Home » Articles, Features

The Film 100: Charlie Chaplin, no. 3

Chaplin’s Little Tramp embodied the power of cinema: its ability to transcend barriers of language and culture, its strength as a form for social comment and its magical way of turning fuzzy shapes of light into a well-defined personality.

By Scott Smith December 4, 2012
THE GOLD RUSH

The dreams of the Tramp in 'The Gold Rush' show that pathos was not simply a by-product of Chaplin’s subtle acting but was deliberately built up through story points.

Born: April 16, 1889, Walworth, London, England
Died: December 25, 1977, Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland

I don’t need interesting camera angles. I am interesting.
—Charlie Chaplin

For more than eighty years, Charlie Chaplin has been the most universally recognized film celebrity; no other icon so succinctly symbolizes the essence of cinema as the Little Tramp. By age twenty-four, Chaplin had defined the Tramp character through more than sixty films and secured a position as the foremost of all screen stars. His gift for pantomime had a magnetic appeal to people of all languages, and his following was both loyal and demanding. Thus, Chaplin’s life traces the path of a creative artist struggling to reach his maturity as a performer in a burgeoning art form, rather than a technologist attempting to discover a new technique. Along the way, he would elevate the standard of sophistication of films, govern the rules of screen comedies, and become the forerunner to such deeply personal filmmakers as Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen.

The Film 100
1. W.K. Laurie Dickson
2  Edwin S. Porter
3. Charlie Chaplin
4. Mary Pickford
5. Orson Welles
6. Alfred Hitchcock
7. Walt Disney
8. D.W. Griffith
9. Will Hays
10 Thomas Edison
11. John Wayne
12. J.R. Bray
13. Billy Bitzer
14. Jesse Lasky
15. George Eastman
16. Sergei Eisenstein
17. André Bazin
18. Irving Thalberg
19. Thomas Ince
20. Marlon Brando
21. Louis B. Mayer
22. Greta Garbo
23. Robert Flaherty
24. Lon Chaney
25. Anita Loos
26. George Méliès
27. Adolph Zukor
28. John Gilbert
29. Max Fleischer
30. John Ford
31. William Fox
32. George Lucas
33. Linwood Gale Dunn
34. Eadweard Muybridge
35. Katharine Hepburn
36. Winsor McCay
37. Stanley Kubrick
38. Buster Keaton
39. James Agee
40. Fritz Lang
41. Marcus Loew
42. Cedric Gibbons
43. James Cagney
44. Ben Hecht
45. Ingmar Bergman
46. Humphrey Bogart
47. Leon Schlesinger
48. Louella Parsons
49. Roger Corman
50. Edith Head
51. Bernard Herrmann
52. Gary Cooper
53. Mike Todd
54. Ernst Lubitsch
55. Sidney Poitier
56. Saul Bass
57. Billy Wilder
58. Bette Davis
59. Erich von Stroheim
60. Max Factor
61. Auguste and Louis Lumière
62. Woody Allen
63. Clark Gable
64. David O. Selznick
65. Gregg Toland
66. Lillian Gish
67. William Cameron Menzies
68. Lucille Ball
69. Samuel Rothafel
70. Akira Kurosawa
71. Marilyn Monroe
72. Vittorio De Sica
73. Natalie Kalmus
74. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert
75. Willis O’Brien
76. Shirley Temple
77. Yakima Canutt
78. Sam Peckinpah
79. Jackie Coogan
80. Federico Fellini
81. Leni Riefenstahl
82. Steven Spielberg
83. Sam Warner
84. Jean-Luc Godard
85. Robert De Niro
86. Fred Astaire
87. Francis Ford Coppola
88. Ted Turner
89. Clint Eastwood
90. Dalton Trumbo
91. Dennis Hopper
92. Richard Hollingshead
93. Melvin Van Peebles
94. John Chambers
95. Mack Sennett
96. Martin Scorsese
97. Karl Struss
98. Busby Berkeley
99. John Hubley
100. John Cassavetes

The study of Chaplin is the study of one person’s growth. Performing on stage at age eight, he grew up among music hall performers, before leaving his mentally ill mother for orphanages and boarding schools. In his teens, he returned to the stage and followed Fred Karno’s troupe to America. Mack Sennett discovered the seventeen-year-old Chaplin in a vaudeville act in New York City in 1912 and signed him to appear in Keystone comedies at $150 a week. By 1914, he was Sennett’s best-known personality; soon he became loved the world over. As his box office appeal soared, his price tag bulged. Before long, Chaplin would take the helm on his own pictures and exercise total control over nearly every aspect of his work.

Chaplin’s career peaked at the perfect time. After the 1890s, the novelty of moving images was gone, and throughout the first decade of the twentieth century, audiences were still viewing movies as sideshow entertainment. Surely, Dickson developed the tools to shine dancing beams of light upon walls, and Porter gave those glistening images a way to follow a continuous story through editing. But Chaplin lent the sheer force of his personality to the medium. His mesmerizing expressions and enigmatic mannerisms gave cinema its most infectious quality. To millions of people abroad, his radiant face was the first they had ever seen in a motion picture. In America, his outlandish performances were responsible for the word of mouth that lured reluctant parents and eager children to a theater for the first time, and his indelible characterizations made moviegoing a habit.

