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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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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General Overviews

Despite the fact that Chaplin’s film career spans more than half a century, it is common in the Chaplin literature for a single book to address the full breadth of his work. The sources cited below all demonstrate a broad-based perspective on Chaplin’s filmmaking, either toward the aim of presenting its total scope or offering an interpretation of a particular aspect of his artistry across the breadth of his career. Sarris 1980 offers the briefest of these accounts, condensing Chaplin’s career into a short ten pages, which he uses to reinforce his views regarding Chaplin’s proper place among the great film directors for his ongoing, onscreen grappling with his own outsized image and persona. In contrast to Sarris’s critical summary of Chaplin’s artistic work, Robinson 1985 offers a biographical-historical appraisal that gives equal consideration to the conditions of Chaplin’s personal life and the state of his professional work. Serving as Chaplin’s official biographer, Robinson presents what many consider to be the definitive study of Chaplin’s life and career, informed by the author’s personal contact with Chaplin and access to the materials in his archives. Vance 2003 also offers a combination biographical-historical overview in his richly illustrated book, adding to Robinson’s approach detailed considerations of the major shorts and feature films as well as information on special topics such as Chaplin’s work as a musician and composer. Both Kamin 2008 and Kornhaber 2014 consider specialized topics applied across the breadth of Chaplin’s career. Kamin focuses on the nature of Chaplin’s humor and in particular the manner of his physical performances, from the comedian’s early days in the English music hall theaters to his late works. Kornhaber looks at Chaplin’s work as a director from his first short to his final film and identifies a manner of filmic construction that stands in productive contrast to the tenets of the Hollywood classical style, which coalesced only after Chaplin’s rise to fame.

Anthologies and Reference Works

Given the breadth of literature on Chaplin, it can be extremely useful to have a reference work or anthology of sources to use as a navigational guide. Mitchell 1997 has done the field a service by compiling and collecting vital information on the more than eighty shorts and feature films Chaplin was involved with over the course of his career, presenting information on the people, places, events, and themes most relevant to studies of Chaplin’s work. Schickel 2006 looks at the critical reception of Chaplin’s work and anthologizes some of the major commentaries on his films from across the 20th century; he also includes several new essays offering contemporary perspectives. Howe, et al. 2013 provides an introduction to some of the major topics and themes in academic studies of Chaplin’s work in their anthology of scholarly essays.

  • Howe, Lawrence, James E. Caron, and Benjamin Click, eds. Refocusing Chaplin: A Screen Icon through Critical Lenses. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2013.

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    Collection of academic writings on Chaplin across a variety of topics and themes, including considerations of phenomenology, Marxism, gender, and masculinity in Chaplin’s films.

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  • Mitchell, Glenn. The Chaplin Encyclopedia. London: B. T. Batsford, 1997.

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    A single-authored reference work designed for popular audiences. Especially useful for identifying basic information on Chaplin’s numerous short subjects, collaborators, and personal associates across the breadth of his career.

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  • Schickel, Richard, ed. The Essential Chaplin: Perspectives on the Life and Art of the Great Comedian. Lanham, MD: Ivan R. Dee, 2006.

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    Collects some of the major short writings on Chaplin from across his career and afterward, including film reviews, journalistic essays, and critical assessments.

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Bibliographies and Resource Collections

The sources in this section offer a series of guided entry points into the extensive literature on Chaplin. Lyons 1979, Gehring 1983, and Petrie 1993, while somewhat outdated studies, serve as useful tools for navigating the extensive literature on Chaplin that accrued during and immediately after his lifetime. Lyons includes over a thousand entries on book and periodical references to Chaplin through the 1970s, although his work was quickly superseded by Gehring 1983, which offers a comprehensive bibliography supplemented with biographical essays and a detailed filmography that helps to document the extensive network of collaborators and contributors to Chaplin’s many films. Petrie’s study, while even older than Lyons 1979 and Gehring 1983 (it was originally published in 1977), is still regularly cited for his vehement criticism of the dearth of formal analysis of Chaplin’s films within the scholarly literature, a situation that has only been remedied to a limited extent. Petrie’s study is perhaps most useful to the contemporary reader, however, for his detailed criticisms of the factual inaccuracies and omissions in much of the extant Chaplin literature up to 1977, which can help contemporary readers steer clear of some of the more questionable Chaplin sources. As a kind of update to Gehring 1983 and Petrie 1993, the online Chaplin Library provides basic bibliographic information and thumbnail cover photos of nearly six hundred books on Chaplin, all part of the personal library of a private collector who continues to regularly update his collection and the website with new acquisitions; the site is especially useful for its extensive listings of foreign-language Chaplin texts. A trio of official Chaplin websites and digital archives provide easy access to recent Chaplin scholarship and documentary materials. Charlie Chaplin Official Website, maintained by Chaplin’s rights management company Roy Export SAS, offers links to numerous introductory Chaplin resources as well as major books and DVD releases related to Chaplin’s life and films. The dedicated Charlie Chaplin section of the British Film Institute (Charlie Chaplin) website likewise includes an assortment of useful scholarly and informational articles as well as finding aids for the BFI’s important Chaplin holdings. The website of the Charlie Chaplin Archive, maintained by the Cineteca di Bologna, provides both finding resources and in most cases digitized copies of the contents of the world’s largest Chaplin archive, containing over 100,000 documentary materials.

  • Chaplin Library.

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    An online index to the personal library of a Chaplin collector, including nearly six hundred books on Chaplin in seventeen languages. Each entry includes bibliographic information and a thumbnail image of the book’s original cover.

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  • Charlie Chaplin.

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    An extensive dedicated Chaplin section on the website of the British Film Institute, which includes catalogues of the BFI’s Chaplin holdings, introductory resources on Chaplin’s life and films, new academic research on Chaplin, and information on Chaplin film restorations and other relevant Chaplin news.

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  • Charlie Chaplin Archive.

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    The online repository of the Chaplin Archive maintained by the Cineteca di Bologna, a peerless research resource. Nearly all of the archive’s contents have been digitized and are searchable by film, document type, and keyword. Materials number over one hundred thousand and include photographs, manuscripts, letters, production records, and publicity materials.

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  • Charlie Chaplin Official Website.

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    The official Chaplin website maintained by Roy Export SAS, the company established by Chaplin to maintain conservatorship over his properties and image. Offers a wide and regularly updated array of informational articles, links to online resources, notices of upcoming Chaplin events worldwide, and lists of Chaplin books and DVD releases.

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  • Gehring, Wes D. Charlie Chaplin: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1983.

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    A combination biography and bibliography, with sections on Chaplin’s life, the worldwide cultural phenomenon of his stardom, and an essay overview of the major trends in Chaplin scholarship through the early 1980s. Also includes a detailed filmography with a comprehensive accounting of Chaplin’s collaborators on each film.

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  • Lyons, Timothy J. Charles Chaplin: A Guide to References and Resources. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.

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    The forerunner to Gehring 1983, Lyons was for a brief moment the most complete compendium of Chaplin references available to researchers and still forms a remarkably comprehensive account of the Chaplin literature up to 1979. Includes more than fourteen hundred entries on works that reference Chaplin, both books and periodicals.

