Three Great Films Starring Charlie Chaplin, the True Icon of Silent Comedy

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Pow­er of Silent Movies, with The Artist Direc­tor Michel Haz­anavi­cius

Hol­ly­wood, Epic Doc­u­men­tary Chron­i­cles the Ear­ly His­to­ry of Cin­e­ma

535 Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, etc.

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 Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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