Charlie Chaplin is one of the most important and influential filmmakers in the history of cinema. At the start of the 20th century, when cinema was still in its infancy, Chaplin became the first globally recognised star.

Chaplin was also the first and maybe last person to control every aspect of the filmmaking process – he starred in, wrote, directed, produced, edited, and even scored his own films – blazing the trail for actor-writer-directors that followed.

Below we’ve listed our favorite quotes from one of the masters of cinema to inspire and help take your filmmaking to the next level.

Here’s some of Chaplin’s must see movies: The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940)

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Chaplin in City Lights, 1931. The drunk millionaire, Harry Myers, and Charles Chaplin come under the watchful gaze of a police officer.

Charlie Chaplin Filmmaking Quotes

The deeper the truth in a creative work, the longer it will live.

I hope that the entertainment I give has some lasting effect on people. I hope they see the beauty that I myself am seeking. I am trying to express a beauty that embraces not only physical characteristics and scenes, but the true fundamental emotions of humanity. Beauty. Beauty is what I am after.

There are more valid facts and details in works of art than there are in history books.

To my mind, the underling motif of a story should be bright, not depressing. Motion-picture audiences like cheerfulness and don’t like to see too much suffering. They really don’t want the great truths brought home to them, and strongly resent having pessimism of any sort thrust in their faces. Yet I do believe in disappointments in a story, through which suspense may be obtained. Of course, what one is doing often falls far below one’s expectations. After a picture is released, you think of better things that might have been done with it. Perhaps, in the final analysis, one’s hopes have not been realized, after all.

Simplicity is a difficult thing to achieve.

Simplicity of approach is always best.

As I see it, the purpose of story telling is to express the beauty of life, condensing its high spots, for purposes of entertainment. For after all, it is only beauty we seek in life, whether it be through laughter or tears. And beauty lies in everything, both good and evil, though only the discriminating, such as the artist and the poet, finds it in both.

It is not reality that matters in a film but what the imagination can make of it.

Imagination means nothing without doing.

They [talkies] are spoiling the oldest art in the world – the art of pantomime. They are ruining the great beauty of silence. They are defeating the meaning of the screen, the appeal that has created the star system, the fan system, the vast popularity of the whole – the appeal of beauty. It’s beauty that matters in pictures – nothing else.

Charlie Chaplin on the Process and Ideas

When I’m not making pictures, I’m thinking of them, and when I’m not thinking of them, I’m dreaming of them.

When I am not working, I just sit around and dream mostly. I get a lot of ideas that way. And sometimes, when I haven’t any special idea in mind, the cameraman and a few of us with our makeup on, go out to a location. For instance, we go out to the races, take a few scenes (whatever happens to suggest itself), then other things suggest themselves until the story is built, All the time this is going forward things pop into my head which help to make people laugh.

Over the years I have discovered that ideas come through an intense desire for them; continually desiring, the mind becomes a watch-tower on the look-out for incidents that may excite the imagination – music, a sunset, may give image to an idea.

How does one get ideas? By sheer perseverance to the point of madness.

If I go fishing, I have always the idea of a story in my mind. I can think it over while the line is in the water. Often I stay away from the studio hoping that a new situation may occur to me. When I go out for recreation in the evening it is the same. I see a different kind of life and it makes me think all the harder about my idea. I never get away from the notion that I am watching myself in the passing show. As I eat I think of changes in situations. I work while I play, with the result that I become myself, a piece of film.

I’ve always thought that incidents related will make a story, like the setting up of a pool game on a billiard table. Each ball is an incident in itself. One touches the other, you see. And the whole makes a triangle. I carry that image a great deal in my work.

No, there is no process. The best ideas grow out of the situation. If you get a good comedy situation it goes on and on and has many radiations. Like the skating rink sequence [in The Rink]. I found a pair of skates and I went on, with everybody in the audience certain that I was going to fall, and instead I came on and just skated around on one foot gracefully. The audience didn’t expect it from the Tramp. Or the lamppost gag [in Easy Street]. It came out of a situation where I am a policeman, and am trying to subdue a bully. I hit him on the head with a truncheon, and hit him and hit him. It is like a bad dream. He keeps rolling his sleeves up with no reaction to being hit at all. Then he lifts me up and puts me down. Then I thought, well, he has enormous strength, so he can pull the lamppost down, and while he was doing that I would jump on his back, push his head in the light, and gas him. I did some funny things that were all made off the cuff that got a tremendous laugh.

But there was a lot of agony, too. Miserable days of nothing working and getting more despondent. It was up to me to think of something to make them laugh. And you cannot be funny without a funny situation. You can do something clownish, perhaps stumble, but you must have a funny situation.

When I started on [Gold Rush] I sweated hard to keep the original thought. That is where many of us go wrong. We sell ourselves an idea and then leave it flat ‐ with the result that we have nothing in the end but hodge-podge.

I’m not afraid of a cliche – all life is a cliche. We don’t awaken with any sort of originality. We all live and die with three meals a day, fall in and out of love. Nothing could be more of a cliche than a love story, and that must go on, so long as it is treated interestingly.

We created a world of our own. Mine was the studio in California. The happiest moments were when I was on the set and I had an idea or just a suggestion of a story, and I felt good, and then things would happen. It was the only surcease that I had. The evening is rather a lonesome place, you know, in California, especially in Hollywood. But it was marvellous, creating a comic world. It was another world, different from the everyday. And it used to be fun. You sit there and you rehearse for half a day, shoot it, and that was it.

