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Ignorance Is Not Bliss

One thing that we should all know and appreciate is that we cannot proclaim that we are "not keen on" or "don't like" something when we have not even bothered to study the subject properly.  This is a rule that I have recently re-learned, much to my shame!

There must have been several occasions when asked about the comedies that I have said: "Oh yes I really like Laurel and Hardy, but I am not keen on Charlie Chaplin."  The truth is I had not even bothered to give Charlie Chaplin a real chance by watching one of his films even part way through, let alone from start to finish.  How ignorant of me, and how much in the world of film I have missed out on.  I have since come to learn that bliss is actually watching a Chaplin movie!
Charles Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin vs Laurel and Hardy

As a youngster there was nothing shown on television that I enjoyed more than the film shorts made by Laurel and Hardy.  One of the most eagerly anticipated aspects of the school holidays was the hope that one or more of their films would be shown on TV.

I remember one summer holiday when a whole series of laurel and Hardy films was shown.  What a highlight of every morning, even though they dated back to the 1930's!

The thing that appealed about Laurel and Hardy was the slapstick comedy.  To a school-boy there was nothing better than someone falling off a ladder or having a tin of paint empty all over their head!  Laurel and Hardy were brilliant performers and the films were very cleverly made with perfect timing and superbly executed slapstick comedy which caused almost endless roars of laughter.

Being, as I was, a rather unsophisticated schoolboy I did not really appreciate the films made by Charles Chaplin.  In fact right up until 2006 I had completely overlooked his films.  Probably what had put me off the Charlie Chaplin films as a youngster was the fact that they were silent films, unlike many of the Laurel and Hardy films which were 'talkies'.  Laurel and Hardy did, of course, make many silent films too, but these tended not to be shown on television.

It was not until I saw the Mark Steel Lecture on BBC Four Television that featured the life and work of Charles Chaplin that I came to understand his films in the context of the period in which they are set.  I now see Charlie Chaplin in a whole new light, and watching his films is now a real joy and even today his film making art puts some modern film making to shame.  They may be in black and white, many of them may be silent, but they all have brilliant and often moving stories, fine acting and show Charlie Chaplin's outstanding film making prowess.

The Mark Steel Lecture prompted me to buy the box set of Chaplin movies which contains most all of his highly regarded and important works.

Charlie Chaplin : The Little Tramp - A Hero Of His Time

Charles Chaplin was born in 1889, his father was a singer and alcoholic who eventually left the family when Charlie was young.  Much of Charlie's early life was in the workhouses of London due his mother falling ill.  The images of the workhouses remained with Charlie Chaplin throughout his career, and were to influence much of his film works.

Charlie Chaplin started off in Music Hall and was a brilliant clown.  He toured the USA with Fred Karno's  Music Hall where, in 1913 was offered a job in the film industry by the creator of the Keystone Cops, Mack Sennet.   It was during his time at Keystone that Charlie Chaplin devised the 'Little Tramp' character that he would play for so many years in his films.  At that time tramps, like Charlie's character, were seen as a good symbol of rejection of the modern and mechanized society that was evolving.  Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp character was often the hero, flying in the face of corporate society, indeed Charlie Chaplin's Tramp became an icon of the age.

Initially while at Mack Sennet's Keystone Films company it was Mack himself that directed the films, they were short and simple slapstick affairs. However Charles Chaplin wanted to produce more challenging material and eventually he would 'cut his teeth' here in the world of film-making and as he felt his way would go on to develop the film making art, changing the way films were made as he began to direct his own films.  He made 62 shorts while at Keystone and after leaving the company went on to control every aspect of the films he made.

After the period at Keystone Charlie left to join the Essanay Film Company in 1915, and this is where he really developed the Tramp into the character that everyone would recognize today.  Charles Chaplin was meticulous with his script-writing and how he directed his scenes. 

