Charles Chaplin’s Directorial Filmography

I count Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 masterpiece, as one of my favorite movies of all time. I watched it several years ago, while getting my Masters degree and fell in love with it immediately. Chaplin had continued to make silent films well after ‘talkies’ had taken over movie theaters across the nation, and his work still achieved success because of how brilliant it was. A few years ago I watched Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, from 1925, and was once again blown away by how good his acting and comedic timing were, establishing him as someone I truly admired. I love that art is something that can be continuously discovered by new audiences and that one can appreciate things as if they were new, even nearly a century after they were originally created. In spite of how much I loved those two movies, I recently realized that I still hadn’t seen a few of his best known works, so I decided to make up for that and watch more of Chaplin’s directorial efforts, as well as rewatch the two movies I had already seen and loved.

Note: The films are presented in chronological order.

the kid

THE KID (1921)

Composer, Writer & Director: Charles Chaplin
Cinematographer: Roland Totheroh
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Edna Purviance, Carl Miller.

The protagonist of the film is Chaplin’s famous tramp character and his relationship as a surrogate father to an abandoned child he finds on the street close to some garbage cans. The two have a close and wonderful relationship, and together they survive on the streets grifting and avoiding authorities out to separate them. The child, played by Jackie Coogan (who funnily would go on to play Uncle Fester on the Addams Family), is a revelation. A scene in which he and the tramp are separated is so heartbreaking and realistic I actually felt as though I could hear his screams and cries, in spite of the lack of actual words. The film was beautiful, powerful, and affecting.

the gold rush

THE GOLD RUSH (1925)

Composer, Writer & Director: Charles Chaplin
Cinematographer: Roland Totheroh
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Mack Swain, Georgia Hale, Al Ernest Garcia.

The Tramp is back, this time trying his luck in Alaska looking for gold. This film once again showcases everything I admire about Chaplin: an incredible penchant for storytelling, incredible sight gags, humor of various types utilized throughout, an emotional core that can sometimes evoke unexpected results in the viewer, and biting social critique and commentary. The movie’s first half is mostly comedic, finding the Tramp and two fellow treasure hunters having to share a cabin in the snowy mountains and all the hilarious results, including near cannibalism and extreme cold and danger from the elements as well as one another (and the occasional bear). The film’s second half, on the other hand, shifts the narrative to the Tramp as an object of derision and his inability to escape hostility and ridicule, regardless of where he goes. A touching New Year’s Eve sequence will inevitably tug at the heartstrings. I must admit that I would rather have seen the earlier version of the film with title cards as opposed to Chaplin’s own voice-over narration, though. Certainly there are elements that benefit from the more information Chaplin’s voice provides, but I feel like it spoon-feeds a bit too much of the emotional and implied components of the narrative, not trusting the audience to put the information together itself. This is such a minor qualm, however, because the film sings and is truly a masterpiece. It’s easy to see why this is the film Chaplin himself wanted most to be remembered for.

city lights.jpg

CITY LIGHTS (1931)

Composer, Writer & Director: Charles Chaplin
Cinematographers: Roland Totheroh & Gordon Pollock
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Harry Myers, Hank Mann, Al Ernest Garcia, Florence Lee.

Once again the protagonist is the Tramp. This was the first film Chaplin made that continued in the silent tradition, in spite of the fact that talkies were being produced regularly. The director insisted on telling the story silently, and the choice was a brilliant one. The tramp begins a friendship with a blind flower seller (Virginia Cherrill), although she thinks that he is a wealthy man. One evening the tramp saves the life of a depressed and drunk millionaire (Harry Myers), which develops into a zany friendship between the two men. The kicker is that the rich man never recognizes the tramp when he’s sober, only when drunk. The tramp also tries to find jobs, including a hilarious turn as a boxer, to help the blind girl with her rent and to come up with the sum necessary for her eye operation that could restore her sight. The final scene of this movie is one of the most beautiful and moving scenes I have ever seen, really incredible.

modern times

MODERN TIMES (1936)

Composer, Writer & Director: Charles Chaplin
Cinematographers: Ira H. Morgan & Roland Totheroh
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Al Ernest Garcia, Hank Mann.

This film definitely holds up after additional viewings. I am absolutely blown away my the genius of Chaplin and everything he was able to accomplish without the benefit of sound and dialogue. This film marks an interesting transition in Chaplin’s career because he decided to make this film mostly silent in spite of the fact that talkies had taken over completely and, in fact, it was originally intended to be the director’s first non-silent film (it is, in fact, considered to be the last silent film if omitting parodies or homages). There is some sound in the film, but, very interestingly and brilliantly, the sound almost entirely emanates from machines until the very end, where the Tramp sings a song in Euro-gibberish. This film also marks the retirement of the Tramp character that Chaplin originated, and what a sendoff it is! The film is a critique of the automatization of the individual following the industrial revolution and the obsolete status of the worker during the great depression. The visuals are stunning (especially a moment in which the Tramp gets stuck in the gears of a machine) and the story is lovely. The film opens with the Tramp working on an assembly line, with the boss pushing the limits and capabilities of the human workers. After surviving being a guinea pig for a machine meant to feed workers without a lunch break the Tramp loses his mind and is sent to a mental facility (the first of many times he is taken away from society, either for medical or legal reasons). Eventually he falls for a Gamin (played brilliantly by Paulette Goddard, one of Chaplin’s real life wives), and the two try to survive and make the best of pretty horrific circumstances. The movie is the perfect balance of lighthearted narrative compounded by social commentary and criticism, blending the two seamlessly in an entertaining spectacle that will also make the viewer ponder on the nature of society, its values, and the treatment of its citizens. A true masterpiece and easily one of my favorite films ever made.

the great dictator

THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940)

Writer & Director: Charles Chaplin
Cinematographers: Roland Totheroh & Karl Struss
Composers: Charles Chaplin & Meredith Wilson
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Jack Oakie.

The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s first talking movie. The film is a satyrical parody of the events and characters central to the second world war. Given that Adolf Hitler has emulated Chaplin’s mustache in order to appear more likable, Chaplin used this to his advantage, playing his own version of the German dictator named Adenoid Hynkel. Chaplin, though, plays a dual role in the film, also depicting a Jewish barber who lives in the ghetto, who is unnamed and very reminiscent of the tramp character, even though they are not the same. Due to the fact that the film contains actual dialogue the pacing is a bit different from Chaplin’s previous movies. In fact the best parts of the movie are still those in which Chaplin doesn’t speak, and lets his body, expressions, and mannerisms take center stage: the scene in which the barber shaves a patron to Brahms’ Hungarian Dances is divine.

Clearly I am a huge fan of Chaplin and his movies. Not enough young people watch his films, which is a shame. And it should be fixed, because his works are truly timeless and very accessible. A true star whose masterpieces have stood the test of time.

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