Any film that opens with Chaplin playfully flirting has to be good, and Cruel, Cruel Love contains easily one of his finest performances from these really early shorts. Though sporting a top hat and slightly wider mustache than usual, there are strong traces of Chaplin’s great performances to come in films like Monsieur Verdoux. He gets a chance to play a character that might, in the hands of other, less-skilled performers, be labeled a “villain” or “heavy” role. Instead, Chaplin injects just the right mixture of charm and vulnerability, while at the same time overplaying things just enough to heighten the parody of the situation. Rather than aping Sterling, as had been called on to do in some of his early appearances, here Chaplin makes the character his own.
There’s a fun scene in which Chaplin is fooled by his servants into believing he’s swallowed poison, and has a delirious vision of himself in Hell being poked and prodded by two devils, gesticulating and overplaying to expert comic exaggeration. There’s also some effective cross-cutting, as both the doctors, and Chaplin’s love interest, race to his home before the poison takes effect. Overall, this is a highly effective parody of stage melodrama and contemporary film making, and perhaps the first film in which Chaplin is able to demonstrate his range as an actor.