Wednesday, July 21, 2010

#5: Charles Chaplin

- “I went into the business for the money, and the art grew out of it. If people are disillusioned by that remark, I can't help it. It's the truth.”

Even today, his face is one of the most iconic images in the history of cinema. Just saying his name evokes daydreams of vintage era Hollywood and a period of vibrant creativity in the movie industry. People completely unfamiliar with his films or cinema history are aware of the symbols that he made famous – the Little Tramp Character, the trademark mustache, the top hat and cane. Charlie Chaplin’s contributions to the movie industry cannot be overestimated. As an actor and performer, he was the first comedy megastar of the screen, perfecting a brand of slapstick and physical comedy that has never been equaled. As a pioneer in the industry, Chaplin became one of the first stars to gain virtual autonomy over his projects, writing, directing, producing, starring in, and in many cases writing the music for, his greatest accomplishments. Chaplin the businessman was equally as important. Soon after coming to Hollywood he had already worked his way to being the highest paid actor in the world. In 1919, in hopes of gaining even greater control over every stage of his work, he partnered with fellow film veterans Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks to found United Artists. This was revolutionary for the time.

So to call Chaplin a GIANT is to understate his significance. He is arguably _the_ giant of film.

It’s impossible for me to separate Chaplin the director from Chaplin the actor, or Chaplin the all-around creative genius. And I don’t know that it’s even necessary to do so, even for such a list like this. The reason I say this is because his approach to moviemaking, at least through the most celebrated years of his career, centered on his being able to draw on every talent he possessed in the process of filming. Rarely did he write a completed script before beginning shooting. Instead he started with a general premise, acquired the necessary sets and equipment, and then began tinkering as he went. As one idea came on top of another, the general structure of the film would begin to crystallize and everyone would play off of what developed. The Little Tramp is the perfect character for such a style, as his crazy antics come across just as freewheeling as the director’s.

He was one of the rare comedians who could just as easily make you misty-eyed as he could make you laugh. Aside from the hilarious comedy that is prevalent in his films, it is that sincere heart that infuses Chaplin’s work that appeals most to me. Some may argue that things border on overly sentimental, but the amazing thing is that when Chaplin makes such obvious appeals to emotion, the pathos comes across as genuinely heartfelt. Few directors, actors, or artists period can pull that off and Chaplin did it routinely.

I still have many, many Chaplin shorts to get to, but I feel pretty solid on my ranking of his features.

1. Modern Times (1936)
2. City Lights (1931)
3. The Circus (1928)
4. The Kid (1921)
5. The Gold Rush (1925)
6. The Great Dictator (1940)
7. Limelight (1952)
8. Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
9. A Woman of Paris (1923)
10. A King in New York (1957)
11. A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)


1. The Adventurer (1917)
2. The Cure (1917)
3. Easy Street (1917)
4. The Immigrant (1917)
5. Shoulder Arms (1918)
6. One A.M. (1916)
7. A Dog’s Life (1918)
8. Behind the Screen (1916)
9. The Pilgrim (1923)
10. The Floorwalker (1916)
11. The Idle Class(1921)
12. The Pawnshop (1916)
13. The Vagabond (1916)
14. The Count (1916)
15. The Fireman (1916)
16. The Rounders (1914)


  1. 1. City Lights
    2. The Gold Rush
    3. Monsieur Verdoux
    4. Modern Times
    5. The Kid
    6. The Great Dictator

    Shamefully, I haven't seen enough shorts to weigh in on 'em. Still one of my favorite filmmakers. Monsieur Verdoux slips further under my skin each time I see it, and I no longer even notice how outdated the direction in it is.

  2. Wow, this certainly is a googly. Didn't expect Chaplin (I don't know why) and I love Chaplin. I've been fortunate enough to see all his works, save for The Countess from HK and the short Recreation. I'll only rate the features here:

    01 Gold Rush
    02 City Lights
    03 Modern Times
    04 The Kid
    05 A Woman Of Paris
    06 Circus
    07 The Great Dictator
    08 Monsieur Verdoux
    09 The Chaplin Revue
    10 Limelight
    11 A King In New York

  3. I haven't seen any of the shorts in so long that I can't really rank them. But of the full-length features I would place "The Gold Rush" at #1. It's a film I've seen many times and one of my favorite movies of all time. (But not the re-issue with Chaplin's narration in place of the title cards--for me it's just not the same experience.) It has so many memorable moments--the Thanksgiving dinner where Charlie eats his shoe, the tilting cabin when he has a hangover, Charlie as a giant chicken, shooting the bear, and best of all The Dance of the Rolls, probably his greatest combination of humor and pathos. After "The Gold Rush":

    City Lights
    Modern Times
    Monsieur Verdoux
    The Kid
    The Circus

    I've never been a big fan of "The Great Dictator," which has its moments but as a whole doesn't work for me, especially the awkward speech at the end and abrupt conclusion.

