Even if you’ve never seen a silent movie, you know Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp. His too-big trousers and too-tight jacket, his bowler hat, his toothbrush mustache, his cane, his too-big shoes pointed at right angles to his body: you can recognize him from his silhouette. Samuel Beckett doodled him in his manuscripts, and Pam on The Office dressed up as him for Halloween. You can buy a poster of the Tramp in every pop-up poster shop in the world. He is the most iconic figure in classic cinema, one of the most iconic figures in any visual art, and was certainly one of the most beloved.
A hundred years or so later, it’s fascinating to consider that The Tramp was a character living in extreme poverty and frequently homeless—that is, the kind of character who has almost no place in the biggest, most popular movies of our time, even as homelessness and extreme poverty are as endemic as ever.
Charlie Chaplin, a committed socialist who was kicked out of the U.S. during the Red Scare, spent decades of his career playing a man in poverty with boundless empathy, humor and humanity. In a world where discussion of old movies is laser-focused on whether something “holds up,” his work is not just worthwhile for modern audiences, but vital. His films are not just beautiful, ambitious, funny, and moving: they’re key works of leftist, humanist art. And although Chaplin made plenty of sound films, ranging from the pretty great (Limelight forever!) to the thoroughly mediocre (A Countess from Hong Kong never), his silent films are the glittering gems in which his artistry shines the brightest.
When your conception of silent movies is a jumble of myths and clichés, from women being tied to railroad tracks to people running from cops in fast motion, it can seem like silent films are talkies minus the talking: that before the innovation of sound, filmmakers tried their best with the paltry tools available, but then sound made way for what cinema was always supposed to be. This makes it seem like silent films might, at best, be interesting curios. But silent cinema was a blindingly bright burst of technical innovation and artistic expression at the dawn of the century. Film was a newly born art, the rules of which had not yet been established. Silent filmmakers molded the conventions with their own hands. They weren’t making talkies without the talking: they were creating a whole new art form, a universal one that required no translation. The nascent nature of cinema in the silent era saw many women gain positions of power as screenwriters, directors, and producers until the profit potential of film became clear to Wall Street investors. A new era of corporate consolidation thereafter pushed women out.
By the time The Jazz Singer pioneered synchronized sound in 1927, silent films just flew. Buster Keaton made The General, still the greatest action movie of all time, and the whole thing is a chase, prefiguring Mad Max: Fury Road by nearly a century. Watch 7th Heaven, a delightful romcom that becomes a heartbreaking war drama, anchored in incredibly vivid and modern performances from Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, and try telling me that it’s worse off for not having dialogue. Watch Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and thrill with every sweeping move of the camera. There’s a purity to silent cinema, neither influenced by nor aspiring toward the conventions of theater or literature, and by 1927, silent filmmakers had nurtured the spark into a big, beautiful fire.
But then The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length synchronized sound film, came out. There have been plenty of major changes in cinema since—color usurping black and white, the rise of digital over film, the birth and death of the Hays Code’s censorship rules—but none so fundamental to the very nature of the medium. In the short term, synchronized sound made it a lot harder for both cameras and actors to move: you don’t want the mics to pick up the noise of the camera, and you do want the mics to pick up the actors’ voices. In the long term, an entire way of making movies was snuffed out more or less in an instant. A lot was gained in the transition to sound—knocking over the first domino in a chain that leads to Michael Keaton yelling, “You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts!” in Tim Burton’s Batman, for one—but a lot was lost, too.
But there was one guy who kept defiantly making silent movies after everyone else had moved on: Charlie Chaplin.
Likely born in a Romani/Irish traveler halting site in England to a pair of music hall entertainers, Chaplin was raised in extreme poverty. His father left the family when he was a toddler and provided no financial support; he spent his childhood in and out of workhouses and institutes for destitute children. When he was nine, his mother was committed to a mental asylum. “I was hardly aware of a crisis because we lived in a continual crisis,” Chaplin wrote in his autobiography. “Being a boy, I dismissed our troubles with gracious forgetfulness.”
Chaplin performed on stage from the age of five, and when he abandoned his somewhat intermittent schooling at thirteen, he worked as an actor in plays, circuses, and touring comedy sketch shows. He got picked up by a company that toured the American vaudeville circuit in 1910, and the rest is, more or less, history. By 1915, he was one of cinema’s first real stars—writing, directing, and playing the instantly iconic character he’d portray for another twenty years: the Tramp.
