“KID AUTO RACES? That’s Chaplin’s first short,” I said.
“Well, it’s the first one where he was in the tramp costume,” my fellow film fan corrected me. “His actual first one is MAKING A LIVING, where he played a swindler, not a tramp.”
“Oh, right,” I said, making a mental note to watch that DVD box set that’s been sitting on my shelf.
Did I mention that Shane Fleming, the Chaplin expert with whom I was speaking, is 9-years-old? Or that he was dressed up in costume as the Tramp? Or that Kiera Chaplin, the granddaughter of the legendary comedian, was standing six feet from us, chatting with 80-year-old filmmaker Melvin van Peebles, who was sporting a bowler hat and baggy pants?
No big whoop. It was just another installment of Film Forum Jr., the Sunday morning showcase of classic films for kids and families. Since January, Bruce Goldstein, the repertory programmer at the best movie theater in New York City, has been minting the next generation of movie buffs with an artfully curated mix of comedies, silents (some with live accompaniment), science fiction (two so far in 3-D), musicals and even a few foreign classics (like Ozu’s I WAS BORN, BUT…). Many of the selections are far from obvious choices, but all are appropriate for children, and highly watchable for their grown-up escorts. And the folks at Film Forum very kindly allow childless old movie weirdos like me to join in the fun, as long as we don’t mind a bit of youthful ruckus.
And how could we mind, when the ruckus is as joyful and inspiring as it is at Film Forum Jr.? Like every screening I’ve attended during the series’ first four months, THE KID (1921) was sold out long before show time, with a healthy standby queue already forming at 10:30 in the morning. Adding to the fun was a Chaplin look-alike contest, wherein eight boys and three girls took to the stage with greasepaint mustaches, canes and a few pratfalls (intentional and otherwise). There was also a twelfth contestant, two-year-old Dashiell Frazier, dressed as Jackie Coogan’s titular “Kid,” complete with 1920s-era newsboy cap. (He cried when called up to stage, but didn’t seem to mind posing for pictures after the show.)
Goldstein frequently sweetens his selections with fun gimmicks that might make William Castle jealous: a Fay Wray Scream-alike contest after KING KONG, a crazy hat contest after EASTER PARADE, sing-alongs, costumed ushers, free popcorn, and fun shorts and cartoons. All movies are projected in 35 mm or DCP (no DVDs or Blu-rays masquerading as “digital projection”), and admission price for everyone is $7. Compare that to $21.50 for an IMAX 3-D screening of IRON MAN 3 at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square, and you’ll begin to understand why the only “autonomous non-profit cinema in New York City” has such a boffo hit on its hands.
Today’s program kicked off with an introduction from Goldstein, who wowed the audience at the TCM Classic Film Festival last weekend by producing (and acting in) a live recreation of the lost soundtrack to Frank Capra’s THE DONOVAN AFFAIR. (I called that event the “best thing I’ve seen in four years of attending the TCMFF.”)
“We’re going to have our Charlie Chaplin parade on stage, and we have some fabulous prizes, but don’t you dare go near that table during the movie!” he playfully admonished the crowd, which was a good mix of kids, caregivers, and the occasional middle-aged film blogger. “But first we have some other kids to show you, the Little Rascals!”
Goldstein knows, of course, that Hal Roach’s series of comedy shorts was actually known as Our Gang during its original theatrical run. But he’s also smart enough to acknowledge that most current DVD releases feature the name the series used during television broadcasts beginning in 1955. And now is not the time to get caught up in purism. They’ll be plenty of time for that after these kids are hooked. (I’m living proof of that.)
“None of this was shot digitally,” a mom in the front row whispered to her son as the lights went down. “See if you notice the difference!”
I don’t know if the kid noticed or cared how the film was shot. But what he did seem to care about is that PAY AS YOU EXIT, featuring Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, Buckwheat and Porky, is a very funny film. In the 1936 one-reeler directed by Gordon Douglas, the gang (or, if you prefer, the “Rascals”) stage a production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – they call it, Romyo and Jullet – with Alfalfa and Darla as the romantic leads. One problem: Alfalfa has been warming up his pipes by eating raw onions.
“I have to take care of my voice, don’t I?” he protests, as Spanky confiscates the stalk of leeks stashed in his shirt.
