George Bernard Shaw once referred to Charlie Chaplin as “the only genius to ever come out of the film industry,” and the compliment could apply equally to the artist’s unprecedented popularity as to the exacting control he exerted over nearly every means of production. Chaplin wrote, directed, edited, produced, starred in, even scored his films, and his improvisational, sketch-based approach to his features (at least until he finally switched to talkies) helped ensure that he dictated the nature of each individual scene. To look at the results, though, is to be unable to deny that, whether he was truly the only genius to work in Hollywood, he certainly was a genius, a master craftsman whose simplicity disguised an ability to work a crowd as effectively as (and with far more grace than) Hitchcock ever could.
And where Chaplin rose to international superstardom through his shorts [see Charlie Chaplin's 10 Best Shorts here] it was his feature-length films that truly delivered on his promise. That places Chaplin in sharp contrast to peers like Lloyd, Keaton and Laurel and Hardy, who, despite their handful of essential features, were best served by the concise, joke-driven format of short films rather than the complexities demanded of longer works. Certainly none of them handled the transition to talkies as well as Chaplin, first by ignoring the new fashion altogether, then acquiescing with a spate of films that, far from revealing Chaplin as a has-been, were startlingly ahead of their time, including a vicious postwar satire and an ostensibly fuddy-duddied rant against ‘50s America that found one of its most vocal champions in modernist du jour Roberto Rossellini.
Taken as a whole, the arc from “The Kid’s” harrowing social-realist comedy through the wistful, imperfect but elegant drawing-room farce of “A Countess from Hong Kong” represent one of the great canons of any filmmaker, charting artistic growth and evolution along a paradoxical tonal shift backwards from vaudeville into even more ancient comedy of manners, as well as an increasingly bold foregrounding of political, then personal beliefs. If this list, like all lists, is a perfunctory and unnecessary method of arbitrarily rating a filmography that deserves to be processed in whole, it is done in the hopes that those who haven’t seen some of Chaplin’s greatest yet most neglected work, as well as those who perhaps have and judged it wanting, may give some of the best films ever made a chance. There is no film here that a filmmaker should not be envious of not making, nor one that will waste the time of anyone who watches it.
In honor of The Criterion Collection's beautiful new dual-format DVD / Blu-ray release of "City Lights", we rank all 11 of Chaplin's features, from great to greatest.
(Note: an earlier version of this piece ran here)
11.) THE CIRCUS (1928)
In terms of straight gag execution, this may be Chaplin's funniest feature, yet it is also the least ambitious and resonant. It shows off the least ambition of any of Chaplin's full-length films, content to remain in a single area and to play harmless jokes that do not even stretch the possibilities of circus performance, much less comment upon it. Chaplin does not put much pathos into “The Circus,” but what is there plays like a lazy parody of Chaplin’s perceived schmaltz. The mistreatment of the ringleader's daughter marks a sub-Dickensian misstep for an artist who elsewhere made himself Dickens' equal, and it is amusing that those who pooh-pooh Chaplin's sentiment tend to favor this, the worst example of it. Nevertheless, the slapstick bits mark the highpoint of Chaplin's physical comedy, from the marvelous early chase through a funhouse (complete with an extended hall of mirrors bit that forecasts the finale of “The Lady from Shanghai”) to all the acrobatic stunts in the circus, which Chaplin miraculously performs with precision while making everything look like a freak accident.
10.) THE KID (1921)
Chaplin's first feature shows off the filmmaker's talents at their rawest. Its setup is thin, and its emotions exist at the surface, a bundle of nerve endings exposed to the wind. The climactic chase, of the Tramp ambling over rooftops to catch up to the truck taking his adoptive urchin to an orphanage, is one of Chaplin's most basic yet most thrilling setpieces and an early showcase for the emotional power of cinema. Elsewhere, Chaplin is buoyed by Jackie Coogan, who gives one of the great child performances. Their rapport is natural, harmonious, and hilarious. If the climax points toward Chaplin's later, more refined emotional peaks, the underplayed comedy between Chaplin and Coogan also points toward the great strides the director would later make with even subtler acting. Also a treat for the sly recurring gag of the father and son's con game, effectively creating work for themselves through mischief (a joke repeated more benignly in The Gold Rush and far, far more viciously in Monsieur Verdoux).
