In the spring of 1889, Charlie Chaplin was born to almost unknown music hall entertainer parents. The boy grew up to be the greatest international star of the American silent comic cinema. He also became twentieth century’s first media Superstar, the first artistic creator. Chaplin was the first acknowledged artistic genius of world cinema, recognized by the influential generation of artists and moviegoers.
While the public have forgotten many silent era stars, Charlie Chaplin remains a household name in most parts of the world.
Charlie Chaplin had to face a very turbulent childhood. His parents separated even before he was three. His mother, actress Lily Harvey, lived with Charlie. The small Charlie also lived in different places before he and his brother were sent to Kennington Road School and later on to a school for the paupers, because of their financial situation. These came as a shock for the sensitive child and the pain and agony of desperate poverty were reflected subsequently in the characters of his films. The themes of his films were much influenced by his childhood incidents and experiences.
His genius was essentially pantomimic, ideally suited to the silent cinema era. Chaplin’s early comedies used extreme physical comedy and exaggerated gestures. But his pantomime was subtler. The visual gags were pure fun. The tramp character would aggressively assault his enemies with kicks and bricks. People loved him though critics warned that his comedy bordered on vulgarity.
During the period of 1918 to 1922, he made films like A Dog’s Life, The Kid, The Idle Class and The Pilgrim. After some short films like Essanay, Mutual Film Corporation and First National he became involved in different facets of film making like acting, direction, and production. Some of his films were A Woman of Paris (1923), The Gold Rush (1925), and The Circus (1928). He also made the masterpieces City Lights (1931), as well as Modern Times (1936). Though they were silent films they were immensely popular and had his own music and sound effects. City Lights was by far his most balanced film, dealing with comedy and sentiments.
His talkies made in Hollywood included The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), and Limelight (1952). While Modern Times (1936) is a non-talkie, it contains dialouges coming from inanimate objects such as a radio. The reason behind this was that during the period of silent films the viewers were not accustomed to the concept of listening to dialogues as well as watching a performance simultaneously. In fact, The Circus (1928) was the first film where Chaplin’s voice was heard.
Talkies became the dominant and popular mode of movie making since 1927 but Chaplin was reluctant to the idea as he considered cinema to be a pantomimic art. Now let us look at some of his films in detail.
Limelight tells the story of a once-great stage comedian, whose career has failed leading to alcholism. The man eventually saves the life of a despondent ballerina from a suicide attempt. Monsieur Verdoux is a blistering black comedy released in 1947. Chaplin plays Henri Verdoux, a civilized monster who marries wealthy women, then murders them and uses their money to support his real family.
A Woman of Paris was written and directed by Charlie Chaplin. It was designed to launch Edna Purviance into a serious acting career. The Circus tells the story of a failing circus which recruits the little tramp who bursts into the tent’s center ring and wows the audience. The circus owner discovers he is only funny when he isn’t trying to be so. He tricks The Little Tramp into joining the circus as a prop man who wreaks havoc with whatever he does and who unknowingly becomes the star of the show.
The Gold Rush is one of his best works. The Little Tramp is a prospector who has ventured into Alaska in the search of his fortune. He gets involved with some quite frightening characters, while falling in love with a beautiful girl called Georgia. The Gold Rush has beautiful cinematography moments.
City Lights is considered his own child. He wrote the screenplay and set the music and also directed, produced and edited this classic movie. Made in 1931, City Lights was made as a film with no speech. The movie is about the ups-and-downs of the Little Tramp, in love with a girl who thinks him to be someone else.
Modern Times is a glorious film that is probably as relevant today as it was in 1936. The film makes incredibly clever use of sound with its rather sophisticated sound effects. Modern Times explores the dehumanization of labour. The film then goes on to describe the closure of the factories, reflecting on the Great Depression in the economy of US at that period.
The Great Dictator is much darker than most other comedies. It is a film with a serious message with satirical overtones. The Great Dictator explores the rising Nazi threat during the late 1930s and early 1940s.