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People who've seen Chaplin's most relevant short films (those he made
from 1916 and forward, that is) recognize the heavy bully Eric Campbell
once they see him, yet there's a remarkably small group who actually
knows his name.
The documentary CHAPLIN'S GOLIATH is certainly a unique account for students of Chaplin's work, inasmuch as it describes the life of Campbell in a way no source has come close to do before. Chaplin hired lots of actors who eventually would make important impact, to large and small extent, on his movies. During the early years, most notable were Henry Bergman, Albert Austin and Leo White, and not to mention his leading lady Edna Purviance.
Still, Eric Campbell might have been the most important of them all, at least among the male members. One important factor was simply his heavy physical appearance, which did a superb contrast towards The Tramp's slenderness, and thus gave him the exact villainous character Chaplin sought. But besides being a remarkably high and strong man, Campbell was also a genuinely gifted performer who, through his grimaces and pantomime, could make the most dangerous burglars look like saints in comparison.
Campbell's exact date of birth is not fully clear, except that it must have taken place somewhere around 1880 in Scotland. At the age of twenty-one he married a pretty girl, who gave birth to a daughter in 1901. Campbell went along with the Fred Karno-troupe for several years until he settled down in New York during World War I. He eventually got in touch with Chaplin, whom he had known from the Karno-days, and was hired at his studio in early 1916. Campbell did his first Chaplin-movie appearance in the FLOORWALKER, a very successful two-reeler in which he played a cunning manager of a large department store. Cambell made a deep impression on Chaplin, and he continued to play similar roles in all of Chaplin's twelve Mutual-comedies with only one exception, a solo-short entitled ONE A.M.
CHAPLIN'S GOLIATH includes several very interesting interviews with the grand-daughter of Eric Campbell, Chaplin-biographer David Robinson and the grand-son of Chaplin's cameraman. It has been relatively hard to find since its original release in 1996, but is now included in Image's 90th Anniversary DVD-set of Chaplin's Mutual-comedies. If you're a silent comedy-buff, it is a must!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Eric Campbell was Chaplin's nemesis in eleven of the twelve films Charles Chaplin made for Mutual in 1916 and 1917. This short documentary film traces Campbell's life from Dunoon, Scotland to the world's silent stage as Chaplin's chief villain in his films from this period. Campbell shook off typical expectations for young men of his background to become one of the recognizable film comedians of his time. He knew both Charles Chaplin and Stan Laurel in Fred Karno's musical hall acting troupe in England. He was an early portrayer of the "slow burn" and demonstrators of the difference in size as being humorous. Tragically, however, Campbell's life was filled with tragedy, and his young wife died followed by an auto accident with his daughter. Campbell then remarried quickly only to be divorced months later and die himself in a tragic auto accident. His granddaughter provides insight from letters of the period. In the end, the burial story of Campbell's remains serves as a timeless metaphor for all forgotten performers of the past. *** of 4 stars.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In the course of just the first few films with Chaplin, easily the
biggest film star in the world, Eric Campbell himself became famous.
Recall the scene where The Tramp literally gaslights Campbell in Easy
Street? It's still one of the funniest and most memorable sequences in
screen history. His thick, animalistic eyebrows, and patented slow
burn, soon inspired imitators of himself (Oliver Hardy was one of
them), just as Chaplin inspired imitators- one of them ironically being
Stan Laurel, who knew Campbell and Chaplin from their days with Karno.
So, flush with cash, Campbell brought his wife and daughter to
Hollywood. Then, in an all too Hollywood fashion, disaster struck.
Campbell's wife died suddenly, his daughter was in an accident,
Campbell remarried a golddigger a month after his first wife's death,
then divorced her two months later, and then himself died in an early
morning drunken driving accident, in December of 1917. Chaplin never
again had such a great on screen foe and partner, and never again was
The Tramp so delightfully wicked, which led to the detractors of
Chaplin's success and greatness arming themselves with his perceived
flaws, and conveniently ignoring the brilliance of his anarchic Essanay
and Mutual days.
The documentary does dig up many outtakes from Chaplin films, and the on screen and offscreen chemistry between the two men is palpable. There are many archival documents, from Campbell's childhood in Dunoon, Scotland (although his exact date of birth is unknown- anywhere from 1878-1885, and his full name was Alfred Eric Campbell) to Campbell's second wife's hilarious petition for divorce, claiming cruelty that includes exposure to hula dancing. There are the requisite experts, such as Campbell's daughter, and Chaplin expert David Robinson. But, the best thing about the film is nothing within the film, but simply that it exists.
The best thing about the prevalence of DVDs is that they provide an affordable way to preserve the history of the dominant art form of the Twentieth Century, and its oft-forgotten contributors- major and minor.
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