Notebook Primer: Charlie Chaplin

An overview of the films and career of one of cinema's most beloved and enduring stars, as well as one of its greatest directors.
Megan Feeney
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
The Kid.
For over a century, Charles Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” has been a global icon. His signifiers are simple: the derby hat and cane; the toothbrush mustache; the tight jacket and baggy trousers; the giant shoes. His significations, however—what the Tramp has meant to audiences around the world—have been profound.
The most diminutive of men, the Tramp has had an outsized role in film history. Indeed, he is a portrait in paradoxes: a tragic-comic hobo-gentleman, flea-riddled but fastidious; a poet of pantomime, whose silence speaks volumes; a prat-falling klutz, who is the most graceful of danseurs; and a loner, who is worthier than most of human intimacy. Obtuse to the socioeconomic realities that structure his existence, he is an idealist hero akin to Don Quixote, as pointed out by Latin critics eager to adopt him into their picaresque traditions. 
For his creation of the Tramp, Chaplin was—and is—considered a genius of the highest order, incomparable in his capacity to combine comedy and pathos and to marry high and low culture, beloved by the masses and the intelligentsia alike. He was a founding pioneer of cinema as an art form, part and parcel of its evolution from rudimentary motion to narrative, along with the other silent clowns, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Many of Chaplin’s sequences are etched on collective consciousness: the “Eating of the Shoe” and the “Dance of the Rolls” in The Gold Rush; the meet-cute and prize fight in City Lights; the assembly line and protest march in Modern Times; the fascist bloviations and imperial fantasies of Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator.
Though alive with improvisational energy, such sequences were exactingly choreographed and exhaustively rehearsed and reshot, in take after take, until Chaplin’s perfectionism was satisfied. A true (and demanding) auteur, Chaplin not only acted in his films but served as writer, director, and composer. Moreover, his insistence upon creative control extended to the founding of his own distribution company, United Artists, which allowed him to work outside the studio system and helps explain why Chaplin was able to continue making non-dialogue films a good decade after the arrival of the “talkies.”
Relatedly, Chaplin was a founding pioneer of the star system, one of its first international idols—with all the perks and pitfalls that position entailed. He enjoyed unprecedented paychecks, adulate crowds, and creative independence. But his megawatt celebrity also attracted negative attention to his personal life and, later, his leftist political leanings.
Which is to say that, along with the idolatry, Chaplin had his detractors. Radical leftists declared him an apologist for capitalism, smoothing its sharpest edges with laughter and advocating resilience instead of resistance. Conversely, anti-communists in the United States declared him a Communist propagandist and an un-American ingrate. These Red-baiters ultimately managed to exile Chaplin, declaring him anathema to the American Way, even though he had been deemed representative of it for four decades, despite his foreign birth.
Charles Chaplin was born in South London in 1889, to English music hall actors and into a childhood oft described as “Dickensian,” which indelibly shaped his art and politics. (For continually returning to the traumas of his “dismal youth,” Sigmund Freud himself declared Chaplin “an exceptionally simple and transparent case.”) Abandoned by his alcoholic father, Charles and his brother Sydney were raised by their beloved but despairing mother, who struggled to feed them, giving Chaplin a bone-deep appreciation for hunger, ever-present in his films. Starting at age seven, Chaplin was in and out of workhouses.
As a teenager, Charlie followed his parents’ (and brother’s) footsteps into vaudeville. By 1910, he was headlining with Fred Karno’s famous troupe of pantomime comedians, with which he first came to America in 1910, mostly playing “The Inebriate.” It was in this role, on his second U.S. tour with Karno in 1913, that Chaplin caught the eye of Mack Sennett, the head of the inchoate Keystone Studios in an inchoate “Hollywoodland.”  There, the 24-year-old Chaplin contracted to make multiple one-reelers a week—a bruising pace, especially for the highly physical knockabout comedies churned out at Keystone.
Chaplin birthed the Little Tramp quickly at Keystone, gestated as that figure was in his London childhood and in a lineage of hobo-characters on 19th century stages and pages. Improvising the costume from Keystone’s prop department, Chaplin premiered the Tramp in Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)—a one-reeler in which the Tramp repeatedly waddles into the shot, putting on genteel airs, sure that the camera will love him, enraging the film’s fictional director. In short order, Chaplin-as-Tramp became patently recognizable to American movie audiences, who clamored for more. Leveraging this, Chaplin insisted on writing his own storylines and more. By the end of 1914, Chaplin had made 35 films for Keystone, twenty of which he directed himself.
