Eager to see Chaplin The Musical on Broadway but not sure you'll get all the references? Or perhaps you're finally willing to admit you've never seen a Chaplin movie and don't know where to begin. Well, have no fear, the Monkey is here to help you with a list of five Chaplin films that will get you up to speed.
The Gold Rush
I start here rather than with The Kid because The Gold Rush is not only chock full of Chaplin's best bits, but it's also easier to get hold of. The story of a tramp who searches for gold—and love—in the frozen Klondike, this is the Chaplin movie that has it all: the dancing rolls, the edible boot, the hungry man who thinks his partner is a giant chicken. And rare for Chaplin, a truly happy ending.
Available on both DVD and Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection, The Gold Rush comes in two versions—the original 1925 silent release and the 1942 release which replaced the intertitles with Chaplin's own voice-over narration. I prefer the original version, but if the thought of a silent movie absolutely positively scares the pants off you, the 1942 version is an acceptable alternative. Now you have no excuses.
Probably Chaplin's most personal work, The Kid—the story of a tramp who raises a foundling child as his own—provides the thematic framework for the Broadway play. And although it wasn't the first feature-length comedy (that was another Chaplin film, Tillie's Punctured Romance), it was the most influential, inspiring both Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd to make feature-length comedies of their own.
Available for streaming from Hulu-Plus and Amazon-Prime. It's also available as a cheap DVD-R from such companies as Cobra Studios, public domain prints I can't vouch for since they likely don't include the music Chaplin himself scored for the picture in 1971. You can also find it on YouTube and at archive.org, but I can't swear that those aren't pirated copies—and you know how I feel about that sort of thing.
Twenty Minutes of Love
The Broadway play conflates several of Mack Sennett's everybody-throw-a-pie-and-fall-down comedies into a single short it calls Mabel's Strange Predicament, but in fact, Chaplin made 34 films at Keystone, 17 of which he directed himself. The Rounders with Roscoe Arbuckle might be the best, but Twenty Minutes of Love—Chaplin's first directorial effort—is perhaps the most typical, centering on man, a woman and a bench in L.A.'s Westlake Park.
The best copy of this film is available as part of the magnificent four-disc box set Chaplin at Keystone from Flicker Alley, a collection I would highly recommend to the Chaplin fanatic and/or the silent film historian. For everybody else, public domain copies such as this one are floating around the Internet.
I've written at length (here) about the dozen short comedies Chaplin made for Mutual in 1916 and 1917. The Immigrant was the best, but The Rink—about a waiter who goes rollerskating—provides the basis for a long dance sequence during the Broadway play. That Chaplin could be both graceful and funny on roller skates prompted W.C. Fields to call him "the best ballet dancer that ever lived."
Available in a number of formats, The Rink is usually collected together with the other Mutual films. Unfortunately, the best print of The Rink (and the other Mutuals) is part of an out-of-print collection, The Chaplin Mutuals: The 90th Anniversary Edition but they are available for streaming from Amazon.com.
The Great Dictator
Released during the early days of World War II at a time when America remained stridently isolationist, Chaplin's spoof of Tramp-lookalike Adolf Hitler was also a commercially-risky exposé revealing the antisemitism at the heart of the Nazi regime. Overlong and a wee bit earnest for my tastes, Chaplin's first talkie nevertheless features some of his most imaginative work, including an ethereal sequence where the dictator Adenoid Hynkel cavorts with a globe of the world.
The film ends with a five-minute speech promoting peace and universal brotherhood, ideas apparently abhorrent to anti-Communists who later booted Chaplin out of the country—a conflict that dominates the Broadway play's second act.
Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection.