A Tribute to Charlie Chaplin
By Conor Holt
April 16th marked the 125th birthday of Charlie Chaplin, and this year is the 100th anniversary of the 1st appearance of Chaplin’s Little Tramp character (in Mable’s Strange Predicament or Kid Auto Races at Venice, depending on who you ask). Chaplin was one of the first true superstars of cinema. During the peak of the silent film era in the 1920s, the Little Tramp was one of the most widely recognized images in the world, with Chaplin’s films playing to a global audience, before sound created international barriers we still haven’t broken.
Chaplin was the first director I was actively aware of. As children, we don’t think of films being created, or think about who created them. Outside of the Disney Animated films, each film I saw was individual, independent, created out of thin air. In my early teenage years, I saw the wonderful City Lights, and I was struck by how funny and touching it was – 70 years or so had not dated Chaplin’s perfectly choreographed slapstick (that boxing match is pure genius) or his sweet, romantic story. I wanted to see more of the Little Tramp.
That’s when I came across a box set of Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies at the library. Before Chaplin started making feature films, he made an incredible number of short films, first as an actor, and then as a writer/director/producer/composer AND actor. The Mutual Film Corporation hired Chaplin in 1916 – when he was only 26 years old – to direct two-reel short films, and paid him $670,00 a year. He was now one of the highest paid people in the world, with his own studio to film in – Chaplin had the chance to make exactly the films he wanted.
What the Mutual comedies represent is the evolution and development of both the character of the Little Tramp and the artistry of Chaplin. With each film, the storytelling becomes more refined, the jokes land harder, and Chaplin also first catches the whimsical, romantic heart that would bring depth to his later masterpieces. Over the course of 18 months (before leaving for an even better filmmaking contract), Chaplin achieved the slapstick perfection of One AM and the rich, character driven humanism of The Immigrant. Later in live, Chaplin said, “Fulfilling my contract with Mutual was, I suppose, the happiest period of my life.”
And in the behind-the-scenes features of the box set, I learned about how Chaplin would experiment during filming, changing jokes if they weren’t working, switching out actors to get the right impact. The films were largely created on set, with no script, just Chaplin and his actors working out the story and the comedy until it worked. Not only was Chaplin evolving with each film, he was evolving within each film as well.
Chaplin carried this style into his feature films as well. Sometimes they would go over budget and over schedule, but knew he had to play with it until it was perfect. Chaplin famously struggled for months to figure out a way to make the blind flower girl think the Tramp is rich in City Lights. Finally it came to him: the blind girl hears a car door slam, and mistakenly thinks the Tramp got in a taxi. He sees this, and endeavors to maintain the illusion, helping her in any way he can, despite being even poorer than she is.
I think Chaplin’s style holds a lesson for all filmmakers, both young first-timers and experienced directors who still seek to grow. When facing a creative problem, Chaplin didn’t always find a solution right away, but he kept working at it until it was fixed. Chaplin didn’t burst onto the screen in a perfect first effort – he built his craft and talent over several years, improving with each effort. We may never make something as timeless as City Lights again, but at the very least we should strive towards doing our best work possible, no matter how long or how many retakes it requires.
Happy Birthday, Charlie – your legacy hasn’t aged a day.
Conor Holt is the writer, director, and producer of multiple short films. His most recent film, A Better Life, a science-fiction drama about marriage & control, which he directed & co-wrote, played at the 2013 Fargo Film Festival and the Twin Cities Film Fest, and recently won Best Editing & Visual Effects at the St. Cloud Film Festival. He is a graduate of the Minnesota State University Moorhead Film Studies program, and currently lives in Los Angeles, working odd jobs in the film industry and volunteering at film festivals.
For more information on A Better Life, check out the Facebook page at facebook.com/ABetterLifeShortFilm. Follow Conor on Twitter.
As a tribute to Mr. Chaplin, what is YOUR favorite film from the legendary actor?
16 thoughts on “A Salute to the Little Tramp – Charlie Chaplin Tribute by Conor Holt”
I’m certainly a fan of Chaplin’s. I still love watching his work. It is funny though, when it comes to silent comedians he is probably my third favorite behind Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. All three were pure comic geniuses.
I’m guilty that I haven’t seen any Lloyd or Keaton films, but Chaplin was quite popular even in Indonesia. My faves were Laurel & Hardy though, my mom would often bring back VHS of their movies from her European travels! It’s such a hoot!
Keaton’s The General is a masterpiece. I need to see more of Lloyd’s films.
Fantastic tribute to an iconic great. In ‘The Dictator’ I loved his Hitler impersonation with the bouncing ball as a globe and his climbing up the drapes. Wonderful. All his work. His personal life was more interesting than his stage life. I thought Robert Downey Jr. (1992) ‘Chaplin’ was memorable and one of his best performances.
Based on my list of the films he directed that I’ve seen so far. Modern Times is my favorite as I have so far enjoyed everything I’ve seen from him and hope to see more.
I was born in the Far East and Chaplin was quite popular over that side of the world, I vaguely remember watching his old movies with my mom when I was very young. I haven’t watched any of his for a long time though. Nice tribute to a legend Conor!
Thanks! Great to hear Chaplin is still finding a global audience.
Such an awesome piece! Love this. Chaplin is one of my favorites and was truly a visionary and an icon for sure. Beautiful!
What a great tribute, found out so much about Chaplin I never knew. City Lights is an enduring classic. I was surprised at how much I liked a silent movie. And the 1992 film Chaplin with Robert Downey Jr. in the lead is still one of my favorite films. Downey did a superb job of recreating Charlie. I’ll never forget his leap from a theater box to the stage below which was certainly a “gottcha” moment, what fun!
Well executed tribute to silent film masters.
Charlie Chaplin had the soul and ability to draw tears of a smile with a gesture, smile or facial expression. His dance with the globe of the world in The Great Dictator is a hallmark.
Buster Keaton had the timing and familiarity with gags and ability to soar while being in the center of his gags and stunts. His work in The General is unsurpassed.
Harold Lloyd is definitely the most physical and the most deft with cinematic sleight of hand in Safety Last .
Nice write up, even though we all talk about movies around here, I rarely see anything about Chaplin so it was cool to read this. Thank u!
Chaplin made several great films, but my favorite has always been City Lights. Great write-up!
Chaplin rules. Been a huge fan since childhood. I own so many of his movies. The guy was amazing and revolutionary. City Lights is hands down my favorite film of his along with The Kid. This was a great read! Thanks for sharing Conor’s essay, Ruth!
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