CHARLIE CHAPLIN BY ZEKE ZIELINSKI

Illustration by Zeke Zielinski

Almost immediately after Chaplin joined Sennett, the character of the Little Tramp took form. The cutaway coat, derby, and cane weren’t always present; the little fellow sometimes wore prison stripes, a military uniform, or a clergyman’s frock. But the baggy pants and floppy shoes would become as emblematic as the ever-present mustache. The image of the Tramp evoked a complex blend of gaiety, wit, irony, and pathos. The failure of subsequent performers to recapture these nuances point to Chaplin’s rare ability to communicate a subtle and poetic range of human emotions. Perhaps the purest example is seen in the cafeteria sequence of The Immigrant (1917), where Chaplin juggles three emotional plates—the love interest, the suspicious waiter and a growling stomach. The elegant resolution of the scene shows thoughtful and painstaking story development that few directors since have demonstrated. The dreams of the Tramp in The Gold Rush (1925) show that pathos was not simply a by-product of Chaplin’s subtle acting but was deliberately built up through story points. His City Lights (1931), considered the highest art of the lowly Tramp, is perfectly structured as Chaplin puts himself through the wringer to collect enough money to restore the sight of a blind flower girl. The curbside gags are a model of economical editing. And the final scene is pure magic.

The financial milestones of Chaplin’s career are simply astounding. By age thirty, he had signed the industry’s first million-dollar contract—a sum completely unfathomable in 1918—to direct just eight pictures. One of them, The Kid (1921), starring Jackie Coogan, would become the second-highest-grossing film to date behind D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and each subsequent picture deal would exceed the last with even more shocking signing bonuses and unprecedented creative freedoms. Chaplin’s formation of United Artists in 1923 with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Griffith was a necessity born of the fact that no producer in the world could afford him. He would wind up financing, creating, and distributing his own films for the rest of his career. But Chaplin adapted well to the business side of Hollywood. He had the foresight to preserve and redistribute his own pictures, perpetually keeping his art in front of newer and newer generations of fans. The manufacturing of Chaplin merchandise was a steady growth industry for more than twenty-five years. At the height of his popularity, his portrait graced anything that could be printed on—Charlie books, Charlie toys, Charlie hats, Charlie dishes.

With each new Chaplin film cam equal parts of personal and professional notoriety. Off screen, his secret marriages to and public divorces from various leading ladies and child brides got more press than his films. He was rumored to have had affairs with Norma Shearer and Marion Davies, and a scandalous paternity suit in 1944 tarnished the image of the world’s favorite clown. As Chaplin’s personal politics found a platform in Shoulder Arms (1918) and his first talkie, The Great Dictator (1940), critics raved over the way his daring antiwar views were presented; Dictator skillfully reduced world leaders to buffoons and humorously cut through American sentiment about their leaders. These social satires have been widely imitated, showing up in the films of Stanley Kubrick, Ernst Lubitsch, Woody Allen, and Mel Brooks. The final barber scene in The Great Dictator, as pantomimed to Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5, repeatedly served as the model for some of the best animated cartoon spoofs of the 1940s.

The deeply personal nature of Chaplin’s movies revealed motion pictures as a form of expression, and with each new film his admirers witnessed an evolution. As a performer, Chaplin continued to add new meaning to the persona of the Tramp. As a filmmaker, Chaplin seemed to follow his muse rather than trends of the film industry. When studios had abandoned short films for feature length, Chaplin continued to pump out two-reel comedies into the sound era. Each picture charted Chaplin’s journey into new territory, and this had a significant effect on artists, who would now see film as an avenue of self-exploration.

In 1947, Chaplin rewrote and directed Monsieur Verdoux from a draft script by Orson Welles. The movie fizzled, and an attempt to revive the Tramp in Limelight (1952) failed as well. Ironically, that same year, after vacationing in Europe, Chaplin—who had never become a U.S. citizen—was denied reentry to the States by federal officials who cited back taxes, Communist sympathy, political activism and subversive morals. From that point, he lived with his family in Switzerland. His remaining films were produced in Europe, including his final effort, A Countess from Hong Kong (1966), with Marlon Brando. In 1972, after twenty years of exile, Charlie made an emotional pilgrimage back to California to receive a special Academy Award for lifetime services to motion pictures. Queen Elizabeth II knighted him Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin in 1975.

Born of the Jazz Age, a spirited character emerged on the screen to put a kick of humanity in the pants of a world marching toward progress. An inspiration to artists and an ambassador for an art form, Chaplin’s Little Tramp embodied the power of cinema: its ability to transcend barriers of language and culture, its strength as a form for social comment and its magical way of turning fuzzy shapes of light into a well-defined personality that can make people laugh and cry.

To read all the republished articles from ‘The Film 100,’ go to Reintroducing the Film 100 here on Keyframe.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also Comments Feed via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.

* Please enter the text from the above image