Chan, Lee, Chaplin
Physical Virtuosity On-Screen
A CultureMap®
by Lisa Jo Sagolla
Published on 2/12/14

Slapstick comedians, rapid-fire tap dancers, daredevil magicians and martial artists with dazzling physical prowess have animated the silver screen since the advent of cinema. The truly distinguished virtuosos—from Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire to Jackie Chan—moved their bodies in ways that evoked universal feelings and expanded the storytelling powers of film. This map looks at movie icons who used their extraordinary physicality to elevate the everyday emotions, dreams and experiences of ordinary folk.

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Charlie Chaplin  (1889–1977 | English-born American filmmaker)
to  Jackie Chan  (b. 1954 | Hong Kong martial artist, filmmaker)

Though they hail from different sides of the globe and rose to fame at opposite ends of the 20th century, Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Chan introduced to the movies a fresh, idiosyncratic style of comedy that resonated with audiences worldwide. To do so, each drew on a form of multidisciplinary stage performance beloved in his native country.

Born in London to a pair of music hall entertainers, Chaplin spent his youth doing odd dance jobs and performing with a leading comedy sketch troupe. When he broke into silent movies, he used stage techniques to tell the stories of his characters, especially his iconic Little Tramp, whose pantomimic shenanigans and pathos made Chaplin the most famous man in the world during the 1920s and early 1930s.

Chan, the popular martial artist, is best known for infusing kung fu heroics with slapstick. His screen antics, however, are firmly grounded in the techniques of traditional Beijing opera. Beginning in early childhood, Chan underwent 10 years of rigorous training at Hong Kong’s Chinese Opera Research Institute, where he studied a demanding combination of acting, singing, dancing, acrobatics and martial arts—all to convey the theater’s ancient dramatic and humorous tales.

Charlie Chaplin  (1889–1977 | English-born American filmmaker)
to  Bruce Lee  (1940–1973 | American martial artist, actor)

Described by Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman as “Jesus Christ’s rival as the best known person on earth,” Charlie Chaplin was the first mass cultural icon. He garnered fame speaking a universal tongue—pantomimed clowning—in silent Hollywood short films of the 1910s, believing people would be moved more by a gesture than a voice. Chaplin’s first feature was the 1921 tearjerker The Kid. Dripping with sentiment, it champions the moral superiority of a social outcast, a tramp who adopts an abandoned baby and raises it with heartrending devotion.

A generation later a film with the same title appeared in Hong Kong: The Kid (1950) stars another exemplar of physical dexterity in his first leading role, 10-year-old Bruce Lee. Sparking an explosion of interest in martial arts in the early 1970s, Lee brought an electric presence to the screen. Mainstream audiences had never seen faster, more powerful martial arts moves. With his famous “one-inch punch,” Lee could knock an opponent to the ground with a blow to the chest delivered from only an inch away.

Bruce Lee  (1940–1973 | American martial artist, actor)
to  Yuen Woo-ping  (b. 1945 | Chinese martial arts choreographer)

Kung fu phenom Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco to Chinese parents who were there performing with Hong Kong’s Cantonese Opera Company. Lee appeared on-screen for the first time (at the age of three months) in the arms of his father, an actor whose connections landed his son roles as a child performer in numerous Hong Kong films. Playing the sidekick Kato in the mid-1960s TV series The Green Hornet, Lee introduced international audiences to his superfast punches and kicks, often accompanied by his idiosyncratic vocalizations. But not until he was in his 30s did Lee star in the clutch of films that made him the supreme martial arts movie hero—and his legend continues to grow.

The magnitude of Lee’s influence on action cinema is matched by that of fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping. Yuen has been a dominant director and choreographer of major Chinese martial arts films since the mid-1980s, and he has revolutionized Hollywood’s action filmmaking techniques. Like Lee, Yuen got his start in the movie business through his own father, a Chinese film actor. When Yuen helmed the Jackie Chan hit Drunken Master (1978), he cast his father in the title role.

Yuen Woo-ping  (b. 1945 | Chinese martial arts choreographer)
to  Jackie Chan  (b. 1954 | Hong Kong martial artist, filmmaker)

Upon the untimely death of seminal martial arts superstar Bruce Lee, in 1973, Hong Kong movie producer Lo Wei began grooming Jackie Chan to take Lee’s place. A skillful child actor, stuntman and fight choreographer in his native Hong Kong, Chan had appeared in more than 20 films before being cast in a string of action movie flops in which he was expected to channel Lee, beginning with the 1976 remake of Lee’s Fist of Fury (1972). A natural comedian who loved Buster Keaton and Marx Brothers movies, Chan was uncomfortable emulating Lee’s stone-faced style.

In 1978 famed martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping directed two films, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, in which he let Chan forge his own style—a combination of bumbling physical comedy and snazzy kung fu moves. Eagle’s Shadow, Yuen’s directorial debut, broke new ground for martial arts cinema in its parody of traditional master-student interactions. Along with Drunken Master, the film introduced a comedic approach to martial artistry that revitalized the Asian film business. It also turned Chan into a screen sensation seemingly overnight.

