Writing about the sort of creators and works of art we do here at Open Culture, I constantly struggle not to overuse the word “iconic.” But in the case of actor and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin, no other adjective could do. When we call Chaplin iconic, we mean it literally: not only did he find great success as a comic figure in the silent-film era, he visually represents the concept of a comic figure in the silent film era. Yet he didn’t attain icon status in just one form, having continually tweaked, refined, and improved his look and sensibility throughout his 75-year career. Now, 35 years after his death, we see all of these performances as subtly different but still recognize them as expressions of the broader Chaplin persona. At the top of the post, you can watch the film that established his most beloved one, 1915’s The Tramp.
But the Little Tramp didn’t emerge fully formed just then and there. Technically, the character debuted in the previous year’s Kid Auto Races at Venice, and even before that, Chaplin portrayed a few fellows we might call proto-Tramps. Just above, you’ll find 1914’s Making a Living, a picture that casts the London-born Chaplin, with hat, cane, and mustache, as flirtatious thief Henry English. His criminal ways lead him into the path of those other silent-comedy stalwarts (if not quite icons), the Keystone Kops. A decade later, Chaplin, by that point the quintessential writing-directing-acting auteur, wouldn’t need to share the screen. In 1925, he made the Klondike-set The Gold Rush, whose “streaks of poetry, pathos, tenderness, linked with brusqueness and boisterousness” drew special praise from the New York Times, and for which Chaplin said he wanted to be remembered. You can watch it below, and then you can browse our collection of 25 Free Charlie Chaplin Films on the web.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.