The best of the best: Charlie Chaplin

by Martin Hafer

Unlike the early slapstick comedy of the 1910s, by the 1920s, three great comedians came to dominate films and represented a much more refined sort of comedy.  Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin created the best comedies of their day. It was mostly because they relied far less on cheap laughs, and more on stories and characterizations.

Of these three comedians, Chaplin was by far the most famous and prolific during the slapstick era. Chaplin’s movies have little in the way of plot and rely heavily on cheap, but calculated laughs.  I never particularly loved these early Chaplin films and didn’t realize at first just how different his later full-length films were from the early shorts.  Instead of kicking, punching and breaking stuff for laughs, his later films were works of true genius, and are light-years better than his older efforts.  I have created a list of his best full-length films, and they all hold up wonderfully, even today.

The Gold Rush:  This is my personal favorite and there are two versions–the original 1925 version as well as a re-release version where Chaplin himself narrates the film.  Both are excellent.  The story concerns Charlie and his adventures in the Yukon during the gold fever of the late 19th century.

Why I love this film:  I have adored this film for years.  On a lark, I showed it to several classrooms of 8th graders who insisted that they hated black & white films…especially the silent ones.  Every time, the children were transfixed and ended up adoring the movies.  Hearing them laugh and never becoming bored with the film made me realize just how timeless the film is.

City Lights:  Although this came out in 1930, Chaplin bucked the trend and made yet another silent film even though sound movies had become the norm.  His decision worked…and it’s a nearly perfect movie.  It’s the story of Chaplin’s Little Tramp character when he falls in love with a blind girl. 

Why I love this film:  Rarely will silent films make you cry, but when I went to a viewing in a theater a year ago, there were very few dry eyes in the house.  A rare combination of laughs as well as a terrific and touching love story.

Limelight:  This film is not a comedy…a big risk for Chaplin.  It’s a touching story about an aging vaudeville star who’s fallen on hard times.  His life is disrupted when he rescues a young lady who throws her into the river and he eventually falls in love with this woman, though he realizes that a broken down old comic is no match for the vivacious young lady she turns out to be.

Why I love this film:  Towards the very end, for the first and only time, you get to see Chaplin and Buster Keaton together.  It also is a film that’s hard to watch without having it touch your heart–and Chaplin could do this like no other comedian.

Modern Times:  Chaplin’s first semi-talking film.  While he doesn’t talk, there are a few spoken lines here and there.  It’s a very clever film about the dehumanization of mankind in the industrial age…and poor Charlie is just a cog in a very, very large corporate machine.

Why I love this film:  The sight gags are amazing and seeing Chaplin working the assembly line as well as getting literally sucked into a giant machine are truly memorable scenes you’ve just got to see for yourself.

Monsieur Verdoux:  One of Chaplin’s later films as well as his very darkest.  The public didn’t know what to think when Chaplin abandoned the Little Tramp character and replaced him with a serial killer who marries women and then arranged ‘accidents’!

Why I love this film:  Two reasons–it’s very funny and I love the notion of the world’s favorite film comic refusing to remain the same extremely nice guy he’d always been in favor of a dark one.  I would love to have been in the theaters when the film debuted…just to see the look of shock on everyone’s faces when they saw this hilarious movie that was so wrong!

While there are other terrific films that would also stand watching , such as The Circus, I think these five films above are the best for Chaplin newbies.  These films all hold up very well today and are great fun.  Interestingly enough, many of these films were not just written and directed by Chaplin but he wrote the musical scores as well!

The Gold Rush 1925