Coincidentally, I’m typing this after having just watched the 1992 biopic on Chaplin.
Chaplin was a very good filmmaker even if he wasn’t as good of a comedian as Keaton or Lloyd. He was very good at doing comedy-dramas and making his character sympathetic. Keaton and Lloyd could do this pretty well too, but Chaplin was more emotional in the way he handled it.
Chaplin’s Keystone films can be a bit too hard to sit through in just how primitive they are, even the ones that he personally wrote and directed. In his defense, though, I think this was more a result of Keystone’s factory-style approach to filmmaking (I seem to recall hearing that they released at least 1 short a week at this time). There’s some cool stunt work and decent gags every now and then, but, much like the rest of Keystone’s output, it often feels way too formulaic.
His Essanay output is a bit better in that he did slowly start to have a better understanding of character (notably in THE TRAMP). However, much like with Arbuckle during his early Comique days, Keystone’s comedy style seemed to rub off on him and these can be pretty crude as well.
Most of Chaplin’s work from the Mutual days up to and including THE GREAT DICTATOR is fantastic. By this point, Chaplin had really learned about how to develop a character as well as learning how to make the audience feel bad for him. His comedy was a lot better, too; he still wasn’t as good as some of the other competition, but he had definitely become more creative in the variety of gags he could come up with, as opposed to earlier on when it generally consisted of gags involving how he had trouble keeping his balance. His features in particular benefited from his careful attention to storytelling, though even many of his shorter three-reel films such as A DOG’S LIFE often felt like well-crafted mini-features.
Post-GREAT DICTATOR, I do think that LIMELIGHT is a great film, though you really have to appreciate his skills as a dramatic filmmaker in order to truly appreciate this, since the film is almost totally devoid of comedy outside of his duet with Buster Keaton. On the other hand, I found MONSIEUR VERDOUX and especially A KING IN NEW YORK to be pretty underwhelming both from dramatic and comedic standpoints.
Chaplin also is known to have directed two films that he didn’t star in: A WOMAN OF PARIS and A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG. I have not seen COUNTESS, and from what I hear, I’m not missing much. A WOMAN OF PARIS, though, was actually really good, though again, you really have to be able to appreciate Chaplin’s dramatic skills in order to appreciate this movie.
It definitely would be interesting to talk about Chaplin’s films in detail someday.