It’s impossible to study the history of comedy without looking at Charlie Chaplin. One of the most recognizable actors from the silent movie era, his character of The Tramp has become an icon. In addition to his contributions as an actor, he also directed and wrote most of his own films thanks to the establishment of United Artist in 1919. This allowed him and many of the other popular stars of the time to escape the budding studio system. This gave him total creative control with his work and he would go on to create some of the most memorable films to come out of the early days of Hollywood. Despite all the personal issues and scandals he had, he is still mostly remembered for his work and that is reflected on three of his movies in the top 100. From pure silliness to social commentary, each of the films represent a different point in Chaplin’s career.
#74: The Gold Rush (1925)
Many of Chaplin’s films focused around the idea of putting The Tramp character in different situations to see how he’d react. In the case of The Gold Rush, he is placed in the middle of a frozen tundra, trying to prospect for gold. Along the way he meets bad men, beautiful women, and makes friends with another prospector. Despite the bad luck he seems to have, it all ends well with him making a fortune from gold and getting the girl. One of the great examples of Chaplin’s comedy genius, this film is known for routines that have been studied and copied.
The infamous boot eating scene takes place while he and another prospector are starving, waiting for the guy who left to come back with food. The Tramp cooks one of his boots (causing him to wear a make shift shoe for most of the film) and proceeds to separate the sole, laces, and upper layers. In his most casual manner, he chews down on pieces of the shoe, even sucking the nails dry as if they were chicken wings. There is also the famous “roll dancing” scene in which he does a dance on the table with two forks and two rolls. What makes this film so lovely is that sweet innocence of the Tramp. You really heart for him a little when he is stood up by the girls from town. Though not his most vocal (no pun intended) with issues, the brilliance in the movie lies in Chaplin’s physical performance. It truly is one of his best movies and showcased just how excellent of a physical comedian he was.
#76: City Lights (1931)
With talking pictures becoming the standard, Chaplin held out making a “pure” sound picture until 1940. While The Gold Rush is mostly known for the strong routines, City Lights is far more rememberable for being one of the first romantic comedies. Centered around the Tramp’s relationship with a blind flower girl, he encounters a variety of obstacles along the way. From a millionaire with major mood swings to a case of mistaken identity, the Tramp must literarily fight his way to help the woman he loves, even if it means sacrificing his own freedom.
Often cited as Chaplin’s most heartfelt film, the touching story of the Tramp and the blind flower girl set a film archetype that romantic comedies would copy for years to come. What makes the character so lovable is his innocence. His intentions are pure and he does what he does to help the people around him, only to find himself usually in a sticky spot. His physical performance is incredibly brilliant and always spot on. The amount of times he narrowly escapes true danger is almost frightening. Thought not my favorite of his movies, you can’t help but feel that warm, happy feeling at the end when the girl, eyesight restored, realizes who he is, but still accepts him.
#81: Modern Times (1936)
Presented as Chaplin’s final “silent” film, it was the most socially relevant film he had made (up until The Great Dictator in 1940). Following the Tramp through a never ending world of machines and cogs, he eventually cannot take being part of the machine and breaks free, which ironically, eventually lands him in jail. He teams up with a homeless young lady and together they try to help one another survive. Despite finding success and then having it taken away from them, they are a team and the movie ends on that iconic ‘walking into the uncertain, but bright’ future moment. One of his more dark films, it still delivers classic Chaplin physical comedy pieces.
The scene that has become well remembered and even the cover for most home video releases is that of the Tramp being sucked around the gears of a very large machine. Interpreted as man being smashed by the machine, it’s one his most well known pieces of physical comedy. While not a true talkie, Chaplin cleverly used voices, but only in certain ways. With the exception of his own gibberish singing toward the end, all voices come from or out of machines. This was his own way of both using vocals and making his own commentary on what he thought of the talking pictures. An excellent film that still makes some important points today.
Part of the pleasure in watching these three films was the chance to see genius at work. I know I mentioned it a lot in this entry, but the physical comedy is just so lovely. There are still some gifted physical comedians today, but a lot of comedy is either dependent on the spoken word. It’s nice to see an actor who had only his body to tell the story and create the humor. The only issue I have is the fact that The Great Dictator wasn’t included on this list. I easily feel it could have been in place of Modern Times or even City Lights on the list. Not only was it Chaplin’s first true talkie, but it’s subject matter was well beyond it’s time. Despite that, these three films do give you a nice slice of his career and you can even track his progression as an actor/director over the eleven year span from The Gold Rush to Modern Times. The comedy is timeless and will always stand as one of the best examples of the early film period.