For a good part of the 20th century Charlie Chaplin’s disheveled, mustachioed character might’ve been the most recognized figure on earth, but his legacy as a filmmaker has waxed and waned over the years. Certain assumptions have settled in, making it hard to see the films for what they are.
The story of Chaplin’s life is like a fairy tale. By age 25, he’d risen from the streets of London to being virtually synonymous with cinema, worldwide. Movies had fewer geographical barriers than they do today—language was hardly an issue—and Chaplin’s films hummed through those channels with ease, thanks to their broad appeal. His nameless character, “the little tramp,” was down on his luck but had a gentlemanly air and took pride in straightening his hat, buttoning his tattered, ill-fitting coat and dusting off the crumbs of whatever knocked him flat.
After only a few years in the business, Chaplin’s global embrace afforded him an independence that’s nearly unthinkable now. He controlled every aspect of his films—writing, directing, producing, editing and starring. He assembled a crew and a company of actors he reused on each picture, and he shot on his own back lot in Los Angeles. All filmmakers relied on distributors, but he gradually eliminated even that variable when he—along with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith—founded United Artists, a company that would distribute their self-financed films.
And yet today, discussion of Chaplin’s work is too often reduced to a single question: who’s better, Chaplin or Buster Keaton, a question that drastically limits the works of both. Books and movies about Chaplin are plentiful but they’re often preoccupied with either the mechanics of his productions or the starlets he slept with. Critic David Thomson’s new book The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood devotes an entire chapter to just that sort of amateur psychoanalysis, and Richard Attenborough’s 1992 biopic Chaplin is the kind of shallow, sexed-up summation any great artist can expect from Hollywood if he or she dies with enough skeletons in the closet. And Chaplin left behind plenty.
Unfortunately, Chaplin’s films are by comparison rarely discussed. Their apparent simplicity has created a myopic view of Chaplin as a talented performer with a vaudevillian pedigree, but a weak filmmaker who never harnessed the medium that brought him so much fame.
Yet you only need to watch his movies to discover contrary evidence. A good place to start is Chaplin’s first feature-length film, The Kid. As motion pictures neared the beginning of their third decade of existence, movies had outgrown nickelodeons and moved to larger screens. Serious films had begun to approximate the length of a stage play. The comedians, however, had focused on short films and were quickly reaching a crossroads: were they the pie-hurling makers of funny faces, best seen in small doses, or were they filmmakers?
Chaplin saw himself as the latter, and The Kid was the result of his ambitions—an hour-long blend of comedy and drama in which the tramp finds an orphan and raises him as his own. He shares the screen with 5-year-old newcomer Jackie Coogan, and the chemistry between them is the heart of the film.
Funny as they are together, the movie’s emotional centerpiece is a deeply moving scene that’s purely, unquestionably, cinematic. The authorities have come to take the boy from the tramp, and he fights them so vigorously that the film instantly takes a more serious tone. They toss the boy into the back of a truck as he cries to his father who’s still in their apartment wrestling with the police.
Then, strangely, Chaplin cuts from the kid to the tramp several times, and the tramp—though he’s involved in a physical struggle—is suddenly frozen, catatonic, staring into the camera with the glassy-eyed realization of what’s at stake.
Here’s what I always wonder: can he hear the boy calling him from the street? If The Kid were a sound movie, or a stage play, the answer would be clear, but because it’s silent, Chaplin is able to wed montage with an idiosyncratic performance to depict the nearly psychic connection between parent and child. Does the tramp hear the boy? Of course he hears the boy—in his heart. What follows is high drama, a chase along rooftops, and a triumphant ?nish in which the tramp and the kid, reunited, button their coats and walk back home, hand in hand, a whirlwind of laughter and tears, and I can’t think of a more perfect, universally understood three minutes at the movies.
Released in 1921, The Kid was a huge success and catapulted an already successful Chaplin to a new level of filmmaking. He made a few more shorts to finish his contract and then moved to United Artists to devote his time to features—silent classics like The Gold Rush, City Lights and Modern Times, as well as angry, inspired talkies like The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux.
And although it’s not often included as a part of his story, he continued to grow as a director of skill and subtlety. The way he uses the frame at key moments in City Lights to link or divide characters is stunning. It’s a style more often associated with Carl Dreyer. Some might say these flourishes are uncharacteristic of Chaplin, as if such things should be measured in feet of track. But when the two most critical moments in one of Chaplin’s most complex films hinge on the precise movement of the camera and the careful assembly of shots maybe these flourishes should be admired for their effortless brevity rather than dismissed or, more commonly, ignored.
I recently saw a screening of Chaplin’s feature The Circus at San Francisco’s historic Castro Theatre. I’d forgotten how elegant, how funny it is, though I must’ve seen it a hundred times. The joy of Chaplin’s films is continually rediscovering what’s buried in apparently simple structures. There were a thousand of us packed into that theater, young and old, and we couldn’t stop laughing.