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Slapstick on Slapstick: Comic self-reflexivity in Chaplin movies about making movies

Output: Contribution to conferencePaper


In his very first week on the job at the Keystone Studios, newcomer Charles Chaplin examines the process of movie making in his slapstick short KID AUTO RACE AT VENICE (Henry Lehrman, February 7, 1914). Using an actual event, an outdoor location and a crowd of onlookers as backdrop elements, Chaplin impersonates an annoying tramp capturing the eye of a newsreel camera for an 11 minute solo performance, in spite of numerous attempts (both staged and unrehearsed) to kick him out of the camera's view.
This way of heightening production values by exploiting actualities and unpaid extras was not new for Mack Sennett's Keystone Company. After all, legend tells that the first Keystone picture was shot by merging the comedians with a parade of Veterans within a half hour after the company had settled in Los Angeles, California in 1912. Chaplin, however, adds a whole new touch to this spirit of parasite--‐like improvisation. He reverses the axis of the action and transforms the camera into a human opponent. In addition, instead of interacting with the on--‐site public, Chaplin addresses his audience directly through the camera. Both strategies became important characteristics of Chaplin's later films even though their elaboration and purpose changed entirely. Moreover, they invite contradictory readings. Whereas the anti--‐illusionistic gesture of aknowledging the presence of the camera in KID AUTO RACE AT VENICE demonstrates a reflexive attitude and an awareness of film as an essentially documentary medium, it also harks back to Chaplin's music--‐hall background, and to the vaudeville aesthetic of the Cinema of Attractions (Jenkins: 1992). And while the direct emotional address at the audience remains an important drive in Chaplin's later films, it is mainly through sustaining the filmic illusion and not through stripping it away that he appeals to the audience's empathy.
After KID AUTO RACE AT VENICE (1914), Chaplin made six more silent slapstick shorts mocking the making of movies: A FILM JOHNNIE (1914), THE MASQUERADER (1914), HIS NEW JOB (1915), BURLESQUE ON CARMEN (1915), BEHIND THE SCREEN (1916), and HOW TO MAKE MOVIES (1918). Starting with a close reading of these shorts, this paper will examine a array of self--‐reflexive slapstick attitudes, as well as their changing methods and goals. A comparison with Mack Sennett's slapstick movies on the making of movies in the 1920s discloses that slapstick comedy found new means for self--‐reflexive comic effects, based on the very ideas Chaplin tried out in his first week on the job. In addition, self--‐reflexivity will be identified not only as an avant--‐garde attitude but also as a useful tool for comic reflections and self--‐mockery in silent slapstick comedy.
Original languageEnglish
StatePublished - 11-Sep-2010

ID: 5496416