Modern Times, 1936. Charlie Chaplin and director of photography Rollie Totheroh during the production.

Quotes on Action and Visual Storytelling

Action is more generally understood than words. The lift of an eyebrow, however faint, may convey more than a hundred words. Like the Chinese symbolism, it will mean different things, according to its scenic connotation… Pantomime, I have always believed, and still believe, is the prime qualification of a successful screen player. A truly capable actor must possess a thorough grounding in pantomime.

The silent picture […] is a universal means of expression. Talking pictures necessarily have a limited field, they are held down to the particular tongues of particular races..(..) There is a constant demand for a medium that is universal in its utility.

Charlie Chaplin on Acting

I’m unconscious while I’m acting. I live the role and am not myself.

You have to believe in yourself, that’s the secret. Even when I was in the orphanage, when I was roaming the streets trying to find enough to eat to keep alive, even then I thought of myself as the greatest actor in the world. I had to feel that exuberance that comes from utter confidence in yourself. Without it you go down to defeat.

I had no idea what make-up to put on. I did not like my get-up as the press reporter. However, on the way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small moustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression.

The basic essential of a great actor is that he loves himself in acting. I do not mean it in a derogatory sense. Often I have heard an actor say: ‘How I’d love to play that part,’ meaning he would love himself in the part. This may be egocentric; but the great actor is mainly preoccupied with his own virtuosity […] Just a fervent love of the theatre is not sufficient; there must also be a fervent love of and belief in oneself.”

Acting essentially requires feeling.

The Kid, 1921. Charlie and The Kid are looking out for the police officer.

Chaplin Quotes on Comedy and Humour

All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl. As a matter of fact I had made some of my most successful pictures with just about that assembly.

We must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature – or go insane.

Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease from pain.

The only comedy that is worth while is when it has beauty. That is all there is in life – beauty. You find that and you have found everything. Only it is hard to find.

[Is realism an integral part of comedy?] Oh, yes, absolutely. I think in make-believe, you have an absurd situation, and you treat it with a complete reality. And the audience knows it, so they’re in the spirit. It’s so real to them and it’s so absurd, it gives them exultation.

Humor is the ability to discern in a kindly way the folly in what is considered normal, sublime behavior, and to discern the discrepancy in what appears as a truth.

Comedy must be true to life. There must be realism in comedy. It is ever more necessary than in drama. Coarse burlesque is not wanted any more. It is the deviation from the ordinary that makes the picture funny. Some little act that is unexpected and causes a surprise brings the laugh. Yet this act must be natural and in accordance with what the character might do in real life. If the act does not accord with the character, if it is forced, then it merely appears absurd and fails to be funny.

Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.

Action is not always the thing. Everything must have growth, otherwise it loses its reality. You have a problem, and then you intensify it. You don’t deliberately start with intensifying it. But you say, well, now, where do we go from here? You say, what is the natural outcome of this? Realistically and convincingly, the problem keeps getting more and more complicated. And it must be logical, otherwise you will have some sort of comedy, but you won’t have an exciting comedy.

I was beginning to think of comedy in a structural sense, and to become conscious of its architectural form. Each sequence implied the next sequence, all of them relating to the whole […] As simple and obvious as these slapstick comedies were, a great deal of thought and invention went into them. If a gag interfered with the logic of events, no matter how funny it was, I would not use it.

One of the things I have to be most careful about is not to overdo a thing, or to stress too much any particular point. I could kill laughs more quickly by overdoing something than by any other method. If I made too much of my peculiar walk, if I were too rough in turning people upside down, if I went to excess in anything at all, it would be bad for the picture.

Humor is the ability to discern in a kindly way the folly in what is considered normal, sublime behavior, and to discern the discrepancy in what appears as a truth.

Humor is kindly. Wit is caustic.

[on his favorite film] I think I liked City Lights . I think it’s solid, well done. City Lights is a real comedy.

Charlie Chaplin in City Lights, 1931.

Charlie Chaplin Quotes on Success

The pursuit of happiness can only be had from within ourselves and the interest of others.

My greatest suc­cess? Well, financially, The Great Dictator. I may revive it. Almost everyone warned me not to make it. You know who gave me the idea for it-Alexander Korda. I was looking for a subject and he suggested I try a mistaken identity story.

Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.

If you’re really truthful with yourself, it’s a wonderful guidance.

That’s all any of us are – amateurs. We don’t live long enough to be anything else.

The summation of my character is that I care about my work. I care about everything I do. If I could do something else better, I would do it, but I can’t.

I’ve never known quite what a genius was. I think it’s somebody with a talent, who’s highly emotional about it, and is able to master a technique. Everybody is gifted in some way. The average man has to differentiate between doing a regular sort of unimaginative job, and the fellow who’s a genius doesn’t. He does something different, but does this very well. Many a jack-of-all-trades has been mistaken for a genius.

All artists experience a lull in their work. It is a period of replenishing the soil – of plowing in and turning under our past experiences and watering them afresh with new ones.

I am successful because I work hard and pay attention to detail. I think of my work constantly. I can’t even read a book or have a conversation without trying to find a good comic effect in the most serious part of it.

Charlie in Modern Times, 1936.

Recommended Charlie Chaplin Books

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The Charlie Chaplin Archives, 2021
Charlie Chaplin: My Autobiography, 2003 (new edition)
Charlie Chaplin: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers Series), 2005

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To learn more about Charlie Chaplin‘s incredible work and his filmmaking process check out the BFI’s dedicated Chaplin section which includes shooting scripts, storyboards, documents, stills and more.

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