Think of silent film and you’ll probably immediately come up with an image of Charlie Chaplin and his little tramp character- Bowler hat, toothbrush moustache, raggedy clothes, maybe a silly walk… But there was a lot more to silent film than just Chaplin and his little tramp. There was a lot more to Chaplin than just his little Tramp. Take for instance the score for Modern Times (a film that today is just as funny as it was when released) Chaplin wrote it himself and twenty years later John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added lyrics and turned it into one of the twentieth century’s greatest ballads- Smile. He was also a very clever man (despite not having much in the way of a conventional education) and he knew his business like few have since. Though silent comedy is a limited form of comedy (limited mainly to slapstick and farce) Chaplin was a master of it and without his mastery the modern movie industry would not exist as we know it.
This, however, is a double edged sword. Whilst nobody is doubting Chaplin’s considerable impact or his undisputed mastery of the comic arts, his presence does cast a very long shadow over the early days of film. He overshadows even the other great silent comedians- Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon etc. When attempting to break into watching silent films most people will inevitably go for Chaplin because of this. There’s nothing wrong with him, my own first silent movie was The Kid, one of the Chaplin classics, but it can give people the impression that all silent comedy was this way. Other comic actors were very different to Chaplin and sometimes, and this may come as a shock, they were funnier. Keaton, for instance, was much more nuanced than Chaplin, more subtle in his performance, which makes some of the farce and absurdities in his films come across as being more comical. Chaplin also had an edge of sentimentality that often puts people off, something which other film comedians of the time lacked. It is possible to absolutely hate Chaplin but love someone like Keaton, though because of Chaplin’s shadow people often don’t get that far.
Then there are the drama films of the era. Some are quite rightly praised amongst film buffs for their artistic and technical quality but for much of the general public, raised on a diet of Spielberg and Die Hard, they can come across as being exceptionally dull. D.W Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation may be remembered for being one of the most racist films ever made, but it is also a dull racist film. At over three hours long it would be a tough sit through even if it were made today but the fact that it is silent makes it a whole lot harder to get through. Watching a silent film is a radically different experience to watching a talking picture and as a result even the films that are actually good and not boring (like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis) can be tough to sit through if you don’t have the right mindset. My point is that they haven’t aged as well as the comedy. Time and huge advances in technology and film making techniques, most prominently the introduction of talking, have rendered many of them near unwatchable to a lot of people.
I think however that even if these films were in some way still able to catch the imagination of the general public, and this is not implausible, they would still be under Chaplin’s huge shadow. The trouble lies in that Chaplin is the perfect embodiment of something that occurs across all form of art, namely that one person or piece comes to dominate over all else. It happens on an individual basis, say a certain movie or role will come to dominate an actor’s oeuvre (For example, Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia or Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho.) The James Bond franchise provides a double example. The films dominate over the books and the films are dominated, overall, by Goldfinger– Personally I prefer From Russia With Love but that’s just a personal opinion. With Chaplin we have an extreme example where he dominates an entire era and art form, not merely his own niche. I don’t think anybody else in the history of film can claim to be to so ubiquitous or to have had such an impact. George Lucas and Star Wars perhaps comes closest but neither embodies an entire era in the same way that Chaplin does.
The problem is that he is just too ubiquitous, too symbolic of the silent era and that is unlikely to change. What we need to remember is that as good as he might be and as much as he dominates the era of silent film he is only really representative of a small portion of it. Silent drama is very different and more challenging to watch. It has not aged as well. Amongst his niche other people produced films that were sometimes much funnier than his output. This is not to deny that he is not an important figure, he was one of the first movie megastars after all, but sometimes we need to push him backwards in order to appreciate that which lies in his shadow.