Long before the modern era of cinema, the invention of CGI, Technicolour or even motion picture audio, stood Charlie Chaplin, one of the very first icons of Hollywood. Sporting his iconic bowler hat, stunted moustache and sturdy walking stick, Chaplin would capture the imagination of the early film industry with the likes of The Kid, City Lights and Modern Times, inspiring generations of screen performers for decades
Having starred in multiple short films from 1914 onwards, The Kid represented one of Chaplin’s very first forays onto the silver screen, taking his iconic ‘Tramp’ to audiences across the globe. Released in 1921, the silent comedy-drama was written, produced and directed by the actor who stars in the film as a man who finds a small child and decides to raise him as his son and sidekick.
Choosing child star Jackie Coogan as his only major supporting actor, Chaplin’s directorial feature debut is an audacious piece of work that relies on the performer himself for all its comedy and content. Though, in the film’s effortless combination of slapstick comedy and drama, Chaplin created a significant commercial success known as one of the finest works of the silent era that manages to well utilise the rudimentary limitations of the contemporary medium.
Whilst early cinema had only yet experienced the short fleeting joys of the films of Georges Méliès, or indeed the groundbreaking if inaccessible works of D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin offered cinema with perhaps its first-ever vision of the future of the industry. Where the aforementioned directors worked on groundbreaking epics, or, in the case of Griffith, racist propaganda, Chaplin helped to solidify a commercial type of cinema that was accessible for all ages.
Such was made possible through the ingenious casting of Jackie Coogan as the titular child, an actor who was a vaudeville performer who would quickly become the first major child star of cinema. Placing the young boy beside the timeless, age-defying Chaplin made the film universal, with their relationship and genuine chemistry becoming a key success of the film that still holds true when watched today.
Changing the imagery of cinema as well as its sheer language, Chaplin’s The Kid demonstrated how pathos and subtlety could be translated from performance to screen, with the man himself pioneering movies as one of the first actors ever to appear in front of the camera. As a result, his colossal impact on the future of the film industry has been recognised as being one of the most important in the eventual sculpting of modern Hollywood, with filmmakers across the globe celebrating Chaplin for his silent, humanistic comedy that defied cultures, class and creeds.
Though cinema has changed its entire makeup since the existence of Charlie Chaplin, it’s likely such an industry could not have been built without his pioneering excellence, with the likes of Federico Fellini, Jacques Tati and Andrei Tarkovsky each recognising the director as one of the greatest ever. As one of the purest and most noble of the industry’s history, Chaplin remains a timeless figure who holds the ability to make us laugh and cry despite having performed a century ago. As the great François Truffaut told First Person Cinema, “My religion is cinema. I believe in Charlie Chaplin”.