It’s the end of the month, so it’s time for another Discovery post. Today, I chronicle my journey through the films of Charlie Chaplin. I’ve embedded some slightly spoilery clips in this post, but the discussion contains no major spoilers.
Early in my classic film fandom, I went through a phase of watching silent shorts. I wanted to discover silent film, but I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to make it through a feature. As I was scouring the Internet Archive, I came across Making a Living, the first appearance of Chaplin on screen, and decided to watch it.
This was a mistake.
I found Making a Living funny but nothing special, and it did not convince me to watch more Chaplin. A few months later, I watched Modern Times for the first time, and everything changed.
Thoughts on the Body of Work
Since I first saw Modern Times, it has become one of my Top 10 all-time favorite films. Since moving to New York City, I’ve appreciated the opening montage even more – I often feel as though I’m in the film when I’m getting in and out of the subway during the morning rush hour. But it’s the ending of Modern Times that I love. As corny as it sounds, Modern Times always leaves me with a smile on my face, due in no small part to these pitch-perfect final moments:
After Modern Times, I watched Chaplin’s other silent masterpieces (City Lights, The Circus, The Gold Rush, and The Kid) within a few days of each other. Each is touching and funny in its own way. I watched the Little Tramp fall in love with a blind flower girl, raise an abandoned child, perform outrageous circus routines, and even eat his shoe.
After checking off the Chaplin basics, I endeavored to dig deeper. I watched a handful of his silent shorts (The Immigrant, Shoulder Arms, and A Day’s Pleasure), and one of two films – a drama, actually – that Chaplin directed without acting in (A Woman of Paris). I also watched the first ever feature-length comedy: Mack Sennett’s Tillie’s Punctured Romance, starring Chaplin, Marie Dressler, and Mabel Normand.
But I really felt as though the best after the silent masterpieces were Chaplin’s talkies. The Great Dictator is a tour de force in its own right. Though I enjoyed the bits with the barber more than the dictator, I can’t deny that the two stories came to a stunning climax in this powerful speech:
I was more conflicted about Monsieur Verdoux, a dark comedy (or perhaps straight out dark drama with comedic elements), but Limelight is another masterful work, a portrait of an artist in his later years. It has that token Chaplin humor, but like Chaplin’s best films, it delves into deeply human issues.
To say that Chaplin’s films are humorous would be an understatement. They’re hilarious. But the true genius of Chaplin lies in his ability to blend laughter with tears. It’s the emotional side that makes these films ultimately so great. They rise well above slapstick to become profound explorations of the human existence.
Chaplin’s body of work is a triumph of artistic vision. For the most part, Chaplin wrote, produced, directed, scored, and starred in his own films. He worked his own experiences and worldviews into them, even when it put him under political fire. Chaplin’s Tramp character is an everyman, and his films are so much about the ordinary man that people of all ages and walks of life can enjoy them.
- Modern Times: Relevant social commentary that plays with silent film conventions with a large dose of heart and humor. What more could we want in a film?
- The Kid: The Tramp raises a child, and Jackie Coogan delivers what I consider one of the greatest child performances of all time.
- Limelight: Claire Bloom stars alongside Chaplin in this moving portrait of life itself. And Buster Keaton plays a small role!
- City Lights: If Modern Times didn’t have such a good ending, I would call the ending of City Lights Chaplin’s greatest. It’s hard to think of many films with a better ending.
- The Great Dictator: Chaplin uses humor to comment on some tough issues, and yes, it works.
Will I continue the discovery?
Though I’ve seen the bulk of Chaplin’s well-known work, I am nowhere near done with my discovery. I’m particularly interested in seeing A King in New York and delving more into Chaplin’s early short films. I’ve heard great things about The Pilgrim and A Dog’s Life, but I would love to hear if you have any other suggestions for shorts.
What are your favorite Chaplin films?