best film:  City Lights is solidly in my top-100 of all-time and Modern Times has pushed past The Gold Rush and is now in my “honorable mention” section. Chaplin was no visual master behind the camera but there are few, if any, more poignant moments in cinema than Virginia Cherrill’s character realizing it is Chaplin who has been her rich benefactor at the climax of City Lights. It’s incredibly affecting and well-earned narrative cinema. The glorious ending of Modern Times and the supreme brilliance of Chaplin’s “potato dance” in The Gold Rush could really come in any of his films—but the moment of artistic transcendence in City Lights is transcendent because of what Chaplin built in the rest of the film.

best performance: The Gold Rush. I think, truly, that any of the top three choices, his big masterpieces, could be the right answer. Chaplin was a magnificent performer—not a great director overall (especially considering the quality of the movies he made)- but he got better as a director as he went along (much stronger in Modern Times in 1936 in comparison with Gold Rush in 1925). I think in 1925 (The Gold Rush) he almost forges a masterpiece strictly in front of the camera. It has his potato dance, great surrealism hunger comedy sequences in the cabin. I just think (probably to the detriment of the overall film) it’s the last time his predominant focus was on what was going on as an actor (and let’s face it, in 1925 he’s at the absolute height of his powers as a performer). He’s so sprightly and shows both physical grace and clowning.

stylistic innovations/traits: Chaplin had many shorts– I haven’t seen any of them, so we’re talking about 11 total archiveable films (really a total of 9 since 2 are cameos). He and Buster Keaton were comedian/auteurs who completely dominated the silent era from a male acting standpoint (Gish and Gaynor would be on the other side for women). The 5’5 Chaplin was not the director Keaton was but I think he clearly is a stronger actor. Keaton was deadpan and non-emote, and Chaplin was highly expressionistic with his facial features—talented (even if there’s a ton of forecasting and overacting if you prefer Keaton’s approach). He was basically a ballerina physically (the genius beach ball globe sequence in the great dictator). If you ever saw Chaplin he had a huge head/face and was really short so he was almost like physically constructed in a lab to give us those great emotions (silent actor of course) while being so nimble and elegant in his physical comedy. He created “The tramp” of course so there’s lineage in the actors who essentially play themselves (from Wayne to Cruise). He was the sole reason, as an actor, three films with non-masterpiece-level-direction—-are masterpieces. That’s saying so much about Chaplin the actor.

directors worked with:   Chaplin (10)—just a cameo in A Woman of Paris but he is technically in it. It’s hard to overstate how heavily Chaplin the director is dependent on Chaplin the actor. He was not Murnau or Griffith behind the camera.

Top 10 Performances:

  1. The Gold Rush
  2. City Lights
  3. Modern Times
  4. The Kid
  5. The Circus
  6. The Great Dictator
  7. Monsieur Verdoux
  8. Limelight
  9. A King in New York
  10. Show People/A Woman of Paris– uncredited/cameo

Archiveable films

1921- The Kid
1923- A Woman of Paris
1925- The Gold Rush
1928- Show People
1928- The Circus
1931- City Lights
1936- Modern Times
1940- The Great Dictator
1947- Monsieur Verdoux
1952- Limelight
1957- A King in New York