9. A WOMAN OF PARIS (1923)
Chaplin suffered his first flop when he stayed completely behind the camera for this 1923 drama about a woman unable to be with her lover because of his parents' disapproval, a separation that eventually turns the woman into the sort of low trash they always considered her. This grim staging of self-fulfilling prejudice marks a tremendous leap in storytelling ability for Chaplin, and Edna Purviance, his friend, ex-lover and trusted colleague, gives a nuanced, layered performance that may not have brought in crowds but was a watershed for other filmmakers. Chaplin, though depressed by the poor commercial reception, did not forget what it taught him, and his later features all benefit from the subtlety and depth he explored in this downbeat work.
8. LIMELIGHT (1952)
At face value, this is Chaplin's most self-pitying work, the tale of a has-been superstar trying to have one last bite of the cherry before fading away. To be sure, the climax of Chaplin and Buster Keaton performing a glorious travesty of a show-stopper, is as devastating as it is thrilling, a reminder of what and who audiences allowed ourselves to forget. Yet the rich layer of irony under everything lends even the most heartbreaking moments an air of defiance. In embodying an outdated, miserable clown, Chaplin paradoxically rejuvenates himself, and when Calvero goes out the way he wanted, he does not represent Chaplin's own departure but the expulsion of all the things that could weigh him down. Granted, he only made two more films after this, but Chaplin freed himself with “Limelight.”
7. MODERN TIMES (1936)
Nearly a decade after “The Jazz Singer” hit theaters, Chaplin was still clinging stubbornly to the silent form, and “Modern Times” deftly combines his anxieties over sociopolitical realities in the Depression (a period he largely sat out despite presaging it with his Tramp character) with his fear of obsolescence as a filmmaker. These dual fears converge best in the early, iconic image of the Tramp being passed through the inside of industrial machinery as just another cog or, conversely, as a strip of film through a projector. Viewed through either thematic prism, Chaplin is being used and spit out unceremoniously, and the combination of populist zeal and self-pity is never matched anywhere else in the film, which shows the worn seams in the director’s sketch-based approach in its uneven pacing. A great benediction for the Tramp as social underdog, but also the film that shows it was high time for Chaplin to move on.
6. A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG (1967)
Chaplin's final feature is also the one that most routinely comes in for a beating, uniting the casual admirers and die-hard fans in dismissal. Yet this much-maligned piece, featuring Marlon Brando at his most modulated and manipulated and Sophia Loren as, essentially, the Tramp, is a beautiful farewell for the artist (the mise-en-scène is among Chaplin's most vibrant) and his most purely comedic work since “Modern Times.” But to call it a return to form—his or anyone else's—would be inaccurate. As Richard Brody has said, Chaplin revises his interpretation of slapstick to be the result of "efforts to conform to bourgeois propriety." That shows a fundamental growth on Chaplin's part even at the end—this is at least the second major thematic overhaul of his love of physical comedy in his film career. It also, when one considers how similarly Tati employed slapstick in that year's “Playtime,” proves that Chaplin, who turned to both color and widescreen for the first time at the end, was modern to the last frame.
5. THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940)
Chaplin’s belated move into talkies balanced his tardy technological progression with an ahead-of-the-curve diatribe against the Hitler regime then tearing through Europe with no U.S. intervention. Forced to at last write a script straight through, Chaplin delivers one of the cinema’s most accomplished satires, its narrative progression from WWI through the razing of Jewish ghettos sneaking in a contemporary European history class to Americans still living in blissful isolation. Further, by grounding Hynkel/Hitler’s rise to power, one can see how he became attractive and fearsome—Chaplin turns cod German from comedy to horror in a close-up of his spittle-filled mouth calling for the destruction of the ghetto—while also deflating him at every turn as an opportunistic, immoral fool. And when Chaplin finally delivers on the “Prince and the Pauper” story teased by his dual role as a Jewish barber, the implications of a Jew passing credibly for the King of the Aryans are devastating. That much-contested final speech delivered by the barber-as-Hynkel (and really, as everyone admits, just as Chaplin) may be didactic, but the criticism it spares for America’s own history of intolerance and genocide runs deeper than a mere call to arms.
