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Retrospective on great silent film comedians Charles

     With his small moustache, bowler hat, tight coat, baggy pants and bamboo cane, the great comedian Charles Chaplin was famed for his roles as a tramp with the dignity of a kind-hearted gentleman. His works like "Modern Times", "The Gold Rush", "City Lights" and "The Great Dictator" have become classics in film history. Another great comedian from the silent era was Buster Keaton, the "Great Stone Face", renowned for his spectaculars of stunts and comic effects. Representative works depicting their different creative performances in comedy will be shown in the next two months.

     Presented by the Film Programmes Office of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department and curated by Mr Law Wai-ming, "Repertory Cinema 2011 - Charles Chaplin & Buster Keaton" will screen 26 films of the two masters' from September 2 to October 23 at the Cinema of the Hong Kong Film Archive (HKFA) and the Lecture Halls of the Hong Kong Space Museum and the Hong Kong Science Museum.

     The 14 of Chaplin's films to be screened include those featuring his popular "Little Tramp" character: "A Dog's Life" (1918); "The Kid" (1921); "The Idle Class" (1921); "The Gold Rush" (1925); "The Circus" (1928), which was nominated for four awards in the first Oscars ceremony; the sentimental "City Lights" (1931); and "Modern Times" (1936), on industrialisation. Also screening are "Shoulder Arms" (1918), with Chaplin playing a soldier; his life in a dream farm in "Sunnyside" (1919); "A Day's Pleasure" (1919), featuring Chaplin as the head of a household; "The Pilgrim" (1923), with an escaped convict posing as a pastor; Chaplin's first talking picture, "The Great Dictator" (1940); "Monsieur Verdoux" (1947), a crime comedy nominated for the Academy Award for Best Screenplay; and "Limelight" (1952), starring Chaplin and Keaton, which won the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score.

     Keaton loved to use trains in his physical comedy. Out of the 12 selected comedies, "The Goat" (1921), "Our Hospitality" (1923) and the huge-budget film "The General" (1926) are related to locomotives. "The Boat" (1921), "The Navigator" (1924) and "Steamboat Bill, Jr." (1928) use boats as a prop, and "One Week" (1920) has a DIY house. "Seven Chances" (1925) is a comedy adapted from a stage play on finding a bride. "Cops" (1922) and "Sherlock Jr." (1924) are showpieces for action sequences. Keaton also played nine roles in the surrealistic short film "The Play House" (1921) and three roles in "Three Ages" (1923).

     There will also be a special screening of Harold Lloyd's "Safety Last!" (1923). Lloyd, a popular and influential contemporary comedian, ranks alongside Chaplin and Keaton and was renowned for his stunts. Playing the role of a glasses-wearing neighbourhood boy on the silver screen, Lloyd's image as an ordinary person made the daredevil physical feats he performed even more hair-raising. The greatest stunt in "Safety Last!" sees Lloyd hanging on a clock when he climbs up to a roof. A similar scene appears in Jackie Chan's "Project A". 

     Three master study courses entitled "From Chaplin to Keaton - The Presentation Method of Cold Comedy and Bitter Comedy", "Action Speaks Louder Than Words - From Chaplin and Keaton to Jackie Chan, John Woo and Johnnie To" and "Comedy Is Dead" will be held at 2.30pm on three Saturdays on September 17, 24 and October 8 respectively at AC1, Level 4 of the Administration Building of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre. The fee per session is $80. The three courses will be conducted in Cantonese by movie scriptwriter Mr Lam Chiu-wing, Assistant Editorial Director of Oxford University Press Mr Perry Lam, and PhD in Cultural Studies Mr Chan Ka-ming, respectively. 

     A free seminar, "Chaplin vs. Keaton", is scheduled for 5pm on October 9 at the HKFA after the screening of "The General". Conducted in Cantonese, Mr Law and film critics Mr Lam Kam-po and Mr Cheng Chuen-wai will share with audiences their views on the two comedians.

     Born in London in 1889, Sir Charles Chaplin, the first-ever international star in the history of film, had a working life that spanned over 70 years. His talent was discovered in 1910 by Keystone Film Company when he toured with a drama troupe in the United States. After making his first film appearance in 1914, he gained fame rapidly with his image of a tramp. Together with D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, the heavyweights in the early cinematic age, Chaplin formed United Artists to maintain the autonomy of independent filmmakers and to contend with the burgeoning Hollywood studios. Drawing on his stunning sense of humour and cinematic skills, he combined romantic love as well as social and political criticisms to make numerous immortal classics.

     Proficient at scriptwriting, directing, acting and composing, Chaplin might be the most successful filmmaker from the silent film era. He continued to write, direct and perform in the talking films era. Even in his old age, he composed for his silent pictures and redistributed them. He died in Switzerland in 1977. 

