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 some popcorn, pour myself some red wine, and I settled in for an evening (in chronological order) of Chaplin movies. I picked three films considered classics and began.
The first film I picked was The Kid, from 1921. The protagonist 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.
I followed the first film with the 1931 classic City Lights. 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.
The last film of the night was The Great Dictator, 1940, 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 movies, 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.