In 1915, Chaplin moved to Essanay Film, where he made 14 films (two-reelers now) and further refined the persona of the Tramp, softened by the heroine, uniformly played by Edna Purviance. In The Tramp, the (titular) character becomes chivalrous and heroic when he meets Edna. Because he loves her, he gracefully concedes to his rival for her affections, walking away down a dusty road, shaking off the heartbreak with two jaunty kicks, in what would become a signature exit.
The Immigrant.
By the end of 1915,“Chaplinitis” had swept the nation; by mid-1916, it had swept the globe. Chaplin spent the next year at Mutual Film, where he further elaborated his genius for set pieces and comic transposition (e.g., confetti becomes spaghetti), and began to explore more serious themes, especially urban poverty, economic inequality, corruption and Progressives’ self-righteousness.  Among his Mutual films are The Immigrant, in which the Tramp travels by steamship with his fellow foreign-born “huddled masses,” to an America less welcoming than that Emma Lazarus poem suggests. The Tramp finds himself roughly herded by immigration authorities in the “Land of Liberty” (as a sarcastic intertitle emphasizes) and “hungry and broke” in the Land of Plenty.    
Even as the Tramp struggled to scrape together a nickel, his creator was a millionaire by 1917, thanks to a $1 million contract with distributor First National Pictures. Flush with cash, Chaplin constructed his own production studio, in the style of an old English village, where he would make the rest of his American films, through Limelight (1952).
In 1918, Chaplin married his first of four wives, a teenaged actress named Mildred Harris, from whom he would divorce in just three years. Forging a more lasting relationship, Chaplin joined Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Mary Pickford on a hugely successful Liberty Loan tour, raising funds for the U.S. Army and quelling criticism about Chaplin’s failure to enlist for the Great War. On the tour, the celebrity trio—along with D.W. Griffith—devised a plan to found United Artists, in which Chaplin would maintain a quarter share through 1955.
Also in 1918, Chaplin released two smash-hit three-reelers. First, as the title suggests, A Dog’s Life compares the Tramp to a stray dog. Together, they outwit a parade of authority figures (cops, a lunch vendor, and a dance hall proprietor) and win the girl (Purviance). Second, Chaplin released Shoulder Arms, in which the Tramp dons a U.S. Army uniform as a doughboy, characteristically resistant to regimentation while still innately heroic in the flea-riddled and flooded trenches of France, ultimately capturing the Kaiser himself. 
Beginning in 1921, Chaplin launched a two-decades long run of feature-length immortal classics. In this period, he solidified his standing as a serious artist, winning the laudatory esteem of critics and the international intelligentsia writ large, while maintaining enormous commercial success. This, even as he risked obsolescence by resisting the “talkies.” In the first decade of this run, Chaplin honed to perfection his signature blend of comedy and pathos. In the second, he brought it to bear on the pressing traumas of the day, the Great Depression and the global rise of fascism.
In The Kid (1921), Chaplin turns up the dial on pathos, artistic ambition, and autobiographical references. At the start, a distraught unwed mother (Purviance) is associated with Christ—in an example of intellectual montage borrowed from Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. She leaves her infant in a basket with a desperate note: “Please love and care for this orphan child.” By comical happenstance and his own innate goodness, it is the Tramp who takes up that charge, with great tenderness and resourcefulness in a squalid one-room apartment. Through an inter-titled ellipsis, this baby quickly turns into the titular “Kid,” a five-year-old Tramp-in-training (Jackie Coogan). Together, the Tramp and the Kid work their famous scam: The Kid throws rocks to break windows, and the Tramp-as-glazier arrives to fix them for a fee.
All is well until the duo attracts the attention of the authorities, who tear the Kid from the Tramp’s loving arms—a scene in which Chaplin achieves peak pathos. The Kid and the Tramp are reunited only after the Return of the Mother, and only after a surreal dream sequence, in which the Tramp has visions of angels rollicking in the streets, including a preteen flirt, played by Lita Grey, who tempts him from “innocence” to “sin”—a prophetic cameo, given that Grey would become Chaplin’s second teenaged bride in 1924, twenty years his junior. Their split three years later proved a public relations nightmare for Chaplin, as Lita’s accusations of her husband’s sexual “deviancy” made for tantalizing press.
