A Chaplin Overwiew – by Richard Schickel

It is, I think, a measure not merely of Chaplin’s art, but of his really incredible ego, that one simply cannot find an article that presumes to criticize him—or even to view his life and work with decent objectivity—which does not begin as this one has: apologetically.

by Richard Schickel

Praise, at this point, seems superfluous. Chaplin has received it, in fullest measure from his peers (“the greatest artist that was ever on the screen”—Stan Laurel, “the greatest comedian who ever lived”—Buster Keaton, “the greatest artist that ever lived”—Mack Sennett, “the best ballet dancer that ever lived, and if I get a chance I’ll kill him with my bare hands”—W. C. Fields); from the critics (“It seems unlikely that any dancer or actor can ever have excelled him in eloquence, variety and poignancy of motion”—James Agee, “one of the few great comic geniuses who have appeared so far in history”—Robert Warshow, “Chaplin’s career is a cinematic biography on the highest level of artistic expression”—Andrew Sarris); and from the highest levels of the literary world (“the only genius developed in motion pictures”—George Bernard Shaw, “among his age’s first artists”—Edmund Wilson).

One could fill an essay with such quotations and still have plenty left over. Moreover, one would, in the end, have a sentence or two from nearly every critic and every artist one respects. So it is disturbing not to join, full-voiced, in a chorus where only Fields, that lovely man, manages to sound an unawed, human note. It is especially difficult to maintain a degree of critical reserve after Chaplin, following a quarter century of self-imposed exile, came among us again—two weeks short of his eighty-third birthday, so obviously on a sentimental, farewell journey to a land that is to him, as Sarris wisely put it, “a fantasy and a delusion, marvelous world that he may . . . revisit, but will never reconquer,” at least in the way he once did when he graciously accepted our unconditional surrender to his art. One is so anxious not to appear insensitive before a creator whose chief stock in trade was a preternatural sensitivity, so anxious not to be mistaken for the kind of right-wing crazy who hounded him about his really quite innocent politics and morals, coloring his essential loneliness with the terrible bitterness that seems only now to be fading to bearable levels.

It is, I think, a measure not merely of Chaplin’s art, but of his really incredible ego, that one simply cannot find an article that presumes to criticize him—or even to view his life and work with decent objectivity—which does not begin as this one has: apologetically. He has made us feel that any flaws we detect in his work must be flaws in ourselves. He has involved us, as no performing artist ever has, in the drama of his life, the longest-running soap opera on record, and he has forced us for the most part, to discuss it in the terms he has dictated. To put the matter simply, no entertainer in history has so imposed himself on the consciousness of his times for so long a time— almost a half century now.

Nearly everyone who has cared about Chaplin’s art has been convinced that in the Tramp or the Little Fellow, to use the terms invariably employed in discussing Chaplin’s great creation, we had a very direct expression of the artist’s personality—‘‘so simple and unaffected,” despite the onslaught of previously unimagined celebrity. Certainly Chaplin has wanted us to believe that. And up to a point, one does. Surely what is best and wisest in him can be found in the Tramp.

But are we really to think that’s all that is significant about the man? If we were talking about the great primitives in his line—Buster Keaton, for example, or Stan Laurel—the matter could rest there. Between what we knew of them as men and what we saw of them on screen there was no important discontinuity. That is simply not true of Chaplin. The feeling of anyone born after, say, 1930 for the Little Fellow is bound to be rather abstract; we simply did not experience the excitement of discovery, that sense of possessing (and being possessed by) the Little Fellow that earlier generations felt. We knew who he was, of course, and our elders endlessly guaranteed his greatness to us. But he remained something of an abstraction: a figure to be appreciated, but impossible to love in the way he was loved by those who had been present at the creation.

What we were involved in was the larger drama of Chaplin’s life—a drama, as it turned out, in one of the classic twentieth-century molds, that of the artist-visionary in conflict with his age. It was, and is, infinitely more fascinating than any of the Little Fellow’s adventures—with its author even now engaged in creating for us an aesthetically satisfying conclusion.

