Better than AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars: 7

To see my running list of the hundred greatest movie stars in American film history, click here

We’ve reached the top 10! At this point, every star gets their own post.

7) Charlie Chaplin

I’m afraid that this is shamefully low for Chaplin. There’s a very good case to be made that in terms of peaks, in performance, appearance in great pictures, and box office alike, that there is no more meaningful actor in American movies than Charlie Chaplin. The Tramp is a character nearly as recognizable as Mickey Mouse. When film had the American public in thrall without the distractions of television, the key figure in holding them there was Charlie Chaplin. His influence and fame still hold to the present day, especially for casual moviegoers, in a way that no other figure from the silent era can compare to. There are only three people who I seriously considered for the top spot on this list: the person at number 1, the person at number 2, and Charlie Chaplin, who has ignominiously dropped to seventh.

The case for Chaplin could rest pretty firmly on either of two foundations. On one hand, you could choose to raise him up as the sublime comedian. There is such perfect rhythm in the way that he approaches his physical setpieces. It’s never just that he’s on a tightrope in The Circus, with all of the potential comedy that could come out of watching him bounce and lean on the line. It’s that he believes that he’s basically immune to falling but that the people on the ground (including the one who assured him he’d be immune to falling!) know better; it is funnier that he is somehow turns out to be this brilliant trapeze artist doing incredible feats while armed with the false confidence of invincibility. And then, the perfect addition of the monkeys who mob him while he’s trying to maintain his balance up there, adding this wonderful chaos to the simplicity of the joke. I love the music in his boxing match in City Lights. It’s a hypnotic sequence because it is timed so beautifully. (One of the perfect comic touches which primes us for how funny it is: how long he manages to get away with wearing that little hat of his into the ring.) Hide behind the referee, take a swing at the opponent, dodge his punch, hug tight. In the boxing ring a square dance is being proposed, albeit one in which Chaplin is launching himself off the ropes like a little torpedo for a few moments, twice bringing down his opponent and once bringing down the referee. Chaplin knew, too, that even a lovely concept needed a lovelier delivery. In The Gold Rush, where he and his cabinmate eat one of his boots, there are touches which make a pretty wild-looking joke absolutely sing. There’s the way that Chaplin simply never stops chewing once he starts eating, which gives the setup its credibility. There’s the way he leans his head back after rolling up his shoelaces to eat them like spaghetti. And, for me, the best moment of all is how he inspects his dinner plate and wipes some schmutz off it before he pulls a boot out of a pot and places it on the plate.

On the other, you could find the wonder in Chaplin for his sentimentality. I don’t think his films always hit the bullseye on that point, but as an actor he hit that mark far more often. There’s the final scene of City Lights, the shy and wondrous grin on his face. On an upcoming Sub Titles episode I get into the absolute perfection of the Oceana Roll sequence from The Gold Rush, which has the kind of marvelous contained perfection that the title words of Ordet have. Monsieur Verdoux, which is about as scything as anything Chaplin made this side of The Kid, has those fine scenes between Chaplin and Marilyn Nash; as she rises, he falls. It’s in the first one, where he decides not to try out some poison on this down-and-out young woman, that seems so gentle. The courtliness of his original proposition to bring her inside and make dinner for her fades and transforms somewhere along the road to discussing Schopenhauer, and politeness becomes a real gentleness. It also has that incredible final shot where we see Chaplin from a distance and from behind, stumbling along as he is being led to the guillotine. He is drawing on the Little Tramp again for that one sequence, which is an image he avoids as assiduously as possible throughout the rest of the movie. (Ironic that so much of the initial distaste for Monsieur Verdoux, then, comes from people who really struggled to see Chaplin as anything else but the Tramp.) Yet he knows that we will see the most cherished person of silent cinema in that long, clumsy walk to his well-earned death.

As there are two great bases for Chaplin’s greatness, there are two conspirators against Chaplin, forces so mighty that even someone with all his institutional power and popular adoration could not fight them. The first: sound. The second: the press. Given that he still made City Lights and Modern Times during the 1930s, I don’t think the first was exactly insuperable. Given that the right-wing press basically demonized Chaplin and chased him to Switzerland in the 1950s, perhaps they are the primary reason that he does not rank higher. Perhaps a film like Monsieur Verdoux or Limelight every three or four years from the ’50s into the late ’60s would have been able to catapult him higher, but alas.

Limelight is a significantly less impressive movie than Monsieur Verdoux, and yet it is more important to Chaplin’s image as a star because it speaks to an element of Chaplin’s style which displays the essential, wonderful contradiction in his work. There is nothing about Chaplin which is new, per se. It is drawing so heavily from music hall shows and pantomimes that what makes Chaplin great in his silent pictures is the perfection of his routines and not the great leaps forward in his technique. A film like Limelight, which tells the story of a lightly fictionalized Chaplin getting one last shot at the big time while helping up a desperate young woman from her penury, is fundamentally nostalgic. Limelight is genuinely saccharine in some places, a little bit too insistent on the power of positive thinking and believing in yourself, never say die and all that jazz. Chaplin killing himself off onscreen after one last great show has some bleak energy, I suppose, but he does so after proving he still had it, after being a wise mentor, after passing on his passion and know-how to the next generation. It’s an old-fashioned kind of picture with an old-fashioned kind of nostalgia, and what’s fascinating to me about this behind-the-scenes movie is how Chaplin compares as an actor to similar figures in similar backstage pictures of the same year. Next to Charlton Heston in The Greatest Show on Earth, Chaplin is meekness and even daintiness itself next to the roaring, take-no-prisoners circus chief of that year’s Best Picture winner. And compared to Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, playing a silent star adjusting to talkies with considerable good humor, Chaplin is suffused with affection for the past that Kelly’s portrayal simply doesn’t have. His performance in Limelight is a good one, but even compared to other Chaplin movies where he tried to do everything on them short of selling tickets at the box office, it’s so hard to peel away the star from the filmmaker.

The comedian, the sentimentalist, the nostalgic: Modern Times. Making a silent movie which was released four years after The Jazz Singer is to some extent just business as usual for someone who was ensconced in their usual business. After all, City Lights came out in the same year as Tabu, a film made by another master of the silent pictures. Making a wordless, if not purely silent movie to be released the same year as a very talky Shakespeare adaptation like Romeo and Juliet or a very talky screwball like My Man Godfrey is stubbornness. Chaplin’s nostalgia, his joy in what he knew, takes charge there. The sentimentalist is perhaps clearer in the sections of the movie with Paulette Goddard than the sections where the Tramp takes charge, but there’s no getting around that ending, where he picks up with his bindle and his girl and walks right in the middle of the highway to whatever will come next, “Smile” playing a little dolorously, a little hopefully in the background. The comedian is never in doubt. The physical comedy with its musical rhythms comes back again, the way that he has to use that wrench to do his part on the assembly line, and how he has to run up and down said assembly line to have any chance of keeping up, flat out going mad by the end as he involuntarily screws up his forearm to wrench noses, the air, etc. In contrast with so many of the huge sets and satires of an industrialized life, a number of the best sequences in the film simply go back Chaplin’s music hall sensibilities. There’s that roller skating business where he gets right to the edge without ever going all the way off, and there’s charmingly goofy little song-and-dance routine he does near the end of the picture. A star persists.

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