Out this week on a new Criterion Collection DVD & Blu-ray, Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” stands out as one of the director’s greatest features, and perhaps the clearest and cleanest fusion of his capacity for pathos and comedy. It is the Chaplin film even for those who do not care for Chaplin, although to stop there is to generally misunderstand the director’s full potential. Indeed, Chaplin may be the most misunderstood filmmaker to nevertheless be universally recognized as a towering figure of cinema, pigeonholed even by fans as a purveyor of warm sentiment and masterful audience manipulation while the likes of Keaton and Lloyd (deserving masters, no doubt) receive the kudos for their actual comic execution.
In comparison, Chaplin can so often seem simple, antiquated, even. His camera style, favoring static tableaux that began to look out of date even by the end of the 1910s, is unhurried and patiently observant, and his bashful pantomime, so eager to be loved, is far less to modern, ironic tastes than Keaton’s perpetual, Job-like look of put-upon suffering. Yet if a film like “City Lights” is the apex of this particular approach, one can see just how much trial and error and evolution went into that deceptive simplicity by watching Chaplin’s short films, which he churned out at a frantic pace at the start of his career before slowing down with features in the ‘20s.
In his first year in Hollywood, 1914, Chaplin acted in 16 movies and directed an additional 20 for Keystone Studios. The sheer volume is dizzying, but strangest of all, from a modern perception, is how unlike the common perception of Chaplin they are: nasty and sneering, the work of a talented but immature youth instead of the perhaps-too-human figure he later became. Narratively and stylistically, they show just how primitive Chaplin could be. To watch these short films and the ones Chaplin made up through 1923 is to see an artist consistently pushing himself, refining the same basic story—the Tramp in one scenario or other tries to impress girl, bumbles around some occupation, gets into a physical altercation and either wins his love’s hand or sets off alone—so that it perennially yielded new treasures.
The 10 shorts below illustrate just how complex Chaplin’s filmmaking became as he gained experience and exercised greater business savvy with each new studio deal. Covering a range from Chaplin’s first great works at Essanay Studios to picks from his commanding final run of shorts for First National, they show an increasing sophistication of narrative and thematic ambition, as well as that of the director’s aesthetic capacity, maximizing the impact of each still frame and even playing Chaplin’s iconic image against itself as he itched to move on to the next step of his filmmaking. Though, unlike Keaton, Chaplin’s features generally outclass his short works, the greatest revelations of the artist’s work can be found in these formative two- and three-reelers, and they can help orient one to not only appreciate the films of one of cinema’s greatest artists, but love them as well.
10.) THE TRAMP (1915)
It is fitting that Chaplin, who by 1915 had already established the Tramp “brand,” should cement the icon’s greatest qualities in the film that took the character’s name for its title. Working on a family farm to get closer to the girl who catches his eye, the Tramp’s bumbling incompetence carries less a streak of sedition than simple inexperience, childlike rather than childish. The villains of the film even happen to be worse off the he is, fellow itinerants who are fended off by Chaplin’s noble hobo. In a sense, this is Chaplin’s Western, with a gunfight on the homestead and a hero who, his work done, rides (or, in this case, waddles) off into the sunset. But the Tramp, unlike Western heroes, accepts his existential lot with some merriment, the bounce in his step indefatigably optimistic as he sets out for another adventure.
9.) A DOG'S LIFE (1918)
An obvious antecedent to “The Kid,” Chaplin’s first film for First National could have used the same title even if it didn’t give a mutt star billing. At the start of the film, the Tramp ducks cops in an abandoned lot by sliding in and out of a hole in a fence as if going through a doggy door, and when his rescued mutt steals a sausage from a vendor, the Tramp too sneaks food from the man when his back is turned (as with so many Chaplin gags, this has been done to death but retains its freshness through Chaplin’s own balletic grace and deliberate fluctuations of film speed). When he encounters Edna Purviance’s sorrowful torch singer, he responds to her suggestive gestures of escape like a dog staring at someone’s finger when they point, unable to grasp the cognitive leap of intent. Though it ends happily, it contains the perfect encapsulation of the Tramp’s usual state of noble failure in a shot of Chaplin thrown out of a bar for lacking money, a jettison he converts into a roll in mid-air before tumbling to emerge seated normally on the curb. Dignity, always dignity.