Before all of that, though, Chaplin embarked on a trip to Europe, including a stop in his old London neighborhood. He wrote about it in his 1922 book My Trip Abroad, in which he lamented the loneliness of stardom and articulated his developing social conscience. He also directed A Woman of Paris (1924), his first film for United Artists, a serious melodrama and star vehicle for Purviance, devoid of gags and absent Chaplin onscreen, who was striving to prove he was more than his comic character. Though critics approved, box office returns were weak. Chaplin got the message: “No Tramp, No Go,” and so he set out to make his most epic Little Tramp picture yet.
The Gold Rush (1925).
The Gold Rush (1925) is a masterpiece, grand in scale, ambition, and achievement, one of the most expensive silent films made. It took 15 months to shoot and nine to edit. The film opens with an iconic establishment shot that required some 600 extras on-location in the Sierra Nevada mountains: a single-file line of men climbs a snow-covered pass, enticed by the promise of gold. They are prospectors in the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1890s, part of the American ideologies of rugged individualism and rags-to-riches (if million-to-one) opportunities. The Tramp, known here as “The Lone Prospector,” is found among them in this mythic space, his representative Everyman cutting a stark figure in the snow, making it clear that the film will offer not just comedy but also social commentary on America in the Roaring ‘20s.   
In Act 1, the Tramp and another prospector, Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain) are caught in a blizzard and stumble into the cabin of Black Larsen (Tom Murray), a homicidal villain. At the point of a gun (and a gag), Larsen is convinced to let them stay. Three days into the storm, the three are starving. While Larsen braves the weather in search of food, the Tramp and Big Jim struggle to make a meal of the Tramp’s boiled boot–in a scene of comic transposition that required the two actors to choke down pounds of footwear-shaped licorice.
In Act 2, the Tramp parts ways with Big Jim and heads to a frontier town, where he falls for a dance hall girl named Georgia (Georgia Hale), who quite literally overlooks him. In a number of poignantly composed shots, Chaplin gives us the pathos of the Tramp, an outsider looking in yearningly. In a dream, he envisions  throwing a fancy dinner for Georgia and her friends, in which Chaplin performs the ‘Dance of the Rolls,’ bringing bread “shoes” on fork “legs” to (eternal) life.
In Act 3, Big Jim arrives in town, suffering from amnesia, with enough memory to recall that he struck gold, but not enough to recall where. Promised half, the Tramp leads him back to Larsen’s cabin and another blizzard, which sends the cabin teetering famously on a treacherous precipice. Here, Chaplin’s genius for set pieces reaches an iconic peak (pun intended), made possible with swivels, cables, and pulleys, and the most rudimentary of special effects.  Surviving this peril and finding the gold, Big Jim and the Tramp end the film on a steamship back to civilization, rich and famous. The press on board the ship, fascinated with the Tramp’s rise to riches, ask him to put on his rags again, for the cameras—in an early example of Chaplin’s self-reflexivity. Here, Chaplin writes the Tramp another happy ending. He finds Georgia in steerage, claims her for his fiancé, and sneaks a kiss—the scandal-mongers feeding on Lita Grey’s divorce accusations be damned.
In Chaplin’s next film, The Circus (1928), the Tramp joins a circus, a funnier clown than all the rest, in spite of himself. The audience laughs harder the more indignities he suffers: chased by police; botching a magician’s act; and tussling with monkeys on a high wire. Behind the scenes, the Tramp has it even harder. Hungry, underpaid, and overworked by the tyrannical ringmaster (Allan Garcia), he winds up in a lion’s cage—in a famous scene achieved by split-screen double exposures within the camera of Roland Totheroh, Chaplin’s longtime cinematographer. The Tramp also falls in love with Merna (Merna Kennedy), the ringmaster’s abused step-daughter, whose plight activates his chivalric tenderness. Again, his love is unrequited and so he concedes to his romantic rival in the name of the heroine’s happiness. The Circus’s ending is as iconic as The Gold Rush’s beginning: the Tramp sits alone in the abandoned circus ring, contemplates a star on a torn poster, then stands determinedly and walks away from the camera, with that irrepressible heel kick.
City Lights (1931).
Three years later, the world and the film industry had been radically changed, by a global economic depression and the “talkies,” respectively. Chaplin addressed the former obliquely and rejected the latter in City Lights (1931), his highest-rated masterpiece, according to many, including reputable compilers of “best ever” lists, Robert Bresson, and the filmmaker himself. Though stubbornly eschewing dialogue, it was for City Lights that Chaplin began to write his own musical scores, which he uses to great emotional effect, maximizing his trademark poignancy.
