In an astonishing career as a comedian, actor, writer, director and producer, Charlie Chaplin was always innovative and outspoken. We look back on the films that confirmed his legend.
Chaplin pushed the boundaries of cinema, espoused political freedoms, championed the underdog, and embarked on serial affairs and marriages with a string of leading ladies – inviting adulation, controversy and scandal at every turn.
The Kid (1921)
Image via Chaplin: a Life
Chaplin’s most personal and meticulously constructed film – he is said to have shot more than 50 times the film’s 68 minutes’ running time in his quest to capture the best possible take of each scene – came out of trauma and heartbreak. In September 1918, 29-year-old Chaplin was obliged to marry 17-year-old starlet Mildred Harris, whom they both believed was pregnant with his child. His boredom and frustration at the mismatched marriage left him scrabbling for creative inspiration. Then when Mildred became pregnant for real, their son Norman was born malformed and died after just three days.
Chaplin’s despair was acute, but it sparked the idea of creating a story in which the Little Tramp would find and nurture an abandoned child –echoing his own abandonment aged 7, when Chaplin was placed in a London home for destitute children. The film launched Jackie Coogan as the world’s first international child star, and set a new benchmark for mixing comedy and tear-jerking drama.
A Woman of Paris (1923)
In a bold step after the huge worldwide success of The Kid, after so many comic films in which he’d appeared in every scene, Chaplin next directed a romantic drama in which he would only make a fleeting, almost unrecognisable appearance as a railway porter. Starring long-time leading lady Edna Purviance, A Woman of Paris also broke the accustomed rules of melodrama by making its heroine a brazen courtesan, its hero (Carl Miller) a weakling, and the villain (Adolphe Manjou) irresistibly charming.
Purviance and Manjou were widely praised by critics for their subtle performances, but the general public wasn’t ready for a Chaplin film without the usual star, and the film was quietly withdrawn from public view. Over 50 years later, aged 86, Chaplin resurrected the film with a new musical score co-created with composer Eric James.
The Gold Rush (1925)
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The film by which Chaplin consistently claimed he’d most like to be remembered, The Gold Rush sees the frail Little Tramp seek his fortune among the sturdy and mocking prospectors of the Klondike.
Classic comedy scenes include the famous boot-eating scene, the moment when Charlie turns into a chicken in the eyes of a ravenous co-prospector, and the ‘dance of the rolls’ – a steal from an earlier Fatty Arbuckle feature, with forks and buns transformed into dancing legs, which so thrilled audiences that cinemas were often called upon to interrupt a screening to replay it.
The Circus (1928)
This hilarious but troubled feature sprang from a single vision of a hapless tightrope-walker besieged mid-act by marauding monkeys. When Charlie joins the circus, he is too besotted with the ringmaster’s daughter to realise he’s become the show’s central attraction. The production was beset with difficulties.
The bitter break-up of Chaplin’s second marriage to another young starlet, Lita Grey, saw shooting grind to a halt as lawyers froze the studio’s assets. A glitch in the lab meant the first four weeks of filming were unusable; the big top, the film’s principal setting, was blown away in a gale; a huge fire nine months in destroyed more sets and props; and when the crew and cast returned after their enforced lay-off, they were faced with utterly changed scenery thanks to a real-estate boom in the Hollywood Hills.
In his extensive memoirs, Chaplin ignored the film completely, as he chose not to dwell on those fraught times.
City Lights (1931)
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Despite the advent of the ‘talkies’, Chaplin continued to make silent films, explaining: “I was a pantomimist and in that medium I was unique and, without false modesty, a master.”
City Lights follows the Tramp’s love for a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), and his efforts to raise funds to restore her sight – the flaw in his plan being that if he succeeds, she will finally understand his lowly status.
Harry Myers plays an alcoholic millionaire with whom Charlie forms a turbulent relationship, reinforcing themes of friendship and social standing in an imaginary world where the meek may yet inherit.
Modern Times (1936)
Chaplin’s final silent film and the Tramp’s final outing sees Charlie facing up to a world transformed by mechanisation. Chaplin was preoccupied with the social and economic upheavals of the industrial age, and on a wide tour of Europe witnessed first-hand the negative effects of automation.