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  • Petrie, Graham. “So Much and Yet So Little: A Survey of Books on Chaplin.” In The Silent Comedians. Edited by Richard Dyer MacCann, 114–129. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1993.

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    Originally published in Quarterly Review of Film Studies (November 1977). Offers a stringent criticism of scholars’ extensive focus on the biographical and historical details of Chaplin’s work or on the mythology and iconography of the Tramp and corresponding lack of attention to the formal properties of Chaplin’s art.

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Documentary Sources

As a product of Chaplin’s worldwide stardom as well as his intense control over his own image and career, his life, and work were especially well documented and archived in the form of photographs, publicity materials, and production records. Although websites such as those maintained by the Charlie Chaplin and Charlie Chaplin Archive, both cited under Bibliographies and Resource Collections provide finding guides or direct access to many of these materials, numerous published sources offer curated selections from the various Chaplin archives and collections. Paumier and Robinson 1989 is a useful starting point, collecting 300 of the most interesting and iconic materials from the Chaplin Archive in celebration of the 100-year anniversary of Chaplin’s birth. Comte and Stourdzé 2002 presents an impressive array of personal and publicity photos spanning Chaplin’s career, arranged so as to relate in pictures the story of his life and work. Perry and Capitaine 2005 collects movie posters for Chaplin’s films from around the world, providing a useful visual study in the international iconography of the Tramp. In addition to printed sources such as these, documentary films have played an especially important part in shaping the understanding of Chaplin as both a celebrity and artist, offering curated glimpses into the extensive footage that exists within the various Chaplin archives and private collections. Brownlow and Gil 2005 is the most important of these documentaries and actively changed the face of Chaplin scholarship, introducing the world to an extensive cache of recently discovered behind-the-scenes footage showing Chaplin at work and influencing all subsequent studies of his production methods and artistry. (See Brownlow 2005, cited under Silent Era Films for information on the companion book to the documentary series.) Patterson 1976 was made with Chaplin’s cooperation toward the end of his life and constitutes a kind of filmic autobiography using extensive personal footage. Hirt and Zenoni 2003 serves a similar function but focuses exclusively on the final years of Chaplin’s life, during his self-imposed exile in Switzerland. Schickel 2003 includes some previously unseen footage as well but is primarily of interest for the commentary it includes from contemporary filmmakers reflecting on Chaplin’s artistry and his impact on their work.

  • Brownlow, Kevin, and David Gil, dirs. Unknown Chaplin: The Master at Work. DVD. New York/London: A&E Home Video/Thames, 2005.

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    Originally aired on British television in 1983 and PBS in 1986. A pivotal documentary in the understanding of Chaplin as a working artist, showing for the first time behind-the-scenes footage of Chaplin in production. Focuses primarily on Chaplin’s working methods in the construction of his Mutual shorts.

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  • Comte, Michel, and Same Stourdzé, eds. Charlie Chaplin: A Photo Diary. Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 2002.

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    An extensive collection of personal and publicity photos from Chaplin’s personal estate, dating from 1909 to 1977. Arranged with minimal commentary, the photos are intended to visually narrate the story of Chaplin’s personal life and professional career.

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  • Hirt, Beat, and Felice Zenoni, dirs. Charlie Chaplin: The Forgotten Years. DVD. Zurich, Switzerland: Mesch & Ugge AG, 2003.

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    Documentary focused on Chaplin’s final decades, from his departure from the United States in 1952 until his death in 1977. Notable for its interviews with family and friends who spent time with Chaplin during these years and its incorporation of home movie footage from Chaplin’s life in Switzerland.

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  • Patterson, Richard, dir. The Gentleman Tramp. VHS. Paris: Roy Export, 1976.

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    Golden Globe-nominated look at Chaplin’s life and work made with his cooperation and input during the final years of his life in conjunction with the promotion of several reissues of his films.

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  • Paumier, Pamela, and David Robinson, eds. Chaplin: 100 anni 100 immagini 100 documenti/100 Years, 100 Images, 100 Documents. Pordenone, Italy: Le giornate del cinema muto, 1989.

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    Bilingual Italian and English publication celebrating the 100-year anniversary of Chaplin’s birth with materials drawn from the Chaplin Archive.

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  • Perry, Israel, and Jean-Louis Capitaine, eds. Charlie Chaplin Movie Posters. New York: Queen Art, 2005.

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    Showcases an international array of posters promoting Chaplin’s shorts and films, demonstrating the changing iconography of the Tramp across countries and decades.

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  • Schickel, Richard, dir. Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin. DVD. Burbank, CA: Warner, 2003.

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    Documentary by film critic and historian Richard Schickel most notable for the observations on Chaplin’s acting and filmmaking by contemporary admirers including Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Robert Downey Jr., Johnny Depp, and Marcel Marceau.

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Biographies

Chaplin biographies almost represent a minor publishing subindustry in their own right, so frequently have they appeared over the years: at least one or two has been published in almost every decade since Chaplin’s rise to fame. As detailed in Lynn 1997 and Petrie 1993 (cited under Bibliographies and Resource Collections) many of the earliest biographies are marked by significant inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and omissions, in many cases based on obfuscations of his personal life that originated with Chaplin himself. Readers should proceed with caution if considering biographies published before the 1980s, when Robinson 1985 (cited under General Overviews) set a new standard for detail and accuracy. Several biographies published after Robinson 1985 sought to remedy earlier traditions of inaccuracy and are worth consideration. Lynn, for instance, explicitly sets out to identify and rectify myths and legends propagated by earlier biographical works and to resituate Chaplin within a broader social and historical context than is typically attempted. In a similar vein, Milton 1996 seeks to treat coolly and even-handedly even the most salacious aspects of Chaplin’s personal life, which had frequently been sensationalized in earlier accounts; her work is also notable for its attention to the development of the Tramp persona and to the central role of leftist politics in Chaplin’s life and career. Ackroyd 2014 represents the latest addition to the long tradition of Chaplin biographies; although it adds little that is truly new to the discussion of Chaplin’s life, it paints a vivid, concise picture of that life. In a different vein, Epstein 1989 shows a different side of Chaplin’s life, offering a richly illustrated biography filtered through the reminiscences of one of the filmmakers closest associates in his final decades. Huff 1951 is included in this list due to the unique place it holds in the history of Chaplin scholarship. Though affected by many of the errors that can be seen in other early biographies, Huff’s work represents the first attempt at a scholarly consideration of Chaplin’s life and remains the original source for certain statements by Chaplin that are still cited and discussed today.

  • Ackroyd, Peter. Charlie Chaplin. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2014.

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    Brief and evocative telling of Chaplin’s life story, focused primarily on his personal life rather than his films or professional career.

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  • Epstein, Jerry. Remembering Charlie: A Pictorial Biography. New York: Doubleday, 1989.

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    Extensively illustrated combination of biography and personal reminiscences by one of Chaplin’s friends and close working associates in the final decades of his life.

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  • Huff, Theodore. Charlie Chaplin. New York: Henry Schuman, 1951.

