More than 100 years after he started making movies, Charlie Chaplin remains one of cinema’s most beloved and discussed figures. Movie buffs all over the world continue to celebrate Chaplin’s remarkable physical talents, debate his place in the pantheon alongside Keaton and Lloyd, and dissect the commentaries on class and political power that run through his work. His most complex films, like the 1947 black comedy Monsieur Verdoux, inspired intensely divisive reactions when they were released, and continue to do so today.
All of these issues, and then some, are addressed in The Essential Chaplin: Perspectives on the Life and Art of the Great Comedian. Editor Richard Schickel has collected 33 essays written over the course of 90 years to provide the reader with a multitude of perspectives on the legendary comic. For the most part, these pieces stand on their own, but the essays are even more resonant when compared and contrasted with each other. Schickel’s own contribution, “The Tramp Transformed,” single-handedly justifies the publication of the book. This introduction is one of the finest English-language pieces on Chaplin ever written; in fact, it may be the most compelling assessment of the Little Tramp since Schickel’s own 1989 essay “An Unexamined Premise.”
The irony is that the earlier piece was one of the few overtly negative analyses of Chaplin’s work, an occasionally scathing but accurate attack on the limitations of an oeuvre that was largely informed by Chaplin’s immense egotism. Without completely repudiating his earlier stance, Schickel moves beyond it to make convincing cases for City Lights and The Circus, among other Chaplin works, as important and sophisticated films. Reading “The Tramp Transformed” 17 years after “An Unexamined Premise” is a fascinating experience not only for what it tells us about Chaplin, but for what it tells us about Schickel’s growth as a critic and thinker.
The subsequent writings in the volume serve a dual purpose as well. The book’s most obvious mission is implied in its title: to collect the essential writings on one of cinema’s masters. Yet Schickel is up to something more ambitious than just another auteur study. By presenting a large number of articles from the period in which Chaplin worked and achieved his greatest fame, Schickel charts not only the Tramp’s evolution, but also that of film, which grows from a disreputable form of mindless entertainment to an influential and respected medium. More specifically, The Essential Chaplin explores how critics in Chaplin’s time saw in the filmmaker an opportunity to legitimize cinema as an art form — and how their relationship to Chaplin grew more and more complicated over the years.
This running theme justifies the inclusion of several pieces that would seem a little dated if taken on their own; essays like Minnie Maddern Fiske’s “The Art of Chaplin” (written in 1916) are a bit simplistic, but have historical value as indicators of where film commentary began and how it developed. Yet many of the early writings have aged quite well. Francis Hackett’s 1921 review of The Kid, for example, perfectly sums up what may be Chaplin’s greatest strength: his ability to strip a narrative down to its emotional essentials. As time passed and Chaplin’s body of work grew, critics of the time became more incisive in their views of his work, as evidenced in “A Feeling of Sad Dignity,” Robert Warshow’s superb 1954 review of Limelight.
The running theme in many of the pieces written while Chaplin was alive and working is that of critics trying to stake a claim for a new medium; at times, the reviewers clearly overreach in their attempt to prove that Chaplin’s comedies — and, by extension, cinema as a whole — are art with a capital “A.” Interestingly, it was in striving to justify these reviews that Chaplin went into decline; he was clearly influenced by articles like Stark Young’s “Dear Mr. Chaplin,” a 1922 New Republic piece that called upon Charlie to put his formidable talents to higher artistic purposes. Yet Chaplin was always an intuitive artist rather than an intellectual one, and the worst moments in his films are those that deal with ideas rather than emotions (like the embarrassingly awkward final monologue in The Great Dictator). The irony is that in trying to please the critics who anointed him a great artist, Chaplin ended up creating overtly self-important films like Monsieur Verdoux and The King in New York, which helped turn his supporters against him.
Pieces written in Chaplin’s own time are complemented by more recent overviews that benefit from a historical distance and almost 100 years’ worth of accumulated information on the Tramp’s life and work. Andrew Sarris’s 1998 selection “The Most Harmonious Comedian” is emblematic of that critic at his best; passionate yet rigorous, the piece dissects Chaplin’s themes and style with clarity and insight. Village Voice critic J. Hoberman’s 1989 essay “After the Gold Rush” is equally strong and serves as a concise overview of Chaplin’s strengths as a voice for the working man and an enemy of social order.
The Essential Chaplin is extremely thorough: it contains personal accounts that provide fascinating looks at Chaplin’s method and thought process (Alistair Cooke’s “Fame”), and essays by non-film critics (including Winston Churchill!) that indicate the wide parameters of Chaplin’s popularity and impact. The collection also addresses Chaplin’s considerable weaknesses — Edmund Wilson and Otis Ferguson, for example, both note Chaplin’s pedestrian visual style, and an excerpt from David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film points out the artistic limitations of Chaplin’s narcissism. These are important issues, as Chaplin remains perhaps the most problematic of all great directors; his massive talents were always tempered by a stubborn refusal to develop beyond a rudimentary sense of film grammar and an inability to develop more than one or two characters in a narrative.
The end result of all these essays is a book that lives up to its title. The Essential Chaplin is indeed the seminal text on the comedian, with Schickel’s selections comprising a volume that is both a compelling biography and a penetrating critical overview. The additional levels on which the book operates— as a history of film criticism, and as a glimpse at the ways in which critics influence an artist and vice versa — give it a complexity that will allow it to endure, as Chaplin’s best films have