CINE-LIST: Five Essential Must-See Chaplin Films (CLIPS)

CINE-LIST: Five Essential Must-See Chaplin Films (CLIPS)

To coincide with Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Charlie
Chaplin’s “City Lights,”
 new weekly column Cine-List has
compiled five essential Chaplin films. For the Chaplin novice, these are indispensable
titles to start with. For Chaplin buffs, they are titles to return to again and
again.

1. “The Gold Rush” (1925). Chaplin’s wonderful silent comedy, re-released in 1942 with
a recorded score and narration, transports us to the snow-covered terrain of
1880s Alaska, where we follow the travails of the Lone Prospector (Chaplin),
who in appearance is very similar to the comedian’s iconic Tramp, with shabby
attire and outsized shoes. Those shoes play a key role (or at least one does),
when the Lone Prospector boils one up and serves himself the sole and laces,
forgoing the juicier leather top for fellow miner Big Jim (Mack Swain). The
pure physical genius of a sequence like this, along with the famous and
flat-out adorable “Dance of the Dinner Rolls,” is what makes “The Gold Rush” so
endlessly pleasurable to watch. Yet it’s
always comedy mixed with a premise of desperation. This is where the brilliance lies. 

2. “The Great Dictator” (1940). The facial hair similarities between Charlie Chaplin’s
screen persona and a certain 20th century German tyrant weren’t lost on
Chaplin. The director-comedian cuts to the (funny) bone with this controversial
and prescient masterpiece, where he sends up Adolf Hitler by playing a thinly
veiled “Tomainian” caricature of the ruthless dictator (and, it should be
noted, bravely goes after Hitler before the US had even officially entered
WWII). The fact that this is Chaplin’s first full-on talkie doesn’t diminish
his ability for physical storytelling and humor; indeed, Chaplin’s
light-as-air dance with s floating globe is one of the finest sequences from
his career. He does double duty in the film, also playing a Jewish barber who
is mistaken for the bumbling despot. Jack Oakie and Chaplin’s longtime girlfriend
and actress Paulette Goddard lend stellar support.

3. “City Lights” (1931). Considered by many to be the highlight of Chaplin’s Little
Tramp turns, “City Lights” centers on the Tramp falling in love with a young
blind flower seller (Virginia Cherrill in a magnificently tender performance),
who in turn mistakes the humble fellow for a millionaire. Though the talkie was
becoming en vogue by 1928 when Chaplin began penning the script, he opted to
keep the romantic comedy silent, while also embarking for the first time on
writing the score. Of the film’s emotional final scene, in which Cherrill, who
has had her sight restored, encounters the Tramp after he’s been jailed for
many months and recognizes him by touch, Chaplin claimed that he “wasn’t
acting… [I was] standing outside myself and looking.”

4. “Modern Times” (1936). Man meets machine in Chaplin’s final screen appearance as
the Tramp. This 1936 film proves Chaplin’s ability not only as a comedian but
as a brilliant innovator of set pieces. The Tramp, a none-too-skillful cog at
an imposing factory, becomes a literal cog when he gets swallowed up and spun
through the wheels and grinds of the expressionistic machinery looming over
him. A metaphor for the struggles of the Great Depression but also for the loss
of individuality in the face of industry, “Modern Times” is another terrific
example of Chaplin’s directorial work in silent comedy (despite being made well
into the talkie era, and featuring one song, performed by the Tramp, comprised
completely of nonsensical words).

5. “The Kid” (1921). Only viewers with hearts of stone could keep a dry eye after
watching Chaplin’s unabashedly sentimental 1921 film, starring a 7-year-old
Jackie Coogan as the Tramp’s petite partner in crime. The second highest
grossing film the year it was released, “The Kid” centers on the Little Tramp’s
accidental inheritance of an abandoned baby boy, who he raises to be a
streetwise troublemaker, throwing stones at windows so the Tramp can then
repair them for a fee. It’s immediately clear why Chaplin cast Coogan; the kid
displays a precocious knack for physical comedy, and is expressive and adorable
to boot. The best-known sequence, melodramatic in tone as opposed to humorous,
follows Chaplin as he runs across rooftops to save Coogan from the local
orphanage’s clutches. Their tearful reuniting, filled with hugs and kisses, is
a prime example of cinema’s emotional power.

Clips after the jump.

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