     Chaplin's trademark character, the tramp, tackles different social issues. In "A Dog's Life", he fends off his tormentors with the help of a puppy and wins the love of a sing-song girl; in "The Kid", he mounts a daring rescue to get back his orphan partner; and he plays both a prince and a pauper in "The Idle Class". "The Gold Rush" was one of the biggest successes at the box office, and the scene of Chaplin being mistaken for a turkey is an all-time classic. In "The Circus", the tramp is wrongly accused by the police of being a pickpocket. He runs into a circus and turns out to be the comic relief of the troupe. Featuring the tramp trying to earn money for a blind girl's surgery, the romantic comedy "City Lights" was its year's No. 2 at the box office. In the classic "Modern Times", the tramp becomes a mere screw in the manufacturing machine and gets fired when he is slightly slow in his job.

     Featuring a soldier with unimaginable hardships, "Shoulder Arms" became Chaplin's most successful work at its time. In "The Pilgrim", Chaplin plays a fugitive and is mistaken for the new pastor. No longer playing the tramp, Chaplin became the head of a household in "A Day's Pleasure". In the dream farm in "Sunnyside", Chaplin not only showcases his trademark mime but also puts on a show with the farm animals. The three talking pictures to be screened are "The Great Dictator", an act of defiance against Nazism; "Monsieur Verdoux", in which Chaplin plays a villain for the first time; and "Limelight", his semi-autographical and last American film, in which he performs together with Keaton.

    Buster Keaton (1895-1966) was born into a vaudeville family and began performing with his parents at the age of 3. Nicknamed the "Great Stone Face", the comedian had been doing dangerous feats since childhood and built up consummate acrobatic skills. From 1920 to 1928, he wrote for, directed and acted in his own films, and made 30 short and feature-length comedies including the classics "Sherlock Jr.", "Our Hospitality" and "The General". His films are not renowned for the depiction of emotions, but physical comedies with spectaculars of stunts and astounding effects. He performed most of the feats in person and risked his life with his characters fighting against natural disasters and enormous machines such as trains, steamboats, a tornado and flooding. The awe-inspiring action scenes, coupled with his stoic, deadpan expression, were hilarious and made him one of the greatest comedians. 

     Keaton produced action comedies 60 years earlier than Jackie Chan's films and he liked to use large props. "The Goat" features his trademark shot with a train; "Our Hospitality" is a railroad comedy featuring his wife, sons and father, making it a true family business. In the Civil War comedy "The General", he recovers his lost train and captures the enemies. The film was not well received and its huge budget caused a downturn in Keaton's career. But it is now considered a classic in the league of "Citizen Kane".

     Boats are another favourite prop in Keaton's films. In "The Boat", he plans to build a boat for his family to cruise in, but it turns out to be the breaker of his fortune. Keaton is often seen put to challenge by nature's forces. In "The Navigator" a 10,000-tonne ocean liner fights against nature. "Steamboat Bill, Jr." was his last independent film, featuring the famous stunt in which he stands underneath a falling wall, only to be spared by an empty window frame. The scene was re-enacted by Jackie Chan in "Project A Part II". In "One Week", the prop changes to a DIY house. A newlywed couple receives a DIY house but the parts numbers have been rearranged, resulting in a house beyond modernity.

     In "Seven Chances", in order to inherit a US$7 million inheritance, Keaton, as a bankrupted businessman, is told he must get married by 7pm on his 27th birthday - that very same day. The film's finale chase scene with Keaton dodging stones rolling from a hill established him as a great stuntman. "Cops" is a showpiece in the cop-chase subgenre. "Sherlock Jr." is a true Keaton classic with smoothly choreographed action sequences, and the interaction between the narrative and what's outside it was pioneering in 20th century modernism. Ahead of its time, "The Play House" is a groundbreaking work in surrealism and modernism, while in "Three Ages" Keaton beats powerful rivalries to get his girls in three different eras.
     "The Gold Rush", "The Great Dictator", "Monsieur Verdoux" and "Limelight" are in English, or have English narration, with Chinese and English subtitles. All others are silent films with English intertitles.

     Tickets for screenings priced at $55 and course coupons are available at URBTIX outlets. Half-price tickets are available for senior citizens aged 60 and above, people with disabilities, full-time students and Comprehensive Social Security Assistance recipients. Credit card booking can be made on 2111 5999 or on the Internet at Programme details and various discount schemes can be found in the leaflets available at all URBTIX outlets.

     Programme enquiries: call 2734 2900 or visit

Ends/Monday, August 15, 2011


A film still from "A Dog's Life" (1918).


A film still from "The Kid" (1921).


A film still from "The Circus" (1928).


A film still from "The Great Dictator" (1940).


A film still from "The Goat" (1921).


A film still from "Sherlock Jr." (1924).


A film still from "Seven Chances" (1925).


A film still from "The General" (1926).



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