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Turning 100...


This year, two more classics of cinema will be entering that most scantly populated of clubs: Over a century old! And yet, as far as 1921 goes, you'd be hard pressed to find two examples more dissimilar.

The first is the Charlie Chaplin comedy drama, The Kid. Chaplin's first feature length film as director, it's credited with inventing the dramedy genre, and remains one of the most iconic and popular films of the entire silent era.

The Tramp takes in orphaned child, and the two run a scheme: The Kid chucks rocks through windows, and the Tramp offers his services to repair them, getting the both of them into trouble along the way. The bond between these two is beautiful, and the entire film approaches its subject with tenderness, likely due to its semi-autobiographical nature (Chaplin grew up in poverty and lost a son only two years before). If you ask a general movie goer what impression the film had on them, outside of telling you how funny they find it, you'll most commonly hear them talk about their own kids, or fathers. That is an emotional authenticity so palpable, it works just the same today as it did when it was conceived.

Charlie is unsurprisingly great as the doting father figure, but what the 5-year-old Jackie Coogan pulls off is nigh-on-impossible. He never seems out of place, bored, or staged (as one might expect a toddler to be at least once), and when he cries out for his “father”, having been separated, it is absolutely heart-breaking. Never more will you want to enter the screen and let someone know; “It's okay, it's only pretend.”

Uniquely dramatic and comedic for its time (opening with the title card: A picture with a smile, and perhaps, a tear), whilst it isn't Chaplin's absolute best, it and City Lights do hold the distinction of being his most emotionally affecting efforts. It also houses an absolute standout sequence from his work; one of the great chases in film history. A group of manhandling welfare officers have apprehended the Tramp, and are taking the Kid, clutching to his leg and then crying out from the back of a wagon, away from him. The Tramp makes a frantic clamber over the rooftops, pursued by an officer, and follows the wagon down the streets. Of course it isn't necessarily the filmmaking itself that makes this such a great chase in the traditional sense, it is the unbelievable sense of involvement it commands over an audience. You desperately want them to be reunited.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the early Swedish horror fantasy from prolific director and star Victor Sjöström, The Phantom Carriage, low on sentimentality and full of fantastical effects which allow spirits to phase through walls and walk on waves, and souls to leave their bodies.

The film is a Dickensian allegory, wherein an abusive, monstrous drunkard, who has infected his wife with TB and lead his family to ruin, is taken for a ride by the Grim Reaper in flashback to see how it all went wrong, and what is still at cost. Though it wasn't the only cinematic personification of death to come out of 1921 (Fritz Lang's Destiny), this particular incarnation of the strict master, a deceased friend of the drunkard cursed to reap souls for one year until the drunkard is meant to replace him on New Year's Eve, had a profound impact on Ingmar Bergman. The Swedish filmmaker would go on to have his Death face off against man in a game of chess. As a show of appreciation, he cast Sjöström in Wild Strawberries, with its own phantom carriage.

The film is a spiritual predecessor to The Shining; they both interpret alcoholism and corrosive self-centrism symbolically through horror fantasy, and feature unnerving sequences where men viciously break down doors with axes to get to their cowering families. While it certainly has room to pontificate, the film is first and foremost a moody, dramatic morality play, punctuated by (forgive the pun) haunting imagery. The Phantom Carriage today is amazingly forward thinking, and a marvel for its ingenuity in atmosphere and candid exploration of distressing subject matter.

Two very different films. Different goals, different legacies, different continents, and so on. What they do have in common is a mixing and melding of genre elements, the likes of which the public had never seen up to that point, and which keep them refreshing and invigorating watches to this day. Here's to the next 100.