Charlie Chaplin

Early On

Charlie Chaplin was a master of the comedic drama, however that is not how he started.

As a child, Chaplin grew up in impoverished conditions. He lived with his mother and brother, Sydney Chaplin. His absent father died young from cirrhosis and did not support them. His mother had a difficult time bringing in income and was sent to a mental asylum when Charlie was 10. Charlie spent time living on his own at a young age and living in a workhouse in London.

Charlie was attracted to acting at a young age and was able to have some success early on in his life. This led him to enter the world of vaudeville with his older brother, Sydney. He eventually made his way to America with his brother and joined Fred Karno’s comedy company in 1909.

Keystone & Essanay

In 1913, Charlie was picked up by Keystone Studios where he would kick off what would become a legendary career in filmmaking. At Keystone, Charlie Chaplin was mentored by and worked early on with Roscoe Arbuckle. Chaplin quickly grew in popularity and quickly moved to writing, starring, and directing his films. Chaplin was a natural and this can be seen in his success with Keystone. The first time that his character, the Tramp, made an appearance on film was in Kid’s Auto Race in 1914. The tramp wonders around an amateur race track in Venice and finds himself constantly in the way.

Each studio would use the same collection of cast members, so most of the films featured the same actors. At Keystone, the regular players around Chaplin were: Roscoe Arbuckle, Mack Swain, Mabel Normand, Chester Conklin, Al St. John.

Mabel Normand was an actress and director that directed many of Chaplin’s early films at Keystone. After some apparent disagreements on the film Mabel at the Wheel, Chaplin pushed to direct his next picture. There was some hesitance from the Studio as Chaplin had only been in the fil industry for 4 months. His directorial debut film was Caught in the Rain and was a success.

Chaplin would work with Keystone for a year. When Keystone refused to give Chaplin the raise he wanted he decided to sign with a different production company, Essanay. This era was full of dozens of short films where Chaplin primarily played his role, The Tramp.

Essanay also had their familiar cast of players that would accompany Chaplin in his films. For Essanay they were: Leo White, Ben Turpin, Edna Purviance, Albert Austin, Billy Armstrong, Bud Jamison.


After Essanay. Chaplin move on to Mutual. Chaplin made some classic films with Mutual, films like: The Cure, The Immigrant, The Adventurer, to name a few. Much like at Essanay and Keystone, Chaplin worked a lot with the same players. Charlie brought many of the actors from Essanay with him to Mutual. His core supporting cast was : Albert Austin, Leo White, Henry Bergman, and Eric Campbell.

While watching, Unknown Chaplin, I discovered that he did not prepare scripts and instead would film sequences and see what stuck. Adjusting and changing the story on the fly. This must have been both exciting from a creativity standpoint as well as stressful for him and those involved.

The Immigrant (1917)

The Immigrant has seeds of dramatic accompaniment to Chaplin’s comedic style. The entire narrative is not based around sorrow or misfortune, as some later films. However, the story does follow immigrants coming to America and depicts, although comically, some of the hardships of that journey. This can be seen in the conditions on the ship and through the fear and anxiety within the restaurant.

The hardships of travel and the anxiety around being penniless and in uncomfortable conditions adds a little more depth to the characters then if it was just a slapstick comedy within a diner. Edna Perviance’s character has to deal with the death of her mother while traveling across the Atlantic. Now alone, she bumps into Chaplin who is learning the etiquette of his new environment.

The Adventurer (1917)

Chaplin’s films in this era were primarily slap stick comedies. It would not be until the 20’s with the release of The Kid, that Chaplin would begin to blend more dramatic aspects into his films. His films seem to always feature him being chased or attacked and seamlessly evading. A good example can be found in The Adventurer where he is evading both the police and the heated suitor of the love interest he is stealing.

Charlie Chaplin was already a star going into the 1920’s, but his fame grew astronomically and he became an international star. The 1920’s marked a transition where Chaplin found himself producing his own films with total control and marked the beginning of his dramatic comedies. He had incorporated elements of sadness or melancholy before in his films, but this was characterized more by his role in society.

First National

In 1918 Chaplin started making films under First National Pictures. Through First National he was able to build his own studio. This is when Chaplin began to thrive creatively and make his best films. This period included many classic films, like: A Dog’s Life, Shoulder Arms, and The Kid, to name a few. Chaplin took more time on each film and was able to move away from the movie a month quota.

Just a year later, in 1919, Chaplin formed United Artists with D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. Charlie would not make films under this company right away, that would come later. For the next five years, Charlie would make films with his First National Production company before making films with United Artists.

Shoulder Arms (1918)

Charlie Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms is one of the earlier World War 1 films made. A few noteworthy predecessors are Cecil B. Demille’s, The Little American (1917), and George Loane Tucker’s,1914 (1915). There were many films on World War 1 that came out in Europe at this time. Many of them were short films and documentaries though. I did not see any that were comedies.

Chaplin places his tramp character in boot camp and then the front lines. We get to see a comedic take on the war and that must have been unusual and a little risky for Chaplin. There is no shortage of gags, from the inability for the tramp to follow along in the marching drills to waking up in a flooded trench and getting nervous when he can’t feel his feet just to find out he is prodding a fellow soldiers foot instead.