This drama is divided, as all classic, epic works should be, into five acts, which might be subtitled “Self-Discovery,” “Success,” “Struggle,” “Tragedy,” and—when the audience at the Academy Award presentations rose to give him an ovation, and everybody forgave everybody—the last act, “Triumph.”

Like his greatest routines, the Chaplin drama has a simplicity, an inevitability (and a self-consciousness) that is awesome. Of course fate helped him out a little bit, especially with his opening scenes, for he was born into poverty, the son of a drunken father and a mother who went mad. It was a Dickensian childhood, but one which turned out to have its uses as the source of his art, which he began to perfect at an early age, becoming the leading comedian in one of the Fred Karno comedy troupes where he learned the classic English music-hall style. As everyone knows, it was with a Karno company that Chaplin came to the United States—a leading comedian at age twenty-one— and it was while working with it that he was discovered by Mack Sennett in 1914.

The English comic style was not Sennett’s; Chaplin’s relationship with his new, roughneck colleagues was edgy. A lot of his best bits were cut out of his early Keystones, Chaplin claims. As the world would soon know, however, Chaplin has always had what any unique artist must have to survive: utter confidence in the correctness of his own judgment. He fought out the stylistic issue with the Keystone crowd, finally finding a way to demonstrate what he had been trying to tell them. It happened one day when Sennett was observed glumly studying a hotel-lobby set, chewing on his cigar. “We need some gags here,” he muttered, then turned to Chaplin and told him, “Put on a comedy make-up. Anything will do.”

At which point, if life were as well-managed as a movie, the clouds should have broken and beams of sunlight should have lit Chaplin’s way to the wardrobe. For his time had come. “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.” The mustache was added, he says, because Sennett had expected him to be much older and Chaplin thought it would age him without hiding his expression.

He continues: “I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and make-up made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked onto the stage he was fully born.” He claims—and one is a trifle dubious about this—that he was able instantly to describe his creation to Sennett in rather poetic terms before a foot of film had been shot: “You know this fellow is many-sided, a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure. He would have you believe he is a scientist, a musician, a duke, a polo player. However, he is not above picking up cigarette butts or robbing a baby of its candy. And, of course, if the occasion warrants it, he will kick a lady in the rear—but only in extreme anger.”

Perhaps he really was that articulate that quickly. Perhaps not. No doubt, however, he was inspired, sensed there was something more here than just another role, something through which he could express more of his feelings and visions than he ever had before. Most critics, however, believe it required most of the rest of his year with Sennett, plus a good bit of the following year (with the Essanay production company), before the Tramp began to demonstrate all the dimensions Chaplin ascribes to him on, as it were, their first meeting. In particular, the undercurrent of pathos, which in time was to become a veritable torrent, was not visible for another year.

Still, the public almost immediately observed that something wonderful had been wrought. The demand for films featuring the Little Fellow was immediate and huge. The 1915 Essanay contract called for $1200 a week and a $10,000 bonus on signing. A year later he was to receive $675,000 for a year’s work with Mutual, and a little more than a year after that, in 1917, Chaplin signed his famous million-dollar contract with First National. Close with his money, and determined never to suffer again the kind of poverty he had so recently escaped, Chaplin began accumulating one of the great show-business fortunes.