Chaplin didn’t do the kind of daredevil stunts that Harold Lloyd (who lost his thumb and index finger to a bomb mistaken for a prop) or Buster Keaton (the Johnny Knoxville of his generation) did, but he was able to use slapstick in emotionally astute ways. When the Tramp falls over, “we laugh at the physical event, but feel a twinge of guilt because of our sympathy for him, which we redouble to salve our guilt, and so slapstick is used to bind our sympathies to characters of lower social status even as we laugh at their misfortune,” Dean Buckley writes. “Later, we’ll find it even funnier when the policeman trying to lock him up for loitering gets smacked in the face, because our sympathy lies with the Tramp.” This enables the incredible pathos that runs through Chaplin’s work—a pathos that illuminates his deeply felt humanist almost-parables, which hang somewhere between social realism and fairy tale.
The Kid was Chaplin’s first feature film, even if at about an hour it’s barely one by today’s standards. An opening intertitle introduces it as “a picture with a laugh, and perhaps a tear.” That’s underselling it: it’s incredibly funny, and there are sections it’s near-impossible not to bawl through. In the opening scenes, an unwed mother’s heart breaks as she abandons her newborn baby, leaving a note that reads, “Please love and care for this orphan child.” The Tramp finds the baby, and he does just that.
Five years later, the Tramp and the Kid (Jackie Coogan) are living in a tiny one-room apartment. Their love for each other saturates the screen: Coogan, lit up with adoration for his adopted father, gives one of the best child performances of all time. Chaplin’s turn was almost certainly colored by the death of his infant son just ten days before the production began. The film nails that delicate balancing act of showing characters who are happy and poor without implying there’s some correlation between the two. They’re a loving, happy little family, but money is a constant issue. Their clothes and blankets are worn out and full of holes. They run an array of scams to get by, ranging from the tiny—they’ve rigged the gas meter in their apartment to give them back their quarter—to the small-to-medium-sized: they pick a street, and the Kid will hock a stone to smash someone’s window so the Tramp, working as a glazier, can come along and offer to repair it. In another movie, all this could seem as fun as it does here, but with a dark undercurrent—a criminal raising another criminal. But in The Kid, our sympathies are so thoroughly with the Tramp that their scams are just lovely and charming. They’re just doing what they must to get by, after all.
The Kid falls ill, and though funds are as tight as always, the Tramp calls a doctor. When the doctor realizes the Tramp isn’t the Kid’s father, he alerts the authorities. The Tramp, too honest for his own good, can’t seem to get the words out to explain what he and the Kid are to each other, how he is his father in every way that matters. Your heart is in your throat. And soon men show up in a car marked “County Orphan Asylum” to take the Kid away.
It’s hard to watch the scene without at least tearing up: the Kid standing in the back of the car, arms stretched out, sobbing like his heart’s been cleaved in two, crying out for his papa; the Tramp struggling as cops hold him on either side, his eyes wild. If the on-the-books reason they’re taking the Kid away is that the Tramp isn’t his father, there are unspoken reasons just beneath the surface, ready to poke through. The Tramp is a single father, and then and now single fathers are treated as suspect and inadequate. And most importantly, the Tramp is poor. It’s hard to imagine that if a millionaire had taken the Kid in and raised him that the doctor would have called the authorities—he’d probably congratulate him on his generosity. But our society hates poor people, and especially poor parents: “There is a pervasive idea in our culture that poor parents are acting irresponsibly by bringing kids into the world that they can’t afford or can’t afford to do better by,” Carmen Rios puts it for Everyday Feminism. “There’s a pervasive idea in our culture that poor parents are inferior parents because they can’t raise their kids up to the arbitrary standards put in place” by the media and the state. The Tramp loves the Kid, and the Kid is healthy and fed and safe and happy, but the characters in positions of power cannot fathom that this cramped apartment could be the best place for him.
The Tramp chases the car along the rooftops, then jumps down onto it. He fights off the guy from the orphanage—kicks him right into the road—and rescues the Kid. He hugs him so tight you can practically feel it through the screen. On the run and newly homeless, they spend the night in a flophouse. The Tramp pays for himself and then sneaks the Kid in through the window, and when they get caught, he pays for the Kid, too. But the guy who runs the flophouse recognizes the Kid as the missing child the authorities are offering a one thousand dollar reward for, and as the Tramp sleeps, the guy takes the Kid to the police station.