4. A KING IN NEW YORK (1957)
“A King in New York” builds off the deceptive self-justification of “Limelight,” swapping the departing (or departed, rather) for the returning, defaced royal who suffers further indignities back in America. But really, the "return" merely sets the stage for Chaplin's own counterattack, an attack on contemporary American culture dated in some spots and disturbingly timeless in others. His gags at the expense of teen music and CinemaScope do have a “Man yells at cloud” nature to them, but his jabs at a country in thrall to paranoia find solid traction. Chaplin's own son, Michael, even gives Jackie Coogan a run for his money, playing a radical child who parodies Chaplin's tendencies for preaching by annoyingly spouting off Marxist rhetoric without provocation. But he also features in one of Chaplin's most agonizing scenes when the lad returns late in the film having sold out and named names to protect his parents, shuffling around as if lobotomized and barely able to inhale without breaking into fresh sobs of self-loathing. The only counterpoint to such darkness is Chaplin's slapstick, presented as a weapon against fascistic thought control in America as it was for Germany in “The Great Dictator.”
3. CITY LIGHTS (1931)
God knows the Pre-Code era of early talkies is perhaps the pinnacle of Hollywood’s edginess, but compare their contemporary technological accomplishment to the "obsolete" “City Lights” and tell me which is timeless. If Chaplin remains silent (barring a few ingenious uses of sound that show more cleverness than any other sound film of 1931 save “M”), he nevertheless refines its image to its clearest and most evocative. The forthright sociopolitical content of Chaplin’s work remains foregrounded but also suggestive, so that the contrast of the Tramp and Harry Myers’ drunken millionaire is laced with the implication that the millionaire’s suicidal thoughts are a luxury of the rich as the Tramp perseveres under far harsher conditions. But if “City Lights” is often one of Chaplin’s most barbed and political works, it also marks the apex of his sweetness on film, with the Tramp giving wholly of himself for the Virginia Cherrill’s flower girl. Then there's the finale, perhaps the greatest in cinema, a masterfully acted swell of apprehension and romantic hope that could cause flash flooding from the onslaught of tears it elicits.
2. THE GOLD RUSH (1925)
Mixing the raw sentiment of “The Kid” with the subtle dramatic refinement of “A Woman in Paris,” “The Gold Rush” attains a level of emotional control that threatens to turn its spate of classic gags into a secondary pleasure. But to consider one without the other would rob the film of its immaculate construction, with every gag—no matter how separate from the narrative at hand—joined seamlessly to the rest of the film as soon as it concludes. Everyone remembers the reverie of the roll dance, that most delicate display of physical acting that cannot be reproduced no matter how often people copy it. But how many recall that immediately after this wonderful moment, Chaplin crushes the Tramp back to reality with the realization of abandonment and loneliness? Chaplin’s skill, both as a performer and a director who facilitates his performance, has always been finding the grace in slapstick, and nowhere is Chaplin more elegant than here.
1. MONSIEUR VERDOUX (1947)
Chaplin’s post-war satire bowed to intense critical savagery and commercial failure, yet none of his films has aged so well. Made at a peak of social self-satisfaction, “Verdoux” does not simply discard the Tramp as turn him inside out, replacing the peevish but good-natured poor man with a venal, middle-class monster clinging to his privilege and station, willing to kill to turn a profit. Verdoux’s self-justification takes capitalism to its dark extremity, but James Agee was right to note the effectiveness with which Chaplin moves beyond mere commentary to craft a more complex psychological portrait of the bourgeoisie. It’s satire as character study, an exaggeration of economic ambition that reveals the dark impulses embedded in the products of a society that mistakes monetary value for the moral sort. Verdoux's speech to the judgmental crowd at his trial, in which he notes the way that higher numbers always "sanctify" in murder, is both pathetic, hollow apologia and a chilling glimpse into the machine that spat him out. The social climate has since allowed anti-capitalist thought to rise to the mainstream in America, but no filmmaker has ever picked up the gauntlet Chaplin threw down with this and met its challenge.