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    Though not without errors, Huff’s work holds pride of place as the first substantial biography of Chaplin published in America. Huff remains the primary source for several key statements related to him by Chaplin, including Chaplin’s admission that he wanted to be remembered for The Gold Rush.

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  • Lynn, Kenneth S. Charlie Chaplin and His Times. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.

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    Seeks to position Chaplin’s life and work within the larger social and historical context of the American 20th century. Lynn goes a long way in identifying and dispelling myths and mistakes in previous Chaplin biographies based on lore rather than fact, in many cases started or promoted by Chaplin himself.

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  • Milton, Joyce. Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

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    Focuses on three interconnected aspects of Chaplin’s life and persona: the development and cultivation of his famous Tramp character, the evolution and cultural impact of his left-leaning political opinions, and the romantic scandals that defined his personal life and tarnished his public reputation.

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Interviews

Chaplin was a frequent interview subject throughout his life, beginning the year after he entered the film industry, in 1915, and continuing through the release of his final film over fifty years later, in 1967. Hayes 2005 offers the most comprehensive compendium of Chaplin interviews, covering the full breadth of his career. Three interviews within this collection bear further attention for their important place in marking some of the major inflection points in Chaplin’s career. Nichols 2005 finds Chaplin at the height of his acclaim and renown, in the wake of the recent success of The Gold Rush, speculating on the future of silent cinema only two years before the industry’s sudden and total transition to sound. Wallach 2005 transcribes an infamous press conference that Chaplin held while promoting Monsieur Verdoux and that devolved into a series of political accusations regarding Chaplin’s leftist leanings. Wyndham 2005 finds Chaplin at the end of his active career commenting on contemporary film and culture, somewhat mystified by the cultural developments of the 1960s. In a different vein, Bogdanovich 2005 contains personal encounters with Chaplin written by Bogdanovich himself and other Hollywood associates toward the end of examining Chaplin’s work as an actor and his comportment as a celebrity figure.

  • Bogdanovich, Peter. “Charlie Chaplin.” In Who the Hell’s in It: Conversations with Hollywood’s Legendary Actors. By Peter Bogdanovich, 353–365. New York: Ballantine, 2005.

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    Narrative recollection of Chaplin’s career and persona based on Bogdanovich’s personal reminiscences and those of an assortment of Chaplin’s associates and acquaintances whom Bogdanovich had known over the years.

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  • Hayes, Kevin J., ed. Charlie Chaplin: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

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    Comprehensive collection of major interviews with Chaplin over the course of his career, beginning in 1915 at the start of his rise to fame and concluding in 1967 just after the release of his final film.

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  • Nichols, Robert. “Future of the Cinema: Mr. Charles Chaplin.” In Charlie Chaplin Interviews. Edited by Kevin J. Hayes, 80–83. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

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    Originally printed in Times (London), 3 September 1925. Speaking in the wake of the success of The Gold Rush, Chaplin reflects on the nature of the cinematic medium and speculates on its future development, unaware of the transition to sound that will disrupt the industry just two years later.

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  • Wallach, George. “Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux Press Conference.” In Charlie Chaplin Interviews. Edited by Kevin J. Hayes, 103–118. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

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    Originally printed in Film Comment 5 (Winter 1969). Transcript of Chaplin’s infamous press conference promoting Monsieur Verdoux, which focused primarily on his political beliefs, his refusal to take American citizenship, and accusations of Communist sympathies. The conference helped mark a turn in public opinion against Chaplin based on his politics.

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  • Wyndham, Francis. “Chaplin on the Critics, the Beatles, the Mood of London.” In Charlie Chaplin Interviews. Edited by Kevin J. Hayes, 142–146. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

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    Originally printed in Sunday Times (London), 26 March 1967. One of the final interviews of Chaplin’s professional life, notable for Chaplin’s reflections on contemporary culture and cinema and his defense of his final film, A Countess from Hong Kong, against its detractors.

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Works Written by Chaplin

Chaplin produced a notable number of written works about his own life and films, dating back to the beginnings of his career. Much of this material was written more with an eye toward cementing his own celebrity rather than dealing candidly with the facts of his life and must therefore be approached with caution, particularly the earliest autobiographical writings. But even the least forthright of these materials is interesting and useful as a document of Chaplin’s deliberate self-fashioning. First and foremost among these materials is Chaplin 1964, the most complete and authoritative of his autobiographical writings (although it was published before he made his final film). A useful companion to this work is Chaplin 1975, which takes a more anecdotal and intimate approach to telling Chaplin’s life story and includes a rich assortment of personal and publicity photographs from across his career. These works stand in contrast to Chaplin 1985, a misguided early memoir that included numerous gross fabrications and whose printing was halted by Chaplin’s own attorneys. Despite its inaccuracies, it remains a useful document of Chaplin’s nascent celebrity and an early attempt to control and craft his public image. Chaplin also produced two travelogues at different points in his career. Chaplin 1922, which may possibly have been ghostwritten, details his return to England just as his celebrity was reaching its highest points after the release of The Kid. Chaplin 2014 likewise tells of a triumphant world tour, this time after the release of City Lights when Chaplin was attempting to navigate the transition to sound and beginning to establish himself as a kind of international statesman as much as a film celebrity. Chaplin 1931, a short article written in conjunction with the release of City Lights, also presents a window into Chaplin’s thinking during this period, vehemently defending the future of silent film despite the industry-wide transition to sound.

  • Chaplin, Charlie. My Trip Abroad. New York: Harpers, 1922.

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    Chaplin’s firsthand account of a triumphant trip to Europe following the success of The Kid, dictated to the journalist Monta Bell and possibly ghostwritten by him. Regardless of its authorship, it represents a fascinating testament to the international “Chaplinitis” phenomenon at its height.

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  • Chaplin, Charles. “Pantomime and Comedy.” New York Times, 25 January 1931.

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    Article by Chaplin released during the publicity rollout for City Lights, extolling the virtues of pantomime and arguing that there remains a future for silent film even in the sound era.

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  • Chaplin, Charles. My Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964.

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    Though some details of his early life remain in question, this autobiography is considered far more authoritative than those released early in his career. Chaplin takes pains to defend his political positions and his status as a film pioneer and artist equal to figures such as D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein.

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  • Chaplin, Charlie. My Life in Pictures. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1975.

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    Autobiographical reflections by Chaplin paired with personal and production photographs. A useful visual supplement to My Autobiography.

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  • Chaplin, Charlie. Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

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    Originally serialized in the San Francisco Bulletin in 1916. Chaplin’s attorneys halted the book publication of this memoir, dictated to journalist Rose Wilder Lane. Much of the material is inaccurate or fabricated, whether by Chaplin or by Lane, but provides a window into the early formation of Chaplin’s personal mythology.

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  • Chaplin, Charles. A Comedian Sees the World. Edited by Lisa Stein Haven. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2014.

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    Originally serialized in Woman’s Home Companion in 1933. Chaplin’s firsthand account of his world tour following the release of City Lights, in which he met with luminaries including Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi.