Music was very important and Charles taught himself to read music and wrote his own scores too.  Nothing was left to chance, every detail had to be absolutely perfect - and it shows when watching his films, many of which are breathtaking.  He stayed with Essanay films until 1916 making many films including My First Job and The Tramp. In 1916 Charlie worked with the Mutual Film Company where he wrote and directed films including The Fireman, The Vagabond, Easy Street and The Immigrant. 

From 1918 to 1922 was a period with First National Pictures where Charles Chaplin produced movies such as A Dog's Life, The Kid, The Idle Class and The Pilgrim.  One the most important periods was while he was at United Artists from 1923.  This was a time that saw the adoption of sound movies that Chaplin resisted the adoption of dialogue in his films, although he cleverly used music and sound effects in some films during this time.  It was not until 1940 and the making of The Great Dictator that he embraced the age of the talkie.  Other films made at United Artists were A Woman Of Paris, The Gold rush, The Circus, Modern Times, Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight.

I feel guilty for not watching and appreciating Charlie Chaplin's films until now, but now I do, and even seventy or more years after he made them they are still absolute gems. There are some real masterpieces, but to be fully appreciated they do have to be viewed in the context of the era in which they were made - bearing in mind the social and economic conditions that prevailed.  Here are some of his films that you really must see:



Chaplin DVDs


The Gold Rush - A real comic gem and shows Chaplin as we all might expect to see him.  Our heroic Little Tramp is a prospector who has ventured into Alaska in the search for gold and his fortune. He gets involved with some quite frightening and frankly rather violent characters along the way while also falling in love with a beautiful girl called Georgia.  He tries to win her love with his charm, but initially she does not take him at all seriously leading to some heartache for our hero.  The Gold Rush contains a couple of utterly magical cinematic moments; one where Chaplin cooks and eats his own boot and another where he undergoes a metamorphosis into a chicken in the mind of his fellow prospector.  Genius.


Charles Chaplin wrote the screenplay and music and also directed, produced and edited City Lights.  The film was made in 1931, a time when the silent films were making way for the 'talkies', however Charlie Chaplin much preferred the silent film which gave a far superior platform for his brand of story telling and comedy.  To this end City Lights was made as a film with no speech, but did make clever use of sound with the musical score and sound synchronized effects.  The Little Tramp is the subject of mistaken identity as he tries to help a blind girl selling flowers, played by Virginia Cherrill      , who mistakes him for a wealthy man.  Nothing could be further from the truth, however.  The Little Tramp falls in love with the girls who he continues to try to help.  The film follows the ups and downs of this situation and finishes with a very moving and tear inducing conclusion.  A real 'must see' film.

Paulett Goddard
Paulette Goddard as the orphan in Charlie Chaplin's film Modern Times


Modern Times is a glorious film that is probably as relevant today as it was in 1936.  Although, as is usual, the Little Tramp did has no dialogue, but the film makes incredibly clever use of sound with its rather sophisticated sound effects. Modern Times explores the the dehumanization of labour starting with a very amusing scene inside the factory in which our hero is trying to tighten bolts on components as they pass him at some speed on the conveyor belt.  The film then goes on to describe the closure of the factories, reflecting the times of the great depression, and the Little Tramp's ensuing relationship with an orphan (the Gamin) played by Paulette Goddard.   It is a great and moving film, and one in which the Little Tramp character appeared for the last time.

Charles Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin in his film Modern Times


So many of Charles Chaplin's films were more than simple comedies.  Whether exploring the subjects such as love, the horrors of war, life in the city, joblessness, or the inhumanity of the factory production line Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp was not only though provoking but could also bring a laugh and a smile - The Great Dictator is much darker than most however.  It certainly could not be described as a comedy but a film with a serious message that does contain some darker comic moments. The Great Dictator explores the rising Nazi threat of the late 1930's and early 1940's and the persecution of the Jewish community, Charlie Chaplin plays two roles; the dictator, Adenoid Hynkel the ruler of Tomania (a character based on Hitler) and the oppressed barber who gets mistaken for Hynkel which allows him to exploit the situation with some amusing moments, but the film also conveys its darker and more serious message which can be quite disturbing perhaps even rather frightening at times.  Both characters are portrayed wonderfully by Chaplin.   Another 'must see'.

Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel in his film The Great Dictator

So there you are - four classic Charlie Chaplin films which I feel sure that you'll enjoy watching.  Once you've seen these I am sure that you'll also want to explore a few more of the many dozens of superb films that Charlie Chaplin made.  Perhaps the following of films could also be considered of particular note:

Further Reading - Links To Charlie Chaplin Websites:


Chaplin DVDs

ABOVE:  The excellent quality Warner Bros' Chaplin Box Set " The Chaplin Collection" This is an extremely high quality set and contains most of Chaplin's best and more recent works and many documentary additional features. Titles include The Gold Rush, The Circus, The Kid, City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, A King In New York, Limelight, A Woman Of Paris, Monsieur Verdoux, Charlie - a film about the life of Charles Chaplin, and much more.




ABOVE :  The BFI DVD editions.  These are high quality British Film Institute DVD releases of Chaplin's films made during his time at the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company in 1915 and subsequently at The Mutual Film Corporation in 1916.  These BFI DVD's have been carefully restored from the best quality film prints available and also include specially recorded music scores composed by Carl Davis.

Titles include in the Essanay Film DVDs - Vol 1:  His New Job,  A Night Out,  The Champion,  In the Park,  A Jitney Elopement,  The Tramp,  By the Sea,  Work;  Vol 2:  A Woman,  The Bank,  Shanghaied,  His Regeneration, A Night in the Show,  Charlie Chaplin's Burlesque on Carmen,  Police!  Triple Trouble: An Essanay Collage.

The Mutual Film DVDs - Vol 1:  Behind the Screen,  The Rink,  Easy Street,  The Cure,  The Immigrant,  The Adventurer;  Vol 2:  The Floorwalker,  The Fireman,  The Vagabond,  One A.M.,  The Count,  The Pawnshop

Charlie Chaplin Box Set

ABOVE "The Essential Charlie Chaplin DVD Box Set":  This is perhaps one to avoid as overall it is a VERY DISAPPOINTING collection, but not because the films themselves are bad, simply because this particular set is technically poor.

Certainly,  it contains a huge selection of films all in one box BUT, and there are THREE BIG BUTS:  Some of the films are cut shorter than the originals, many have no inter-titles (the story-line captions essential when following silent movies) and all films have no meaningful music scores or helpful sound effects that are included on other high quality silent film releases: These films are backed by some random, unrelated and meaningless traditional jazz music.  The picture quality, while watchable, is also poorer than the more expensive sets as the films here have undergone no restoration.

This poor presentation and lack of attention to detail, missing titles and dire music detracts from Chaplin's excellent works and this set is probably best avoided as it does not show Chaplin's work in the way in which it was intended.  Instead try the British Film Institute DVDs and the fabulous Warner Brothers set mentioned above.

It is worth noting, however, is that this budget DVD release does include some of the Keystone films that are hard to find elsewhere, plus many of the Essanay and Mutual Films:   Titles in this box set include: The documentary, Chaplin - His Life and Work, plus Mabel's Married Life, Laffing Gas, Face On The Barroom Floor, Recreation, The Masquerader, The Good-For-Nothing, The Rounders, Cruel Cruel Love, The Landlady's Pet, Twenty Minutes Of Love, Caught In A Cabaret, A Busy Day, The Fatal Mallet, The Knockout, The New Janitor, The Rival Mashers, Musical Tramp, A Fair Exchange, His New Job, A Night Out, The Champion, Dough And Dynamite, In The Park, The Tramp, By The Sea, Work, A Woman, The Bank, Shanghaied, A Night In The Snow, A Burlesque On Carmen, Police, The Floorwalker, The Fireman, The Vagabond, One A.M., The Count, The Pawnshop, Behind The Screen, The Rink, Easy Street, The Cure, and The Immigrant.


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