Sir Charles Spencer “Charlie” Chaplin was born 125 years ago
The 20th century itself, or rather the people of the last hundred years have been raised on Chaplin. Even if we speak less of him, and he was not even included among the top one hundred assembled for the turn of the century and of the millennium.
Chaplin is the classic tramp. He was called “The Shakespeare of films”, “the greatest ballet dancer of all times”. Chaplin, the American Jew, the American immigrant invents yet again an eternal character and story, moreover an existing character, and basically he relives his story both on film and in his real life.
His film is burlesque according to the genre definition, however its goal is not by far merely making his audience laugh. His film is a special blend of comedy and tragedy.
Charlot was a real character, a French troubadour of the 12th century. He was surrounded by hatred, as he threw straight in his contemporary’s face in rhymes that they were a vulgar bag of hateful hypocrites, and naturally, even though people tried to escape the thought even in those times, they knew it was true. So Charlot, the troubadour, did not gain wealth from his poems. Just as Villon didn’t either, who – as a murderer – was constantly living in the shadow of the scaffold, and he included his testimony as a poet in his poems, leaving – on the same note – the sound of bells for his leaders etc. Puskin’s thought was that the author can tell his story playing on three cords: the cord of compassion, that of humor and that of horror. And the greatest authors can blend all three in their work. Well, Chaplin transmits his thoughts on film in the register of humor.
In the first “filmic sentence” he states his main topic, and he presents the main character, his hero. “Once upon a time there was a poor fellow.” This is the basic sentence in every nation’s cultural heritage on all continents in the world. It is a mythical, even an archetypal symbol, as we are moving in the deepest layers of human spirit. And from the first scene, from the first statement we know – as we have known from myths and legends for thousands of years – that this central character, this poor fellow would follow his path, would overcome the obstacles, meaning that he would succeed. And in the end he would be rewarded with his desired and well-deserved prize. Chaplin leads his character through all levels of the American society of the time. That is how the “little fellow” becomes an immigrant, a gold digger, a night-watchman in love, a barber, a singer, a factory worker, an escaped convict and so on. This is a monumental picture of the society, here we have the new world from beginning to end, from bottom to top and down again. “The order”. The tramp, the poor fellow can’t find his place – which is well-known for thousands of years – in this “order”, he doesn’t accept, doesn’t even recognize his enemies, he doesn’t take them seriously. He doesn’t solve his conflicts through fights, but by laughter and by making the audience laugh. His film, “The Emigrant” starts with a panoramic picture of immigrants on a ship, miserable people with their stuff. When reaching the shore, they appear in front of an overbearing clerk, and that is the moment when it is determined whether they are accepted or expelled. The clerk speaks about pettiness, as his appearance is directed by Chaplin, arriving with a folding table he is shouting and making all kinds of gestures. This is how he presents the picture of the dreaded Ellis Island. He shepherds the ragged people in a humiliating way in a corner, and pulls out ropes in front of the viewers. The first person to be sent in the corner is a young woman, who follows the shouts. Chaplin kicks the butt of the clerk and waves out from under the rope with his right hand. The clerk is stunned, because he is used to people shaking in front of him, as he is the one to decide about people’s fate. Chaplin is the first to snub his power, his authority. No one has ever spoken of the “Golden Gate”, of Ellis Island in such a way. This poor tramp becomes the one who can outwit the cheap tradesman, the police officer, the drunken millionaire, the conman, the representatives of the “order” and the malefic people. The films build up a coherent world, and whereas other comedians, like Peter Sellers for instance did not develop their own character – Chaplin’s Charlot is a well defined character from the first film to the last; he is the champion of truth, the defender of women and children. His main characteristic is his giant generosity, a permanent wish to give – while we know that he hasn’t got anything except for his love for people, and it could only be played by Chaplin the way he found a penny, and how he shared even fake money.
