Charlie Chaplin’s best movie defined comedy as we know it, and “City Lights” does it all without a single line of dialogue.
...because like the ultimate hipster taste maker, Charlie Chaplin was performing, writing and directing his own material back when film was still on celluloid…and he even composed most of the musical accompaniment as well. Chaplin’s famous character known as The Tramp still endures as one of the most recognizable portrayals in cinema history. Chaplin also co-founded the first great independent production company, United Artists, as a way to challenge the commercial realities that already dominated Hollywood in his day. Ultimately, Chaplin’s work as a filmmaker helped develop a visual form of comedy that appealed to universal human and social themes.
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Along with Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin formed Hollywood's first independent studio in 1919. Even before the advent of sound in cinema, actors, directors and writers could perceive that commercial formulas threatened to overpower artistic integrity. As the studio’s name implied, United Artists allowed its talent to have complete control over any work, from the story to production to the cutting room. To finance this operation, the studio used a model in which producers, who would also be the actors and filmmakers, shared the distribution profits. To do so, the studio needed to supply its own financing for production and distribution, so it certainly helped that all three co-founders were by then well established in the new medium of film. However, the ultimate belief was that artists should not only own and control, but also be accountable for their own works. In retrospect, it’s a relatively simple ownership model. At the time, it was revolutionary, and to some extent, it still is.
Although the character seems to be a parody of an impoverished hobo, Chaplin’s iconic Tramp character speaks to human qualities in all of us. The Tramp, whose desires always run up against society’s obstacles, transcended his low status, national identity and even language to become a universal, relatable character. The Tramp serves as a poignant caricature of humanity in his love for beauty and, well, love. The character’s universality grew out of the need for silent films to find simpler ways to communicate emotions, often via facial expressions and physical gestures. Chaplin also relied heavily on his instinctive comedic timing. While he may have been able to fine tune this on the vaudeville stage, a film set required Chaplin to trust his vision for the character. And of course, he did all this without speaking at all. Take that, mumble-core.
While today Chaplin is considered one of cinema’s great artists, he did so by unifying high-brow and low-brow ideals. Chaplin the writer and director created compelling narratives that spoke to real issues in society, as well as to human nature itself. However, the performer accomplished this through The Tramp, a stock stereotype with origins in the mass entertainment of vaudeville, a form often criticized for its vulgarity and easy laughs. Of course, Chaplin himself was well aware of this criticism. In the opening of "City Lights," he filmed The Tramp sitting on the lap of a classical statue in front of a group of hoity-toity art patrons. Chaplin himself also viewed his work not as a way to wage class warfare, but as a way to unite the upper and lower classes over their shared humanity instead of social and economic divisions. He may not have succeeded in reforming society through his art, but Chaplin certainly set the standard for how comedy can be a vehicle to explore more serious themes and questions. People don’t mind a lecture, so long as you make ‘em laugh.
Chaplin's comedic timing never went on for too long. He attributed this skill to his dancer mother, and it was instinctive to him. Imagination and a sense of values aided him in nailing comedic timing. He said that timing for camera was very self-reliant, as you didn't have the energy of a crowd to feed off of and your own sense of imagination became more and more of an important tool. Chaplin said "nothing can transcend human personality." Contrary to Aristotle's assertions in Poetics, Chaplin believed that story was secondary to human personality, distinction and the audiences identification through the performer. The story, to Chaplin, merely exploited the personality.
The Tramp’s Influence on TelevisionRead more
Even a Tramp Can DreamRead more
Chaplin’s Life and Movies as a Muse for Medical ResearchRead more
The Charlie Chaplin ArchivesBuy now $131
Chaplin and American CultureBuy now $72
Charlie Chaplin: InterviewsBuy now $25
United Artists, The Company That Changed the Film IndustryBuy now $27
The Comedy of Charlie Chaplin: Artistry in MotionBuy now $41
My Autobiography – Charlie ChaplinBuy now $18