In parallel to the main story, the Kid’s mother—who instantly regretted giving him away—has become a wealthy actress and dedicated philanthropist. She unknowingly crosses paths with the Kid while distributing food to the poor. And when the doctor shows her the note that the Tramp showed him—“Please love and care for this orphan child”—she realizes the Kid is her kid. The film ends with the Tramp being brought to the door of the mother’s mansion and embracing the Kid.
If the rest of the film has a social realist touch, the ending feels closer to fantasy. I don’t mean that it doesn’t really happen—although it does immediately follow a dream sequence—but it’s the best-case scenario of all best-case scenarios. The Kid isn’t put in an orphanage; he’s reunited with his mother. His mother is open-hearted enough to bring the Tramp into her home, not toss him aside. And she’s rich. This slightly fantastical quality gives the rosiness a bittersweet edge. Boy, if life were only like this.
That bittersweetness runs all the way through 1931’s City Lights, Chaplin’s first film of the sound era. It makes use of synchronized sound with its score (composed by Chaplin) and sound effects (in one hilarious sequence, the Tramp swallows a whistle and gets the hiccups) but it’s a silent film in style and spirit. It’s a sweet romance, a gut-busting comedy, and an incisive film about class as performance and perception. It’s one of the best films ever made and a contender for my favorite.
“If only one of Charles Chaplin’s films could be preserved, City Lights … would come the closest to representing all the different notes of his genius,” Roger Ebert wrote. “It contains the slapstick, the pathos, the pantomime, the effortless physical coordination, the melodrama, the bawdiness, the grace, and, of course, the Little Tramp.”
This time, we meet the Tramp at the unveiling of a monument to peace and prosperity. After political speeches in the form of squawking sounds—Chaplin’s dig at talkies—the veil is removed to reveal the Tramp, asleep in the statue’s lap. There may be so much peace and prosperity that they’re putting up statues to it, but not enough for the Tramp to have a better place to spend the night.
The film’s two main plots each follow the Tramp forming a friendship: on one hand, he befriends a drunken millionaire by saving him from suicide, and on the other, he falls in love with a blind girl selling flowers on the street. As Ebert notes, the millionaire and the blind girl are both people “who don’t or can’t see him.” The millionaire, who adores the Tramp drunk, doesn’t recognize him sober. The girl literally can’t see the Tramp, but more than that, she mistakes him for a wealthy man on their first meeting because of the sound of a chauffeured car.
The blind girl can’t see the Tramp, so she doesn’t have the prejudices others have when they see him, a man sleeping rough in shabby, ill-fitting clothes. She tells her grandmother about her new rich friend, emphasizing that more than wealth, he has a kind heart and gentle nature. Mistakenly thinking he’s a wealthy man allows the girl to see his most essential qualities more clearly, the ones most people miss because when it comes to the homeless, they don’t care to look. Every scene they share aches. The Tramp is determined to play the role of a gentleman. I don’t know what’s sadder: that he can pull it off—that the only difference between the Tramp and a millionaire, when you get down to it, is the clothes—or the persistent, poignant question of whether she loves and accepts him only because she can’t see what he looks like.
The blind girl and her grandmother are about to be evicted, and the Tramp promises to give her the money to cover their rent. But if the Tramp had rent money lying around he wouldn’t need to sleep on city monuments. And he certainly doesn’t have money for the new surgery he saw in the newspaper: a cure for blindness. But he wants to help, is stubbornly generous even as he has nothing. He tries a bunch of schemes to scrounge up the cash—including entering a prize fight, leading to one of the funniest sequences of all time—but none of it works. Finally, he meets the millionaire again, and, drunk, the millionaire is moved by the Tramp’s story and gives him the money.
But later, the millionaire doesn’t remember giving the Tramp the money, and he assumes the Tramp stole it. So he sics the cops on him. When the millionaire is drunk, he sees the kind of man the Tramp is, his fundamental kindness, and is honored to be his friend. When the millionaire is sober, he sees the Tramp as he appears before him. He sees him as a vagrant, as homeless, and looks down on him with revulsion. He’s sober, and his heart freezes over. You can understand why he wanted to kill himself. He has built a prison around himself, where his goodness can only be set free when he’s three sheets to the wind.
The Tramp just manages to get the money to the girl before he gets arrested. For the rent, and for her eyes.
