Last week I read that Charlie Chaplin’s iconic character the Little Tramp will celebrate its 100th anniversary this coming February. Chaplin is one of the seminal figures in cinema history, and also one of the most subversive. The Little Tramp is a member of the underclass, a homeless vagabond who in each film is in constant conflict with the authorities of society. In Chaplin’s films, the Little Tramp takes on government officials, corrupt police, exploitative factory owners, and petty dictators. Chaplin’s films are relevant for today because its humor is still fresh and it champions the poor and the working class.
Charlie Chaplin’s sympathy for the poor can be traced to his upbringing in the poverty of Victorian south London. His father was an alcoholic who abandoned his family and his mother was confined to a hospital for mental instability. This forced Charlie and his brother Sidney to live in the Newington Workhouse and the Central London Poor Law School, institutions for poor children without families. At that time he was exposed to the poorest denizens of Victorian London.
Another influence on Chaplin’s political viewpoint were four radical friends whom he met when he first came to Hollywood. Frank Harris was a journalist, biographer, and novelist. Max Eastman was a well known radical and the publisher of the leftist magazines The Masses and The Liberator. Rob Wagner was a writer who frequently contributed to left wing magazines. Upton Sinclair was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American author who wrote socially critical works like The Jungle. These four friends exposed Chaplin to radical leftist ideas for helping the impoverished that found receptive ears to someone with Chaplin’s background.
Jeffrey Vance, in his book Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema wrote about the political nature of Chaplin’s films. He wrote:
His protagonist and alter ego, the Tramp, perpetually finds himself locked in a pitched battle against those in both political power (the government) and economic power (the upper class). Chaplin’s audience, many of whom were members of the emerging lower-middle class or poor, identified with and therefore rooted for the underdog Tramp to best the powerful and win the day. They were delighted when the Tramp stepped on the swollen, gout-inflamed foot of well-to-do Eric Campbell in The Cure or kicked an inconsiderate immigration officer in the backside in The Immigrant. With the overwhelming popularity of Chaplin’s films came the wide dissemination of his political imagery and messages.
Soon Chaplin’s affiliation with championing the poor and middle class began to seep into other media. The caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, who was friendly with Chaplin since first meeting him in Bali in 1931 and was publicity artist on The Great Dictator, described Chaplin’s influence: “In the proletariat art of that time, the capitalists were pigeon-toed and the proletariats had their feet like Charlie Chaplin’s. They were all based on Chaplin images of the ‘common man’… and that’s what he represented.
Richard Brody wrote a blog for the New Yorker where he stated:
Chaplin’s narrative sense had quickly gained a novelistic amplitude, but he was no nineteenth-century realist. Rather, he became a latter-day Voltaire, who packed angry protest into his caricatures and radical reflections into his whimsy…
…it was only a question of scale, incremental mastery, and audacity to arrive at the Tramp’s great features—the Hollywood boom-town lament of “The Gold Rush,” the transcendent tenderness of “City Lights,” the Depression-era anti-capitalist outcry of “Modern Times,” and the world-historical confrontation with Nazi Germany of “The Great Dictator.”
In another one of Richard Brody’s articles for the New Yorker, Brody wrote:
From the very start of his career, he was (as I emphasize in regard to the Film Forum retrospective) a political filmmaker with a virtually documentary enthusiasm for representing, by means of his persona, the Tramp, the big events of the time—whether anarchist provocations, as in “Dough and Dynamite,” or the First World War, in “Shoulder Arms.” His artistic temperament is essentially not that of a performer but that of a novelist—or, rather, of an eighteenth-century moralist whose exemplary tales allude to the times and invoke a philosophical worldview. Watch the classic Chaplin films with attention to his frequent glances into the camera; it’s as if, while the camera was filming him, he was looking back through it and out into the world.
During the 1980s a wonderful documentary called The Unknown Chaplin was shown on PBS that showed how Charlie Chaplin made his films. Unlike most filmmakers who worked with a script, Chaplin started out most of his films with only the barest idea of what he wanted to film. He then would think up most of the ideas to the movie while filming, thus waiting for inspiration to strike him to direct him on how the film would progress. He continued this way of filmmaking until the 1930s, when he filmed The Great Dictator, when he finally used dialogue in his films.
