"The Gold Rush"
"The Gold Rush"

To coincide with Criterion’s Blu-ray release of Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights,” new weekly column Cine-List has compiled five essential Chaplin films. For the Chaplin novice, these are indispensable titles to start with. For Chaplin buffs, they are titles to return to again and again.

1. “The Gold Rush” (1925). Chaplin’s wonderful silent comedy, re-released in 1942 with a recorded score and narration, transports us to the snow-covered terrain of 1880s Alaska, where we follow the travails of the Lone Prospector (Chaplin), who in appearance is very similar to the comedian’s iconic Tramp, with shabby attire and outsized shoes. Those shoes play a key role (or at least one does), when the Lone Prospector boils one up and serves himself the sole and laces, forgoing the juicier leather top for fellow miner Big Jim (Mack Swain). The pure physical genius of a sequence like this, along with the famous and flat-out adorable “Dance of the Dinner Rolls,” is what makes “The Gold Rush” so endlessly pleasurable to watch. Yet it’s always comedy mixed with a premise of desperation. This is where the brilliance lies. 

The Great Dictator

2. “The Great Dictator” (1940). The facial hair similarities between Charlie Chaplin’s screen persona and a certain 20th century German tyrant weren’t lost on Chaplin. The director-comedian cuts to the (funny) bone with this controversial and prescient masterpiece, where he sends up Adolf Hitler by playing a thinly veiled “Tomainian” caricature of the ruthless dictator (and, it should be noted, bravely goes after Hitler before the US had even officially entered WWII). The fact that this is Chaplin’s first full-on talkie doesn’t diminish his ability for physical storytelling and humor; indeed, Chaplin’s light-as-air dance with s floating globe is one of the finest sequences from his career. He does double duty in the film, also playing a Jewish barber who is mistaken for the bumbling despot. Jack Oakie and Chaplin’s longtime girlfriend and actress Paulette Goddard lend stellar support.

3. “City Lights” (1931). Considered by many to be the highlight of Chaplin’s Little Tramp turns, “City Lights” centers on the Tramp falling in love with a young blind flower seller (Virginia Cherrill in a magnificently tender performance), who in turn mistakes the humble fellow for a millionaire. Though the talkie was becoming en vogue by 1928 when Chaplin began penning the script, he opted to keep the romantic comedy silent, while also embarking for the first time on writing the score. Of the film’s emotional final scene, in which Cherrill, who has had her sight restored, encounters the Tramp after he’s been jailed for many months and recognizes him by touch, Chaplin claimed that he “wasn’t acting… [I was] standing outside myself and looking.”

4. “Modern Times” (1936). Man meets machine in Chaplin’s final screen appearance as the Tramp. This 1936 film proves Chaplin’s ability not only as a comedian but as a brilliant innovator of set pieces. The Tramp, a none-too-skillful cog at an imposing factory, becomes a literal cog when he gets swallowed up and spun through the wheels and grinds of the expressionistic machinery looming over him. A metaphor for the struggles of the Great Depression but also for the loss of individuality in the face of industry, “Modern Times” is another terrific example of Chaplin’s directorial work in silent comedy (despite being made well into the talkie era, and featuring one song, performed by the Tramp, comprised completely of nonsensical words).

The Kid

5. “The Kid” (1921). Only viewers with hearts of stone could keep a dry eye after watching Chaplin’s unabashedly sentimental 1921 film, starring a 7-year-old Jackie Coogan as the Tramp’s petite partner in crime. The second highest grossing film the year it was released, “The Kid” centers on the Little Tramp’s accidental inheritance of an abandoned baby boy, who he raises to be a streetwise troublemaker, throwing stones at windows so the Tramp can then repair them for a fee. It’s immediately clear why Chaplin cast Coogan; the kid displays a precocious knack for physical comedy, and is expressive and adorable to boot. The best-known sequence, melodramatic in tone as opposed to humorous, follows Chaplin as he runs across rooftops to save Coogan from the local orphanage’s clutches. Their tearful reuniting, filled with hugs and kisses, is a prime example of cinema’s emotional power.

Clips after the jump.