What films of Charlie Chaplin’s 50-year career should you see? An auteur with multiple filmmaking talents and a pioneering producer and performer, Chaplin is an icon of early cinema and an indelible part of the medium’s history. Here’s ten of his best…
Charlie Chaplin was not just a silent movie actor, he was an icon of early cinema. Chaplin was a writer, director, performer, producer, as well as composer, and the co-founder of revolutionary studio United Artists.
He learnt his knack for comedy working in travelling vaudeville shows, performing with musicians, magicians, dancers, comedians, and even animals. His live material would be honed directly for the cinema when he started making films for Keystone Studios in the early 1910s. Early two-reel films, which Chaplin wrote and directed such as The Tramp and Easy Street, showed plenty of potential in the man who had yet to see his thirtieth birthday. His films were based on slapstick routines that were very carefully orchestrated and performed. His unique talent had a richness of character and a rebellious yet caring heart.
During the 1920s he would use his films (and his fame) for his own political and social criticism, winning him few fans from the conservative elite. He did, however, gain the popularity of the cinema-going public as a whole; emerging as the celebrity pin-up for a growing immigrant nation. Yet, as the growing pressure from his detractors increased, the quality of his work did also. His best films – Modern Times, City Lights, and The Great Dictator – were all conceived during the 1930s. The Great Dictator, released in 1940, was way ahead of its time, satirising the rise of fascism and preempting the true horrors of the Nazi regime. It was stoutly against the Nazi regime and Adolf Hitler yet was made a full year before the American government ended its neutrality in World War 2. But, sadly, its warnings were not heard, and Chaplin’s career ground to a halt amid political smear campaigns and conservative backbiting.
Academic Ernest Mathijs, writes: “Modern Times and The Great Dictator are timeless classics. Their comedic timing, originality of gags, evocation of emotions through the tiniest of movements and cinematography skill (especially in toying with the edges of the camera frame) push the boundaries of comedy limits, while their social concern for class consciousness and tolerance gave them a pressing topical relevance.” Of The Great Dictator, he says, “the world did not listen to the energetic antifascist warnings.” The few films he did make after The Great Dictator were reflective, honest accounts of a fall from grace with a melancholic undertone.
10. A Dog’s Life (1918)
Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp stars alongside Edna Purviance and a little pooch named Scraps in the first short silent film he made for First National Films. A Dog’s Life, which at 35-minutes long marked a departure for Chaplin into longer works, is also noteworthy for featuring his brother Sydney in his first on-screen outing with Charlie.
9. Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
One of Chaplin’s most controversial films, Monsieur Verdoux struggled to find an audience in America with critics disregarding its strengths. In Europe, the film fared a lot better, its dark, satirical undertones working better for an audience not weaned on Midwestern melodrama and feel-good romance. Much like Limelight however, it was on its re-release in 1964, that the film became more popular in the States.
8. The Circus (1928)
The Circus became the 7th highest grossing silent movie ever made and sees Chaplin’s famous Little Tramp become a circus clown. The problem, as the ringmaster finds out, is that the Little Tramp can’t be funny on cue, only unintentionally. Those involved, especially Chaplin himself, remember it for its problematic production. There were numerous issues including a long delay after the studio caught fire and a distracted Chaplin faced with a protracted divorce with then-wife Lita Grey. However, despite production problems, it fared well with critics and audiences alike.
7. The Immigrant (1917)
The oldest film in our top 10 list of Charlie Chaplin’s best films, this short comedy sees the Little Tramp newly arrive in America. Perhaps significant for alternative reasons as the sight of Chaplin’s character kicking an immigration office was later used as evidence of his anti-Americanism and used to deport him in 1952. More specifically, we see the wonderful chemistry he had with Edna Purviance, her screen presence punctuated by radiant beauty as well as an energy to match Chaplin.
6. Limelight (1952)
Limelight originally gained notoriety for the wrong reasons, released around the time Chapin was refused entry back into the United States. The film, subsequently, found many cinema chains refusing to show it, and it wasn’t until the re-release in 1972 that it was finally able to find its audience. The tale is loved for many reasons, not least, its bittersweet story that is infused by Chaplin’s heightening insecurities about his craft, and the pressure imposed by his detractors. In Limelight we see an aging Chaplin, who was once a performing stage-clown, now washed-up and drunk. He finds a young dancer-girl, nursing her back to health, and encouraging her to take up dancing once again. He, in turn, finds the stage calling him back, and in one final appearance, he wows the crowd with a triumphant performance, only to die of a heart attack shortly afterwards. It’s a sad and yet uplifting film that has its moments of pure joy and down-to-earth drama. Many people remember it as the first and only teaming of Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
5. The Kid (1921)
A touching, amusing early film outing for The Tramp. The Kid sees Charlie Chaplin’s titular character caring for a child he finds abandoned in an alley. As the child grows up, he begins following in The Tramp’s footsteps, scamming people in order to survive. Eventually, the authorities try to take the boy away which results in a desperate search and dramatic reunion. The Kid was one of the most popular films of 1921.