Yuen Woo-ping  (b. 1945 | Chinese martial arts choreographer)
to  Fred Astaire  (1899–1987 | American dancer, actor)

Choreographer of both Hong Kong and Hollywood blockbusters, Yuen Woo-ping has gradually shifted the emphasis in cinematic martial arts from a realistic depiction of fighting to one simply emphasizing the beauty of the human body in motion. His fight choreography for The Matrix (1999) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) combines thrilling martial artistry with special effects—often the use of invisible wires that lend screen warriors gravity-defying lightness. “The action nowadays is all about romance,” Yuen told The Hollywood Reporter, explaining that Crouching Tiger established an aesthetically pleasing style of kung fu that set the tone for martial arts in Chinese-language cinema for the next decade.

Fred Astaire’s style of tap dance likewise had a decades-long influence—on movie musical choreography. Almost immediately upon his cinematic debut, in 1933, Astaire displayed a gravity-defying lightness in his steps, accomplished with his physicality alone. On par with any of Yuen’s action sequences is Astaire’s breezy routine in A Damsel in Distress (1937), in which he tap-dances beside a drum set and simultaneously creates (at least) two rhythms. Astaire brought crystalline linearity and ballroom elegance to the Hollywood musical, becoming the first hero to make screen choreography all about romance.

Fred Astaire  (1899–1987 | American dancer, actor)
to  Jackie Chan  (b. 1954 | Hong Kong martial artist, filmmaker)

Two of cinema’s masterful movers, Fred Astaire and Jackie Chan both showcased their talents in choreographed routines that tell mini stories and usually prove more compelling than the movies in which they appear. Quoting mystery writer Donald Westlake, film critic Roger Ebert explained, “The way to look at a Jackie Chan movie…is the same way you would look at an Astaire and [Ginger] Rogers movie: The plot exists only to connect the production numbers.”

Astaire ranks among history’s greatest dancers, and Chan’s graceful execution of death-defying stunts (he does his own) is superior. Yet despite their extraordinary movement abilities, Astaire and Chan exude an ordinariness that makes them relatable to the average moviegoer. Astaire employed a calculated, highly rehearsed easiness to appear ordinary, while Chan incorporated clowning to manufacture a kung fu style that projects the common man, not the superhero. Both men also make strategic use of props. Instead of swords and nunchucks, Chan’s weapons of choice are everyday objects—stepladders, shopping carts, refrigerators. And though forever associated with a top hat and cane, Astaire performed exquisite solos with a hat rack, a golf club, drums and firecrackers.

Fred Astaire  (1899–1987 | American dancer, actor)
to  Harry Houdini  (1874–1926 | Hungarian-born American escape artist)

Fred Astaire’s best-loved films are those in which he dances with Ginger Rogers. A legendary partnership—about which Katharine Hepburn famously quipped, “He gives her class, she gives him sex”—Astaire and Rogers brought exuberant sophistication to movie musicals, elevating the genre as well as each other’s individual capabilities. A competent dancer whose terpsichorean talents blossomed when she was in Astaire’s arms, Rogers possessed underrated dramatic ability that bolstered Astaire’s acting work and a beauty that made him believable as a romantic leading man.

The duo’s first screen teaming was the 1933 musical Flying Down to Rio, remembered mainly for the couple’s sensationally synchronized dancing to “The Carioca,” as well as an exciting sequence featuring chorus girls dancing on the wings of biplanes. The film’s dance ensemble includes Dorothy Young, Harry Houdini’s last assistant. Young danced and performed in illusion tricks with his stage show from 1925 to 1926, the year Houdini died. The 52-year-old magician had allowed an overzealous fan to punch him repeatedly in his famously toned abdomen, resulting in a fatal case of peritonitis which prematurely ended Houdini’s partnership with Young.

Harry Houdini  (1874–1926 | Hungarian-born American escape artist)
to  Charlie Chaplin  (1889–1977 | English-born American filmmaker)

Breaking free from handcuffs, a water-filled cabinet or a straitjacket while dangling upside down from a tall building, renowned escapologist Harry Houdini astounded spectators throughout Europe and America in the early 1900s. Seeking larger audiences, he made a foray into Hollywood movies, beginning with cliffhanger serial The Master Mystery, released in 1919, when the cinema’s premier physical virtuoso was Charlie Chaplin.

Houdini and Chaplin both used body movement—whether perilous stunts or eloquent pantomime—to dramatize the plight of America’s growing immigrant population. The son of Hungarian Jewish parents, Houdini designed daring escapes from objects familiar to newly arrived Americans—steamer trunks, milk cans, beer barrels. His tricks were metaphors for people seeking escape from religious, political and social oppression.

In his signature bowler hat, baggy pants and outsize shoes, Chaplin’s Little Tramp character represents the universal underdog possessed of inspiring defiance. Chaplin frequently expressed this in a brilliantly simple movement—his feisty backward kick, which film critic André Bazin interpreted as a determination to leave the past behind. Chaplin’s kick has a timeless resonance, whether used as a gesture of peevish revenge or to say “I’m free at last!”