Months later, the girl has had her sight restored. She no longer sells flowers on the street corner, but runs her own flower shop. She perks up whenever a well-dressed young man enters, wondering if he is her benefactor. The Tramp, newly released from prison, passes by, and when he picks up a crushed flower from the gutter, he sees the girl. He gives her a wide smile.
“I think I’ve made a conquest!” the girl jokes to her co-worker. She goes outside and gives the Tramp a fresh flower to replace the crushed one. She also gives him some money, and when she presses it into his hand, recognizes his touch.
“You?” she asks.
The Tramp nods. “You can see now?”
“Yes,” the girl says, “I can see now.”
The final shot of the movie is the Tramp’s smile. Of all acting ever committed to film, James Agee in Life magazine dubbed this smile the very greatest.
“To make a silent film in 1931, four years after The Jazz Singer, was to buck the trend in a film industry rapidly divesting itself of silence,” Saul Austerlitz writes. “To make another in 1936, nearly a decade after the advent of sound, appeared downright perverse.”
That perversity was Modern Times. But if City Lights pushes at the boundaries of what makes a silent film, Modern Times explodes them. You immediately recognize it as a silent film (it’s often dubbed the last one) yet sound abounds through all of it, until the film’s finale, mechanized and menacing. There’s the rattle and hum of machinery in the factory, voices played from records or making pronouncements over loudspeakers. And, despite seemingly being made a decade late, the film never feels creaky or old-fashioned. In a lot of ways, it still hasn’t aged a day.
Modern Times is about the Great Depression. Yet it’s timelessly timely, feeling as applicable to our modern times as to Chaplin’s. The Tramp, in his final appearance, is a factory worker, tightening bolts on an assembly line. The pace is brutal, as the boss who spends his time on jigsaw puzzles demands higher and higher rates of productivity. When the Tramp goes to the bathroom and lights up a cigarette, the boss appears on a giant screen to tell him to get back to work—the sound of spoken dialogue jars, intruding on the silent world. When the factory trials the Billows Feeding Machine—designed to eliminate the lunch hour by shoving food into the employees’ mouths while they work—the Tramp is the guinea pig. It’s a disaster, obviously, and the machine ends up shoveling nuts and bolts into the Tramp’s mouth. It’s simultaneously hilarious and horrifying. The boss rejects the feeding machine for the only reason that matters to him: it’s inefficient.
Eventually, the Tramp has a nervous breakdown from overwork. He starts tightening not just the bolts that come along the conveyor belt, but everything: bolts on the machinery, his supervisor’s nose, the buttons on a woman’s dress. As Austerlitz puts it, the Tramp works the assembly line “until he becomes the assembly line.” He gets stuck inside the machine and, when all is said and done, he gets sent to the hospital.
It’s shockingly easy to watch the factory sequences and think of Amazon warehouses, where workers must meet punishing hourly rates, no matter the circumstances, are constantly under surveillance, and are discouraged or outright prevented from taking their required lunch and rest breaks. And sure, the Tramp is spied on and harassed in the bathroom—but at least he doesn’t have to pee in a bottle.
Modern Times was, up until that point, Chaplin’s most overtly political work. He wanted to make a film about the harm done by “machinery with only consideration of profit” and the conditions during the Great Depression. The entire film is full of strikes, riots, and rallies, and corresponding arrests and police violence. But what is most interesting is that the film reveals the underlying political nature of all his previous films. They’re all about how the world treats the destitute, about struggling to get by and being mistreated. Modern Times takes those eternal themes of Chaplin’s and contextualizes them in political reality.
The Tramp (accidentally!) ends up in communist march, waving a red flag he found on the ground with a crowd behind him holding signs with “liberty” in different languages. When the police break up the peaceful demonstration, the Tramp is arrested. After a bunch of delightful shenanigans involving an attempted jailbreak and a whole lot of “nose powder,” he’s given early release. The Tramp spends a good chunk of the rest of the film trying to get sent back to jail. Prison sucks, but at least there you get three square meals and a bed to sleep in.
When Ellen (Paulette Goddard), a teenage orphan, steals a loaf of bread for her young siblings, the Tramp tries to take the rap. She’ll go free, he’ll go back to jail—win-win. But of course, some witness has to tell the cops the truth and ruin it. But later, when the Tramp manages to successfully get himself arrested, he and Ellen end up in the back of the same police van. When it crashes, they escape together.