4. The Gold Rush (1925)
Academy Award nominated for Best Music and Best Sound Recording, The Gold Rush is the film Charlie Chaplin wanted to be remembered for. And he may get his wish as The Gold Rush remains one of his most commercially successful films and one of silent cinema’s biggest money-makers ever. It’s a delightful romantic comedy that sees Chaplin’s Tramp set out to find riches in the Alaskan Gold Rush. At the time of its release in 1925 it was hailed as one of the best comedy films ever made with Variety even comparing it favourably to The Birth of a Nation. Said Chaplin in his autobiography: “It is paradoxical that tragedy stimulates the spirit of ridicule. Ridicule, I suppose, is an attitude of defiance; we must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature – or go insane.”
3. The Great Dictator (1940)
Chaplin’s first “Talkie” is another one of those great forward-thinking films he wrote, directed, and performed in. In another pioneering move by the acclaimed auteur, The Great Dictator was the only movie at the time to display a deep-rooted anti-Nazi sentiment, which satirised Adolf Hitler’s leadership in Germany. Again, Chaplin went against popular culture trends, conceiving and releasing the film while America was still neutral with Germany. Chaplin’s work here should not be underestimated, bringing to the attention of the mainstream American public the ills of Nazism, Hitler, anti-Semitism, and the fascist doctrine. The film was a massive success on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK it was especially successful, its provocative anti-Nazi stance proving popular with a public ravaged by the “Blitz”. The film was released in the UK during December of 1940 at the height of German air bombing in London and other UK cities.
2. City Lights (1931)
Chaplin would continue making silent movies until 1934 with Modern Times but even City Lights was released when “Talkies” were the norm. This is one of Chaplin’s most delightful films. His Little Tramp meets a blind girl who mistakes him for a rich man. When he learns of an operation that can cure her, he sets out to raise the money but he ends up in jail. Whilst there, the girl has the operation, and hopes one day to meet the man that made her new sight possible. It’s a film that could have taken the number one spot in this top 10 list and is many critics’ favourite work of Chaplin’s. What can’t be dismissed is his performance which might well be the greatest of his career. In fact, James Agee, a film critic writing in 1949, said the final scene was the “greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid”. More than half a century later and that assessment still stands.
1. Modern Times (1936)
Charlie Chaplin’s most cherished movie is as much a celebration of silent film as it is a deconstruction of the modern industrial age. Chaplin overcame pressure (the sorts of obstacles that plagued his career and ultimately made him the great auteur he was) to make this silent film when “Talkies” were in full swing. Modern Times is also daringly political, displaying for the first time a blatant ideological bent that would become a mark of Chaplin’s later work. The film features Chaplin’s Little Tramp struggling to come to terms with working in a production line factory. He has a mental breakdown which leads to several twists and turns as, firstly, Chaplin is sent to jail, and then on his release, hailed as a hero after accidentally knocking out the convicts. The film comments on the poor working conditions of many factory workers during depression era America, and fears modern production is the root cause.
Perhaps most significantly, Modern Times is the film everyone associates with Chaplin (even if you’ve never seen any of his work in its entirety). That’s because it is Modern Times where Chaplin’s character gets stuck in the cogs of one of the factory machines, the image of which is an indelible reminder of the great actor at his most riveting and fun as well as a symbolic reference to the silent film period as a whole. Perhaps it is ironic then that Modern Times was made in defiance of the “Talkies”, Chaplin deciding to stick to silent cinema even after sound had become more popular.
In his retrospective review of Modern Times in 1972, Roger Ebert discussed the “timelessness” of movies and how, regardless of how “timeless” they might appear on first, second or third viewing, there is still a shelf life that they must ultimately endure. Chaplin’s Modern Times might, however, overcome this thesis. He says, “One of the many remarkable things about Charlie Chaplin is that his films continue to hold up, to attract and delight audiences.”
He continued: “I go to a lot of movies, and I can’t remember the last time I heard a paying audience actually applaud at the end of a film. But this one did. And the talk afterward in the aisles, the lobby and in line at the parking garage was genuinely excited; maybe a lot of these people hadn’t seen much Chaplin before, or were simply very happy to find that the passage of time have not diminished the man’s special genius.”
Over to you: what are your fave Charlie Chaplin films?