Charlie Chaplin Round Up

In which we raise our derby hat to a pioneering legend of cinema and celebrate his most memorable films. 

After touring the US with the English Karno Company for a couple of years, Charlie Chaplin first found employment in Hollywood with the Keystone Film Company studio in 1913. It was there that he created one of the most memorable screen characters in cinema history, The Little Tramp, a vagrant with the refined manners of a true gentleman. With his baggy pants, tiny moustache, hat and cane, he ambled his oversized shoes through dozens of short films and became a worldwide star in the process. But Chaplin had grander ambitions than mere stardom and soon turned his attention to feature length productions. Not content to merely star in them, he also set about writing, directing, editing and producing them. In his spare time he composed the music for them and also co-founded the United Artists studio to distribute them. Now, that's just showing off.

The Little Tramp's first feature length film was The Kid (1921), in which he finds and adopts a baby, who he raises as his son. Establishing what would become his trademark blending of comedy and drama, Chaplin plucks at the heartstrings and fashions some inventive comic sequences, but there's not actually that many real belly laughs. Maybe that's not surprising, given that the film was apparently inspired by the tragic death of his firstborn infant son in 1919. A few years later, however, the Tramp returned with funny bone firmly in place in The Gold Rush (1925), which is reviewed elsewhere on this site. Suffice to say that snow, bears, bread rolls, a giant chicken & a boiled boot provide all the ingredients for a truly classic comedy. Touching, inventive and, most importantly, uproariously funny.

In The Circus (1928), the Tramp is hired as a circus act, but can't be funny on purpose, only when he's not trying. The choreographed slapstick is as inventively brilliant as ever, but it's not consistently hilarious and it lacks the heart and warmth of his other Tramp films. Perhaps Chaplin was rather distracted and disillusioned at the time by the real-life legal shenangians and emotional fall-out from his own love life at the time. In 1924, after several relationships, 35-year old Chaplin had controversially romanced, impregnated and married the 16-year old Lita Grey (a relationship that allegedly inspired the novel Lolita), only to divorce her three years later in an acrimonious break-up which cost him almost $2 million, give or take. No wonder The Circus doesn't seem like he was giving it his whole attention!

It didn't matter, though, for the best was yet to come. In City Lights (1931), the Tramp falls in love with a blind flower-girl who mistakes him for a millionaire. Not wanting to disappoint her, he keeps up the charade, whilst working odd-jobs to raise enough money to pay for an operation to restore her sight. The laughs come thick and fast, particularly in the superbly conceived and executed boxing match, which is an outstanding piece of choreography, slapstick and physical comedy. But the enduring appeal of the film lies in the touching romance between two shy and awkward characters. A simply brilliant film; funny, romantic, touching, timeless and generally regarded as one of the best films ever made. 

The Little Tramp was finally retired in the Great Depression-inspired Modern Times (1936), in which he struggles to come to terms with the industrialised world. This also contains Chaplin's most enduring musical composition, the melody "Smile", which became a hit song for Nat King Cole once lyrics were added in the 50s. Despite sound having become commonplace in the movies, Chaplin stuck to the silent format, fearing that the Tramp's iconic status would be destroyed if audiences heard his voice. Chaplin would go on to make several talkies, but the Little Tramp would not, and we last see him shuffling away from the camera in that familiar gait to what we can only hope is a bright future for the little man who was once regarded as the most famous character on earth.

For his next film, Chaplin picked up on the political sentiments of Modern Times and addressed no less a subject than WWII and Nazism. The Great Dictator (1940) is a satire in which Chaplin plays both a lowly Jewish barber and the tyrannical dictator Adenoid Hinkel (note the initials), with a series of events leading to a classic case of mistaken identity to drive the plot forward. Afterwards, Chaplin said he would never have made this film had he known the extent of the Nazi atrocities in WWII, and it is fair to say some 'comic' scenes don't play that well nowadays with the benefit of hindsight. It's also rather uneven, with moments of sharp satire offest by some rather forced slapstick and clunky storytelling. Nevertheless, it still stands up as a brave and ambitious movie by Chaplin and it climaxes with an memorable direct-to-camera address from the barber (from Chaplin himself?) for men to lay aside their differences and unite in democracy. Stirring stuff.

Finally, in Limelight (1952), Chaplin plays a washed-up clown who saves a young dancer from suicide. As he nurses her back to health, he regains confidence in his own act, but can he deliver a comeback performance? Not too many laughs here as an ageing Chaplin aims for something more serious and reflective about the nature of comedy and his career in particular. Despite veering close to self-indulgence and self-praise at times, it's a heartfelt and poignant story, plus the final sketch featuring Chaplin and Buster Keaton, his fellow genius from the silent comedy era, is an absolute treat. It was not his last film, but this is as fitting a moment as any to take our leave from a true artist. The movies would be poorer without him.


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