The Comedy of Charlie Chaplin: Artistry in Motion

Author: Dan Kamin.

bookOf course there have been many books written about Charlie Chaplin with special mention for David Robinson’s seminal biography to Simon Louvish’s book ‘Chaplin’ which studies the biography and films of Charlie Chaplin from the perspective of his character as the tramp. What makes Kamin’s book so insightful is his hard and well studied knowledge of his subject. Kamin is an expert on the art of mime and it is from the perspective of Chaplin the mime from his early music hall days of Fred Karno’s troupe to his final films that Kamin studies from this perspective. Added to this Dan Kamin trained Robert Downey Jr. on how to move and ‘be’ Chaplin for Richard Attenborough’s 1992 biopic; interestingly Kamin recalls his time he worked with Downey Jnr during this time with some affection.


Of course this is a film biography studying Chaplin’s art and in what context selected films of his fit into this artistry. The front cover shows a clownish Chaplin with his signature cane and balancing while holding a foot – demonstrating something of the essence of Chaplin the clown. Each chapter works in a rough chronology of his films with the first chapter looking and trying to understand how his work with the Karno Theatre Company fits in with his later incarnation as the little tramp. Indeed (as demonstrated by the recent BFI’s complete oeuvre of Chaplin’s year spent at Keystone in 1914) it is clear to see early on how Chaplin went from the sexually carousing rough house, even violent character to the sensitive, even sentimental little fellow of his later silent films. But the book focuses on several key short and feature films that include: One A.M. (1915), The Pawnshop (1916), The Rink, Easy Street, The Immigrant, The Cure (all 1917) to A Dog’s Life (1918), The Gold Rush (1924), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940) and Limelight (1952). Curiously though Kamin also focuses on Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and even gives an albeit brief chapter over to A King in New York (1956), arguably one of his worst films and certainly one not worthy of attention in this book that mainly focuses on the artistry of Chaplin, something that is distinctly missing from this film. It also, as of course have many publications before studied the challenges Chaplin had in converting to sound (his first true dialogue film was not until 1940 with talkies beginning in 1927) where he struggled with giving a literal voice to his tramp – instead it is his role as the equally clownish Adenoid Hynkel, his parody of Hitler that was the first to speak. In this sense Chaplin politicized sound and never really came to terms with it. There is an interesting chapter about the silent films that were re-released by Chaplin in the 1950s to which he wrote the music score and added a commentary, dubbing the tramp the “little fellow”. However, Chaplin’s voice always seem a little too forced or contrived, even annoying at times to add anything substantial or worthy. However, it is interesting that Kamin dedicates a chapter to these films which included all his films for First National including Shoulder Arms (1918) and The Gold Rush and how he added edited new takes to the originals.


It is clear that the author knows his subject and in many ways he has made it his life’s work to study Chaplin and the art of mime. I would only criticize the book for including a chapter on A King in New York whereas The Circus (1928) is all but ignored. The book would benefit from a filmography in order that the reader who may not know the order be able to work out the development of Chaplin’s craft.


This book by Scarecrow Press and originally published in 2008 is brilliantly illustrated with selected stills from his films, sometimes several frames from the same film illustrating Chaplin’s movements and comic timing complementing the text. In summary this splendid book would convince anyone not converted to Chaplin why he was heralded as he was and what gives him such a raised status in the canon of both film and mime as he perfectly fused his early onstage antics with the art of silent cinema (more than sound). I for one was a late convert to Chaplin and the more his films are viewed the more he can be appreciated.


Chris Hick

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