02/21/2011 12:10 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Unsung Athleticism of Charlie Chaplin

One of the joys of watching a great comic at work is his mastery of the material he has crafted for himself. Whether one is a performance artist or a stand-up comic, whether one is working with movement or text, a great performer's confidence in his craft allows him to take risks required by unexpected events and improvise when an opportunity suddenly presents itself.

Last weekend, as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's annual winter event, the opening program was devoted to three Charlie Chaplin shorts. While all three films were accompanied by Donald Sosin on the piano, the program offered a splendid opportunity to focus on some of Chaplin's athletic strengths (a factor in his work which is often overshadowed by his comedic skills).

In 1916, Chaplin was paid by the Mutual Film Corporation to produce a series of two-reel silent films. In The Rink (1916), Chaplin shines as a restaurant waiter who goes roller skating on his lunch break. Chaplin had apparently developed his roller skating skills while in vaudeville and used them to great effect in The Rink. Thankfully, the entire film can be viewed in the following three clips:

* * * * * * * * * *

The Adventurer (1917) was the final movie in the Mutual Film Corporation series. In this film, Chaplin plays an escaped convict who must save a drowning woman. Not only does The Adventurer give audiences a hint at Chaplin's excellent swimming and diving skills, it is filled with wonderful sight gags.

While there's no question that watching these films on the giant screen in the Castro Theatre with a live piano accompaniment is much more satisfying than seeing the clip on a computer screen, one of YouTube's greatest gifts is the ability to stop the action, "rewind" the film, and watch observe carefully each stunt has been set up and executed. Pay careful attention to Chaplin's shenanigans in The Adventurer.

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape