Did anyone truly understand the power of comedy greater than Chaplin? I do not believe so, not to this day. He seemed to know, innately, from the beginning that he could get his message across with greater power if audiences were laughing, yet there was always great tragedy at the heart of his films. Thus his films were bittersweet, often tinged with sadness, melancholy as we laughed at the antics of the Tramp. Always at odds with authority, always fighting those trying to oppress, the Tramp was, of course, a metaphor for you and I, though Chaplin made him very much is own character in silent cinema, through 1936.
His little tramp was Everyman, every person who had been bullied by authority or oppressed in some way.
A master of physical comedy, he understood his image to audiences better than anyone who came along after, knowing what they expected of him, giving it while satisfying his own thirst for making Films about subjects that mattered.
Raised in the most punishing type of poverty, with his mother insane, he became fiercely interested in the state of the world, of society around him, and he made films that reflected that concern.
At one point, in a world without television or internet, he was the most famous person on the planet but never took his fame for granted. First and foremost he was an artist, and his art was his life, his grand obsession. When sound came to film in 1927 he refused to let his tramp speak, claiming audiences accepted him as silent and silent he would remain. His two greatest films came after the advent of sound, yet they are for all intent and purpose silent films, the magnificent City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936).
Plagued by controversy, his appetite for very young girls was nearly his undoing many times, but the studio and his own checkbook kept him out of jail. At fifty-two he married seventeen-year-old Oona O’Neill, daughter of the great playwright, Eugene, a whip-smart woman who could more than hold her own with his domineering personality. Despite the age difference, the love was real, and they were together for the rest of his life. His death devastated her, and she was never the same.
When Chaplin finally spoke onscreen it was in his stunning politically allegorical work The Great Dictator (1940), a brilliant dark comedy in which he portrays a barely disguised Hitler, and a gentle Jewish barber.
He would make more films but never portray the little tramp again, choosing to be a character actor after 1940.
He would be barred entry from America in the fifties, at the height of the McCarthyism witch hunt, forced to live in Switzerland before returning to the United States to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy in 1972. A twelve-minute standing ovation greeted the man who had helped build the industry the Academy was celebrating, the longest in the history of the awards. Deeply moved all was forgiven on both sides, though when he left the ceremonies, he would never return to Hollywood or America again.
1. City Lights (1931)
His masterpiece. A silent film in the age of early sound, audiences did not care, they loved the heartwarming comedy about a gentle tramp attempting to raise the money for a sight-restoring operation for a flower girl. She thinks the gentle hand she touches each day belongs to a wealthy man, but only at the end of the film does she realize who her benefactor has been. The camera closes in on Chaplin, whose smile at her recognition lights up the screen with its luminous purity and beauty. He was never better, his art was at its peak with this brilliant, timeless comedy that is also deeply moving and often heartbreaking. Watch his body language, his ability as a gymnast in contorting his tiny body into the most awkward of shapes, and always watch his face. Like the greatest of actors, Chaplin was always in the moment. His gentle tramp is goodness incarnate, completely and utterly unselfish, giving without thought. Easily the best film of 1931, among the greatest of all time.
2. Modern Times (1936)
Chaplin always made a statement about society in his films, tinging it with comedy. In this superb silent film with sound effects, the tramp is being edged out of work by machines as the industrial complex begins to take over factories. There is a magical scene where he is Swallowed up by a machine and moves through the gears and pulleys like a captured prey adjusting the gears as he moves through. The sequence, magical, is a brilliant statement about mankind being gobbled up by the Industrial Revolution, their own innovations making them obsolete. Again, the fact it is silent, for the most part, enhances the artistry of Chaplin. The best film of 1936.
3. The Kid (1920)
A beautiful film about the bond between a child and his caregiver, a startlingly powerful comedy about a pure love, the likes of which audiences had not ever seen before. The Tramp (Chaplin) finds a baby on the street and rather than take the little boy to the authorities, he raises the child as his own. Flash forward, the boy is now five, portrayed by the incomparable Jackie Coogan, who has learned all the tricks to living on the street the tramp has taught him. They are devoted to each other, their love a fierce, unbending bond too strong to be broken by the norms of society, even when that society tries to tear them apart. Beautifully created, with Chaplin and Coogan creating a heartbreaking and yet heartwarming chemistry, it remains one of the greatest films of the silent era.
4. The Great Dictator(1940)
Chaplin speaks! For the first time in his career, the actor-director spoke, and it was for a film very close to his heart, yet made in outrage at what Hitler was doing in Europe. As Adnoyd Hynkel or Hitler, Chaplin made his boldest and most dangerous political statement. With his eye on what was happening in Europe, as always fiercely interested in politics, he lashed out at Hitler, making a mockery of he and Mussolini in this stunning comedy, that is also farcical. Hynkel, a power-mad dictator hell-bent conquering the world, is also a ridiculous buffoon, both he and the Italian leader meant to be Mussolini is made to look like complete idiots. Hitler banned the film in Germany, outraged that his beloved Chaplin would make such a treacherous statement. Chaplin was saying what the rest of the world was thinking, in some cases years before they thought it. His long, final monologue is devastating in its raw, hopeful power.
5. The Gold Rush (1924)
The tramp finds himself mining for Gold during the great gold rush when riches could literally be pulled from the ground. As always he faces forces trying to bring him down, though his greatest adversary remains the elements, chiefly the intense cold. In his ramshackle cabin, he prepares a meal of…his shoe, severing every bite because it is all he has. The physical comedy is terrific, and it was clear he was evolving as a filmmaker, heading towards genius, deciding how far to push the boundaries of his comedy. He had long mastered merging comedy and heartache, but this might have been the first time it had been mastered as art.
6. Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
In what might be his most daring performance, Chaplin portrays a serial killer, who, needing money, seduces older women, wealthy, and then quietly murders them. Unlike any film he ever made, this one breaks from his conventions and boldly presents him in a role, unlike anything he had ever done before. He deserved the Oscar for Best Actor for this, but audiences stayed away, not willing to accept him in anything like this. A true black comedy, he is treated very unsympathetically by the superb screenplay, yet manages to draw pathos with his performance. He does not kill because he likes too, but because life has dealt him a tough hand and he sees no other way out. Powerfully dark through to the bitter end.
7. The Circus (1927)
The most troubled production of his career, The Circus was a nightmare of misfortunate accident and events that nearly drove Chaplin to abandon the film entirely. Yer he pushed on, allowing the story to evolve as shooting did. More than anything, the film is a showcase for the gymnastic artistry of Chaplin; it seems he is always excelling at a tough physical activity within the picture. Audiences were not as kind to the film as they had been his previous work because a new toy had arrived in movies…sound.
8. Limelight (1952)
Portraying a faded vaudeville star, Chaplin was using the film as a commentary on what he felt had happened to him. Once Hollywood was finished with him, after he had helped make cinema an art form and huge entertainment medium, he felt cast aside. To a degree, that takes place in this film, though rather than the world of film, we are within the world of the theater. After saving a young ballerina from suicide, she wishes to marry Calvero, the once famous clown. Eventually, she reunites him with a former stage partner portrayed by the great Buster Keaton, though Calvero dies onstage. So much of the film spoke of Chaplin, from the much younger woman to the cruel casting aside by the industry to being forgotten by the industry. This was his last great film, though it was not released in the US until 1972.