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A new look at Chaplin's life and art

Chaplin: The Mirror of Opinion, by David Robinson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 179 pp. $19.50 cloth, $9.50 paper.

In his introduction, David Robinson quotes film historian John McCabe on the prospect of McCabe's own volume, ''Charlie Chaplin'': ''Surely no man in film history has been more written about, more documented. It must all have been done.'' Indeed, he notes, a bibliographer in 1980 listed over 500 volumes on Chaplin, in 37 languages.

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What more can be said? Robinson skirts the issue by making his introductory volume to Chaplin a compendium of what has been written about Chaplin and his films by contemporary critics and by the comedian himself. Although not breaking any new ground, he succeeds in opening the door to the world of Chaplin and putting out the welcome mat.

Charles Chaplin began his film career in 1914 at Mack Sennett's Keystone studios. His famous character, The Tramp, was already beginning to emerge by the time of his second film, ''Kids Auto Races at Venice.'' In it Chaplin appears as a spectator at the Venice, Calif., event who keeps getting in front of the newsreel photographers. What is noteworthy is that, seemingly by chance, he had put together a costume (consisting of baggy pants, a derby, ill-fitting shoes, and a cane) that would define his screen character for the next 25 years.

A year later he was making his own films at Essanay Studios. If today the films seem simple and full of pratfalls, one must remember that at the time that was the only form film comedy had taken. Chaplin's successful attempt to get the audience to empathize with his character marked the maturing of the film art.

In one of his best films of the period, ''The Tramp,'' Chaplin falls in love with a farm girl who takes pity on him until he comes to the sorrowful realization that he can never hope to win her. The final shot of the tramp slowly walking into the sunset is heartbreaking. Suddenly he straightens himself up, apparently having decided not to be defeated by life, and continues jauntily along his way. For the movie audiences of 1915, this was a potent image. No movie had ever mixed slapstick comedy with pathos before.

For the next eight years Chaplin developed his comedy and his characterization in 21 films at the Mutual and First National studios. As he started to take painstaking efforts with his films, there were longer intervals between them. From 1914 to 1925 he made 73 films. In the next 31 years he was to make only eight more.

It is his silent feature-length films that he is best remembered for, especially ''The Gold Rush'' (1925), ''City Lights'' (1931), and ''Modern Times'' (1936). The success of the latter two, as largely silent films in the sound era, seems to validate Chaplin's decision to resist the rush to sound film.

Robinson's book recounts the entire Chaplin story briskly. Readers interested in pursuing the subject further have the benefit of excerpts from the major works on Chaplin, incuding his autobiography, to help them decide where to turn next.

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Robinson's sampling of critical opinion of Chaplin over the years indicates the backlash as younger critics have rediscovered Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and used them (unfairly, perhaps) to denigrate Chaplin's work. The debate itself, though, is ample proof that one cannot discuss film comedy without taking Chaplin into account.

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