I haven’t watched every Chaplin film, but I watched several. Here are my favorites:
City Lights is my favorite Charlie Chaplin film, and it’s also one of my three favorite films. It’s a story of misidentification and of ways in which we see and we don’t see. A blind girl thinks the Little Tramp is a rich man when she hears the Tramp leave a rich man’s car. The Tramp saves a drunk rich man from drowning and the wealthy man thinks of the Chaplin character as a friend as long as he is drunk. When the wealthy man is sober, he doesn’t remember who the Tramp is and treats him coldly. In all of these situations, the Little Tramp acts bravely and unselfishly for his two friends, and he makes enormous sacrifices for individuals who don’t really see him as he is.
I love what Mick LaSalle wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about the last scene in City Lights. He wrote:
Always, Chaplin’s impulses with the Tramp were outer-directed, which allowed him to be emotionally ambitious without sentimentality. For example, take the huge emotional finish of “City Lights,” a wonder of complexity in which a blind girl, newly restored to sight, realizes that her savior and the object of her romantic fantasies is a pathetic homeless man. If Chaplin were less of an artist, audiences would come away thinking beautiful thoughts about Chaplin’s soul.
But that’s not the experience of “City Lights.” Rather, Chaplin’s outer-directedness leaves us shaken with the realization that there are people all around us, some of whom we wouldn’t look twice at, who are capable of great sacrifice, who are heroes walking the earth. Chaplin doesn’t coddle us. He challenges us.
Modern Times is another one of my alltime favorites. In this film the Little Tramp struggles to survive in Depression era America, getting a nervous breakdown in a factory assembly line, trying to find meaningful work and competing with the other unemployed, surviving time in jail with drug addicts and bullies. It criticizes the fast pace of modern life and argues for the individual worker against the seemingly all-powerful factory. Jeffrey Vance wrote in his book Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema:
Modern Times is perhaps more meaningful now than at any time since its first release. The twentieth-century theme of the film, farsighted for its time- the struggle to eschew alienation and preserve humanity in a modern, mechanized world- profoundly reflects issues confronting the twenty-first century. The Tramp’s travails in Modern Times and the comedic mayhem that ensues should provide strength and comfort to all who feel like helpless cogs in a world beyond control. Through its universal themes and comic inventiveness, the film remains one of Chaplin’s greatest and most enduring works.
The Gold Rush contains two of Chaplin’s most famous scenes, where he uses two potatoes as a dance to entertain, and where in a moment of starvation he has to eat a shoe. It is the story of the Little Tramp prospecting in the 1898 Yukon gold rush. He finds himself stuck in a cabin with two large prospectors, and it deals with issues of greed and avarice.
The Pilgrim is part of a Chaplin collection of short movies called The Chaplin Revue. I watched it a few years ago in a youtube video before they took it out of circulation. It’s a great short film, one of the funniest I’ve seen. The Tramp escapes prison and impersonates a minister and has to give a hilarious sermon to a group of unsuspecting church people.
I don’t think The Great Dictator is as good as City Lights or Modern Times, but I do think it’s his bravest film. Chaplin made the film in 1940, before the United States entered the war and isolationist feeling was still high in the country. In this film, Chaplin plays two roles: a mild Jewish barber who gets harassed because of his race; and a petty dictator modeled after Hitler. Chaplin hated Hitler and all that the Nazis stood for, and he wanted to show his support for all those who were fighting the Nazi regime. There are a few great comic scenes in the film, one involving Hitler dancing to a globe, and the other where the Jewish barber shaves a man to classical music. Charlie Chaplin wanted to show his allegiance to the Jewish people and to all those who were facing persecution, and in the last scene had a speech that told of his hopes for mankind.
A youtube video about the filming of the documentary “The Unknown Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin’s “The Immigrant” (1917)
Charlie Chaplin’s “A Dog’s Life” (1918)
Charlie Chaplin’s “Shoulder Arms” (1918)
Charlie Chaplin’s final speech in “The Great Dictator” (1940)