City Lights is composed of two intersecting plots which revolve around the Tramp’s relationship to two supporting characters—a Blind Flower Girl (Virginia Cherrill) and an Eccentric Millionaire (Harry Myers)—and which contrast the moral universes of the Haves and Have-Nots. Chaplin’s criticism of the Haves is established brilliantly in one of Chaplin’s greatest openings, in which city elites rudely awaken the Tramp on a statute to “Peace and Prosperity” (that inter-titled sarcasm again), their speechifying rendered by Chaplin in ridiculous kazoo vibrations (a jab at empty political rhetoric and at the “talkies.”) For the rest of the film, this criticism is elaborated in the Millionaire, who only recognizes the Tramp when he is drunk. Reversing the usual terms, the Have-Nots are morally superior to the Haves, as embodied in the Tramp’s selfless love for the Blind Girl. In their meet-cute, she sells him a boutonniere and mistakes him for a rich man–a misidentification on which the story hinges that Chaplin worked out on set, taking months to satisfy his perfectionism, much to the chagrin of Cherrill and his exhausted crew.
Smitten with the Blind Girl, the Tramp determines to pay for a medical procedure to restore her sight, including a hilarious attempt at prizefighting that harkens back, and bests, his Essanay short The Champion (1915). In the end, he gives her a wad of cash stolen from the Millionaire, in a seamless blend of slapstick, Robin Hood-esque social criticism, and romanticism. When released from jail, the Tramp happens upon the (no longer) Blind Girl. In the film’s final moments, she sees that this penniless man is her benefactor, in what James Agee called “the highest moment in the movies.”   
After production, Chaplin embarked on another world tour, again enthusiastically welcomed by large crowds and some “Big Men” of history, including Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, and Albert Einstein. In his account in A Comedian Sees the World, Chaplin became more outspoken about his political convictions. Explicitly rejecting “revolution” in favor of progressive “evolution”, he advocated regulations to ameliorate economic inequality, improve labor conditions, and establish a social safety net. Back in the U.S., he joined others in the emergent Hollywood Left in supporting socialist Upton Sinclair’s gubernatorial campaign and President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Like many contemporary artists, he also felt compelled to address the socioeconomic context more explicitly in his films.
Modern Times (1936).
Modern Times (1936) opens on a shot of corralled sheep which dissolves into a shot of corralled factory workers, another instance of Eisensteinian intellectual montage. Among those workers is the Tramp. In this first sequence, the Tramp struggles mightily to keep up with an accelerating assembly line, suffers the indignities of a “feeding machine,” is dragged into the factory’s mechanical cogs, and suffers a nervous breakdown. In other words, the Tramp—standing in for “The Common Man”—is consumed rather than fed by the Industrial Machine.
Modern Times’ second sequence is almost as famous as the first. Newly released from psychiatric care, the Tramp finds himself in a world gone mad. Factories are closed; men are unemployed; and the authorities mistake the Tramp for a “communist leader,” after he finds himself the accidental flag-bearer of a protest march. While the Tramp is hauled to jail, Modern Times introduces us to the Gamin, played by Paulette Goddard, then Chaplin’s third young wife.
The Tramp and the Gamin are soul mates, both hyperkinetic, hungry, and instinctually anti-authoritarian. When they finally meet in a police paddy wagon, the love is mutual. They share visions of domestic bliss and material abundance. They find work in a dance hall, the Tramp serving as a singing waiter; performing a song in an uproarious faux-Italian, he pantomimes the lyric’s meaning, in a very Chaplin-esque non-concession to the talkies. But when times get tough again, the couple refuse to give up without a fight. When the Gamin momentarily loses hope at film’s end, the ever-resilient Tramp responds with the moral of this Depression-era tale: “Buck up – never say die. We’ll get along!” And so they do, with the Gamin joining the Tramp in his signature exit, striding jauntily away into the sunset.
Not surprisingly, Communists embraced Modern Times as “a sharp satire on the capitalist system [and] bourgeois society.” But Chaplin denied the charges, and that the film had any political implications at all. It’s just meant to be funny, he demurred.
For his next film, The Great Dictator (1940), Chaplin did not demur, making a biting anti-fascist satire even as much of the rest of Hollywood tried to stay out of the fray of global politics.