He was entitled to it. For in an age when forty or fifty prints of a movie comedy could satisfy the demand for other actors’ work, distributors had to make up close to two hundred prints of Chaplin’s films—for which they could charge well above the going rates. It was a golden time. It required only a simple poster of the Tramp bearing the legend I AM HERE TODAY to bring the people in. And the two-reel length of these early comedies was perfectly suited to his gifts. Agee wrote: “Before Chaplin came to pictures people were content with a couple of gags per comedy; he got some kind of laugh every second,” mainly “through his genius for what might be called inflection—the perfect, changeful shading of his physical and emotional attitudes toward the gag.” Every writer has his favorite moments in these two-reelers. Agee, for example, loved Chaplin’s drunken bout with a malevolent Murphy bed in One A.M.; Gilbert Seldes cites The Pawnshop, where Chaplin includes business with a feather duster, then a sequence in which he tries to dry dishes by passing them through a clothes wringer, and then some nonsense with a clock where a simple inspection leads to disaster, as all the clockworks litter the screen. Both men mention, as the quintessential Chaplin moment, a sequence in A Night Out where Ben Turpin, himself far gone in booze, is dragging a stiffened Chaplin through the streets after the bars have closed. Chaplin awakens, sees how splendidly his friend is serving him, and reaches out to pluck and delicately sniff a flower.

There are lots of ways to put it: he found poetry in the ordinary, he transcended reality, he extended the range of pantomime to previously unimagined dimensions. Yet none of them quite explain his phenomenal appeal. Chaplin has never been generous in acknowledging influences, but some critics have noticed a correlation between his work and that of Max Linder, who had earlier brought something of the European comic tradition to the screen through his Pathé shorts. Edmund Wilson has emphasized how much Chaplin owed to the classic turns of the English music halls. And despite his protests, it is clear that Chaplin learned a great deal from Sennett, especially about pacing and the use of the chase as a climax.

In short, he summarized much that had gone before, linking the art of screen comedy to a much older tradition. This was very significant to those intellectuals who began to take the movies seriously in the teens and twenties of this century. For, if nothing else, it gave them a classy frame of reference in which to place Chaplin. In turn, their writing has been extremely valuable to Chaplin, insuring his reputation as an artist against both direct assault and the more insidious danger of neglect during the long periods when he was absent from the screen. In effect, they committed us to him irrevocably. Through all the long years when most of them were exercising their contempt for movies in general, Chaplin was always cited as the medium’s one unquestioned, unquestionable artist, the individualist amid the corporate herd, a man clinging to his peculiar vision while everyone else went hooting off in pursuit of momentary fads. Or submitted to degrading manipulation by the studios. Or simply faded away as his great contemporaries (and sometime United Artists partners) did —Griffith, Fairbanks, Pickford.

Yet this fact remains: Chaplin never again achieved the perfection of those first years. The little films of the Little Fellow were, in effect, solo ballets. As such, they had no more need of plot, of subsidiary characterizations, of great themes than one of Nijinsky’s variations did. Despite the reams of appreciative analysis written about the early films, the pleasure we derived from them was essentially kinesthetic and therefore non- (and even perhaps anti-) intellectual. One could go on watching them for a lifetime. Indeed, one has.

But popular arts like the movies are cruel in their demand for novelty. And so are the intellectuals who have taken such arts for their province. No matter what they thought they thought, there was in their endless nattering over Chaplin an implicit demand for “development,” for big ideas and statements. No doubt Chaplin made the same demands on himself. Beginning with The Kid in 1920 he began to inject larger and larger doses of pure sentiment into his work. No less than Griffith’s, his was essentially a Victorian sensibility and he turned naturally to a rather cloying sweetness when he was forced, by the public demand for feature-length films, to extend his works.

There were other problems as well. As Edmund Wilson accurately noticed in 1925, “His gift is primarily the actor’s, not the director’s or the artist’s. All the photographic, the plastic development of the movies, which is at present making such remarkable advances, seems not to interest Chaplin. His pictures are still in this respect nearly as raw as Tillie’s Punctured Romance or any other primitive comedy.” He added, presciently, that Chaplin “is jealous of his independence … he is very unlikely to allow himself to be written for, directed, or even advised.”

