Out this week on a new Criterion Collection DVD & Blu-ray, Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” stands out as one of the director’s greatest features, and perhaps the clearest and cleanest fusion of his capacity for pathos and comedy.
In his first year in Hollywood, 1914, Chaplin acted in 16 movies and directed an additional 20 for Keystone Studios. The sheer volume is dizzying, but strangest of all, from a modern perception, is how unlike the common perception of Chaplin they are: nasty and sneering, the work of a talented but immature youth instead of the perhaps-too-human figure he later became. Narratively and stylistically, they show just how primitive Chaplin could be. To watch these short films and the ones Chaplin made up through 1923 is to see an artist consistently pushing himself, refining the same basic story—the Tramp in one scenario or other tries to impress girl, bumbles around some occupation, gets into a physical altercation and either wins his love’s hand or sets off alone—so that it perennially yielded new treasures.
The 10 shorts below illustrate just how complex Chaplin’s filmmaking became as he gained experience and exercised greater business savvy with each new studio deal. Covering a range from Chaplin’s first great works at Essanay Studios to picks from his commanding final run of shorts for First National, they show an increasing sophistication of narrative and thematic ambition, as well as that of the director’s aesthetic capacity, maximizing the impact of each still frame and even playing Chaplin’s iconic image against itself as he itched to move on to the next step of his filmmaking. Though, unlike Keaton, Chaplin’s features generally outclass his short works, the greatest revelations of the artist’s work can be found in these formative two- and three-reelers, and they can help orient one to not only appreciate the films of one of cinema’s greatest artists, but love them as well.