Skolimowski has created a masterpiece, a picture that freezes the smile on your face.

Before the credits of “Barrier” (1966), which screens Friday at 9:30 p.m. with “Identification Marks: None,” we watch a series of men, their hands tied behind their backs, hurl themselves off whatever it is they’re kneeling on. The camera gradually discloses that they’re engaged in a crazy kind of competition, the prize being a piggy bank containing their pooled savings. We learn they’re a group of young medical students, and the winner (Jan Nowicki) of the contest then commences a Kafkaesque odyssey involving a brief encounter with a pretty blond streetcar driver.

Most of Skolimowski’s films are all too rarely shown and his 1964 “Identification Marks: None” most likely has never before been screened locally. It is remarkable for a first feature, for it elicits an unsettling ambiguity and uncertainty as effectively as subsequent Skolimowski films.

Casting himself as a drifter finally caught up in the draft, Skolimowski uses an astonishingly fluid camera to allow us to see the world through his young man’s eyes.

Also screening on Saturday at 7:15 p.m. is Skolimowski’s best-known film, “Moonlighting” (1982), starring Jeremy Irons.

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Filmforum will present Friday at the Art Center, 1700 Lida St., Pasadena, at 8 p.m. Johan van der Keuken’s “Brass Unbound” (1993), a glorious documentary on how brass band music, introduced in colonial times, flourishes in Nepal, Surinam, Minahassa/Indonesia and Ghana in delightful permutations.

Van der Keuken’s more ambitious and provocative “I (Heart) $" (1986) will be presented by Filmforum on Sunday at 7 p.m. at LACE, 6522 Hollywood Blvd. In 145 minutes Van der Heuken attempts--brilliantly--no less than to reveal the way in which world economy works--and how ruthlessly it always has.

Van der Heuken will be present at both screenings. (213) 526-2911.

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The UCLA Film Archive will present “A Revolution in Small Things: The Films of Karel Kachyna” Saturday-April-12 in Melnitz Hall’s James Bridges Theater. None of the films of the veteran Czech filmmaker, virtually unknown in the U.S., were available for preview.


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