  4. I vehemently agree with R.D about that narration in the rereleased 1940's sound version of The Gold Rush. Chaplin basically repeats what you have just seen on the screen. I consider it a different film and infinitely inferior to the original version. I know I will be in the minority here but I consider Monsieur Verdoux his # 1 film with City Lights a very close second. Chaplin was way ahead of his time in presenting to the public such a dark comedy as he does in Verdoux.

    I have sadly yet to see Limelight and A King in New York.

    Monsieur Verdoux
    City Lights
    Modern Times
    The Gold Rush (Original Silent Version)
    The Kid
    Shoulder Arms
    The Circus
    The Great Dictator
    A Countess from Hong Kong (This film is not really ranked as just listed since I have not seen it since it first came out. It really needs to be viewed again and reassessed but it is a hard film to find.)

    The Immigrant
    Easy Street
    Shoulder Arms
    The Adventurer
    The Pilgrim
    The Cure
    A Film Johnnie
    A Jitney Elopement

    The following are Chaplin directed films I have seen but it has been too long to make an attempt at ranking them.

    The Floorwalker
    The Vagabond
    A Dog's Life
    One A.M.
    The Rink
    The Tramp
    A Burlesque of Carmen
    His New Job
    The Face on the Bar Room Floor

  5. "If you’re looking for rainbows, look up to the sky, and never, no never, look down.” -

    -Charles Chaplin, lyrics to ‘Swing Little Girl” from The Circus

    Charles Chaplin is -in my carefully considered opinion the greatest genius the cinema has ever produced, and on a list of my favorites may well rank as my personal favorite, depending on what day of the week I am asked the question. (Ingmar Bergman is the one who seems to alternate with him) As I am now involved in a Manhattan Film Festival of his entire canon at the Film Forum, (running until the second week in August) I have been thinking Chaplin just about every day now. No film artist has moved me as much as Chaplin, no comic has made me laugh as much, no humanist has brought more tears, no technical genius -not even Keaton- has caused me to marvel just how much brilliance can come from a single person. He was the consumate genius, writing and directing his films, serving as the main star, and to boot, writing his own music, some of which ranks among the best pieces of the century. Michael Jackson's favorite 'song' of all time is "Smile" from MODERN TIMES, and the overwhelming poignancy of the music he wrote for the final flower girl scene in CITY LIGHTS (his greatest across the board) is the perfect embodiment of theme expressed in music. his physical agility, his astute understanding of the human condition, and his uncanny sense of timing all are part of this Shakespeare of film, the single man who set the standard that has not subsequently been equalled. Chaplin is the subject of some of the best biographies, and the documentary UNKNOWN CHAPLIN is one of the greatets appraisals of a single artist ever produced. No American film artist has equalled the stature and adoration he has enjoyed abroad, and none match the sheer passion his visage has engendered. CITY LIGHTS is my personal favorite film of all-time, and the single one that would accompany me to a desert island if I were limited to just a single choice.

    Seeing THE CIRCUS and THE IDLE CLASS this past week with the entire family on Sunday will forever be cherished for all sorts of reasons, and the same will no doubt be said about this coming Sunday's date with CITY LIGHTS (a film seen with the brood twice before on the big screen) and all the classics over the following ten days.


    1. City Lights
    2. Modern Times
    3. The Circus
    4. The Gold Rush
    5. Monsieur Verdoux
    6. The Kid
    7. Limelight
    8. The Great Dictator
    9. A Woman of Paris
    10. A King of New York
    11. A Countess from Hong Kong


    1. A Dog's Life
    2. Easy Street
    3. Shoulder Arms
    4. The Immigrant
    5. The Pilgrim
    6. The Pawnshop
    7. The Idle Class
    8. One A.M.
    9. The Adventurer
    10. The Cure
    11. The Vagabond
    12. Sunnyside
    13. Payday
    13. The Floorwalker
    14. The Fireman
    15. The Count
    16. A Burlesque of Carmen
    17. His New Job
    18. The Rink
    19. A Day's Pleasure
    20. A Film Johnnie

    I do concur with both John and R.D. on the superiority of the earlier THE GOLD RUSH devoid of the later narration, though I don't mind hearing Chaplin's incomparable voice in the revision.

