As noted in my last blog, Mack Sennett’s influence on film comedy was undeniable. He had to go independent in order to be a comedy producer because Biograph cut ties with him when he expressed interest in the genre. The feeling at the time was that drama was serious and comedy wasn’t. It would take time before comedy would start getting more respect.
As film pioneers, D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett were important, but they both lacked the imagination that would make Charlie Chaplin surpass them both in terms of creativity. Chaplin would be the first person in Hollywood to take the humor of Sennett and the pathos of Griffith and combine them in one film.
Chaplin was born in England in 1889 and grew up impoverished in the streets of London. Looking for work before he was 9 years old, father absent and mother mentally ill, his childhood was rough, but as a teenager he toured music halls and worked as a stage actor, even joining the Fred Karno Company at the age of 19 and touring in America, where he worked as a brilliant Vaudeville performer and was eventually discovered by Mack Sennett.
After Sennett hired him, Chaplin became the biggest star at Keystone. His most popular and enduring character being the Tramp, who would make regular appearances in his short films and eventually his feature films.
After just one year at Keystone, Chaplin became one of the most familiar faces and his Tramp one of the most familiar figures in pop culture.
Chaplin would even become a director at Keystone, directing 19 of the films he starred in.
Joining Keystone turned out to be the best decision of Chaplin’s career. The only problem was that his creative and artistic ambition was being held back. Chaplin wanted to add more character to his performances but all Mack Sennett cared about was gags.
To be sure, Charlie Chaplin was a hilarious physical comedian. Good examples include these scenes:
Charlie Chaplin obviously had respect for slapstick and physical comedy, but unlike Mack Sennett, Chaplin wanted to create comedy out of conveying the inner thoughts of the characters on film. Not only was Charlie Chaplin a more sophisticated comedian than Sennett, but Chaplin’s version of good vs. evil was more complex and in tune with reality. It was becoming clear that Chaplin was more than just a comedian. He had something to say.
By 1918, Chaplin had become independent, had owned his own studio, and had a million-dollar distribution deal with First National.
Many of the feature films Chaplin directed after going independent would eventually be acclaimed as some of the greatest American films of all time, including The Gold Rush, City Lights and my personal favorite comedy ever made Modern Times.
Before Chaplin came along, no filmmaker had ever successfully combined comedy and drama, which is one of the reasons his films are so highly regarded. Often the most successful films are the ones that balance these two genres because they connect to the reality of human existence more fully than a marathon of gags or a melodrama could.
No other director would make a comedy featuring a heartbreaking scene like the one in The Gold Rush where Chaplin is waiting for the girl who never shows up. Or a comedy where the authorities try to separate a father from his son like in Chaplin’s first feature film The Kid.
Unlike Griffith, Chaplin’s contributions to cinema focus on his accomplishments ON film rather than WITH film. Griffith advanced the medium, but Chaplin advanced it in a way that made us forget we were watching a movie, because he focused on creating great characters rather than great films. And Chaplin may have been the first person to exploit the idea that a great film is even better with a great character to connect with.
This is what helped Chaplin become history’s first international superstar and the first movie maker to be acknowledged as a genius and a primary influence for a generation of artists in the 20th century, including Federico Fellini, Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder and Walt Disney.
Chaplin Short Films to Watch:
The Tramp (1915)
The Pawnshop (1916)
One A.M. (1916)
The Adventurer (1917)
The Immigrant (1917)
Easy Street (1917)
A Dog’s Life (1918)
Chaplin Feature Films to Watch:
The Kid (1921)
The Gold Rush (1925)
City Lights (1931)
Modern Times (1936)
The Great Dictator (1940)