When he reviewed the film for The New Republic, Otis Ferguson characterized Modern Times as four one- and two-reel shorts stitched together: “proposed titles being The Shop, The Jailbird, The Watchman, and The Singing Waiter.” The film certainly has that episodic structure to it, but each builds on what comes before it, just as the film as a whole builds on everything that came before in Chaplin’s filmography. It was always going to be the Tramp’s last hurrah. On one hand, that acts as an excuse to jam in as many gags and slapstick sequences as possible. On the other hand, it lends the film an elegiac quality. The Tramp, the perpetual outcast, always down on his luck, seems to finally be made obsolete.
In the film’s final section, Ellen gets the Tramp a job as a waiter and singer. He makes a bumbling mess of the waiter part, and when he goes on stage to sing, he loses his cuffs on which he’d written down the lyrics. The Tramp had never before uttered a sound. As Ebert notes, while most silent films maintain the illusion that their characters are speaking even though we can’t hear them, speech was clearly not the Tramp’s preferred way of expressing himself: “Although he can sometimes be seen to speak, he doesn’t need to; unlike most of the characters in silent films, he could have existed comfortably in a silent world.”
“I forget the words,” the Tramp pantomimes at Ellen. And when he opens his mouth to sing, out comes a string of faux-Italian gibberish. But with the effortless charm of a totally natural showman, he sells it. The Tramp doesn’t need language to communicate, after all. It’s wonderful. And, like everything the Tramp had ever done, it requires no translation.
Modern Times ends with the Tramp and Ellen on the run again. When Ellen despairs, the Tramp assures her: “Buck up—never say die. We’ll get along!” He pantomimes for her to smile. As they walk off arm and arm into the dawn, the film’s theme swells. That instrumental later became the pop standard “Smile” when it was given lyrics, and the words come to mind automatically, solidifying the ending’s bittersweet ache:
Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
Chaplin never played the Tramp again. He followed Modern Times with his first and best sound film, The Great Dictator, a sharp satire of Nazism and fascism in which he played dual roles as a Jewish barber and an Adolf Hitler analogue. After two years of preparation, The Great Dictator began filming in September 1939, six days after World War II began. It was released in 1940, when the U.S. was still at peace with Nazi Germany. If Modern Times is timelessly timely, The Great Dictator is very specific to its historical moment: watching it with 21st century moral clarity on the Nazis, one would find it hard to grasp the film’s daring, its moral fortitude and historical importance. If Modern Times revealed the politics undergirding all Chaplin’s work, The Great Dictator is bolder, exploiting Chaplin’s resemblance to Hitler to eviscerate fascism’s antisemitism, militarism, and repression. The bits where the dictator gives speeches in faux-German gibberish, perfectly emulating Hitler’s body language and speaking style? Incredible.
In The Great Dictator’s final moments, Chaplin directly addresses the camera, delivering an incredible speech about fascism, militarism, and the lost opportunities of modernity:
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost…
It’s strange: Chaplin’s work was so concerned with modernity—with the technological innovations that enabled his career but that, in the hands of profiteers, brought misery, impoverishment, and horror. Yet the nature of his art, his brilliant use of the silent cinematic form, makes it easy to assume his work is antiquated. Most people have never watched silent movies. Increasing working hours leave us with precious little leisure time as it is, and when streaming services like Netflix have stripped out their licensed catalog to pivot to exclusive original content, when the entire media—social and otherwise—is built to bombard you with the hot new thing, it makes sense that people don’t block out half a day to research silent movies and the other half to watch Intolerance, a three-and-a-half-hour D.W. Griffith movie about why prejudice is bad. “The internet promises a century’s worth of multimedia output at your fingertips,” Zach Schonfeld wrote for Newsweek in 2017, “but ruthlessly privileges whatever got released yesterday.” Or, as Emily St. James puts it for Vox , the paradox of film watching in the internet age is that “the gap between ‘casual film fan’ and ‘film history buff ’ has never been harder—or more expensive—to bridge.”
But Chaplin’s films exemplify why it’s worth making that additional effort, why the film ecosystem needs to be refigured so that in the future, classic cinema is as accessible as anything new. Chaplin’s films are insightful explorations of issues that still plague us: poverty, homelessness, how modern technology can be harnessed for the benefit of humanity even though it’s now controlled by callous moneyed classes. But more, they exemplify cinema’s capacity to act as a small empathy-generating machine. The Tramp is an avatar of all the impoverished, and he is impossible not to love. You love him so much that your heart bursts open to love all the real tramps out there.