That kind of motion. The tramp confronts his enemy even if it seems that he has no chance, but that kind of motion is inimitable... That kind of motion is first of all ballet, that poor fellow, the greatest ballet dancer of all times, pirouettes and bows through dirty and dangerous life situations in such a way that in the meanwhile he keeps his dignity as a moral giant. In the film “The Kid” his protegée is almost taken to an orphanage – but Chaplin, who is chasing a car, runs faster on the rooftop than the chugging car down on the street. That motion is ballet, acrobatic movement, a blend of motions and humor set forth by the situation. This kind of skill was obligatory for the actor of the silent film, the actor who wasn’t able to do this, was dead for films, and he was only left with theatre. Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chase, Buster Keaton and all the others performed extraordinary stunts – and we have to keep in mind that film technique was far from using stunts, and the camera filmed what it saw.
Chaplin was accused of leftism for all of this. When he wanted to marry Oona O’Neill, the daughter of the well-known playwright, the great O’Neill started to threaten him. He said that he would disinherit her if she would bring that leftist person into the family. However Chaplin couldn’t be influenced, he was very wealthy by the time he was thirty, so he was not interested in money, but in the girl. They had a dozen of children and adopted just as many. Chaplin’s philantrophy – his leftism – wasn’t understood by his contemporaries, and not even by the 20th century, when the artists were pulled down to the level of everyday politics. The path of the poor fellow was just partially followed. The mythical basic formula is that the poor fellow reaches success at the end of his road. However Chaplin further developed this ancient formula. He wins due to his extraordinary skillfulness but he is not rewarded for it in any way. If he handles large amounts of money, he always gives it away, to the woman who had her money stolen on the immigrant ship, to the blind girl for her operation and so on. The tramp remains poor. In the end of the film he shrugs his shoulder, he is not angry, is not nervous, he sets out on his road resignedly. The princess marries the shepherd, doesn’t she? Of course. And the king gives him half of his kingdom, doesn’t he? Of course. This is what the simple man imagined, to compensate his shortages, to improve his living standards. It is unnecessary to mention that all of this is just fantasy, this has never ever happened anywhere. And if it did, he could handle the princess, but not the kingdom, not even half of the kingdom. (...) Chaplin wakes up the dreamer after millenniums of compensation. The Chaplin oeuvre is not a 20th century burlesque, that is just a formal factor, and that is only one in the special blend. The oeuvre first of all needs to be valued as an intellectual performance, and it is outstanding from the perspective of millenniums. It is the avantgarde thinking of the 20th century, of this particularly dense and aggressive 20th century, that brought this change into the thousands of years old history of human culture. Chaplin’s demythization awakens the symbol creator, the man who compensates with texts, and this tragic awakening, the awakening to tragedy is told in such a way that is eases into laughter. He grafts the tragedy of the boundaries of the man unable for social existence, of human existence into comedy. Because searching for the road to people is tragedy. And even more than that. Comedy. This is the greatness of Chaplin. József Attila speaks at the highest level of compassion, Dali gave a portrait of the man with the ruthlessness of the lancet in the register of horror, Chaplin in the register of humor by blending comedy and tragedy. This is what makes his burlesque character great. And an invulnerable survivor.
Last but not least it is only natural that Chaplin basically repeats the path of Charlot, the 12th century troubadour. He replies with his film “A King in New York” to segregation. As the immigrant kicked the butt of the clerk, the main character of “A King in New York” sprinkles water over the feared judges who analyzed “leftism” with a firefighter’s hose. In the end he was expelled from America, he couldn’t go back to Britain, settled down in the ever neutral Switzerland, and died there. And just as in fairy-tales, his body was embalmed and placed into a glass coffin. Two million people attended Victor Hugo’s funeral, many millions were present at Tolstoi’s funeral, the great Russia stirred. Also many millions paid tribute in front of Chaplin’s coffin, the world took farewell from him for many years until the family announced that he would be buried, naturally in a secret place.
He was a “whole artist”, who felt comfortable at both ends of the camera, and the film history has knowledge of only a few other examples like him. He was the main character – sometimes even playing more roles in a film –, the inventor of situations and stories (there were no scripts back then), the composer, the piano player, the composer of classical film music (adaptation of his music is still popular), and the director, he was an institution in one person.
This representation is important next to the entry-words of lexicons or texts that enumerate biographical data – as Chaplin can not only be represented in the field of film and not even only in the 20th century.
His journey, his cultural accomplishment expands throughout millenniums.