Charlie Chaplin & the Silent Film Era


Join Active Minds for a journey to the era of the silent film and a visit with one of its greatest stars, Charlie Chaplin. We will explore the unique artistic elements that make silent films appreciated by audiences young and old and get to know the life and work of Charlie Chaplin, including his role in founding United Artists with Mary Pickford and others as well as the circumstances surrounding his exile from the United States for nearly 20 years.

Key Lecture Points

  • The silent film era spanned over three decades from the 1890s to the 1920s. Over that time period, movies evolved from a novelty to an art form. In addition, silent film also became a big business in this era. Silent movies provided cheap entertainment that overcame the language barrier for the millions of immigrants coming to America in the early 20th century.
  • The Silent Film era was characterized by significant power struggles, as individuals and corporations fought to capitalize on the burgeoning industry.. Additionally, the era was shaped by innovative actors and directors, including D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and others.
  • Most famous of all was Charlie Chaplin. An accomplished vaudeville performer, Chaplin made his first film in 1914 and later that year created his signature character, The Tramp. While usually remembered for his work in front of the camera, Charlie Chaplin’s contributions to film go beyond his performances as a comedic actor. As a director, cinematographer, and even a composer, Chaplin made crucial contributions to the developing art of silent film. Additionally, as a co-founder of United Artists in 1919, Chaplin was an innovator in the business of movie making.
  • The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first “talkie.” Sound introduced new technological changes for the industry and created challenges for its stars to make the transition. Although Chaplin continued to make films (both silent and talkies) after 1927, he is best known and beloved for his work in the silent era.
  • Although he enjoyed tremendous professional (and financial) success, Chaplin’s life was characterized by personal challenges of celebrity. Early in life, he lost both of his parents. As he rose to stardom, he was frequently romantically involved with younger actresses. These affairs, marriages, divorces and paternity suits became the fodder for the celebrity gossip industry that grew side by side with the movie industry. Later in life, he settled with his 4th wife Oona O’Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill (and 36 years younger than he) with whom he remained for the rest of his life until his death at 88 in 1977.

Exploration Questions

  • How did Charlie Chaplin contribute to film as an art form?
  • How did sound change the movie industry?
  • How do silent films continue to influence the making of movies today?

Reflective Questions

  • Why do you think movies continue to be such a popular form of entertainment?
  • Why do you think we are so fascinated with movie stars and their lives?
  • What is the earliest memory you have of going to the movies? How was that experience different from going to the movies today?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Bengtson, John and Kevin Brownlow. Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin. Santa Monica Press, 2006. 300 pages. Tells the story of the early days of the film industry through Chaplin’s films.
    Click here to order
  • Kobel, Peter, Martin Scorsese, Kevin Brownlow. Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture. Little, Brown and Company, 2007. 320 pages. History of silent movies.
    Click here to order
  • Pawlak, Debra Ann. Bringing Up Oscar: The Story of the Men and Women Who Founded the Academy. Pegasus Books, 2011. 336 pages. Story of the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
    Click here to order