8.) PAY DAY (1922)
Chaplin made his final shorts for First National Pictures, and the combination of creative freedom and unhurried production demands coincided with a full maturation of Chaplin’s auteurial stamp. The result was his greatest run of shorts, each such an exceptional and concise demonstration of his strengths that practically all could be counted among his best shorts, if not his best work period. “Pay Day” even ambles with its 25-minute runtime, with just enough story to hang a series of elegant, hilarious gags, from a rising and falling construction elevator that sends everyone’s lunches to and fro, to a drunken Tramp’s indirect journey home (him mistaking a hanging sausage in a butcher shop for a subway handle.
If the advanced storytelling of other First National shorts showcase Chaplin learning how to hold aloft a narrative dense enough for feature length, “Pay Day’s” dense comic design proves he could come up with enough jokes for a longer movie. (As a sidenote, there’s also a peculiar delight in watching the scenes of the Tramp brick-laying to see him actually doing a job well and with gusto.)
7.) EASY STREET (1917)
Ever the scourge of flatfoots, the Tramp becomes a bobby himself in “Easy Street,” though if such a clearly ironic-pleasant title weren’t enough of a giveaway, he finds himself patrolling an absolute hellhole. The notion of the poor being left to defend their own decrepit communities as true authorities avoid it like plague is not the apex of the short’s social commentary, merely its most subtly woven barb. As a cop, the Tramp finds that his usual criminal activities go unpunished and even praised when he helps a strung-out woman shoplift to feed herself, a boldly satiric display of social justice that can only be carried out by breaking the law.
Of course, the Tramp’s status as a social underdog is always externalized by a physical confrontation, and his fight with Eric Campbell’s towering thug is one of his finest, dancing around the brute’s destruction and using objects like a bent streetlight to his advantage by knocking Campbell out with the light’s gas. Look at it as a preemptive foil for Buster Keaton’s later “Cops,” in which one good officer replaces a swarm of bad ones and even manages to overcome a community’s seemingly intractable rot.
6.) THE BANK (1915)
“The Bank” splits the difference between Chaplin’s harsher Keystone work and the artistic gains of his growth at Essanay: Chaplin plays a bank janitor who conveys some of the Tramp’s tics—his poverty is slyly communicated by a pair of cuffs masking his lack of a sleeves work shirt, and his clumsiness on the job matches the Tramp’s good-natured but deliberate, subversive oafishness—but its sappy narrative of unrequited love is executed brutally, portraying a reverie in which the loser wins the girl he loves as nothing more than a dream. Chaplin helped to both pioneer and overuse the “it was all a dream” reveal, yet his rug-pulls retain their power like few others. Here, it makes for a come-down from Chaplin’s giddy adventure so abrupt it nearly casts doubt on all his other, more upbeat masterworks. Watching it for the first time, I was suddenly struck by the uncomfortable notion that the conclusion of “The Great Dictator” might have been the barber’s parting fantasy.
5.) ONE A.M. (1916)
Before he was the Tramp, Chaplin was the Inebriate Swell, an early vaudeville success that gave him some of his first American exposure and acclaim. “One A.M.” enshrines that character of the stage into film, depicting Chaplin as a bourgeois drunkard who returns to the sort of home the Tramp would never be so arrogant and mad to dream of having, only to accidently trash the place as the stumbles and glides and collapses about the place. Devoting more than half its running time to long takes from a fixed position only occasionally broken up by axial cuts, “One A.M.” leaves it to Chaplin’s physical performance to create a sense of dynamism, which it does with aplomb. Less showily athletic than Keaton’s self-torturing stunts, Chaplin’s immaculate body control is timed less to surviving a gag than to the subtlety of expression. Watch the way his legs wobble just so as he ambles up the stairs to be decked by a clock’s pendulum yet again, or how he spins helplessly around a table he wishes to use for stabilization. Chaplin’s pantomime is often praised over his actual slapstick, but in “One A.M.,” there is no distinction between the two.