In it, Chaplin plays two roles, that of the Little Jewish Barber (a variation on The Tramp) and Adenoid Hynkel, the fascist dictator of a fictional country, again contrasting the moral universes of the (authoritarian) elite and the (democratic) masses. The character of Hynkel is an obvious stab at Hitler, whom Chaplin mercilessly lampoons. Evolved from his faux-Italian singing in Modern Times, Chaplin-as-Hynkel raves from a podium in hilarious faux-German and then dances in ecstasy with an inflated globe (and his inflated ego). But it is in the voice of the Jewish Barber—mistaken for Hynkel—that Chaplin truly speaks to world audiences for the first time. At film’s end, he breaks his silence in a three-minute long speech in which he rails against military dictatorships and racism as well as the industrial capitalism that he blames for rearing both.
The release of The Great Dictator was a huge media event, representing the apex of Chaplin’s two-decades long run. Its final speech was published everywhere, and Chaplin read it in Washington on the eve of Roosevelt’s third inaugural. Chaplin became more active in the Hollywood Left, which followed his lead with a flood of antifascist films. And he stumped for the “Second Front,” to divert Nazi pressure on our Soviet allies—a mainstream position during the war misrepresented as tantamount to treason afterwards.
But Chaplin’s downfall started during the war. Divorced from Goddard in 1942, he married his fourth wife, Oona O’Neill in 1943. He was 52, she was 18, another teen bride in Chaplin’s increasingly inappropriate collection. (Or so it seemed at the time; the couple would have eight children and stay happily married for over 35 years, until Chaplin’s death.) But Chaplin’s latest teen bride was only a minor scandal compared to the paternity suit brought by Joan Barry that tainted him as a lecherous womanizer, to the glee of his political enemies. Angry, Chaplin turned further to the Hollywood Left’s émigré community, which supported his self-understanding as a victim of conservative American moralists and rightwing political persecutors.  
Monsieur Verdoux (1947).
Unfortunately for Chaplin, both of the latter groups proved ascendant in the postwar, mounting the power to exile him. But not before Chaplin fired two cinematic shots against the bow, with Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952), dialing up a lot of dialogue in both, with scathing satire in the former and philosophizing pathos in the latter. Both failed at the domestic box office.
Monsieur Verdoux’s title character is a dapper Frenchman who marries and then kills rich women for their fortunes—a direct response to Chaplin’s reputation for womanizing and a dark source for gags in this “comedy of murders.” But Henri Verdoux is not pure evil. He has come to this “occupation” out of cruel necessity, unceremoniously laid off from the bank at which he was a loyal employee for thirty years. To support his beloved family, he has hardened his heart, ever the survivor: “This is a ruthless world, and one must be ruthless to cope with it,” he explains.
  In other words, if the Little Jewish Barber represents a minor revision of the Little Tramp, Verdoux represents a major one—and ultimately his extinguishment. A mean, even homicidal world has finally turned the Tramp mean and homicidal. When Verdoux is arrested and tried, dialogue makes the moral clear: “As a mass killer,” he tells the jury, “I am an amateur by comparison” to munitions manufacturers and “many a big business.” When a reporter admonishes his cynicism, Verdoux summarizes Chaplin’s postwar disillusionment: “To be idealistic at this moment would be incongruous.” In the final scene, Chaplin-as-Verdoux walks away from the camera—with a recognizable waddle but no resilient kick—towards his execution.
Chaplin took a different approach with Limelight, perhaps in response to the worsening political climate (he was subpoenaed by HUAC in 1947 but never testified). Less hard-punching social critique than Monsieur Verdoux, this 1952 film is more resigned, bittersweet, even elegiac in its self-reflexivity. In it, Chaplin plays Calvero, a once-beloved clown of English music hall fame, who has “lost contact with the audience,” reflected in a poignant dream he has of an empty auditorium. Perhaps defending Chaplin’s own relationships with young women, Calvero saves a beautiful young ballerina Terry (Claire Bloom) from a suicide attempt. He rebuts her defeatism by waxing poetic on the wonders of life, love, and Art, ultimately restoring Terry’s will to live. He ensures her smash debut as prima ballerina at the Empire Theater—where he once reigned—and steps aside to make room for his romantic rival Neville (Sydney Chaplin). The old makes way for the new: Calvero expires in the wings, covered by a sheet (or movie screen?), as Terry spins pirouettes on stage. 
In September 1952, Chaplin and his family left the U.S. for the London premiere of Limelight. At the high point of McCarthyism, the U.S. government denied Chaplin’s reentry permit. Effectively banished, Chaplin lived the rest of his years on an estate in Switzerland. 
A King in New York (1957).
