Charlie Chaplin: A Retrospective

One of the most iconic figures of the last 100 years, Charlie Chaplin’s mixture of humour and touching drama has inspired numerous other filmmakers and actors from Woody Allen to Jackie Chan.

Charlie Chaplin in The Kid

His Hollywood career began after moving to America whilst touring with the Fred Karno performing troupe where he got noticed by Keystone Film Company. Here he got to act in smaller parts in numerous comedies, although it was the creation of the Tramp that got him noticed. In his biography he states how this all came about:

I had no idea what makeup to put on. I did not like my get-up as the press reporter [in Making a Living]. However on the way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small moustache, which I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born.

This persona allowed his popularity to soar and soon he was getting larger parts as well as more pull with the studios. In 1919 he co-founded United Artists with D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbank. This move ensured Chaplin’s role as a filmmaker and all of his work with United Artists were features including The Circus, The Goldrush and The Kid. All three exhibit Chaplin’s natural flair for combining clownish comedy with honest sentiment. He also made melodrama A Woman of Paris in his early years with UA, illustrating that he could do much more than comedy.

The Great Dictator - Chaplin's first 'talkie'

The greatest of Chaplin’s works in this writer’s mind is his first ‘talkie’, The Great Dictator (1940). Not only was it politically relevant poking fun at the Nazi regime but it’s also extremely poignant. Chaplin knew that the best way to attack political figures was not to villainize them but instead poke fun at them. The climax also boasts one of the greatest speeches in film history. After passing off as the ‘Great Dictator’, Chaplin’s humble barber stands up in front of a rally and cries out for peace among men and denounces dictatorship. This monologue delivered passionately directly into the camera is just as stirring now as it was in 1940.

Chaplin’s filmmaking techniques are unique and few other directors in the Golden Age of Hollywood worked in a similar fashion. Before he started making ‘talkies’ he never worked from a complete script but instead improvised ideas from brief premises. For instance The Kid may have been the ‘Tramp adopts an orphan’ and then worked out the plot and visual gags from there. This is often why his films would take a long time to shoot, having to re-film certain sequences to fit with the emerging narrative.

Chaplin's last lead role in A King In New York

The final leading role for Chaplin was A King in New York made in 1957. Produced in Europe after he left the US during the McCarthy era, Chaplin subtly digs at American politics and society. Just like The Great Dictator, he makes a biting satire full of the physical slapstick routines he is well known for. The film even contains a brief appearance from his son Michael Chaplin, as a schoolboy who tells Charlie’s King the very meaning of anarchy.

Charlie Chaplin died on December 1977 but his legacy still lives on today. The character of the Tramp can be seen in many of Jackie Chan’s roles, with his combination of innocent charm and creative use of props to create comedy. Many scenes of Woody Allen’s early work definitely are Chaplin-esque, with him often playing a well meaning character that repeatedly falls into trouble. A clear example is in Bananas where Woody Allen’s character tries and fails to dupe to muggers on the train whilst dramatic piano music plays. The confrontation ends with the two muggers closing in on him, as he anxiously smiles trying to look innocent very much like Chaplin’s cheeky Tramp. His influence can even be seen as far as South Park and Four Lions, as many other comics have come to realise that it’s better to poke fun at evil men than vilify them and make them more powerful.

Park Circus’s latest release is Charlie Chaplin: The Collection, a 12 disc DVD boxset which includes 11 of his greatest films and numerous extras including documentaries and deleted scenes.  This box set is released 14th November. 

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