4.) THE PAWNSHOP (1916)
The Tramp’s foregrounded class consciousness has, for all its unfashionable sentiment, aged remarkably well. “The Pawnshop” in particular plays like the spiritual forefather of ‘90s slacker comedies, in which the Tramp equally torments his coworkers at the pawnshop and the customers who attempt to patronize it. The short contains one of Chaplin’s greatest gags, in which a customer attempts to sell an alarm clock. Chaplin takes the clock and proceeds to dismantle it, first checking for its “heartbeat” and “pulse,” then opening it like a tin of beans, pulling out a ribbon as if it were a faulty typewriter, and finally collecting all the pieces he gutted from the thing and putting them in the patron’s hat, telling the man they cannot accept the broken clock.
All the while, Chaplin looks at the man with exasperation, as if irritated the man wasted his time by bringing this obviously broken device to him. It’s far too active to be a straight adaptation, but the film is one of the finest spiritual successors to Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Even when Chaplin saves the day, he only seems to do so to get everyone off his back.
3.) SUNNYSIDE (1919)
Not one of Chaplin’s better received films at the time, “Sunnyside” has aged incredibly well, its open flouting of convention—its first title card steamrolls past setting up the usual plot by tacking on etceteras onto a perfunctory introduction—so caustic it’s no wonder Amos Vogel included it among his subversive films. Chaplin, hampered by personal stress and a clear desire to grow past the confines of techniques he had mastered, starts to attack his own image and style. “Sunnyside” spends its first third simply parodying the Tramp and Chaplin trademarks like dream sequences, and the romance it finally deigns to depict 14 minutes in makes plain just how easy a choice it really is between the Tramp’s penniless layabout and a city boy of actual accomplishment. Only Chaplin’s established genius suggests that the film’s wonky pacing is intentional, and only “Monsieur Verdoux” among the director’s later works tears down his image so enthusiastically.
2.) THE IMMIGRANT (1917)
No one on-screen has ever glided like Chaplin. There’s something enduringly magical about watching that awkward, shuffling Tramp gait of his suddenly transform into a perfect smoothness of movement, in which his feet cease to move but his body zips around as if on air. The beginning of “The Immigrant,” set on a boat rocking on Atlantic wave, most easily facilitates this, but even as the set angles, Chaplin sets up movements contrapuntal to the tilt, creating such dynamic movement while looking so uncomplicated that the humor of the resultant gags is almost lost to the wonder of his balleticism.
Similarly, the big setpiece of the second half, as the Tramp tries to sneak loose coins on a café floor to pay a nasty waiter, is itself a pas-de-deux of careful choreography, where grasping hands require the same grace as twirling feet. For all the gloom encoded into its title, “The Immigrant” is one of Chaplin’s giddiest films, short or long, and you can hardly blame Purviance for bursting into laughter even as she provides faint resistance to the Tramp carrying her into a marriage license office at the end.
1.) SHOULDER ARMS (1918)
As in “The Bank,” “Shoulder Arms” hinges on the fantasy of an inept boob, yet this trench-set WWI farce tops even that film’s grim fake-out for bleakness. “Shoulder Arms” boasts many of the funniest throwaway jokes (the Tramp’s fee-akimbo waddling springing like a released coil every time he tries to march properly) and full gags (dressing as a tree to sneak past and incapacitate Germans) of any Chaplin silent, but it also equally displays Chaplin’s mastery behind the camera. Static shots become less a functional element of Chaplin’s performance-first style but a means of rendering war as a tableau of glory for the deluded soldier. Chaplin the actor may be playing a private, but by positioning himself so regularly in the foreground facing toward the camera as a devastated background hangs behind him unheeded, Chaplin the director subtly casts himself in the role of officer, oblivious to the carnage around his troops.
Embodying both cannon fodder and leader, Chaplin parlays the chain of command’s empty promises of being home by Christmas and the like into an internal act of self-deceit, turning the private’s daydream of conquest into a sharp critique of a conditioned lust for the battlefield. The complexity of thematic intent folded into Chaplin’s ostensibly simple setups and slight narrative tweaks provide an intellectual reward far greater than that of any of the other silent clowns.