I honestly cannot remember the first movie of yours that I ever saw. It’s funny, I would’ve thought that I would be able to, given that you are my all-time favorite filmmaker, but I’m sitting here writing this letter wracking my brain, and I cannot. I do have a very early memory of an elementary school project- I think it was from 1st or 2nd grade. We were required to do a book report type of presentation on a historical figure, and miraculously, I chose you. But how is it that I even came to know of your existence? I’ve probably my parents to thank for that. Probably my dad. He has always been partial to slapstick comedy, and took quite an interest in making sure that I too had a healthy appreciation for that art form. It’s always best to start the study of these things early and in a methodical manner, so it’s logical that my earliest exposures to movie comedy would have been your films. I’ll hazard a guess that the first movie of yours that I saw was probably Modern Times or The Gold Rush. Once again, this is purely speculation, but I have a feeling that this is right. The next thing I remember is asking my parents for a boxed-DVD set (of course you don’t know what a DVD is, but it is a method of personal film viewing, quite convenient and revolutionary) of your feature length silent and talking pictures. Then, I requested the companion set of your short films from my grandma. I now own both of these sets and have watched the entirety of their contents multiple times.
I know, it’s a little unusual for someone my age to watch as much silent film as I do, especially given that I now study sound for picture, but there is something so special about watching a film without dialogue and still being able to understand the fine points of the story. This is especially easy to do when watching your films because of The Tramp. He’s the original everyman. He’s the underdog that you can’t help but want to root for. He always finds himself in the most particular of scenarios. Sometimes he is a fish out of water, and other times he becomes a chameleon who adopts a particular guise in order to get by in a difficult situation. He’s a hero for the working class because he has no pretensions and always the best interests of his fellow workers at heart. He has a good heart but is certainly not without flaws. He makes mistakes, which only work to his advantage, because whom among us has not ever made one of those?
Your films represent something particularly special in the history of American cinema because they (and you) attained such popularity while depicting ‘difficult’ and often controversial subject matter. Now that I am older, I recognize that that is one of the reasons that I am most drawn to your films- the stories that are first and foremost meant to be entertaining while containing a strong vein of social commentary. Critically speaking, the camerawork and editing in your movies is not incredibly innovative. This is difficult for me to admit because my level of idolatry is such that I am loathe to acknowledge any sort of artistic shortcoming in your work. Unless, of course, this is not truly a shortcoming but only a manifestation of your true artistic concern, namely, the story and the journey of the Little Tramp through various walks of life. You were never concerned with creating a perfectly composed shot. No, the filming was just a means to an end, a method of reaching a wide audience with your ideas. This idea is why I think comparisons of your works to Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd’s of the same period are a bit counterproductive. Why compare works of art that were meant to achieve radically different things? It’s like comparing apples to oranges. This is not to say that you did not create striking imagery. I think few would discount the achievements of Modern Times– the Tramp traveling through the giant machine, the opening cross-dissolve between the herd of sheep and the factory workers. And what about the technical innovations of The Gold Rush? The rocking cabin is the basis for one of the greatest visual gags in the history of physical comedy.
You waited a long time to adopt the use of sound in your films. Some criticize you for this move, implying that you were a bit behind the times, and maybe you were, but this choice never really bothered me. It has always struck me as being somewhat experimental and risky. Your fame was so great that people would still go watch your movies, so why not extend the life of silent cinema a bit longer? When you did transition to talking pictures, as The Great Dictator attests, you imbued your writing with such richness that I did not find it unusual for the Tramp to be talking at all. I took an introductory theater class my freshman year of high school. We were required to perform a monologue of our choosing. At that point in my life (and to this day) my knowledge of film was vastly superior to my knowledge of theater, so I selected my monologue from The Great Dictator. You can probably guess which monologue it is– it was ‘the’ monologue from the film. I love the language and the meaning of the language “We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone…” It’s beautiful and heartfelt. I love that speech. I think it is one of the best in cinema’s vast history of eloquent speeches.
I’m upset that popular culture has been unkind to you and your works. I am continually baffled that someone who once held the honor of being the most famous man in the country is not even mentioned in our high school history books. There is something fundamentally wrong with that. Your films, although they are silent stand up to the test of time. They are universal and continually enjoyable. I want everyone to be able to say that they have seen a Chaplin film, and so I write this letter in the hope that people unfamiliar with your work will be introduced to your work and the possibility that a silent film could change their outlook on the world.