“We think too much and feel too little,” Charlie Chaplin said, and his call to experience the world more sensitively is vital to our enjoyment of his films (five of his best are available to watch now on SBS On Demand). Chaplin – the genius of silence, the comic, the humanist – whose films have come to define the early years of cinema, rich with gags, feeling, and social commentary.
At the height of his popularity, Chaplin’s face was the most recognisable in the world, yet his is the classic rags-to-riches tale. Born into Dickensian London in 1889, Chaplin’s mother suffered poor mental health and his father was an alcoholic who did little to care for his family. It was a life of poverty and struggle. Chaplin was sent to a workhouse when he was seven, but escaped hardship touring music halls with performance troupes. His talents eventually took him to America and a contract with Keystone Studios in 1914.
In Chaplin’s most memorable films – most of which he produced, wrote, directed, edited, starred in, and even wrote the music for – he takes the pain of his past and plays with it. His beloved on-screen persona, the Tramp, is a sad clown, evoking both laughter and tears in equal measure. An outsider, the Tramp is an idealist, constantly put upon by the world, yet maintaining a sense of innocence and hope.
Silent films might seem like a quaint historical artefact, but each of Chaplin’s is a rare gem. Chaplin achieved his goal – he’s a filmmaker who at his best encourages us to think less, and feel more.
Chaplin’s first full-length film as director, The Kid promises to make you smile and maybe even shed a tear. Here, we see the Tramp caring for a baby abandoned by its unwed mother. The first of Hollywood’s major child stars, Jackie Coogan is the titular kid at five, remade in the Tramp’s own image, not so much as his son but as his cinematic double. Coogan, like Chaplin, was a skilful mimic.
The Kid is a deeply personal film about poverty and parent-child separation. In addition to his own experiences as a child, Chaplin had lost a son a few years earlier. Despite this bleakness, The Kid is filled with brilliant comic sequences, including one across a rooftop, which ends with a tearful reunion between the Tramp and his charge.
The Gold Rush
The Gold Rush emerged from an unlikely source – the Donner Party Disaster of 1846, which involved a group of immigrants stranded in the snow on the Sierra Nevada Mountains and forced to eat their own shoes and the dead in order to survive. In The Gold Rush, the Tramp is in Alaska prospecting for gold. Nearly starving to death, he boils his boot and eats it. In Chaplin’s world, the line between tragedy and comedy are never far apart.
Chaplin repeatedly said The Gold Rush is the film he most wanted to be remembered for. It was ambitious for its time – location shooting, extravagant sets, and special effects. But it’s also special for revealing that through his enduring spirit, the Tramp embodies the best in us all.
Chaplin believed talking films would lack artistry, and so as the silent era came to an end in 1927 with The Jazz Singer, Chaplin held onto the past, making one of his most beloved films without sound. City Lights is a film of great invention and humanity, in which every quiet frame speaks volumes.
City Lights encapsulates Chaplin’s belief that “life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot,” with its near-perfect blend of slapstick and pathos. The tale of the Tramp’s love for a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), we see him working to raise money for an operation to restore her sight. The film’s final sequence is one of the most moving in cinema history, enhanced by Chaplin’s tender performance, which critic James Agee described as the “greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid.”
Chaplin’s final silent and the Tramp’s swan song, Modern Times is concerned with the still relevant question of how to preserve our humanity in the face of technological change. Chaplin puts the Tramp into a factory, working an assembly line where he’s a small cog in a big wheel determined to grind him down.
Imbued with Chaplin’s fear that he was becoming irrelevant, Modern Times is also about enduring the Great Depression. With Modern Times, the indignities of the machine age are compounded by economic woes, and Chaplin was sharpening his political eye for the battle to come.
Chaplin entered the era of the ‘talkies’ with his most overtly political film, The Dictator, in which he takes the dual roles of dictator Adenoid Hynkel and a struggling Jewish barber. Set in the period between the wars, when “humanity was kicked around somewhat,” it boldly uses comedy to critique the rise of Hitler and fascism in Europe. Chaplin believed in the risk and that “Hitler must be laughed at.”