by Rob Stimpson
With the impending release of The Artist creating a stir among critics and audiences alike, there has been a sudden clamour for a reappraisal of the silent era of movies, and the need to recognise just how important and influential the films of that time were, and still continue to be. While The Artist charts the struggles endured by some in the film industry during the transition to ‘talkies’, it is an apt time to fully appreciate the genius and influence of a man who made the transition seamlessly, making classic films in both the silent era as well as the early sound era. That man is Charlie Chaplin.
Perhaps consigned to the world of novelty and handy fancy dress costumes, mainly in part to a now infamous moustache and the increasing lack of adventure in the social networking generation, Charlie Chaplin cuts a rather unknown, shadowy figure in some long forgotten past. This is scant reward for arguably the most influential person to have ever worked in Hollywood, and once one of the most famous people on the planet.
From the release of The Kid in 1921 through to The Great Dictator in 1940, via A Woman Of Paris, The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights and Modern Times, Chaplin produced some of the most enduring, innovative and surprisingly gritty films of his time, that even today in the era of airbrushed and polished sequels, prequels, reboots and remakes, stand as tall as any classic of any generation.
It was Chaplin’s undoubted ability to be so far ahead of his time that has kept his legacy alive. In Modern Times for example, Charlie’s Little Tramp character has a full blown nervous breakdown at work due to the monotonous nature of his work on the assembly line before inadvertently taking cocaine and having a trip before our very eyes. This is not to mention the subjects of communism, unemployment and poverty all being raised as well, confirming how much of an unabashed social commentator Chaplin was. Furthermore, Chaplin frequently used the device of dream and fantasy sequences to fantastic effect, showing in the inner workings of his characters that were denied the power of speech. Chaplin used this most famously in The Kid, when the Little Tramp enters ‘Dreamland’, wherein an innocent society of friendly, flying angels is turned on to promiscuousness and violence by evil spirits. The Circus provides an early example of how to use a room of mirrors to escape from robbers and policemen who are chasing you, once again, The Kid displays a daring rooftop chase scene in which the Little Tramp tracks a moving vehicle on the road below while a policeman chases him, and The Great Dictator contains one of the greatest speeches written by man, let alone committed to celluloid. Perhaps these points aren’t particularly impressive in the 21st century, but therein lies the point. These films were made in the 1920s and 1930s, and yet the comedy they display, the romance they depict and the social issues they comment on are as fresh today as they were back then.
Of all things, though, Chaplin was an entertainer, and his primary source of entertainment was through his comedy. No greater compliment can be bestowed upon a comedian than saying their work is timeless; so, to say Chaplin’s greatest comedy moments are equally as, if not more so, inventive, original and plainly hilarious than the best that modern comedies have to offer would be an incredibly easy compliment to give. The Little Tramp’s harnessed enhanced tightrope walking skills that soon turn into a circus monkey invasion, trousers down farce in The Circus, the experiment with the malfunctioning lunch feeding machine in Modern Times and the expertly choreographed boxing fight in City Lights, or just any of the plethora of tiny moments in which the Tramp tries to play it cool and fails miserably, could all compete with modern Hollywood’s comedy highlights. Fewer men can claim to be Chaplin’s equal when it comes to the consistent display of perfect comedy timing.
Chaplin was also a master of pathos, and while he could have you laughing one moment, he would throw an emotional sucker punch out of nowhere to bring the audience back to reality. The image of the Little Tramp’s pained face as he fights off the orphanage workers taking his adopted son away in The Kid, THAT final, ambiguous scene at the end of City Lights, and his lonely New Years Eve night in following the non-arrival of his female guests for whom he’d cooked a lavish meal in The Gold Rush all leave their lingering mark equal to any of his greater comedic moments. The audience is so often lulled into a sense of fun and frivolity that the emotional blow is even more surprising, but when it is delivered it in no way jars the narrative or overwhelms it with sentimentality; it simply fills you with wonder and pity, as a lovingly crafted story should.
The fact that Chaplin wrote, directed and starred in all of his films from this era, even producing and composing the music to a majority too, shows just how all encompassing a talent he was. Chaplin’s golden era started soon after World War I, in a world utterly torn apart and devastated by its own destructive power. But, from his initial emergence, up until the rise of Hitler and the start of World War II, Charlie Chaplin entertained the world with an at times slightly effeminate and camp, and at other times passionate and violent Little Tramp, stumbling and stalling his way through life with a strangely balletic grace. He offered some relief and a smile to people in a thoroughly miserable period of time. Rather aptly, there doesn’t seem to be a more appropriate time to re-evaluate his work than now.