Charlie Chaplin might not have invented movies, but he had an almost unparalleled influence on their development and evolution. He practically invented the comedic film and he became a legend for his ability to blend melodrama and pathos into his comedies, resulting in some of the most enduring films of his era and, subsequently, film history in general. His life was almost as interesting as his movies as he experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows.
Seemingly destined for a career as an entertainer, Chaplin made his first appearance on stage at the age of 5 and throughout his early life he gained a variety of skills that would suit him in his future career. He made his debut in 1914, with his Tramp character being introduced later that year, and he quickly became a sensation for a number of short films. By age 26 he was one of the highest paid people in the world and in 1921 he directed, starred in, edited, and composed music for his first feature length film, The Kid, which was an instant success. With the advent of the sound era, starting in 1927 with The Jazz Singer, it seemed as if Chaplin might become obsolete but he bucked the trend and made two more enormously successful silent films with his last one, Modern Times, coming nearly a decade after the rest of Hollywood had completely converted to sound.
After World War Two, Chaplin’s popularity waned because of his political beliefs and a series of scandals and because of what many saw as pro-communist sentiments, Chaplin was essentially exiled from the United States after 1952. He only directed two more movies after his exile and neither of them were as well-received as his previous work. Years later, after the political landscape changed a bit, Chaplin’s films were re-examined and his later works especially gained a renewed appreciation. In 1972 Chaplin was allowed to return to the U.S in order to receive an honorary award at the Oscars where he was greeted with the longest standing ovation in Oscar history.
Through his iconic Tramp character, Chaplin became one of the richest and most famous people in the world and it’s often said that at one time, Chaplin’s Tramp was the most famous image in the world. Chaplin was a supremely versatile artist who wrote, directed, produced, edited, scored, and starred in most of his films. A notorious perfectionist, Chaplin often spent years working on his films in an era where many directors turned out multiple movies a year.
By my reckoning, Chaplin made eight indisputable masterpieces, out of his eleven total, and many of them are often ranked among the greatest movies of all time. He was one of the few silent performers who was able to switch to sound without losing any effectiveness whatsoever and his films have already lasted nearly 100 years without showing any signs of growing old or stale.
This article was first posted on June 19, 2013