His ability to create a spoof of a war just shows his masterful style and how he must have been loved as a performer. I am not sure how many other filmmakers could have a scene where the protagonist is shooting the enemy and tallying up the casualties. When one fires back he has to wipe a tally away. I could see this film having a backlash for making light of such a serious situation, but perhaps he could boost morale by injecting some humor in such a dark time.

In the book British Culture and the First World War, George Robb says Chaplin “endures the rigors of boot camp, bumbles his way across the Western Front and in the end manages to capture the Kaiser in the film” (168). Chaplin’s lack of seriousness and his humor was appealing to the soldiers. He helped boost their morale to get them through the trying times of the war, so watching Chaplin films became their therapy.

Chaplin utilized some interesting film techniques in this film, like a tracking shot down the trench. The shot helps bring the viewer into the film and hint at the expansiveness of the trenches.

As usual, Charlie Chaplin is able to maintain the tramps character throughout the film. The Tramp typically does not have much of an arc in terms of his development within a film. He is who he is and that person is person is typically well intentioned and just trying to survive. He is resourceful and able to outsmart his way out of just about any situation. We see that here as he makes his way through enemy lines disguised as a tree.

In the end we are hit with the it was all a dream trope. It works here since the film is a comedy and the antics and outcomes are zany anyway. It was perhaps a way for Chaplin to nod to the audience and acknowledge that war is not like this and it is all in fun.

The Kid (1921)

The dramatic aspects of his films was not ramped up until The Kid, released in 1921. The Kid began filming a few weeks after the death of his first born son and marks the introduction of the dramedy in film. The death of his son did not inspire the film, as it was written and set to start filming before he was born. However, there is no way it could not have impacted his performance.

The Kid blends a heartfelt story with the slapstick comedy that Chaplin had implemented in earlier films. By focusing on a relationship with a young orphan, Chaplin is able to create situations that can tug at heart strings and relate to many.

The film not only blends the two genres together, but does so smoothly. The situations Chaplin creates are relatively absurd when compared to real life. However, the characters respond in a consistent manner throughout the entire film. The continuity of the story and the characters allows the story to unfold and not be caught up in the inconsistent character development and plot holes that are common in these early films.

On top of all of this, The Kid was Chaplin’s first feature length film that he directed, at six reels. Chaplin had starred in and directed many of his preceding films. However, none of those had a runtime longer than 36 minutes (Shoulder Arms 1918).

Idle Class (1921)

The most interesting thing about Idle Class is that Charlie Chaplin plays two main characters. He plays the Tramp character as well as a rich counterpart. Both are stumbling through life with the primary difference being social class. Each character is “idle” in the sense that they are moving through life day by day with no trajectory, up or down.

The rich version is a drunk that has nothing better to do with his time. His wife can’t stand the drinking and he makes no effort to change that. I read that this character was supposed to be a representation of Chaplin when off screen, obviously ramped up several notches. Perhaps losing a kid and getting a divorce the year before was a catalyst for some depressive episodes and listlessness.

Idle Class is a good example of how Charlie Chaplin used film to talk about social issues or use film to at least illustrate more than just an acted out drama or pie throwing comedy. This is true for most of his films. While each film is full of gags and slap stick, there is always a backdrop that highlights the lack of opportunity or harsh living conditions. I am sure that this aspect of his films helped them connect to a wider audience.

Pay Day (1922)

Pay Day did not have a lot of substance story wise. The film is more of a collection of bits and gags, similar to the early-mid 1910’s. It follows the Tramp as he “works” on a construction site, collects his pay for the week, and finds himself out drinking before heading home. Each step along the way has a handful of gags, tricks, and general slapstick humor.

There were a few of these gags and tricks that stood out though.

The Tramp catching bricks at breakneck speed.
Chaplin inventing what would become the “distracted boyfriend meme” a century later.
A gag with coats that caught be off guard and I found my self actually laugh out loud.

United Artists

The Pilgrim (1923) marked the 8th film with First National and Chaplin had thus completed his contract. Chaplin moved on to making films under United Artists, his company that he founded 5 years earlier with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith. The other members worked on films quickly after the establishment of United Artists, but Chaplin first had to fulfil his obligation to First National.

A Woman of Paris (1923)

His first endeavor was A Woman of Paris, a film written and directed by Charlie Chaplin, but not featuring him as an actor. It starred Edna Purviance, his regular lead actress since he discovered her in 1915. It would also be her last Chaplin film until 1947. The film was a step in a different direction for Chaplin as it was a feature length drama.

The story follows Marie St. Clair (Purviance) and her evolving love story with Jean Millet, played by Carl Miller. They plan to elope to Paris, but Jean’s father suddenly dies the night they are to leave. A misunderstanding leads to Marie leaving without him and she starts a life with rich businessman, Adolph Menjou. Adolph is played by Pierre Revel. Jean eventually makes his way to Paris and a tragic love story unfolds.

