Old movies: an intro to Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin in The Kid (1921)
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Our old movies column returns with an introduction to one of the icons of silent cinema – the great Charlie Chaplin.

The image of a man wearing a small moustache and a bowler hat, holding a cane is an enduring one. We know instantly who that man is – the great and immutable Charlie Chaplin.

Born in 1889 in London, Charlie Chaplin was a comic who started out life in the Victorian workhouses, struggling with poverty and hardship. After his mother was sent to an asylum, Chaplin began performing in music halls and Edwardian music halls. By the age of 19, Chaplin was signed to the Fred Karno company and taken away to America where his performances in silent films saw his popularity skyrocket. From his slapstick improvisations in early films to his incredible satire in sound films, Chaplin proved a versatile rib-tickling comic who could also strike upon tragic and emotional issues.


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The man is not without controversy and issues arising throughout his later personal, political, and professional life would see his popularity decline. However, with statues across the world and a constant stream of new fans coming with each new generation, his legacy will continue to thrive.

This Friday is the release of James Spinney and Peter Middleton’s documentary The Real Charlie Chaplin, which looks at the life of the plucky comedian from London slums to Hollywood fame. To celebrate, here is a small introduction to Chaplin’s work – in the hope to inspire you to seek out his indelible works.

The Kid (1921)

Considered Chaplin’s first ever feature film (despite the fact that it is just under an hour), The Kid is an intimate comedy that is tender and charming all at once. The silent outing sees Chaplin’s most famous character The Tramp who stumbles upon an abandoned child and decides to raise him as his own.

Over 100 years have passed since its release, and The Kid still remains as heartfelt as ever. Plus, the film has a wildly brilliant roof-top chase sequence. Charismatic and cute, with a young Jackie Coogan playing the titular child, The Kid is as thought-provoking as it is funny. In fact, the end is certainly one to cause the steeliest of hearts to shed a soft tear.

The Gold Rush (1925)

The Gold Rush is considered his masterpiece and it’s not hard to see why. The man himself even stated it was the film he wishes to be remembered for most. In fact, it is a film that you may not have seen, but you most definitely have seen the jokes parodied in other famous comedies such as The Simpsons and The Muppets.

The film sees a lonely prospector (Chaplin) and a gold seeker named Big Jim (Mack Swain) – take up refuge in a cabin during a snowstorm.

This timeless comedy will have you in hysterics as Chaplin bounces through set-piece and joke seamlessly. From being chased by a bear to eating his shoe, The Gold Rush is filled with iconography that will be whittled down through pop culture. The most famous gag is the Dance Rolls dance with the forks underneath Chaplin’s chin. After 90 years, the humour still holds up, and it is so great to watch the fluidity of Chaplin’s performance.

City Lights (1931)

Despite being released in the Pre-Code era, where talkies were much more prevalent, City Lights is a silent film and quintessentially Chaplin. It sees The Tramp return and fall in love with a visually impaired girl and tries to get her eyesight back with the help of a wealthy man.

Though City Lights is a silent film, it still fits into the Pre-Code era most excellently, depicting homelessness, suicide, disability, mental illness, and incarceration. As The Tramp, Charlie Chaplin was able to explore the class divide and look at how persecuted the poor really are. Through his comedy, Chaplin was able to give a voice to the needy. In City Lights, this seems the case, it just also happens to revolve around a love story as well.

Modern Times (1936)

An almost silent cinematic outing for The Tramp, and good ol’ Charlie proves that – despite the popularity in sound pictures for nearly a decade – you could still produce a film just as ridiculous entertaining without much dialogue at all.

Modern Times sees The Tramp thrown out on the streets for his manic behaviour only to come across another homeless girl. Together, they try to build a home.

A film that could quite possibly be a metaphor for Chaplin and his place in the film industry, Modern Times is ridiculously entertaining.

The Great Dictator (1940)

Considered Chaplin’s first full-length sound film, The Great Dictator took stabs at Adolf Hitler and his intolerant ways. The story revolves around Hynkel, a Hitler-like figure, who wishes to persecute all Jews in his country to create a perfect Aryan race. In the Ghetto, a Barber who looks like Hynkel, must impersonate the tyrant to rid the country of him.

The film is both hilarious and meaningful, balancing slapstick comedy with the dry and droll. Though Chaplin said he would never have made it if he knew the true extent of the Holocaust, The Great Dictator’s effect is impacting and long-lasting. In fact, the final monologue – a message of hope and tolerance – still makes its round throughout social media.

An exceptional and enduring film to match an equally exceptional career.

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