(1889 - 1977)
Three Key Films: The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936)
Underrated: Limelight (1952) It’s tough to pick a Chaplin film and call it “underrated” since he’s among the few masters upon whom folks generally agree. He was and remains, a singular artist. But, if he is associated with anything in the popular imagination it is his Tramp persona, the bumbling sweetheart who carried him through most of his films through his heyday in the 20s and the first half of the 1930s. With Limelight, produced long after he had appeared to have drifted into irrelevance, Chaplin asked his audience to view him as something else: an actor, not a character. It didn’t really work for many people. But it should have. This gorgeous film works like a lament for a life onscreen, a summation of a career in show biz from a man who’s seen it all, and yet it contains less sentimentalized nostalgia than hard-won wisdom about the cost of fame, the fickle muse, the tragedy of aging. (And, the scene between Chaplin and his erstwhile competition Buster Keaton is worth the price of admission, squared.)
Unforgettable: The final speech in The Great Dictator (1940). A (really, really) long speech about brotherly love, the interconnectedness of humanity, the insanity of war, the emptiness of generalized hate, and the scourge of global fascism? That’s entertainment! The thing is, it’s all about context. The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s searing satire of the rise of Hitler and the Nazis was released in 1940, still many months before the United States were prepared to confront the German war machine. A rousing call to arms, or a tortured cry for peace? Either way, this speech served to remind viewers that, as fun as the proto-Strangelove zaniness of the film has been, these stakes were pretty goddamn high at the outset of the war. While US politicians vacillated, equivocated, stalled for time, Chaplin gave the speech they were incapable of, but everyone needed, and still needs, to hear.
The Gold Rush (1925)
The Legend: As one of the pivotal figures in the early years of Hollywood, and a key link between vaudeville and the silent film era, Chaplin is perhaps the most legendary figure on this list. Born in 1889 in London (or, possibly, in a Roma caravan while on the road, though this is mere rumour at the moment), Chaplin grew up in a show biz household. Learning singing and dancing from his entertainer parents and their colleagues, Chaplin was a performer from a young age. Eventually making his way to the United States as part of a touring troupe of entertainers, and by 1913 was acting in short films.
He debuted the Tramp character in 1914, mostly by accident, improvising him based on how the make-up had made him feel. Channeling a man with the affectations and manners of an upper class gentleman who is actually a downtrodden and destitute “tramp”, Chaplin created among the most enduring characters in film history on a whim. A huge hit with audiences, Chaplin would take this character with him through twenty years of starring roles. Transitioning to directing his own work (it is a true testament to Chaplin’s innate genius that he was able to simply step into this role without any formal training, and find immediate success), Chaplin became a founding member of the United Artists studio in 1919 in an effort to escape the artistic control of distributors and studio heavies. It was a wildly ambitious move, but Charlie Chaplin entered the 1920s as arguably the biggest star in the world.
His influence cannot be overstated—a true auteur, he would go on to craft a series of stirring, gorgeous, hilarious, simple parables which, while endlessly entertaining, never steered far from their social message. A committed socialist—he would eventually be treated as a subversive agent in the US in one of their more foolish moments of anti-communist idiocy—Chaplin’s filmography is underpinned by a persistent and stirring attack on the de-humanizing power of a faceless capitalist machine. His most indelible moments rely on the juxtaposition between the softness of humanity and the unbendable steel of progress. It’s hard to think of a better visual metaphor for this than the scene early in his Depression-era satire Modern Times when his Tramp character literally gets caught in the gears of a machine. Both amazingly funny and utterly convincing as a visual metaphor, here was the genius of Chaplin. An entertainer with a purpose. Chaplin died on Christmas Day, in 1977, at the age of 88. Stuart Henderson