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Memoirs and Biographies of Chaplin’s Associates

Known for his tempestuous relationships, Chaplin left in his wake a string of professional associates and personal intimates eager to tell the stories of their time together with him. These sources form an important body of work for understanding Chaplin’s life and career, supplementing and in some ways challenging Chaplin’s often highly controlled reminiscences as shared in his own interviews and autobiographical writings. Chaplin 1960 represents what is probably the most important of these personal reminiscences, providing unique insight into Chaplin’s home life and his storytelling and performance habits with his own children. Chaplin and Vance 1998 and Hale and Kiernan 1995 add further details regarding Chaplin’s personal life and intimate relationships, with the former focusing on the years leading up to The Gold Rush and the latter on the years after. Among the reminiscences of Chaplin’s professional associates, the author of Lyons 1972 is notable for gaining access to Chaplin’s longtime camera operator and sometime cinematographer Roland Totheroh, who knows as much about Chaplin’s unique working methods as any other figure besides Chaplin himself. Taves 1988 supplements this material with information on the recollections of another of Chaplin’s filmmaking associates, Robert Florey, assistant director on Monsieur Verdoux, who frequently came in conflict with Chaplin over the comedian’s unorthodox approach to filmmaking. James 2000 looks specifically at Chaplin’s extensive work as a musician and composer, having worked with Chaplin on the original scores for his sound-era films. In a different vein, certain biographies of figures closely associated with Chaplin have an important bearing on our understanding of Chaplin himself. Stein 2011 offers a detailed and important look at Chaplin’s half-brother Sydney, who was one of Chaplin’s most important collaborators on both business and artistic matters and who enjoyed limited success as a silent film comedian in his own right. Scovell 1998 looks at the life of Chaplin’s fourth wife Oona O’Neill, to whom he was married for thirty-four years and with whom he had eight children. Chaplin’s relationship with Oona defined the final decades of his life, especially during his exile in Switzerland, and in focusing on Oona herself Scovell offers a unique perspective on that time.

  • Chaplin, Charles, Jr.. My Father, Charlie Chaplin. With Neil and Margaret Rau. New York: Random House, 1960.

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    Personal remembrances of life with Chaplin by his first son, born in 1925. Notable for its depictions of Chaplin’s private performances, screenings, and storytelling sessions with his children.

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  • Chaplin, Lita Grey, and Jeffrey Vance. Wife of the Life of the Party. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1998.

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    Memoir of Chaplin’s second wife. Although Chaplin mentions her only briefly in his autobiography, she gave birth to his first two children. Focused principally on the era of The Kid and The Gold Rush. Includes extensive documentation of their divorce papers and court proceedings.

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  • Hale, Georgia, and Heather Kiernan. Charlie Chaplin: Intimate Close-Ups. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1995.

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    Reflections on Chaplin’s professional triumphs and turbulent personal life by his Gold Rush co-star Georgia Hale, who maintained an intimate personal relationship with Chaplin from 1928 to 1931. The memoir primarily covers those important years during Chaplin’s struggle against sound filmmaking but continues through Chaplin’s 1943 marriage to Oona O’Neill.

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  • James, Eric. Making Music with Charlie Chaplin: An Autobiography. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2000.

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    Personal account by Chaplin’s longtime music associate, who helped to develop and arrange the original musical scores that Chaplin wrote for his films during the sound era.

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  • Lyons, Timothy J. “Interview with Roland H. Totheroh.” Film Culture (Spring 1972): 230–285.

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    One of the few interviews with Chaplin’s longtime cameraman and de facto cinematographer, who worked with Chaplin on every film from the Mutual shorts through Limelight.

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  • Scovell, Jane. Oona: Living in the Shadows: A Biography of Oona O’Neill Chaplin. New York: Warner, 1998.

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    Biography of Chaplin’s fourth wife, the disinherited daughter of renowned American playwright Eugene O’Neill. Provides useful details of O’Neill-Chaplin’s decades in exile with Chaplin, her childhood and personal life before marrying Chaplin at the age of eighteen, and the public controversy surrounding that marriage, when Chaplin was fifty-four.

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  • Stein, Lisa. Syd Chaplin: A Biography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011.

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    Detailed biography of Chaplin’s half-brother, business partner, and artistic collaborator, often credited with making Chaplin a business powerhouse and who also enjoyed some success as a silent film comedian in his own right.

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  • Taves, Brian. “Charlie Dearest.” Film Comment (March–April 1988): 63–69.

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    Focuses on the conflict between Chaplin and assistant director Robert Florey in the making of Monsieur Verdoux, going into great detail on Chaplin’s working methods as a filmmaker.

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Shorts and Films

A number of Chaplin’s films have generated enough critical interest to become the subject of book-length studies. The sources cited here offer extended considerations of a single Chaplin film, serial analysis of all his films, or reflections on some subset of his films. Also included here are citations of individual DVDs that offer important restorations or reconstructions of lost or degraded Chaplin films.

Overviews of Chaplin’s Films

Chaplin was involved as actor or director in more than eighty shorts and films over the course of his career, making any attempt to present a film-by-film analysis a tall order. McDonald, et al. 1988 attempts this very task, combining summaries of the films with select reviews from their original releases. Harness 2008 takes the same approach, offering a short summary and analysis of Chaplin’s complete works. At far greater depth, Flom 1997 looks at Chaplin’s eight feature films made during the sound era, presenting coverage of their conditions of production, descriptive summaries and thematic analyses, and considerations of their reception and influence. Rosenbaum 2010 considers several important DVD restorations and rereleases of Chaplin’s films, in the process offering reflections accrued over a lifetime of watching and admiring Chaplin’s work.

Silent Era Films

Although Chaplin reached the height of his fame during the silent era, only a few commentators have sought to specifically analyze his silent shorts and films apart from his sound era features. Neibaur 2008 and Neibaur 2012 represent important considerations of Chaplin’s earliest years in the film industry, examining his work at the Keystone Studios and Essanay Studios respectively. In addition to offering commentaries on specific films, Neibaur’s studies consider some thorny historical questions regarding Chaplin’s work at each studio and proposes resolutions to lasting questions in the Chaplin scholarship, such as which of Chaplin’s Keystone shorts marked his directorial debut, based on his archival findings. Brownlow 2005 also delves into archival questions regarding Chaplin’s silent era work, relating the story behind his groundbreaking discovery of the behind-the-scenes footage that became the basis for the Unknown Chaplin documentary series and offering details of footage not included in that series. (See Brownlow and Gil 2005, cited under Documentary Sources for information on the companion series.) Two important film restorations are also cited here. Chaplin 2010 marks one of the most substantial efforts to collect and restore high-quality prints of the shorts that Chaplin made at Keystone, which have long been out of copyright and circulated in degraded forms. The resulting DVD arguably brings us closer than any previous effort to witnessing the actual appearance of the shorts as audiences at the time would have seen them. In a similar vein, Chaplin 2012 includes a highly important recreation of the 1925 silent version of The Gold Rush, which was effectively lost after Chaplin recut the film for its 1942 rerelease. With this release, it is possible again to view the film for which Chaplin said he hoped to be remembered as it was originally shown to audiences.

