Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 17, No. 3. March 18, 1953
Exit Charlie, Enter Chaplin — A Clown Turns Philosopher
Exit Charlie, Enter Chaplin
A Clown Turns Philosopher
A True artist cannot escape the circumstances of his private life a sensitive artist often allows the people and events around him to influence his work. Scholars have linked the different moods and shades of Shakespeare's plays with corresponding periods of the dramatist's life. So it is with Dickens. Beethoven, Dostoevsky. And Charles Spenser Chaplin.
I would be amazed to hear of someone who knew nothing of Charles Chaplin's private life. He has been a figure of such controversy, that weekly magazines have found it profitable to spend pages telling us all about him. We now know about his unhappy childhood among the squalor and poverty of a London slum, his various marriages and love affairs, his "political activities," his self-imposed isolation; but for the expression of the inner man of Chaplin, the champion of the underdog, the lover of freedom, we can turn to his films. Charlie the Tramp, the little fellow, with his small black moustache, skimpy coat baggy trousers, bowler hat and walking stick.
"Charlie is the unique expression of the poetic and the philosophic art of Chaplin, the focal point of so many planes of experience, thought and emotion, at once personal to Chaplin and common to humanity."' Charlie, the dancer who, when he dances is liberated from all corporeal burdens. Charlie the dreamer, who when he enters a fantastic world remote from the sorrows of mankind, the bounds of a cruel human society, the burden of his own solitude. Charlie the clown, the pursuer after the unattainable, the blunderer. The little fellow who showed himself increasingly to contain within him the loneliness and fear, the desire to evade responsibility, the hopes and pathos of the universal soul. Charlie the underdog, the silent sufferer of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
"The Gold Rush"
My meetings with Charlie have been all too rare. "The Gold Rush" was the first film I saw, but unfortunately at a time when I was too young to even know the meanings of such words" as "significance," "philosophy." "direction.' "pathos," "humanity." But I remember I laughed, as Charlie intended me to, when Charlie ate the stewed boots, when the avalanche pushed his log-cabin to the edge of a precipice and leaves It rocking in space. I remember Charlie's party to which none came, the feeling of pity I had for the good little man, surrounded by so many nasty bad men looking greedily for gold. I wasn't old enough to realise the significance of Charlie's black silhouette against the Immense white snow. Charlie not only fighting against society, but nature as well.
"The Circus" war Chaplin's next film, but I have not seen it so I must pass on to "City Lights" which was released in New Zealand a few years ago. This film is probably Chaplin's most famous, not only because of its artistic appeal, but also because it was produced after the introduction of sound to motion pictures. Chaplin had been opposed to the idea of sound: "I don't find the voice necessary. It spoils the art as much as painting statuary. I would as soon rouge marble cheeks. Pictures are pantomimic art Talkies annihilate the great beauty of silence." But I believe, with Richard Griffith, that Chaplin, in producing "City Lights" was not merely challenging the aesthetic and commercial feasibility of the talkies. He was trying to pre-serve the silence of Charlie. "Charlie the central [unclear: ire] in the pantheon of modern [unclear: my] would cease to be universal once he spoke in any particular language or gave himself a local habitation or a name."
So "City Lights" once again presents us with the personality of Charlie, and what has clearly become the reiterated and significant symbols of Chaplin's work—the idealist tramp with his unquenchable love, compassion, chivalry and goodness; the girl, in this case blind, who is complementary to him, in need of his devotion and herself submissive, feminine and unattainable. The eccentric millionaire upon which their fate depends, is the new form of the "deux ex machina." changing the social forces that overwhelm them according to his incalculable whim. I noticed an increased sadness from the Charlie of "The Gold Rush." There is a lassitude, an acceptance of un-happiness. It is as though Chaplin were expressing through Charlie the impact of the deeply-felt effects in his own life and in the world of film—his unsavoury divorce and the coming of talkies.
"The Great Dictator"
"Modern Times" was Chaplin's next film but the distributors decided it was not worthwhile re-releasing It. Therefore, "The Great Dictator" is the next on the list. When Chaplin opens his mouth. The artist "who brought the form of the motion picture to its purest realisation" now attacks the medium of sound.
