Monday, 28 May 2012

The Champion

Chaplin’s third Essanay picture and he finally appears to have found his feet with the new studio. Chaplin’s tramp, destitute and famished spots a sign offering money to act as a sparring partner. He watches as three men go in before him and return battered and bruised. Chaplin however has a trick up his sleeve or rather in his glove; a lucky horseshoe, which he uses to knock out his larger, more adept opponent. Spotting his potential a trainer prepares the slight Chaplin for a big fight against the champion Bob Uppercut (Bud Jamison) but Chaplin has other things on his mind, namely the trainer’s daughter Edna Purviance.

I was so glad that this film was good. I was really disappointed with Chaplin’s first two Essanay films His New Job and A Night Out. This is a real return to form. The idea was actually taken from a Fred Karno sketch that Chaplin performed before entering the movie industry. Perhaps one of the reasons for the film’s success is that Chaplin knew what he was doing before he went in rather than partially making it up as he went along.

The film really shows its age with its intertitles. There wasn’t one occasion where I understood every word! But you have to remember that this film is 97 years old and language changes. Another thing that changes is people’s attitudes and sensibilities towards kissing. It’s hard to believe now but Hollywood once enforced a self censorship ruling that meant that no on screen kiss could last more than a couple of seconds. Although made in pre-code Hollywood, Chaplin got round this type of censorship by having his Tramp kiss Edna from behind a large beer bottle. It’s a clever device that works around censorship.

The film is much slower and more measured than much of Chaplin’s other work of the period and especially the work of Keystone. The opening scene in which Chaplin shares a hotdog with his equally starving dog is both very sweet and very slow and reminiscent of his later work. It’s a complete opposite of his previous Keystone films.

The highlight of the film is undoubtedly the boxing. Watching Chaplin train in his trademark bowler hat is brilliant and the big fight itself is hilarious and extremely well choreographed. Chaplin and Jamison spend half the fight either falling over or in embraces, punching themselves in the face and the umpire obviously gets a few punches thrown his way too. Raging Bull this is not. You have to feel that the film is a precursor to Chaplin’s massively successful City Lights which features his famous boxing scene. Another highlight is the fantastic makeup and over the top fake facial hair of the film’s villain Leo White, a motif of Chaplin’s early work. Without dialogue you are still always sure who the bad guy is with his deep dark eyes, pale face and enormous moustache.

This film is not up there with Chaplin’s later work but shows great potential. It is a marked improvement on his earlier Essanay films and introduced a lot of action into his repertoire.    


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