  • Brownlow, Kevin. The Search for Charlie Chaplin. Bologna, Italy: Cinematica Di Bologna, 2005.

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    Companion book to the Unknown Chaplin documentary series, detailing the discovery of the footage of Chaplin at work and including information on additional footage not included in the series.

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  • Chaplin, Charlie, dir. Chaplin at Keystone: An International Collaboration of 34 Original Films. DVD. Los Angeles: Flicker Alley, 2010.

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    Long since out of copyright, Chaplin’s Keystone shorts are notoriously difficult to find in high-quality versions. This collection brings together shorts from archives and collections worldwide, each meticulously restored by a joint effort of the British Film Institute and the Cineteca di Bologna.

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  • Chaplin, Charlie, dir. The Gold Rush. DVD. New York: Criterion Collection, 2012.

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    Chaplin recut the original version of The Gold Rush for a rereleased version in 1942, after which the 1925 release was essentially lost. This special edition includes a meticulous recreation of the 1925 film as well as a digitally remastered version of the 1942 rerelease.

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  • Neibaur, James L. Chaplin at Essanay: A Film Artist in Transition, 1915–1916. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008.

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    One of the only studies of Chaplin’s transitional year making films for the Essanay film company, between his screen debut at Keystone in 1914 and the beloved shorts he began making for Mutual in 1916.

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  • Neibaur, James L. Early Charlie Chaplin: The Artist as Apprentice at Keystone Studios. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2012.

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    Detailed study of Chaplin’s pivotal year at Keystone Studios. Includes a useful analysis of the questions surrounding which of Chaplin’s Keystone films marks his directorial debut.

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Sound Era Films

Despite Chaplin’s struggles in adapting to sound, his films of that era are for many viewers and critics his most beloved and remembered. Several of these films have been the subject of book-length analyses and essay collections. Part of the BFI Film Classics series, Maland 2007 and Mellen 2006 look specifically at City Lights and Modern Times respectively. Maland offers a detailed look at City Lights’ production history and an extended consideration of its famous final scene, while Mellen focuses on the historical and political dimensions of Modern Times and the role of leftist politics in Chaplin’s filmmaking more generally. Delage and Cenciarelli 2004; Fiaccarini, et al. 2002; and Fiaccarini, et al. 2002 are part of a series called Progetto Chaplin published in Europe by Le Mani Editore that looks at the production history of major Chaplin films using materials drawn from the Chaplin Archive; the films presented in this manner are Modern Times, Limelight, and The Great Dictator, respectively. Mehran, et al. 2004 and Scheide, et al. 2006 bring together essays that examine a single Chaplin film in its historical and cultural context: Limelight and the English music hall in the case of the former and The Great Dictator and politics in the case of the latter. In this vein, Aping 2011 looks at the reception of The Great Dictator in Nazi Germany and focuses on the abiding hatred that the Third Reich had for Chaplin.

  • Aping, Norbert. Liberty—Shtunk! Die Freiheit wird abgeschafft Charlie Chaplin und die Nationalsozialisten. Marburg, Germany: Schuren Verlag, 2011.

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    Examines The Great Dictator in light of the extensive Nazi propaganda campaign against Chaplin during the 1930s and 1940s, including Nazi criticism of the earlier Chaplin films City Lights and The Gold Rush.

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  • Delage, Christian, and Cecilia Cenciarelli. Modern Times/Tempi moderni. Bologna, Italy: Le Mani, 2004.

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    Examination of the production history of Modern Times as well as the film’s social and historical context using photographs and documents drawn from the Chaplin archive. Part of the Progetto Chaplin available through Le Mani Editore.

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  • Fiaccarini, Anna, Cecilia Cenciarelli, and Michela Zegna. Il grande dittatore di Charlie Chaplin. Bologna, Italy: Le Mani, 2002.

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    Examination of the production history of The Great Dictator using photographs and documents drawn from the Chaplin Archive. Part of the Progetto Chaplin available through Le Mani Editore.

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  • Fiaccarini, Anna, Peter von Bagh, and Cecilia Cenciarelli. Luci della ribalta: documenti e studi dagli archive Chaplin. Bologna, Italy: Le Mani, 2002.

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    Examination of the production history and distribution difficulty surrounding Limelight using photographs and documents drawn from the Chaplin Archive. Part of the Progetto Chaplin available through Le Mani Editore.

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  • Maland, Charles J. City Lights. New York: Macmillan, 2007.

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    Offers a production history and interpretation of City Lights, drawing from material in the Chaplin Archive and paying particular attention to the film’s famous closing scene. Part of the BFI Film Classics series.

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  • Mehran, Hooman, Frank Scheide, and Dan Kamin. Chaplin: The Dictator and the Tramp. London: British Film Institute, 2004.

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    Collection of essays on The Great Dictator focused both on its production history and the social history around the film. Published in conjunction with the release of Kevin Brownlow’s documentary The Tramp and the Dictator, which is discussed in the volume.

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  • Mellen, Joan. Modern Times. London: British Film Institute, 2006.

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    Historical and thematic consideration of Modern Times and its lasting influence, focused especially on the politics of the film. Includes a final chapter on the FBI’s extensive file on Chaplin. Part of the BFI Film Classics series.

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  • Scheide, Frank, Hooman Mehran, and Dan Kamin. Chaplin’s “Limelight” and the Music Hall Tradition. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006.

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    Collection of essays considering the production history of Limelight and its connection to the world of the English music hall in which Chaplin’s career began. Includes interviews with Chaplin’s collaborators on the film and reproductions of materials from the Chaplin Archives.

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Contemporary Critical Responses

Chaplin cannot be understood apart from the extensive and passionate popular and critical responses he provoked throughout his career. The following sources represent a small selection of some of the most historically important critical treatments of Chaplin during his own lifetime, which together help to chart his rise and fall from critical favor. Carr 1915 presents one of the first journalistic treatments of Chaplin, already crediting him with forever changing the film industry only a year after he first started making films. Farmer 1919 reminds us of the critical backlash against Chaplin that dates even to his earliest years, here dismissing the Chaplin vogue as a passing phenomenon that has ascribed artistry and importance to a comedian who Farmer claims possesses neither. Ferguson 1936 demonstrates the difficulties Chaplin faced during the transition to sound, here criticizing the now beloved Modern Times for being too old fashioned in its resistance to sound technology. In a different vein, Churchill 1935 is a somewhat anomalous but historically important instance of praise regarding Chaplin’s resistance to sound technology on the basis of the political advantages of silent film for colonial powers, allowing them to broadcast their culture and technology across the world without any language barriers. Agee 2000 celebrates the darker turn that Chaplin’s filmmaking took after the Second World War and attempts to rebuff the critical disparagements that his work faced at a time when his left-leaning politics became a point of concern in the press. Kerr 1971 shows the difficulty Chaplin continued to face well after the transition to sound, finding in his sound era films, particularly The Great Dictator and Limelight, only a pale echo of what Kerr believes to be his superior silent work. Knight 1972 and Schickel 1972 show two different sides of later critical appraisals of Chaplin, after he had ceased making films. Knight all but enshrines Chaplin’s classic City Lights, declaring it to be above review and likening it to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Schickel, in contrast, declares there to be little cinematographic value in Chaplin’s work after his earliest shorts, part of a larger critical “turn” against Chaplin’s films in the 1960s and 1970s that often pitted Chaplin’s work against the more cynical and cinematographically adventurous films of his contemporary Buster Keaton. In addition to the sources cited here, see Schickel 2006, cited under Anthologies and Reference Works for a further collection of critical writings on Chaplin from across his career.

