The Charles Chaplin Conference: Report

The Charles Chaplin Conference was held across three days on the weekend of 21-24 July 2005. The conference had approximately 80 delegates with 46 giving papers or presentations. The delegates made up an international community of scholars ranging from established academic to recent postgraduate and PhD candidates.


The conference featured keynote speakers on each day, screenings of newly restored Keystone Chaplin films, conference papers presented by an international group of scholars, archive presentations and a discussion panel on the issue of sentiment in Chaplin's work.


The conference began with a welcome from Dr. Michael Hammond and the first set of screenings of restored Keystones with live accompaniment and introductions by Neil Brand and Glenn Mitchell author of the definitive Chaplin Encyclopaedia.

The screening programme consisted of the national premiere of the Chaplin Keystone restorations which are the work of the British Film Institute, L'Immagine Ritrovata at the Cineteca di Bologna, and Lobster Films.

Internationally renowned composer Timothy Brock, presented his thoughts on his new score for A Woman of Paris (1921) with never before heard tapes of Chaplin recorded while composing, support for this was given by the Chaplin Association in Paris.

The papers were presented in panel 'strands' across the three days. The strands were thematic and were made up of two panels on Chaplin and Politics, two panels on Chaplin's Influence and Impact, two panels on Chaplin's reception in various national contexts, a panel on Chaplin Imitators, and a panel on Chaplin's relationship to modernism and modernity.

The keynote speakers, three of whom were funded by the British Academy, were arranged across the three days thematically. The first two keynote speakers presented issues concerning Chaplin's Music Hall antecedents. The first was presented by David Robinson critic, archivist and biographer of Chaplin. Professor Jacky Bratton from Royal Holloway, University of London, the second keynote speaker, talked about the tradition of clowning in the Music Hall of the late 19th century. This was followed by two presentations on aspects of the influence of Music Hall on Chaplin's comedy. Appropriately, the welcoming reception took place at the beautiful Wilton's Music Hall in London's east end. Despite the threat of terrorist bombings in London that afternoon the evening was a great success. Critic Mark Kermode opened proceedings with a stirring defence of Chaplin's work against the oft repeated negative comparison with Keaton and pronounced this urban myth officially moribund. The guests were then welcomed by the bfi's Cultural director Heather Stewart.


On the following day the keynote speakers were Professor Tom Gunning from Chicago University and Professor David Trotter from Cambridge University. Professor Gunning was sponsored by the British Academy and his talk considered Chaplin's cinematic body as both modernist and modern. His groundbreaking explanation of this distinction drew attention to the way that Chaplin's physical comedy, drawn from the early forms of Music Hall and Variety slapstick, was incorporated in his later work, particularly in Modern Times to offer a unique rendering of the human body's interaction with machines through humour. This interaction was both critical of the impact of this collision but also celebrated the incorporation of machine rhythms in a new 'modern' body. Professor Trotter followed this with a thought-provoking outline of his idea of Chaplin's use of mimetic forms of performance that anticipated and even influence modernist writers and filmmakers. The day also included a second set of screenings of the restored Keystones and the discussion panel on Chaplin's critical reception and the issue of sentiment.


Saturday was given over to panel presentations; these ran parallel due to time constraints, there were further screenings of the Keystone restorations, and archive presentations by Progetto Chaplin at the Cineteca di Bologna and the LA County Museum Archive. In what many delegates felt was a highlight of the conference composer and conductor, Timothy Brock who restores Chaplin's original scores for the Association Chaplin , talked about his approach to composing and organising the score for Chaplin's A Woman of Paris . He had been asked to arrange a new score for this film because Chaplin had never been happy with the soundtrack of the film. He had not been able to write a special score, the one that does exist is a composite of themes from his other films. In order to do this Brock explained that he had used home recordings of Chaplin working out musical motifs for scoring Limelight as well as some of his other musical work. Throughout the 50s and 60s Chaplin habitually worked on developing music and Brock offered a fascinating glimpse into both Chaplin's evolving scores and his own use of these tapes as the building blocks for A Woman of Paris. Then he played some excerpts from these tapes of Chaplin at the piano. It was possible to make out the themes of Limelight which was accompanied by the faint sound of Chaplin humming melodies as he tentatively tried out different chord combinations. Chaplin always carefully guarded his method of working and, Brock said, would probably not have approved of this demonstration of trying out ideas. Yet, like Kevin Brownlow's compelling documentary The Unknown Chaplin , this was an invaluable insight into Chaplin's work. This was followed by a reception and dinner at the London College of Communication.


Sunday, the closing day, featured two more panel presentations and the final set of Keynote talks by Professor Jennifer Bean of the University of Washington and professor Yuri Tsivian from University of Chicago, both sponsored by the British Academy. Professor Bean outlined the formal structures of the Keystone slapstick style and how that both incorporated the frenetic pace of the machine age and particularly the modern urban experience and offered perspective on Chaplin's arrival at Keystone, bringing as he did the more deliberate physical comedy of the Music Hall stage. Professor Tsivian spoke on the impact of Chaplin on Soviet artists and filmmakers and made the important point that 'Chaplin' as a designed image was central to constructivist artwork but more importantly that 'Chaplin' stood in for a kind of comic style which seemed to extend to more than Chaplin the artist and encompassed the whole range of American film slapstick comedy as it was perceived by Soviet artists at the time.

The plenary at the end of the conference provoked extremely positive responses. Some of the outcomes of this were the following suggestions:

  • The request for another conference to be held, calling attention to all of the areas that the conference had drawn attention to but was unable to cover. (There had been 60 paper proposals from which were chosen 26)
  • The call for a Chaplin Society to be set up along the lines of the Dickens society. This could be the basis for establishing a permanent network of scholars and a bi-annual conference held in different Universities.
  • The call for a special publication for the proceedings. This is being addresses by the publication of the proceedings on the website but also plans for a special edition of selected papers for The Journal of Film Studies. It has also been suggested that an online Journal be established. This has yet to be fully discussed but it may be possible that this would be a joint effort between the British Film Institute and the University of Southampton.
Click on the map to see the London of Chaplin's childhood.

Click on the map to see the London of Chaplin's childhood.

The Conference wrapped up with a guided walk round the London of Chaplin's childhood by local expert Tony Merrick.


This was the first major conference on the work and worldwide cultural influence of Charles Chaplin. The conference aimed to foster innovative research in relation to Chaplin and his contemporaries. The emphasis was on dialogue and the bringing together of archivists, researchers and scholars from a range of disciplines for screenings of newly restored material, the presentation of papers and symposia to reassess Chaplin's British music hall roots and his impact and influence on film, the arts and modern culture. The papers and keynote presentations fulfilled the aims of the conference which both offered new perspectives on Chaplin's work and provided fresh intellectual dimensions. Perhaps the most welcome aspect of this was the combination of archivists with these perspectives. By demonstrating the available primary material, not the least of which is the important work of the Keystone restorations, this combination provoked productive discussion across this intentionally diverse group of scholars at the presentations. It demonstrated that there is still much more to be said about Chaplin's work and his role in film and cultural history.