    Seeing THE CIRCUS again this week, I was reminded what a perfectly calibrated masterpiece it is, and how scenes like the ones in the funhouse with the mirrors, on the tightrope with Charlie and the monkeys, on the circus floor with the magician act, in the lion cage, with Charlie spreading mustard on a young child's hot dog and eating it while the parents are turned around, and the constant chase withe horse, ranks among the Little Tramp's most beloved set pieces.

    Needless to say Dave, it is thrilling you have him in your top five favorites, and you've really framed his appeal and artistry exceedingly well.

  6. Dave, I think the Academny found the right word to describe Chaplin's contribution in his special Oscar citation: it's "incalculable." More than Griffith, he's the original ideal of the movie auteur and probably still is to many movie buffs. No other touches all the bases he did. Allen and Welles didn't compose their own music. Eastwood does but doesn't write his own scripts. With Chaplin they do make four of a kind, but he still stands ahead of them.

    I grew up during the surge in Keaton's reputation, when it was fashionable to uphold Buster as a purer filmmaker or comedian in order to denigrate Chaplin's pathos (or perhaps his politics). But it shouldn't be a zero-sum game between these two, or with Harold Lloyd thrown in. Chaplin and Keaton aim at different effects, both emotional or comical, that can't be ranked objectively as superior or inferior. I wouldn't do without either of them.

    1. Modern Times
    2. The Circus
    3. City Lights
    4. The Gold Rush
    5. The Kid
    6. The Great Dictator
    7. Monsieur Verdoux
    8. Limelight
    9. A King in New York

    Shorts (I'll limit this to a top ten):
    1. Easy Street
    2. The Idle Class
    3. One A.M.
    4. The Adventurer
    5. A Night at the Show
    6. The Cure
    7. The Rink
    8. Sunnyside (an underrated self-parody)
    9. Payday
    10. The Immigrant

  7. Jake - His final two films aren't great, although A King in New York does have its moments. Countess From Hong Kong I thought was just flat out terrible, with Marlon Brando woefully miscast and not funny for a single moment. His shorts are consistently great though so definitely check them out if possible.

    JAFB - I like that you had the guts to give A Woman of Paris should a prominent ranking, as it's one that I think is genuinely underrated. I didn't have the guts to put it above the top 8, although I thought about bumping it ahead of Verdoux. Glad to hear he is a favorite of yours as well!

    R.D. - I can't disagree with your esteem of The Gold Rush, it's a great one. The four I rank ahead of it are great as well, so just slight differences in preference there. The speech that closes The Great Dictator is indeed unusual, but up until that point I found it quite funny and have always been a fan.

    Sam - Your passion for the cinema of Chaplin is incredible and I was well aware of the fact that he may be your own #1 director in such a list. I would give anything to be able to take in Chaplin's films on the big screen, so I look forward to keeping tabs as you attend the festival. Interesting that you just saw The Circus on the big screen, as that is one that I have been in love with lately. At one point, I had it as my #2 before ultimately switching it back to City Lights. Aside from King in New York and Countess From Hong Kong, The Circus was the last Chaplin feature I saw. I still crack up every time Charlie runs into the fun house and then hides by pretending to be one of the mechanical people.

    Samuel - I agree. The Keaton-Chaplin comparisons are inevitable, but they definitely go about their business in distinctly different ways. As my rankings show, I'm a big fan of both even if I do favor Chaplin's work a bit more (as of right now, at least).

    And since a number of folks brought it up, I agree with everyone that the original '25 release of The Gold Rush is superior.

  8. Great to see Chaplin featuring so high in your list, though I'd have loved more to see him even higher. He wasn't just cinema's greatest icon, I completely agree with you and Sam that he ranks one of the greatest geniuses too. Really, can't ever have enough of him.

    Anyway, here's my top 5 Chaplin films:
    1. Gold Rush
    2. City Lights
    3. Modern Times
    4. Monsieur Verdoux
    5. The Great Dictator

  9. He was a great actor and an icon for all the comedians. I agree with you Sam and Shubhajit that he was truly a gem.

  10. ya Charlie Chaplin was one of the best comedian, i love city lights among his movies.

  11. Terrific list! Chaplin is one of my all time favourites also and his 5 best for me (in no order) would have to be:
    Modern Times
    The Kid
    the Gold Rush
    City Lights

  12. Charlie was the first non voice comedian of his generation. He was hilarious even he was not saying anything. I think he was the first Mr. Bean of his time. I watch some of his movies and series and I laugh out loud. Thank you for such an informative blog you have here.

  13. A King in New York is one of my favorite Charlie Chaplin movie..
    Watch A King in New York online free