There is a stark contrast in A Woman of Paris to his other films. There is little to no comedic nature to the film. It is his first effort to make a serious drama. Overall, the film is good and not a failed attempt by Chaplin. It seems to have had mixed reviews at the time though due to the public’s established expectations of what a Chaplin film should be.

The Gold Rush (1925)

The Gold Rush is my favorite Chaplin film, and arguably his best. Set in the Klondike Region of the Yukon, a lone prospector, Chaplin’s Tramp character, sets off to be a gold prospector. While prospecting for gold, he runs into several characters: Big Jim, another prospector that has lost the location of a gold deposit, Black Larsen, a wanted criminal, Georgia, a dance hall girl (played by Georgia Hale).

The story plays out in two distinct locations. The first half plays out in a cabin out in the wilderness. The cabin is the only refuge from a blizzard as well as the hideout of the criminal, Black Larsen. Big Jim, Black Larsen, and the lone prospector get stuck in the cabin due to the storm and begin to starve. Leading to some classic Chaplin Gags’ like: seeing each other as food and eating a cooked boot like it was a decadent banquet.

The second half of the story is set in a town where the lone prospector runs into Georgia, his love interest. She is not interested, but pretends to be in order to make her love interest jealous. This leading on of the lone prospector sets up heartache and disappointment that Chaplin masterfully executes.

Chaplin does a great job acting out the loneliness of his character and longing for even a simple relationship with anyone. His good natured character mixed with the torment brought on him by those around him, sets up a heartbreaking character that is hard not to love.

For more on The Gold Rush, go to this previous post dedicated to it.

The Circus (1928)

Chaplin’s next film was The Circus, in 1928. The Circus came out just after The Jazz Singer, the first talkie, but was started years prior. The delay in its release was due to several factors, like: getting a divorce to Lita Grey and issues with the film stock being damaged. Nonetheless, the film was released in 1928 with success.

The story follows the tramp as he stumbles his way into a struggling live circus show while trying to outrun the police for a crime he did not commit. The crowd, thinking he is a clown art of the show, adores him. The desperate no-nonsense ringleader brings him on to save the show, but keeps his popularity a secret from the tramp.

A Microcosm of His Career

The film feels like a microcosm of his career. His films all tend to feature a chase at some point and this is more prevalent in the earlier films. The Circus has him running from the law, a common theme in his early films, and finding his way into the circus and becoming a clown. After being the hit of the show and trying to get the girl, he ends up on his own and with the show moving on without him. This same year the film industry would make a huge transition into talking films, a format that Chaplin was not eager to transition into.

The tramp breaks the mold of “the expected comedy traditions” within the circus. The ring leader and comedy troupe are expecting him to replicate and learn their gags. However, these gags are not landing with the audience and thus not working. When the Tramp attempts to replicate them he ends up modifying the gag and making it fresh and unexpected. This can be compared to Chaplin’s own track record within comedy and filmmaking. He even highlights how perfect his timing is executing each gag throughout the film.

There are several noteworthy sequences that stand out in the film and show up in later films for decades. The two that stood out the most were: the Tramp getting lost in the mirror fun house and the harness coming off during the tight rope walking.

I don’t like The Circus as much as The Gold Rush. However, they are great counterparts to one another. The Circus is less depressing overall. They both follow the Tramp searching for love and instead of ending up with the girl in a fantasy situation, the Tramp is instead left alone. Between the two movies we see the Tramp transition from needing to fulfill his needs for love and companionship to wanting to ensure he is doing what is best for both parties.

After The Circus

By mid 1928, Chaplin began working on his next project, City Lights. He would spend most of 1928 working on the story and casting, but would not start filming until the last few days of 1928. Chaplin apparently did not think that “talkies” offered the same level of nuance as silent films and was resistant to the form. Thus, City Lights was written as a silent film.

Even though Chaplin resistant the talking picture, the public did not. After the success of The Jazz Singer, many studios began to make talking pictures and the tides began to shift within the industry. Chaplin was apparently glad to be able to create a score and sound effects that could be tied to the film. Even though the tramp would not have a voice, the tramp would still have a score.

On May 16th, 1929, the 1st Academy Awards took place and Chaplin was awarded an honorary award. The award was designated, “For versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing for the Circus”. The award was a one off and not a tradition that continued. Since he was given this award, The Circus’s nominations were taken out of their respective categories.


***More to come when I watch movies from the 30’s***

3 thoughts on “Charlie Chaplin

  1. I grew up watching Chaplin’s films, as well as all the others from this era – Keaton, Lloyd and so on, so this has been really interesting to read. I’m sure you’re probably aware, on the same journey across the Atlantic, Stan Laurel also travelled with Chaplin. And Oliver Hardy went on to reprise the boot gag in Way Out West! That, you’ll probably be pleased to hear, is the limit of my Laurel and Hardy trivia! Looking forward to hearing more about Chaplin in the 30s!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! I stumbled across them travelling together and being a part of the same acting troupe, but did not know about the revival of the boot gag! I am a big Chaplin and Keaton fan, but have not actually watched much of Lloyd and so going to start that soon.

      1. It’s so interesting findng out about these very humble beginnings and then seeing just how famous they became. I look forward to reading more of your posts about this. It’s a fascinating time in the movies.

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