  • Agee, James. “Monsieur Verdoux—II.” In Agee on Film: Criticism and Comment on the Movies, 250–254. New York: Modern Library, 2000.

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    Originally printed in The Nation, June 14, 1947. Part two of a three-part defense of Chaplin’s polarizing dark comedy by one of the age’s premier critics. Focuses on Chaplin’s artistry at a time when many others in the press were willing to dismiss Chaplin’s work on account of his politics.

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  • Carr, Harry. “Charlie Chaplin’s Story—Conclusion.” Photoplay, October 1915, 97–98.

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    The conclusion to a four-part series on Chaplin in one of the era’s leading film periodicals. One of the earliest journalistic appraisals of Chaplin’s work the series already credits him with transforming the nature of film comedy even though he had only been in the industry for slightly over a year.

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  • Churchill, Winston. “Everybody’s Language.” Collier’s, 26 October 1935, 24, 37–38.

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    Idiosyncratic article in which Churchill defends Chaplin’s decision to continue making silent films well into the sound era on the basis of their utility as tools of colonial enforcement, allowing imperial powers to demonstrate a civilizational superiority through film without having to contend with a language barrier.

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  • Farmer, Harcourt. “Is the Charlie Chaplin Vogue Passing?” Theatre Magazine, October 1919, 249.

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    Notable for representing the often forgotten anti-Chaplin biases and stances of many journalists and critics during the era of his meteoric rise to fame. Chaplin’s films were often criticized for a supposed lack of depth and artistic quality, as here.

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  • Ferguson, Otis. “Hallelujah, Bum Again.” New Republic, 19 February 1936, 48.

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    Influential review of Modern Times that criticizes the film’s old-fashioned comedy and loose structure and urges Chaplin to fully make the transition to sound.

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  • Kerr, Walter. “The Lineage of Limelight.” In Focus on Chaplin. Edited by Donald W. McCaffrey, 143–148. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971.

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    Originally published in Theatre Arts 36 (November 1952). Scathing review of Limelight by a great admirer of Chaplin’s silent era work. Focuses on the loquaciousness of Chaplin’s sound era films, which favor a particularly intellectual and often political brand of dialogue over physical comedy.

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  • Knight, Arthur. “One Man’s Movie.” Saturday Review, 6 May 1972, 14.

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    Much-cited review of Chaplin’s 1972 re-release of City Lights, in which Knight compares the act of reviewing the film to critiquing Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

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  • Schickel, Richard. “Hail Chaplin—The Early Chaplin.” New York Times, 2 April 1972.

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    Indicative of shifting attitudes toward Chaplin in the 1960s and 1970s, when many critics began to question the artistic qualities of his feature films (particularly in contrast to those of Buster Keaton), finding visual and narrative innovation only in his earliest shorts.

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Historical and Cultural Context

Numerous works on Chaplin have sought to position him within a larger historical or cultural context. Maland 1991 and Robinson 1983 represent the most comprehensive and important of these efforts. Maland presents what is often considered the definitive study of Chaplin’s stardom in the United States, charting his rise to fame and fall from grace and linking it to larger historical and cultural developments across the 20th century. Robinson looks specifically at the critical and popular responses Chaplin engendered across his career, taking an international perspective (although English-language sources receive the most extended attention). Jacobs 2008 and Beam 2010 look at Chaplin in the context of the film industry at the time. Jacobs offers an important study of changing Hollywood mores around romance and sexuality and argues for the important role that Chaplin’s first noncomedic directorial effort, A Woman of Paris, now one of the least remembered of Chaplin’s feature films, played in shaping Hollywood culture at the time. Beam 2010 looks at some of the fringe regions of the culture industry during Chaplin’s lifetime, where Chaplin imitation as both an amateur pursuit and professional practice abounded during the height of Chaplin’s fame. Sobel and Francis 1977 and Anthony and Chaplin 2012 look to England rather than America to understand Chaplin in his historical and cultural context. Sobel and Francis offer an important look at Chaplin’s origins grounded in a history of late Edwardian London, the period and place into which he was born and where his stage career first began. Anthony takes a similar approach looking specifically at the institution of the English music hall, in which both of Chaplin’s parents made their living and in which Chaplin first gained professional attention.

  • Anthony, Barry, and Michael Chaplin. Chaplin’s Music Hall: The Chaplins and Their Circle in the Limelight. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2012.

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    Examines the role of the music hall in the life of the Chaplin family, from his parents’ work as music hall performers to Chaplin’s days with the Karno troupe. Offers the history of the British music hall in its waning decades as a means to understanding Chaplin’s origins and his aesthetic.

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  • Beam, Jennifer M. “The Art of Imitation: The Originality of Charlie Chaplin and Other Moving-Image Myths.” In Slapstick Comedy. Edited by Tom Paulus and Rob King, 236–261. New York: Routledge, 2010.

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    Considers the phenomenon of Chaplin impersonation, which was a major amateur pursuit and minor entertainment subindustry during Chaplin’s rise to fame in the silent era.

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  • Jacobs, Lea. The Decline of Sentiment: American Film in the 1920s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

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    Notable for its extensive discussion of A Woman of Paris in the context of Hollywood’s changing mores around romance and sexuality.

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  • Maland, Charles J. Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

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    The premier consideration of Chaplin’s stardom as a cultural phenomenon of the American 20th century, charting the breadth of his career from his early shorts to his fall from cultural favor and the years of his European exile.

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  • Robinson, David. Chaplin: The Mirror of Opinion. London: Secker and Warburg, 1983.

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    A history of Chaplin’s life and career as told through the story of his changing critical reception in the press and public discourse. Focuses primarily on English and American sources, with some consideration given to Chaplin journalism and scholarship in other languages.

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  • Sobel, Raoul, and David Francis. Chaplin: Genesis of a Clown. New York: Quartet, 1977.

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    Considers Chaplin’s career in light of his childhood and early music hall work during the late Edwardian era, paying particular attention to British history and culture of the period as a way to explain Chaplin’s origins.