“Unemployment is the vital question,” he declared, “machinery should benefit mankind. It should not spell tragedy and throw it out of work.” He would transform his anxieties and observations into deliciously barbed slapstick, alongside his then wife and favoured co-star Paulette Goddard.
Chaplin ditched a downbeat ending to the film in which the couple are parted. Instead, they walk arm in arm into the horizon to the final title “We’ll get along.”
The Great Dictator (1940)
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Peter Ackroyd, in his concise biography of the star, notes that “Chaplin’s first impression of Hitler was as ‘a bad impression of me’. They both purported to represent the ‘little man’ struggling against the forces of modern society, and they also shared the uncanny gift of appealing to millions of people with an almost mesmeric magic.”
In this visionary satire about the rise of fascism, his first talking picture, Chaplin plays dual roles as a Jewish barber with memory loss and the dictator of a barely disguised Germany.
The underdog usurps the Hitler figure to deliver a speech extolling democracy and personal freedom that sounds pat today, but contributed to Chaplin’s later troubles with the House Un-American Activities Committee – troubles that were exacerbated by a high-profile paternity suit filed by aspiring actress Joan Barry, and public outcry when at the end of the case he married his new protégée, 18-year-old Oona O’Neill.
Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
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This darkest of comedies is based on the life of French serial killer Henri Désiré Landru, who was guillotined in 1922 having murdered 10 women, one child and two dogs. At its heart is the message that the actions of even one such despicable individual are tame compared to the state-sponsored evils of war and weapons of mass destruction – which of course led to calls for his deportation.
Congressman John E. Rankin of Mississippi stated: “His very life in Hollywood is detrimental to the moral fabric of America... his loathsome pictures [should] be kept from before the eyes of the American youth. He should be deported and gotten rid of at once."
The media backlash ensured that the film bombed in the US, but it fared much better overseas.
Steering clear of political themes, Chaplin’s next film was a rueful, near-autobiographical tale of a forgotten vaudeville comedian in Edwardian London.
The cast includes Chaplin’s five oldest children, his half-brother Wheeler Dryden, and Buster Keaton as Chaplin’s stage partner in a pantomime scene – the only time the two stars of the silent era appeared together on screen.
It’s a poignant reflection on passing fame, and marked his final departure from America. As he started out on the Queen Elizabeth for the film’s London premiere, Attorney General James P. McGranery revoked Chaplin’s re-entry permit on the grounds of his suspect political views and moral turpitude.
A King in New York (1957)
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Now settled in Switzerland with Oona and their ever-expanding family on a vast estate overlooking Lake Geneva, Chaplin embarked on his first European film, about an exiled king seeking asylum in the US. Setting out to ridicule the paranoia and political intolerance of Cold War America, his scattergun targets include wide-screen cinema, TV advertising, social pretension and cosmetic surgery.
Casting himself as a royal persona accused of Communist sympathies, and his son Michael as a boy whose parents are targeted by the FBI, the proud autobiographical strands are thinly veiled. A moderate success in Europe, the film would not be shown in the US until 1973.
The Chaplin Revue (1959)
This compilation adds new soundtracks to three of the actor’s fondly recalled silent films, together with footage of news events concerning the First World War, personally introduced by Chaplin. A Dog’s Life (1918) sees Charlie form a bond with a stray called Scraps, and win the heart of Edna Purviance’s music-hall singer.
In Shoulder Arms (1918), Charlie is a raw recruit who through dumb luck captures 13 German soldiers and is sent back into battle as a war hero in the clumsy disguise of a tree trunk.
The Pilgrim (1923) sees Charlie as an escaped convict posing as a clergyman who is welcomed as the new parson for Devil’s Gulch, and the new score includes the song ‘I’m Bound for Texas’ penned by Chaplin and sung by Matt Monro.
All 11 discs will be released together in a boxed set (DVD and Blu-ray) as The Charlie Chaplin Collection on 9 November. Each disc contains extras including trailers, rushes, outtakes, background documentaries and features.