If I could pin down the birth of my deep, long-held love for film to one single person it would have to be Charlie Chaplin. Charlie Chaplin movies are among the first movies I vividly remember watching and I can remember my initial reaction: I like this fellow.
Born into extreme poverty in 1889 England, without a present father, and a mother who suffered from mental illness, Charlie and his half-brother, Sid, struggled to get by. After some time with traveling theater troupes (specifically the Fred Karno Troupe), Charlie Chaplin made his way to America where he discovered the dawn of commercial cinema. With his anarchic onscreen mannerisms, well-timed pratfalls, and sharp intelligence he bounced from Keystone Studios to Essanay Studios, but finding a lack of total creative control unfavorable he began directing the films himself. Eventually he would partner with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith (the biggest names of the silent era) to create United Artists.
Chaplin is most remembered for his “Tramp” character, easily recognized by the shabby garments, over-sized shoes, dexterously spinning bamboo cane, bowler (or derby) hat, and toothbrush mustache. Between 1914 and 1920, Chaplin starred in nearly 70 comic shorts. Chaplin even starred in the first feature-length comedy, Mack Sennett’s Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) opposite Marie Dressler and Mabel Normand. Instead of the Tramp, he played a sinister conman out to swindle an overweight farmer’s daughter of her inheritance. Tillie is a fun little film, but nowhere near the brilliance that Chaplin would manufacture when he would sit in the director’s chair himself.
Many of his early shorts were depictions of manic mayhem within the confines of a clash in social status—the lowly Tramp invariably humiliating everybody above and below. Let’s just say that they were a little gratuitous in the kicking folks in the buttocks and falling down department. His more personal features that he wrote, directed, produced, scored, and starred in had a bit more emotional depth.
The first Chaplin movies I saw (taped from TV) were The Gold Rush (1925), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940). Since then I made an effort to polish off his Tramp canon with countless shorts and the features, The Kid (1921), The Circus (1928), and City Lights (1931). One of the most fascinating things about Chaplin as an artist is that he was, in fact, just that: an artist, an insufferable perfectionist at his crafts. All of these films feel real and personal. Chaplin never hid his personal feelings about politics, social injustice, class inequality, or the medium of film itself. You’ll notice that only two of these features were made before sound technology (1927′s The Jazz Singer). Chaplin did not enjoy the death knell of pantomime and so continued to make silent movies well into the 1930s (although Modern Times does incorporate sound gags and a song). The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s first official talkie, was the last hurrah for the Tramp character. Chaplin’s later films like the dark comedy Monsieur Verdoux (1947), the reflective Limelight (1952), and later, A King In New York (1957) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) would all feature Chaplin, but never in classic Tramp regalia.
Chaplin’s continuous amorousness for younger women and refusal to obtain American citizenship, alongside his staunch outspoken left-wing politics, led to Chaplin being labeled a subversive and a communist and he was essentially “kicked-out” of America by J. Edgar Hoover in 1952. He returned briefly in 1972 with his last wife, Oona O’Neill, to be honored at the Academy Awards for his achievements as an artist, comic, innovator, and sculptor of the film industry. He was knighted in 1975. He died two years later at his home in Switzerland on Christmas Day 1977.
After a lifetime of tragedy, lawsuits, women, success, scandal, laughter, and tears, Chaplin’s legacy lives on. He has influenced countless comic film wizards from Jacques Tati to Jackie Chan. Among other prominent celebrities of the day, he also rubbed elbows with William Randolph Hearst, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Gandhi, and more. His autobiography simply titled, “My Autobiography” sheds much insight into his troubled, but undoubtedly brilliant mind. After a lifetime in the movies Charlie Chaplin has made himself one of the most significant figures of the 20th century.
The cinema owes Mr. Charles Chaplin a great deal and I certainly owe him a great deal (and I owe my father a great deal for introducing his films to me at such a young age). This is my humble tribute to a master of his craft.
The following films should be considered essential viewing.
The Kid (1921) – a beautiful movie employing a marvelous balance of humor and heart. Chaplin, a penniless vagabond, takes in a lost child (Jackie Coogan) and becomes a father figure.
The Gold Rush (1925) – Chaplin plays a lone prospector looking for his fortune. He falls in love with Georgia (Georgia Hale) and winds up trapped in a cabin with fellow gold-hunter, Big Jim (Mack Swain). This is my personal favorite.
The Circus (1928) – life at the circus, but behind the scenes. The tattered Tramp falls in love with a beautiful performer (Merna Kennedy), but maybe he’s not right for her.
City Lights (1931) – a street-walking pauper in the big city falls for a poor, blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) who thinks he is an aristocrat. Chaplin will do whatever it takes to help her out.
Modern Times (1936) – a homeless fugitive during the rise of industry struggles to provide for his girlfriend (Paulette Goddard). Machines replacing men might be more than symbolic for Chaplin’s feelings of talkies replacing silent movies.
The Great Dictator (1940) – Chaplin plays dual roles as a poor Jewish barber and the delusional despot, Adenoid Hynkel, in his commentary on Hitler, fascism, world powers, and what it is that makes us human.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” September 3, 2009.