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Slapstick

Chaplin’s work cannot be understood apart from the genre it helped define, and many of the most important sources that treat his films deal with them specifically in the context of a larger consideration of slapstick as a genre and mode of filmmaking. Paulus and King 2010 offers a useful entry point for looking at slapstick as a formal mode of filmic construction and a historical phenomenon tied to the advent of modernity, bringing together essays by some of the leading figures in slapstick scholarship that often make reference to Chaplin’s films. Separate from this collection, two essays of particular note are Crafton 1995 and Gunning 1995; each seeks to understand slapstick’s generic relationship to other forms of narrative filmmaking. Although they are not centered on Chaplin, they offer a useful background to the formal study of slapstick films, taking differing perspectives on the degree to which the focus on the gag as a defining aspect of slapstick necessarily separates it from other genres and modes. Agee 2000, Kerr 1975, and Mast 1979 each offer a general overview of slapstick, with Chaplin as a central point of focus. Agee’s brief essay, based on his personal reminiscences of watching slapstick films in his youth, is still widely cited today and is often credited with rekindling critical and scholarly interest in slapstick at a time when it was considered to be of little critical or academic interest. Kerr focuses specifically on the figures of the great slapstick comedians, including Keaton, Lloyd, and Langdon as well as Chaplin. Extensively illustrated with movie stills, it combines information on slapstick production methods with reflections on the philosophical implications of each silent clown’s particular mode of comedy. Mast presents a broad theory of filmic comedy drawn largely from his analysis of slapstick films, with Chaplin being one of the most important figures in his consideration both as a comedic performer and as a director and filmmaker. King 2009 and North 2009 both take approaches that are equal parts historical and theoretical. King examines the films of Keystone Studios, where Chaplin started his film career, as a site of ongoing negotiation with the tensions of modernity and industrialization. North examines slapstick as a whole as the essential comedic form of the machine age, positioning Chaplin as one of the genre’s key proponents.

  • Agee, James. “Comedy’s Greatest Era.” In Agee on Film: Criticism and Comment on the Movies, 391–412. New York: Modern Library, 2000.

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    Originally published in Life, 3 September, 1949. A personal reminiscence of slapstick era films by one of America’s leading film critics, often credited with reviving academic and critical interest in slapstick after it had become passé. Pays particular attention to the conclusion of City Lights as a triumph of filmmaking.

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  • Crafton, Donald. “Pie and Chase: Gag, Spectacle and Narrative in Slapstick Comedy.” In Classical Hollywood Comedy. Edited by Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins, 106–119. New York: Routledge, 1995.

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    One of the pivotal formal treatments of slapstick filmmaking. Makes the contested claim that slapstick operates along a different formal and narrative mode than other forms of filmmaking due to the unique, anti-narrative demands of the gag.

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  • Gunning, Tom. “Crazy Machines in the Garden of Forking Paths: Mischief Gags and the Origins of American Film Comedy.” In Classical Hollywood Comedy. Edited by Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins, 87–104. New York: Routledge, 1995.

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    Examines the origins of slapstick as a genre that stands somewhat apart from other narrative film forms but is ultimately subsumable under the rubrics used to analyze noncomedic films.

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  • Kerr, Walter. The Silent Clowns. New York: Knopf, 1975.

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    Richly illustrated study of the major slapstick performers, including several chapters on Chaplin. Argues that the essence of the Tramp lies in his unique abilities as a chameleon-like performer, leaving him devoid of an underlying identity.

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  • King, Rob. The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

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    Detailed and theoretically informed cultural history of the Keystone Studios where Chaplin got his start in films, viewing Keystone as a lens through which to consider the development of American modernity.

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  • Mast, Gerald. The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

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    Far-reaching theory of film comedy that includes an extensive consideration of Chaplin’s work. Mounts a concerted defense of Chaplin as a film director on the basis of the seeming transparency and clarity of his formal constructions, similar to that offered by Bordat 1998 (cited under French Criticism).

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  • North, Michael. Machine-Age Comedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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    Views slapstick as the essential comic form of the machine age, with particular attention paid to Chaplin’s Modern Times.

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  • Paulus, Tom, and Rob King, eds. Slapstick Comedy. New York: Routledge, 2010.

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    Collection of essays by leading film historians on the history and theory of slapstick, viewing it as a genre with unique formal demands and historical circumstances that cannot be entirely explained by reference to or comparison with the tenets of dramatic filmmaking.

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Theory

Chaplin has long been a touchpoint for film theorists, who have used his films or the figure of the Tramp to illustrate a wide variety of theoretical perspectives. Arnheim 1996 and Eisenstein 1947 demonstrate two of the earliest perspectives on Chaplin in the context of film theory. Despite admiring his work greatly, both figures found Chaplin’s manner of filmmaking problematic in that it did not easily conform to the tenets of the editing- and montage-driven construction that they privileged. Arnheim explicitly positions Chaplin as a “primitive” filmmaker while also crediting him with a kind of romantic genius that will ensure the lasting value of his work. Eisenstein, who became a personal friend of Chaplin’s, here reworks his famous theory of montage to better accommodate Chaplin’s manner of performance as constituting a kind of montage-in-the-frame as opposed to the editing-driven montage Eisenstein himself was famous for developing and theorizing. Adorno 1996, Benjamin 1999, and Benjamin 2002 demonstrate the great esteem in which Chaplin was held by the members of the Frankfurt School, even as their perspectives on his work differed. Adorno focuses in his reflections on Chaplin on issues of poverty and cruelty, viewing Chaplin as the figure the modern world has been waiting for as a reflection of itself. Benjamin 1999 focuses on Chaplin’s potential as a revolutionary figure through his international celebrity and populism, while Benjamin 2002 makes a separate but analogous case that Chaplin’s very persona—and specifically his walk—embodies the dialectical potential of film. Mitry 2000 and Deleuze 1986 focus on the formal properties of Chaplin’s work. Mitry sees in Chaplin a form of pure filmmaking that is untranslatable to any other medium, while Deleuze views Chaplin as both an essential proponent of his concept of the movement-image and a potentially subversive figure whose focus on simultaneity and irreducibility threatens to undermine the kineticism for which he is known. Finally, Žižek 2001 offers a psychoanalytic reading of Chaplin’s work in City Lights, viewing the final scene of that film in which the Tramp is revealed to the Blind Girl as a quintessential moment of epistemological encounter in which the self is revealed without ideological or symbolic support.

  • Adorno, Theodor W. “Chaplin Times Two.” Translated by John MacKay. Yale Journal of Criticism 9.1 (1996): 57–61.

    DOI: 10.1353/yale.1996.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Originally published in the Frankfurter Zeitung, 22 May 1930 and Neue Rundschau, Volume 3, 1964. Two short reflections on Chaplin, relating him to statements made by Kierkegaard and describing the proximity between his form of comedy and outright cruelty.

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  • Arnheim, Rudolf. “Chaplin’s Early Films.” Translated by John MacKay. Yale Journal of Criticism 9 (1996): 309–314.

    DOI: 10.1353/yale.1996.0014Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Originally published as “Alte Chaplinfilme” in Die Weltbuhne, No. 27, 7 February 1929. Situates Chaplin’s films as formally primitive while attesting to their lasting value as premier works of slapstick. Notable for Arnheim’s positioning of Chaplin as a romantic poet of the cinema operating within the Hollywood commercial realm.

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  • Benjamin, Walter. “Chaplin in Retrospect.” In Selected Writings: Volume 2, 1927–1930. Edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, 222–224. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

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    Consideration of The Circus that positions Chaplin both as a filmic artist and as a covertly revolutionary popular entertainer.