Onions don’t make for copasetic canoodling, so Darla storms off stage (to her trailer, I assume). She’s replaced by Buckwheat, who slaps on her blonde, pigtailed wig and calls Alfalfa “Homeo” is his (in)famously malaprop-laden speaking style. The ladder to Juliet’s balcony falls through the curtain and the show ends abruptly (and hilariously). But, as the Bard wrote “all’s well that ends well, because Spanky collected admission from every audience member as they exited (thus the title).
Like most native New Yorker classic film fans of a certain vintage, I watched The Little Rascals every day on WPIX Channel 11 when I was little. It was those shorts, along with the Three Stooges, that first introduced me to the magic of classic comedy, a genre that remains a favorite of mine today. Listening to a roomful of kids laugh at the same gags that cracked me up forty years ago was nearly tear inducing. But I controlled myself, because a crying, single, bald man in a room filled with little children might have been awkward for everybody involved.
“That’s Charlie Chaplin!” a little boy exclaimed as the Tramp made his first appearance in THE KID, fishing a baby out of a garbage heap.
Typically, there’s a fair amount of chatter during Film Forum Jr. screenings. Talking at the movies is a usually a deal breaker for me, but when you’re showing silent movies to kids who can’t read inter-titles yet, the rules of cinematic decorum go right out the (broken by Jackie Coogan) window. A dad behind me was doing color (or should I say black-and-white?) commentary for his young daughter, stage-whispering, “That’s the kid’s mom, but she doesn’t know it.” One boy yelled out “bully!” when little Jackie got into a street fight with a young tough, and everybody seemed to approve of The Kid’s propensity to fight back.
You’re probably familiar with the plot of THE KID, but just in case: a desperate young mother (frequent Chaplin co-star and real life love interest Edna Purviance) is forced to give up her baby, whom she leaves in the car of a rich family. But the car is stolen, and the bad guys dump the baby in an alley. There he is discovered by the Tramp, who raises The Kid (Coogan) to be his partner in (petty) crime, all the while nurturing him like a father. But the child takes ill, and the now-successful birth mom discovers that the moppet is her son. Things end sort of happily, as Charlie is welcomed into the home of The Kid’s wealthy new family, ostensibly to remain part of his life. (I probably should have said SPOILER ALERT, but if you don’t know THE KID why are you even reading this blog?)
Still, the conclusion is bittersweet, and my new friend Shane shared some thoughts about that with me after the screening.
“Some silent comedians have a string of gags, but (Chaplin) can really make you laugh so hard, but he can also make you cry just as hard,” he said. “Jokes get old. You laugh for ten seconds and then it’s over. But the heart really stays with you.”
Did I mention this kid was 9? Seriously, if anyone from TCM is reading this, you should book him as a guest programmer. I’ll be his agent.
After the film, Goldstein announced the contest judges: Van Peebles (the director of SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG, which Bruce suggested would not be playing at Film Forum Jr.); the young (and extremely attractive) Miss Chaplin; Steve Sterner, Film Forum’s silent film accompanist (and a DONOVAN AFFAIR cast member); Chaplin expert John Martello; and Jane Scovell, author of Oona Living in the Shadows: a Biography of Oona O’Neill Chaplin. It was an absurdly august body for a 10-minute kids’ costume contest, but Film Forum rarely does anything halfway.
“I have a soft spot for the movie THE KID because, when I was four or five, I was convinced that Jackie Coogan was me. I thought that was me and my grandfather,” Kiera Chaplin told the audience. “(When) one of my cousins told me no, that was a boy, I was devastated.”
“I guarantee you’re not Jackie Coogan,” Goldstein shot back. “He grew up to be Uncle Fester on The Addams Family.”
The contestants took the stage – beneath a photo of a Chaplin Dress-Alike competition held in Bellingham, Washington in 1921 – and the winners were awarded Chaplin watches, dolls, Criterion DVDs and a book called Sir Charlie by Sid Fleischman.
“I read that book. It’s really good,” young Mr. Fleming announced
After the show, all the kids posed for pictures on stage, in the lobby, and outside the theater. A few of them chatted with Kiera Chaplin, who seemed pleasantly surprised by the whole affair.
Before he left I asked Shane Fleming what he wanted to be when he grows up.
“A film director,” the 9-year-old told me. “I’d like to make films like THE KID. Charlie Chaplin was a genius.”