Additional photos from Ed Marg
The crowds might have been small, but they were enthusiastic at this weekend’s Chaplinfest, held at Heritage Junction and Hart Hall in Newhall.
Film historian E. J. Stephens organized the event that was sponsored by the SCV Historical Society to put the spotlight on the importance of filming in our valley.
The celebration of all things Charlie Chaplin – which included screenings of his iconic “Modern Times” and the Robert Downey homage, “Chaplin” and all sorts of Keystone comedies in between – brought out the curious and the die-hard fan.
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In Hart Hall, display cases held the overalls and oil can that Chaplin wore and used, as well as cameras and props from the Keystone comedies that were screened Saturday afternoon in the darkened train station. A cardboard cutout of Chaplin was propped up in front of the screen at Hart Hall for photographs.
Along the walls, tables displaying books and other materials on the subject of Chaplin and the silent movies were available for the curious, including a presentation from Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum. The museum is located in Niles, a town in the Bay Area city of Fremont, where Chaplin did most of his filming nearly 100 years ago.
Another ambassador from that undertaking came in musical form, as singer Michael McNevin (in cowboy hat, below) performed at the unveiling and dinner show. McNevin, an artist who lives in Niles and works to keep the history alive 350 miles north of Newhall, has steeped himself in Chaplin history.
He excitedly shared the story of Chaplin’s cameraman, Rollie Totheroh, who was recruited by Broncho Billy Anderson (also a Newhall movie cowboy pioneer) as a baseball player for the Niles city team.
“Rollie was playing for the San Rafael Colts and Broncho couldn’t stand how bad the Niles team was, so he took it over and stole players from around the Bay Area, giving them jobs in the movie business if they’d play baseball for him. Rollie was an infielder who had a really good eye and a really good arm, which made him a natural as a cameraman.
“He had a three-year stint with Broncho Billy’s company (Essanay Studios, a joint effort of George Spoor and Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson, who combined the sound of their initials to give the studio its unique name). When he got done with that, he was no longer a baseball player, but the best cinematographer in the silent movie business,” McNevin said. “Charlie took Rollie with him to Hollywood and every single film after that was Rollie working with Charlie.”
Stevens explained that it was in Niles Canyon that Chaplin’s lonely tramp character was solidified.
“In 1915, Charlie had made some movies with the tramp character, but in the movie ‘The Tramp’ he walks off into the sunset, along, down a lonely, unpaved road. He’s going to his next adventure, heartbroken. Twenty years later, when he comes to retire that character, he goes out to Sierra Highway and this time, he walked off into the sunrise, down Sierra Highway, which is paved and straight, and this time, he’s got the girl.”
“The Tramp character didn’t work as a talking character, so Chaplin decided to end it right there,” Stevens said. “That really unites our two communities.
A plaque that will mark the spot of the final scene of “Modern Times” – the shot of Chaplin as the Little Tramp in the company of Paulette Goddard, strolling down an open, paved road – was unveiled just before a dinner and showing of the film.
The plaque will be on display at Heritage Junction until arrangements can be made with the property owner at the actual site, which is near Acton.
More than 60 people enjoyed a dinner and pre-show mingle with Maltin and “Birds” star Tippi Hedren at Hart Hall (Hedren worked for Chaplin in the last film he directed, 1967’s “A Countess From Hong Kong”). For those craving celluloid over celebrity, “Modern Times” was also screened at the Saugus Train Station in Heritage Junction, hosted by Stephens.
Stevens’ love for the silent era was something he was eager to share – and something that goes far beyond Chaplin.
“It’s not just Chaplin, but silent films in general,” he said. “One of the great strengths was that they were silent, that it didn’t matter when you lived on the planet, you could identify with his “Little Tramp” character. Even if people seeing the film didn’t grow up poor, they knew someone who might have been poor or disadvantaged economically. He’s just trying to make his way through the world and you’re pulling for this guy.”
He said that Chaplin didn’t always play a sweet, loveable character, either.
“He wasn’t always likeable, but by the time he got this character (the Tramp) solidified, this was a character you liked and he was funny.
“The purity of silent films is key,” he continued. “If you watch a Buster Keaton film and see him or Chaplin doing these unbelievable, acrobatic, death-defying stunts, they’re doing them, not some stunt double.
“Keaton actually broke his neck one time doing a stunt. It was very serious business to make comedies back then. There was a purity, a frenetic pace to these things, guerilla filmmaking, if you will, capturing the moment. When you introduce new people to this, they are surprised.”