Did anyone truly understand the power of comedy greater than Chaplin? I do not believe so, not to this day. He seemed to know, innately, from the beginning that he could get his message across with greater power if audiences were laughing, yet there was always great tragedy at the heart of his films. Thus his films were bittersweet, often tinged with sadness, melancholy as we laughed at the antics of the Tramp. Always at odds with authority, always fighting those trying to oppress, the Tramp was, of course, a metaphor for you and I, though Chaplin made him very much is own character in silent cinema, through 1936.
His little tramp was Everyman, every person who had been bullied by authority or oppressed in some way.
A master of physical comedy, he understood his image to audiences better than anyone who came along after, knowing what they expected of him, giving it while satisfying his own thirst for making Films about subjects that mattered.
Raised in the most punishing type of poverty, with his mother insane, he became fiercely interested in the state of the world, of society around him, and he made films that reflected that concern.
At one point, in a world without television or internet, he was the most famous person on the planet but never took his fame for granted. First and foremost he was an artist, and his art was his life, his grand obsession. When sound came to film in 1927 he refused to let his tramp speak, claiming audiences accepted him as silent and silent he would remain. His two greatest films came after the advent of sound, yet they are for all intent and purpose silent films, the magnificent City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936).
Plagued by controversy, his appetite for very young girls was nearly his undoing many times, but the studio and his own checkbook kept him out of jail. At fifty-two he married seventeen-year-old Oona O’Neill, daughter of the great playwright, Eugene, a whip-smart woman who could more than hold her own with his domineering personality. Despite the age difference, the love was real, and they were together for the rest of his life. His death devastated her, and she was never the same.
When Chaplin finally spoke onscreen it was in his stunning politically allegorical work The Great Dictator (1940), a brilliant dark comedy in which he portrays a barely disguised Hitler, and a gentle Jewish barber.