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  • Benjamin, Walter. “The Formula in Which the Dialectical Structure of Film Finds Expression.” In Selected Writings: Volume 3, 1935–1938. Edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, 94–96. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.

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    Brief fragment on the dialectical structure of filmic form. Despite being unpublished in Benjamin’s lifetime, the piece is well known for its observation of Chaplin’s famous walk as mirroring the dialectical nature of film construction in itself.

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  • Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

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    Deleuze includes extensive discussions of Chaplin in his theory of film construction, particularly in Chapter 10: “The Action Image, the Small Form.” For Deleuze, Chaplin holds a unique and somewhat subversive position within the rubric of the movement-image due to his focus on irreducibility and simultaneity in his performances and filmmaking.

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  • Eisenstein, Sergei. “Word and Image.” In The Film Sense. Edited and translated by Jay Leyda, 3–68. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1947.

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    Offering a revision to his famous theory of montage, Eisenstein here praises Chaplin for the subtlety of his performances and redefines montage to include any dialectical opposition within a film, whether achieved through editing as in D. W. Griffith’s filmmaking or within the unedited frame, as in Chaplin’s.

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  • Mitry, Jean. The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema. Translated by Christopher King. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

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    Sets out to discover the “essential components of cinematic expression” and finds a particularly potent case in Chaplin’s filmmaking, which Mitry claims is irreducible to any other form of expression other than the cinema.

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  • Žižek, Slavoj. “Death and Sublimation: The Final Scene of City Lights.” In Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out. 2d ed., 1–11. New York: Routledge, 2001.

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    Psychoanalytic reading of City Lights focused on the stripping away of constructed and imaginary identities, culminating in the film’s final moments in which the irreducible self is finally presented without illusion or symbolic support.

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French Criticism

Outside of English, the French literature on Chaplin arguably makes up the largest and most important body of work on his life and career. From early in the 20th century, Chaplin, whose Tramp character is known affectionately as Charlot to his French fans, has played an outsized role in French film theory and criticism. Filmmaker and theorist Louis Delluc can be credited with the first book-length study of Chaplin, published in 1921, and Chaplin has been a touchstone for generations of French critics, filmmakers, and theorists since then, including such luminaries as André Bazin, Jean Mitry, and François Truffaut. Except for certain high-profile figures such as Bazin, much of this literature has not been translated; even much of Mitry’s work on Chaplin has not appeared in English. As such, there is limited dialogue between English-language and French-language Chaplin scholarship, even where there are significant points of overlap (see, for instance, Bordat 1998 and Mast 1979, cited under Slapstick). However, the French literature on Chaplin represents an important body of work on the filmmaker that is worth the consideration of any interested reader with the requisite language skills. The sources cited here represent a mix of high-profile figures and those with less international renown to give a varied portrait of the French critical landscape. Delluc 1922 offers a useful starting place for anyone interested in the French reception of Chaplin and in his international reception more generally, offering both an academic examination of Chaplin’s work and a polemical account of the cultural importance of Chaplin in particular and film itself more generally. Bazin 1985 presents one of the most important collections of reflections on Chaplin’s films, drawn from his work with the illustrious film journal Cahiers du cinema. Mitry 1972 showcases the famous film theorist’s appraisal of Chaplin’s total body of films. Bordat 1998 marks an important consideration of Chaplin as a working filmmaker, drawing especially on the footage uncovered in the documentary Unknown Chaplin (see Documentary Sources). Delage 1998 takes a similarly materialist approach, drawing on documentary sources to paint a picture of Chaplin’s work on The Great Dictator that looks at the film as a work of great historical and moral significance.

  • Bazin, André. Essays on Chaplin. Translated by Jean Bodon. New Haven, CT: University of New Haven Press, 1985.

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    Originally published as Charlie Chaplin in French by Cerf in 1972. Collects Bazin’s numerous and influential essays on Chaplin, including reflections on his persona, mythology, and individual films. Also notable for Éric Rohmer’s essay on A Countess from Hong Kong, one of the few extended studies of that film.

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  • Bordat, Francis. Chaplin cinéaste. Paris: Cerf, 1998.

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    Considers Chaplin’s work as a filmmaker in light of archival information on his working methods and argues for Chaplin’s general adherence to the transparency and actor-centric dictates of Hollywood classical style. Though not directly in dialogue, Bordat’s arguments mirror those of Mast 1979 (cited under Slapstick) regarding Chaplin’s transparent visual style.

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  • Delage, Christian. Chaplin: La Grande Histoire. Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 1998.

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    Detailed study of Chaplin’s work on the production of The Great Dictator, which takes pains to place the film within the larger geopolitical and moral context of the Second World War.

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  • Delluc, Louis. Charlie Chaplin. Translated by Hamish Miles. London: Bodley Head, 1922.

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    Originally published in French by M. de Brunoff in 1921, this is the first book-length study of Chaplin. Argues vehemently for the artistic value of Chaplin’s work, comparing him to the most renowned European artists, and uses Chaplin’s work as a platform for extolling the artistic worth of the nascent film medium itself.

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  • Mitry, Jean. Tout Chaplin: Tous les films, par le texte, par le gag, et par l’image. Paris: Seghers, 1972.

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    Comprehensive look at Chaplin’s body of work by one of the leading French film theorists.

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Portrayals

Chaplin’s rags-to-riches life story has inspired numerous interpretations in film, television, theater, and literature. Three of the most prominent are cited here. Attenborough 2008 is perhaps the best-known fictional portrayal of Chaplin, made duly famous by Robert Downey Jr.’s Oscar-nominated performance. Adapted from Chaplin’s own autobiography (see Chaplin 1964, cited under Works Written by Chaplin) and from Robinson 1985 (cited under General Overviews), it hues closely to the general contours of Chaplin’s life, although it takes substantial liberties with many details. Curtis and Meehan 2012 tells a similar tale for the stage, adapting much of Chaplin’s life story into a Broadway musical. Gold 2009 focuses specifically on Chaplin’s early career between 1916 and 1918, examining his growing national and international celebrity and its connection to the geopolitical context of the First World War.

  • Attenborough, Richard, dir. Chaplin. DVD. Santa Monica, CA: Lions Gate, 2008.

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    Originally released by Paramount in 1992. Oscar-nominated film depicting Chaplin’s life from his youth in London to his exile in Switzerland. Though accurate to the broad arc of Chaplin’s life, the film takes liberties with many events and opts to refilm (and in some cases alter) some famous Chaplin sequences.

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  • Curtis, Christopher, and Thomas Meehan, comps. Chaplin: The Musical. New York: Ethel Barrymore Theater, 2012–2013.

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    Originally premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2010. Tony-nominated Broadway musical depicting major events in Chaplin’s life.

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  • Gold, Glen David. Sunnyside. New York: Knopf, 2009.

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    Novel by best-selling author Glen David Gold depicting Chaplin’s personal and professional struggles c. 1916–1918. Focused primarily on Chaplin himself, but the novel places Chaplin’s story in the context of the emergence of early Hollywood and the ongoing First World War.

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