Animators can learn valuable lessons from studying Charlie Chaplin and other silent film comedians. Recently, I delved into Chaplin’s early work as he began his movie career at Keystone Studios. His films from that early time are often overshadowed by his later work at Mutual, First National, and United Artists. But I found these short films to be more than worth the time to watch. What stood out to me were Chaplin’s facial expressions. They were quite animated. More so than later on in his career. Other actors at Keystone would strike big expressions, but it would be one thought with the face contorting around it. Chaplin had much more complex acting in his face.
This is presentational acting. It isn’t about “telling a story.” It’s about the audience watching people do funny things. A funny actor can take an otherwise simple scene and turn it into a laugh. I have assembled several examples to show how Chaplin uses his expressions to create comic effects.
In Chaplin’s very first film, Making A Living, he plays a low life character. This is before he even invented the little tramp. I caught him making what I am going to call a “micro-expression.” It’s a very brief change in his face. Through the magic of the animated gif, it’s easy to isolate this moment. Here he is interacting with an older woman who is to become his future mother in law. It’s a traditionally antagonistic relationship. As she turns away, watch his face change, then reverse back.
He starts smiling, then drifts into a split second of disgust, then snaps back into charming in an instant. His whole head has quick little jump to accentuate the change, and he does a jolly little laugh. When speaking to the lady, he shows his polite face. She turns away, and he reveals his true thoughts. But he does it so quickly and smoothly it looks natural. He isn’t holding it too long. He does something similar in this next shot, but in this case, he is heading into dinner. He drops his polite face for his “I”m hungry and about the get dinner” face.
These next two shots are from A Film Johnnie. Charlie is attending a movie screening, and he is reacting to the events on screen with uninhibited emotion. In the first one, watch what he does after he wipes his eyes. Rather than simply carry on with the same face he changes it. You can practically hear him trying to catch his breath from being overcome with emotion.
Shortly after that, he wrings out his handkerchief and gets his pants wet and I absolutely love the face he makes before he turns away.
At the Keystone studio, actors were encouraged to strike exaggerated facial expressions. While Chaplin would eventually develop less extreme ways to express character, he was more than capable of mugging with the best of them. In these shots from Cruel Cruel Love, he has been tricked into believing he has consumed poison in an attempted suicide. This is his “I’m dying from poison” face.
Following that scene, a messenger arrives and interrupts his “dying”.
It’s a simple scene of him being handed an envelope. But look at all that he does with it. He goes through a series of thoughts…
- I am surrendering to my fate and looking forward to the sweet relief of death.
- What, someone is here? What do you want?
- A message? I am confused.
- Wait, I am still dying!
- Are you still here?
- A polite nod of acknowledgment to the messenger.
It all happens very fast. Every one of those thoughts seems natural and recognizable. It’s an amazing bit of comic acting.
In this next scene from A Gentleman of Nerve, Chaplin is acting rudely towards everyone. There isn’t much of a story here. It’s all about his character and watching what he does. He begins this part by sneaking some soda from the lady to his left. Characters with active minds are interesting. Watch how many different thoughts appear to go through his head.
Here is a scene from Mabel at the Wheel, where he is not playing the Tramp, but an unlikable fellow. He is a comic villain. It moves quickly, but he holds his expressions just long enough to be read. He is acting angry towards Mabel, but he is also delighting in it. It’s not just one version of aggression, it has variations and shades. He connects with us the audience and also fights with others around him. A lot goes on. He’s busy where everyone else is not.
Now, a scene from Mabel’s Busy Day. Charlie has stolen a tray of hot dogs from Mabel and is trying to sell them to a bunch of bullies at the race track.
His face has varying degrees of frustration, fear, and anger. But he settles on none of them long. He keeps it moving. He keeps it animated. I might say it has texture. If he just had a single attitude the whole time, it would not be nearly as engaging for this long. A lesser actor would have been much less entertaining. This is the power of good comic acting. Many of these things go by so quickly, an audience doesn’t individually identify them as I have, but they perceive them.
Animators sometimes praise “subtle” qualities in acting, and Chaplin himself would eventually move towards a more controlled facial performance. But this is the face that America, and the world, fell in love with. Chaplin would continue to grow as a respected artist, but this style of performance was wildly successful. Remember, cartoons are not the place for subtlety.