The issues were more complex than Wilson could possibly have known at the time. In retrospect it seems significant that Chaplin did not appear in an important role in A Woman of Paris—a 1923 picture which was, after all, his first production for United Artists, the company he had helped establish. It betokened, perhaps, a certain restiveness with the Tramp character. Or was it the beginning of a lack of confidence in the Little Fellow as a means of expressing all that Chaplin was beginning to feel about modern life? At any rate—despite the notable exception of The Gold Rush—Chaplin’s art and his production pace grew hesitant. From the time A Woman of Paris was completed to 1940, when The Great Dictator appeared, Chaplin made just five films, the last of which, of course, contained his final appearance as the Tramp —and in a role that was quite overwhelmed by Chaplin’s impersonation of Hynkel, the dictator.

The coming of sound, naturally, was a threatening problem, solved in City Lights and Modern Times by the simple expedient of ignoring the microphone and filling the track with music, sound effects, and an occasional burst of gibberish. But dramatic as Chaplin’s confrontation was with a technological advance he disliked, and exciting as his triumph over it was (no other screen artist dared so radical a strategy), I do not think it was fear of movies that talked which stayed Chaplin’s hand.

Andrew Sarris has pointed out that “for Chaplin, his other self on the screen has always been the supreme object of contemplation,” adding that his much- disapproved late work, Limelight, about a clown who lost his hold on the audience, was “an imagining [of] his own death, a conception of sublime egoism unparalleled in the world cinema,” since “to imagine one’s own death, one must imagine the death of the world.”

Here, I think, we approach the center of the Chaplin enigma, the reason why he has discomfited so many observers for so many years. It is that every stylistic and technical change which has come to the movies since the end of World War I has implicitly interfered with his (and our) contemplation of his screen self. Length, of course, implies the necessity for subplots and the presence of other actors in significant roles. Very distracting. The growth in movie “plasticity” that Wilson spoke of was similarly likely to disrupt our concentration on the nuances of his art. And talk was perceived to be fatally interruptive.

He was in a double bind. He was an artist universally beloved because he had created a universal symbol of the common man’s virtues, flaws, and aspirations, a man whose presence had helped to create a great audience for a new medium at the same time that he had given the medium respectability as an art form. Yet as the century wore on, the common man increasingly showed himself to be capable of the most terrible crimes and indifferences; to be the dupe of such evil mass movements as fascism.

At the same time, the movies, Chaplin’s medium, underwent radical change, became more and more resistant to his particular gifts. Otis Ferguson, the first great populist critic of movies since Vachel Lindsay, said of Modern Times that it was “about the last thing they should have called the Chaplin picture. … Its times were modern when the movies were younger and screen motion was a little faster and more jerky than life, and sequences came in forty-foot spurts.” Ferguson called it “a feature picture made up of several one- or two-reel shorts” and proposed titles like The Shop, The Jailbird, The Watch­man, The Singing Waiter. Like everyone else, he could see the momentary beauties of these sequences, but they did not, he thought, make Chaplin “a first-class picturemaker. He may personally surmount his period, but as director-producer he can’t carry his whole show with him, and I’ll take bets that if he keeps on refusing to learn any more than he learned when the movies themselves were just learning, each successive picture he makes will seem, on release, to fall short of what went before.”

This is a sadly accurate prediction. There is not a subsequent Chaplin film that does not contain its sublime moments: the dance with the balloon globe and the scenes with Jack Oakie in The Great Dictator, the sequence where he tries to bump off Martha Raye in Monsieur Verdoux, the wonderful concert with Buster Keaton in Limelight Still, the Tramp was dead, done in, as Robert Warshow observed, because the essentially innocent relationship between him and his society could no longer be sustained. “The satiric point of the relation­ship lay precisely in [the] element of fortuitousness … it happened that the Tramp and the society were in constant collision, but neither side was impelled to draw any conclusions from this. The absurdity in the Tramp’s behavior consisted in its irrelevance to the preoccupations of the society; the viciousness of the society consisted in its failure to make “any provision for the Tramp, its complete indifference to his fate.”

In truly modem times, this kind of relationship was impossible. “Now the two were compelled to become conscious of each other, openly and continuously, and the quality of innocence . . . could no longer be preserved between them.” As Warshow observes, the factory in Modern Times is “a living, malevolent organism,” as is the state in The Great Dictator. There is no longer even a thin margin where the Tramp could survive. And so he was put to rest.

