#144 (tie) – The Great Dictator (1940), dir. Charlie Chaplin


Schweinehund! Charlie Chaplin sticks it to the Fascists in the guise of Adenoid Hynkel, a petty, antisemitic dictator with a rather obvious inspiration. With World War II raging, The Great Dictator savages the demagogues of the day and makes the case for collective effort to make a kinder, better world.

It is a strange twist of fate that one of the most beloved and one of the most reviled men of the 20th century both sported the same iconic, if unflattering, bit of lip hardware. Charlie Chaplin donned the toothbrush mustache as essentially clown makeup, providing his Little Tramp character a trait every bit as essential as his derby and cane. Adolf Hitler certainly had an iconic appearance of his own, but chances are he didn’t find his stache to be particularly amusing. Chaplin, however, felt otherwise about the German Fuhrer, having apparently been inspired to parody Hitler after finding the overblown Nazi propaganda of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will to be laugh-out-loud ridiculous. Chaplin began filming The Great Dictator (1940) in September 1939, just as World War II kicked off, but it should be noted that this was an American film and the United States was still more than two years away from entering the war. In this regard, Chaplin was flying directly in the face of American isolationist sentiment and taking head on the Fascist forces and growing antisemitism of Europe. And in doing so he demonstrates one of the true powers of comedy: the mighty don’t necessarily mind being feared or hated, but to be made ridiculous… that hits where it hurts. (124 min.) Continue reading


#63 (tie) – Modern Times (1936), dir. Charlie Chaplin


Motormouth. Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp gets a taste of the latest technology in Modern Times, the comedian’s slapstick satire of industry and the plight of the working man.

We’ve previously mentioned on this blog that Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 film City Lights very much went against the grain by being a silent picture at a time when sound had become all the rage in Hollywood. By that measure, the comedian’s next feature — Modern Times (1936) — is positively reactionary. Modern Times was meant to be Chaplin’s first foray into the all-talking movie, but he felt (and rightly so) that his Little Tramp character was essentially a vehicle for silent expression. Modern Times technically isn’t a silent film (we’ll get into that), but in most of the essential ways it is a product of the silent era. “Reactionary” isn’t just applicable to the film’s style, but also potentially its content. Modern Times doesn’t offer a story so much as a satirical broadside against the industrialized world — particularly the dehumanization of mechanized production and the pain and poverty experienced by large swathes of society. So, the film can be seen as reactionary in its insistence on the good old ways in a disturbing new world, but its sympathy for the little man and the worker made it revolutionary enough for Chaplin to be branded a Communist in 1950s Red Scare America. Whatever your take, Modern Times absolutely was the last silent film made in Hollywood, and it is appropriate that the Little Tramp would provide the final word — or intertitle — on the form. (87 min.) Continue reading

#50 (tie) – City Lights (1931), dir. Charlie Chaplin


The rain, the park, & other things. Charlie Chaplin’s tramp and Virginia Cherrill’s blind flower seller form an unusual couple in the influential romantic comedy City Lights, arguably Chaplin’s finest film and his last totally silent movie.

By 1931, Hollywood had fully embraced the talkie. So it was a big risk for Charlie Chaplin to think audiences would still come out to a silent picture. But this gamble by the silent era’s biggest star paid off, and City Lights ended up being a smash hit for Chaplin, even if it was moving against the times. One often hears of silent stars whose careers went in the toilet because they didn’t have the voices to match their on-screen selves. Chaplin had a fine voice, but perhaps an even greater reason to be¬†wary of sound: his clownish on-screen persona the Little Tramp just wouldn’t work in a sound context. Rather than devise a new persona, Chaplin stuck with the format he new best. The premise of City Lights is simple, the Little Tramp falls for a blind woman who sells flowers on a street corner. She mistakenly believes he is a rich man — a mistake the Tramp is happy to let her make. In seeking to acquire the money needed to restore the woman’s sight, the Little Tramp is cast into a series of misadventures including run-ins with a drunk, suicidal millionaire and a boxing match for the ages. Chaplin trafficks heavily in sentimentality in City Lights, but he achieves a tricky balance of romance, slapstick, and whimsy in what is generally considered his finest film. (87 min.) Continue reading

#154 (tie) – The Gold Rush (1925), dir. Charlie Chaplin


That’s usin’ yer head. Charlie Chaplin gives a boost to his prospector pal as their cabin teeters on the edge of a cliff in The Gold Rush, a “dramatic comedy” set in the snows of the Klondike.

The Gold Rush (1925) marks the earliest Sight & Sound entry by inarguably the most famous figure of the silent era: Charlie Chaplin. More than just a shabbily dressed clown, Chaplin was a true pioneer of early cinema and a rampant perfectionist. He didn’t just write, direct, and star in his films, he got involved in everything, even writing some of the musical scores. The Gold Rush serves as a decent introduction to his most famous persona, the irrepressible loser the Little Tramp, whose waddling gait, bowler hat, cane, and toothbrush mustache are basically synonymous with Chaplin. In this comedic adventure, the Little Tramp makes his way into the mountains of Alaska during the gold rush days of the 1890s. Seeking to strike it rich, he instead runs afoul of a desperate murderer and a surly, burly prospector. Foiled in his mining efforts, the Little Tramp falls for a high spirited young woman back in town, only to be teased and humiliated by her and her friends. But don’t worry, things come together nicely — in a death-defying sort of way. In the opening credits, Chaplin calls The Gold Rush a “dramatic comedy,” and given its strong currents of pathos and romance that serves as very apt description. (95 min.) Continue reading