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Mr. Movie: Charlie Chaplin

As instantly recognizable as the Washington Monument or Mount Rushmore, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp is a true American icon. In this day of computerized special effects, are Mr. Chaplin’s movies still worth a look? Oh, yeah!


All of the silents are good, from the early shorts right through the beginning of sound. It’s hard to pick the top few, but here goes:


City Lights (1931) is simply one of the best movies ever made by anybody. Charlie loves a blind flower girl and will sacrifice all so that she will be able to see again. His friendship with a drunken millionaire is fun and funny. Witty, touching and gripping throughout, this 86-minute gem is a must-see for any film fan.


In The Gold Rush (1925), Charlie joins in the race for riches with his own comic touches. Perhaps his funniest film, this one features the famous dancing shoes scene and many other delightful moments. 


Modern Times (1936) is Charlie’s gentle, but quite effective, battle with the machine age. He teams with Paulette Goddard to try to maintain man’s individuality in ingenious, and always comical, ways. This was his last silent film.


Charlie is The Great Dictator (1940) Adenoid Hynkel in a hilarious spoof of you-know-who that holds up remarkably well almost 80 years later. Everyone in Hollywood tried to talk Chaplin out of making this film; fortunately, he had enough clout to ignore them and do it anyway. Paulette Goddard is back as his lady friend, and Jack Oakie has a hilarious turn as Benzino Napoli of neighboring Bacteria.


Chaplin joins The Circus (1928) by accident (don’t ask) and takes on any job they’ll put him to, with very funny results. He, of course, falls in love with the beautiful bareback rider.


The Kid (1921) is a very impressive 6-year-old Jackie Coogan, a street kid wise beyond his years who Charlie raises for lack of alternatives. It’s funny as heck and remarkably moving. 


A funny serial killer is Monsieur Verdoux (1947), which is either years before its time or a complete waste of time, depending on your point of view. I’m somewhere in between, but to me this is not great Chaplin. 


The 1992 biopic, Chaplin, is, alas, not very good. Robert Downey Jr. does a credible job in the title role but the screenplay is a mess. It dwells way too long on Chaplin’s private problems, without explaining them at all, and does very little in showing or explaining his magic.


All of the films in this column are available on DVD. And all are suitable for any age.