Now Chaplin began to act out in life the drama that Warshow saw going on close to the surface of his art. There was the desperate preachment of love-as-panacea at the end of Dictator, embarrassing because the speech is not truly felt, remains merely an empty oration—though one imagines Chaplin thought he meant it at the time. In Verdoux the climactic speech is bitter: How is Verdoux, the murderer of a handful of lonely women—and for the justifiable end of supporting his dear family—worse than all the munitions manufacturers, etc., etc.?

In these pictures the stale ideologies of the age fill the gap between the world’s reality and an artistic vision now inadequate to that reality. Finally there is the self-pity of Limelight, the reported savagery of A King in New York, the sheer emptiness and lack of energy of A Countess from Hong Kong. Yes, age had taken its toll and our expectations about great men are excessive, unsatisfiable. But there is something more disturbing than that in the late films. For what we see surfacing in them is something that we may well have been aware of right from the start, yet dismissed as unworthy of us.

That, of course, is the increasingly shrill egoism of the artist, a quality transcending mere self-consciousness, and preventing those of us who were not part of the first, uncomplicated love affair between Chaplin and the public from surrendering to his insistent demand for a continuance of that affair in the old simple terms.

Of course, one despised Chaplin’s enemies and their inquiries into his politics and his morals; and yet one responded automatically, not with the warmth and spirit with which one might try to defend a public figure with whom our relationship was less complex. There was a sense, which we could not articulate at the time, that Chaplin had, no doubt unconsciously, conspired in the creation of that comfortable exile which he wanted us to understand as tragedy. One could see that he was increasingly bewildered by the world, increasingly unable to encompass his feelings about it (and prescriptions for it) in the metaphors he employed in lieu of the Little Fellow in his films. One was aware, too, of his loss of touch with his roots—and ours. .

He was seen abroad only occasionally and then largely in the company of those few world-class celebrities who were his peers. When he addressed the rest of us he was distant, abstract, patronizing. He preached love of mankind in general, but appeared incapable of affectionate gestures toward anyone outside his family circle, that ever-expanding extension of himself. And the art was not what it had been—not even so brilliant a rationale as Warshow’s could save Verdoux for us. Or Limelight The world had changed and he had changed.

Awed by accomplishments we had to rediscover, trying to re-create the innocent times in which they had seemed so astonishing, one found one’s direct suspicions confirmed by My Autobiography in 1964. The first third of it is wonderful, one of the great portraits of turn-of-the-century life, rich in color, anecdote, feeling. But the last two-thirds? They are cold, simplistic, a dreary listing of the great man’s encounters with other great men, none of whom are as interesting as he is. And he is too interesting, too complex to be discussed. Now all the doubts, all the hesitations that the good critics had noted in their appreciations rose hauntingly before us. And one sensed that the most important reservations one had harbored were not based on the accidents of age, of political nonsense, of the tragedy of history. One saw that his art was based not on holding a mirror up to life, but up to himself, that our presence, necessary as it was to satisfy his drive for power (which Samuel Goldwyn, who knew something about the subject, called the most developed he had ever encountered) was essentially an intrusion on what was, really, a perfect love, that of the artist for his creation—which was, alas, himself.

The guilt that wells up as one writes those words is palpable. Even now one imagines the failure to be one’s own, not his. And anyway, one does not wish to spoil, even in a small way, the conclusion of the Chaplin drama, the necessary, inevitable reconciliation between him and his public. The art was there. Every man who loves the movies is in his debt. And as long as that love persists we will take our children to see his first works, that they may know the beauty and innocence of film’s beginnings, before the corruption began, before the distortions of power, of celebrity, of the alienation of men from their idols and from their very selves, were incorporated, enhanced by this terrible, wonderful machinery.

The ironies of this life, this career are endless. Let us stop. Let us, at last, honor him as simply as we can. As he seems to want us to, the King—and not only in New York.



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