In This Article Charles Chaplin

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies and Reference Works
  • Bibliographies and Resource Collections
  • Documentary Sources
  • Biographies
  • Interviews
  • Works Written by Chaplin
  • Memoirs and Biographies of Chaplin’s Associates
  • Contemporary Critical Responses
  • Historical and Cultural Context
  • Slapstick
  • Theory
  • French Criticism
  • Portrayals

Cinema and Media Studies Charles Chaplin
by
Donna Kornhaber
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0191

Introduction

Charles Chaplin (b. 1889–d. 1977), better known as Charlie Chaplin, was one of the greatest film stars of the 20th century and one of the most important filmmakers in the history of the medium. Born into poverty in London to a family of music hall performers, Chaplin grew up in destitution with his mother, who suffered from periods of insanity. He joined the prestigious Karno stage company while a teenager and from there was recruited to the fledgling Keystone Studios, famous for its raucous brand of slapstick films. Chaplin excelled at Keystone, quickly developing the “Tramp” character that would become his mainstay and graduating to directing his own short films after only weeks on the job. He left Keystone within a year for a series of more lucrative contracts, quickly becoming one of the highest-paid figures in the film industry and creating a classic body of short films. By 1919 Chaplin had amassed a large enough fortune to start his own film studio and co-founded United Artists to distribute his works, leaving him all but free from outside influence or interference. Throughout the 1920s he created the feature films that would help define his legacy but struggled with the advent of sound technology, refusing to include spoken dialogue in his films for nearly a decade. Chaplin’s first full talkie, The Great Dictator (1940), offered a scathing parody of fascist dictatorship and marked a newfound political mode in his filmmaking. Chaplin’s leftist politics, coupled with a scandalous and protracted paternity suit in the mid-1940s, soon led to a marked decline in his popularity, such that when he left for a worldwide publicity tour for Limelight (1952) he was denied reentry to the country. Chaplin lived the remainder of his life in Switzerland, returning to America only in 1972 to accept an honorary Academy Award. Critical appraisal of Chaplin’s body of work has varied over the decades. Hailed as a genius from early in his career, he saw his critical fortunes fall with his transition to talking pictures. Yet Chaplin always had a coterie of dedicated critical supporters, including such illustrious figures as André Bazin and Andrew Sarris, and the critical estimation of his work has only grown since his death. He remains today one of the most lauded and beloved figures in film history.

Introductory Works

The literature on Chaplin is vast, and readers without an existing familiarity with the basic contours of Chaplin’s life and career may be in search of a primer on the artist and his films. The works cited below represent a combination of brief, personal reflections and more lengthy works designed explicitly to serve as an introduction to Chaplin’s biography and films, all by some of the leading voices in Chaplin scholarship. Bazin 2005, Sarris 1996, and Truffaut 1994 each present a short meditation on a theme of Chaplin’s filmmaking or persona that is particularly important to their view of him as an artist: Bazin writes on the mythology and typology of Chaplin’s famous Tramp character, Sarris weighs in on Chaplin’s status as a consummate director and artist of the cinema, and Truffaut looks at the philosophical and existential resonances of Chaplin’s films. Robinson 1996 and Larcher 2011 both present book-length introductory works designed for readers who are new to the Chaplin literature. Robinson, who served as Chaplin’s official biographer, offers a purposefully concise and attractively designed introduction. Larcher, who served as editor of the legendary French cinema journal and bastion of French Chaplin scholarship Cahiers du cinema, introduces readers to the major themes and works of Chaplin’s career. For more lengthy and detailed treatments of the broad arc of Chaplin’s life and works, see those sources cited under General Overviews and Biographies.

  • Bazin, André. “Charlie Chaplin.” In What is Cinema? Vol. 1. Edited and translated by Hugh Gray, 144–153. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

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    Brief consideration of the essence of Chaplin’s famous Tramp character, considered as a quasi-mythical figure. Includes reflections on the role of time, repetition, movement, and ritual in Chaplin’s films, with detailed examples of specific gags drawn from across the shorts and features.

  • Larcher, Jérôme. Masters of Cinema: Charlie Chaplin. London: Phaidon, 2011.

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    Introductory overview of Chaplin’s career and work by a former editor of the esteemed French film journal Cahiers du cinema. Part of Phaidon’s introductory Masters of Cinema series.

  • Robinson, David. Charlie Chaplin: Comic Genius. New York: Abrams, 1996.

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    Extensively illustrated and meticulously designed pocket introduction to Chaplin’s life and career by one of his major biographers.

  • Sarris, Andrew. “Charles Chaplin.” In The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968. By Andrew Sarris, 40–42. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 1996.

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    Brief overview of Sarris’s views on Chaplin as a consummate film director and storyteller (if not a master technician), part of what he famously calls the “pantheon” level of American filmmakers alongside such figures as D. W. Griffith and Orson Welles.

  • Truffaut, François. “Who is Charlie Chaplin?” In The Films in My Life. Translated by Leonard Mayhew, 60–62. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 1994.

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    Brief, personal reflections by Truffaut on the major themes in Chaplin’s films and their importance to the cinema and to his own work.

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