Brian Viner's Icons of the 20th Century: No 2: Charlie Chaplin, Comic

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THERE ARE those who say that Buster Keaton is the greatest screen comedian of all time. Others plump for WC Fields, some for Jacques Tati. A friend of mine rates Robin Askwith very highly. But nobody was ever more famous for making people laugh than Charlie Chaplin. And never was a comedian more versatile. WC Fields, not a man given to ladling praise, called him "the greatest ballet dancer who ever lived". Sarah Bernhardt described him as "the pantomimist sublime". For George Bernard Shaw, he was "the one genius created by the cinema". Keaton himself rated Chaplin "the greatest comedian in the world".

This afternoon, a short Chaplin season begins at the National Film Theatre, marking the 110th anniversary of the great man's birth. The project has been masterminded by the film historian Kevin Brownlow who, in 1989, with his late partner David Gill, presented City Lights, Chaplin's defiantly silent 1931 film, made when talkies were already well established.

The revival took place at London's Dominion Theatre, where City Lights had had its British premiere. On 27 February, 1931, a vast, enthusiastic crowd built up outside the Dominion, intent on catching a glimpse of Chaplin, but the nervous management had smuggled him in earlier in the day. For the premiere, he sat between Lady Astor and George Bernard Shaw and, while few men had a surer sense of their own worth than Chaplin, he was decidedly apprehensive in such illustrious company. Reportedly, he was extremely relieved when Shaw began to laugh until the tears coursed into his beard.

As at the premiere, the screening of City Lights 10 years ago was accompanied by a live orchestra. Some of the previews asserted that nobody under 40 would find City Lights funny. They noted that the film has an almost unpalatably saccharine ending. But I was there to see the critics swallowing their bile, for City Lights brought the house down. Indeed, during the wonderful scene in which Chaplin's little tramp becomes entangled with the bell in a boxing ring, a woman I was with admitted to ("only very, very slightly") wetting herself. And she was well under 40. As for the soppy ending, it needs to be considered in the context of the time. For the celebrated American critic James Agate, indeed, it was "enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies".

Chaplin had his flaws, of course. Most were personal. His libido and left-wing sympathies combined to undo his status in Hollywood, and he was shabbily treated by his adopted country, which let him leave but wouldn't let him back in. However, in 1975, in a gesture more mawkish than anything in his films, the American Academy piously gave Chaplin a special Oscar.

Also in 1975 - also shamefully belatedly - he was knighted. He had grown up in Kennington, south London, but by the time he was 10 his father had died and his mother was mentally ill. Both parents had been actors. So not unsurprisingly, he took to the stage, became a music hall comedian and, in 1910, toured America with the Fred Karno Repertoire Company. In 1912 the company toured America again, and this time Chaplin was offered a motion picture contract. He went to work with Mack Sennett at Keystone and, by his 12th Keystone film, Caught in the Rain (1914), he was directing himself. The rest is history, not to mention hilarity.

By the end of the Twenties, Chaplin was the most famous man in the world, and the Little Tramp a true icon. Probably, pace fans of Mickey Mouse and Marilyn Monroe, he was the greatest icon the cinema has ever produced.