Chaplin made two films in exile, neither of them ‘required viewing’ to any but the most devoted Chaplin fans. A King in New York (1957) continued his self-reflexivity and ramped up the bitterness. In it, Chaplin plays a deposed European monarch in exile in New York City (inversely enough), whose film-length encounter with the American Way is an opportunity for Chaplin to denounce it, as prostrate to advertising, cosmetic surgery, and rightwing politicos. The second, A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) stars Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, whose misadventure-filled courtship likewise serves as an opportunity for Chaplin to criticize U.S. political culture and the conventions of ‘polite society.’ Aside from A Woman in Paris, it is the only other Chaplin film in which Chaplin himself barely appears. It was even more poorly received.
Far more successful were the old masterpieces that Chaplin reissued in the 1960s. By that time, the anticommunist fever in the U.S. had abated and criticisms of American society were welcome once again. Simultaneously, the rise of academic film studies, and particularly auteur theory, helped to restore Chaplin’s lofty reputation. Before his death on Christmas Day 1977, Chaplin returned to the United States only once, to collect a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars ceremony in 1972, basking once again in the world’s estimation of him as incomparable genius.
Oceans of ink have been spilled about Chaplin. Here are some good places to start:
In Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image, Charles J. Maland offers brief summaries of the films, but his interdisciplinary approach is broader—and more rewarding—than that. Maland places Chaplin’s biography and filmography within their historical contexts, and examines not just production histories but promotional strategies; critical and popular reception; and the press’ treatment of Chaplin’s personal life. Maland understands each film within the “aesthetic contract” Chaplin established with his audience, developing and evolving a “personal genre.” As the subtitle suggests, Maland explores Chaplin’s “star image” over six decades, how he created, cultivated, and responded to it.  
For Chaplin’s own version of events, see My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin (1964), keeping in mind that it was published a decade into his bitter exile. Chaplin devotes a third of the memoir to his pre-filmmaking days, chronicling his early poverty and stage career. In later pages, he devotes a lot of space to listing the famous people with whom he rubbed elbows and compared continental philosophies. He devotes less space to topics likely to be of greater interest to most readers: his scandalous love life and, especially, the making of his films. 
Among the many Chaplin biographies, Chaplin: His Life and Art by David Robinson represented an important advance, given the author’s access to Chaplin’s personal archives and the family’s cooperation. Robinson fills in the gaps of the production histories Chaplin himself failed to illuminate in his autobiography. He forgives Chaplin’s mercurial and inefficient filmmaking excesses as motivated by his “quest for perfection” which so memorably paid off, time after time.
For a less complementary biography, see Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin by Joyce Milton. In it, Milton underscores Chaplin’s damaged psyche; his pettiness and self-importance; and especially his political naiveté and inconsistency.
For in-depth analyses of individual films, the BFI Film Classics monographs are characteristically tops. See Joan Mellen’s on Modern Times (2006); Charles J. Maland’s on City Lights (2007); and Matthew Solomon’s on The Gold Rush (2015).    
Documentaries have an audiovisual advantage here, with clips able to convey the films’ ineffable qualities. Particularly effective is Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, by film historian and critic Richard Schickel. It is comprehensive and compelling, including in its coverage of Chaplin’s pre-United Artists years. It also features interviews with filmmakers in deep appreciation of Chaplin’s oeuvre and influence, including directors Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, and actors Robert Downey, Jr. and Johnny Depp.
The contribution of Unknown Chaplin by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill is its archival research and discovery of lost outtakes. Outtakes from Chaplin’s Mutual years show him evolving beyond Sennett’s “unmotivated anarchy” to invent—and obsessively improve upon—gags that forwarded Story, which Chaplin found along the way, working without scripts. This proved a highly inefficient and expensive process. Notable is Unknown Chaplin’s excavation of City Lights’ tortured production, particularly as Chaplin struggled for months to solve the “problem” of the Tramp and the Blind Girl’s first encounter.
Finally, there is the recent The Real Charlie Chaplin by Peter Middleton and James Spinney. Though not breaking any new ground, it does give us a sense of the ground on which Chaplin stands today. Chaplin’s biography and filmography are subjected to current day trends in politics, academic study, and documentary filmmaking. Flatteringly, the Little Tramp is found to “blur” or even “defy” gender and sexuality norms, ahead of his times. Contrastingly and damningly, Chaplin is found guilty of gross misogyny, his cancellation (again) in the “Me Too” era blaringly implied. In this way, The Real Charlie Chaplin updates Maland’s understanding of Chaplin’s “star image” as evolving over time.


Notebook PrimerColumnsCharlie ChaplinLong Reads
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