The plot and theme of "The Great Dictator" are too well known to warrant repetition here. I shall restrict myself to a few remarks, mainly to point the development of Chaplin as an artist and thinker. It is this film that we begin to say goodbye to Charlie the little tramp. He is still with us in the form of the Jewish barber who is the complete opposite of the dictator. Hynkel. But we find that with speech Charlie is only a shadow of his former self. In appearing as the barber, the antithesis of Hynkel a member of a persecuted family, Charlie has lost some of his transcendental quality, his universality. Charlie had expressed the whole of himself and of mankind in mime. Words impede and embarrass him; and we feel, with painful nostalgia, that the Charlie we knew has gone from us.
But with Charlie out of the way, Chaplin had a chance to develop to a fuller maturity as an artist and a thinker. Having dealt with poverty and loneliness of his universal clown. Chaplin takes over and turns his attention to what he conceives to be one of the greatest evils of our time—Fascism. Chaplin the crusader speaks to mankind with burning sincerity. What he says Is intensely personal to him.
"Monsieur Verdoux" a second and maturer summing-up. Chaplin brings to a head his attack on society, begun in his early films, gaining in anger and ardour through the years, and increased by his own persecution until, in "Monsieur Verdoux" ho gives tongue to his hatred. Once again I have no space for a plot summary, and once again I am forced to limit myself to a few remarks.
Verdoux's murders arc a symbol of Chaplin's desire to exterminate the parasites, who, by their very existence, force wide open the gap between wealth and poverty, take away Verdoux's cherished home and reduce thousands like him to penury. Having set the social scene—the preponderance of wealthy widows who maintain their wealth at all costs while contributing nothing to the organism supporting them. Chaplin drives home his condemnation of its folly and evil by taking its guiding principles to their logical limit. That indicerance to individual liberty, callousness towards human suffering, carelessness towards life itself. Forced into an impasse of social chaos, he applies the principle underlying that chaos to secure for himself and family an adequate livelihood. So that finally society in con demning him, condemns himself.
The last section of the film brings out most clearly Chaplin's philosophy. Here are two quotations, uttered by the condemned Verdoux. They need no comment. "Crime docs not pay in a small way" and "One murder makes a villain; millions a hero. Numbers sanctify, that is the trouble." Not very original, but so intensely felt.
[Bibliography: "The Little Fellow," by Peter Coates and Theima Nikiaus.
I have traced Chaplin's history as a screen artist, dealing with the films I have seen. I saw the Charlie of "The Gold Rush" and "City Lights" in the full bloom of his creation, then I saw Chaplin gradually overcoming Charlie until In "Monsieur Verdoux" he had almost disappeared. I watched Chaplin's development as a humanist, and I realised that his coming maturity demanded a voice. I have not deal with technical considerations because of lack of space and a purposeful intent to wait until I came to "Limelight," Chaplin's latest creation. For in "Limelight" his technical brilliance is best demonstrated. In fact, this film is the fine, full-flowering of Chaplin, not only as a technician, but also as an artist.
I wouldn't be surprised if "Limelight" doesn't go down in history as the most misunderstood and under-rated film of the century. I have yet to see a Press criticism that does not condemn it as being cither dull, self-conscious, unfunny or technically imperfect. (I admit my reading has been narrow.) Many of Chaplin's admirers have been disappointed, others bewildered. This. I think is largely due to a failure to understand that "Limelight" is not an isolated work, with Chaplin playing a somewhat serious part in a somewhat serious film. It is easier to understand "Limelight" and to begin to see its countless and often unexplainable beauties and subtleties, and the artistry of its presentation, when it is analysed in its relation to Chaplin's total work, which Is itself the exact expression of his own reaction to the experiences and feelings of his own life. And of course, critics must forget the traditional belief that Chaplin Is always funny. Failure in this may cause the essential philosophy of this film to be overlooked or avoided.
The broad theme of "Limelight" Is that of an ageing music hall comedian who wants to make a comeback, but has lost his confidence and is haunted by the fear that he can no longer get the laughs. It Is during this "melancholy [unclear: twilight]" of his career that he rescues a youthful dancer from suicide, gives her a new vitality and a will that takes her to the top of the ladder of success. Success, the vitality of youth and failure weariness and loneliness of age—that is the antithesis of "Limelight." Calvero the fading comedian, plunging himself further into despair, as he sees the full flower of the young dancer that he rescued, come to life.
There is supreme pathos in "Limelight." The drink-sodden comic; the years of failure have turned him into a philosopher. He strengthens the girl with his talk of life and desire ("Desire is the theme of all life") but we all know that at the bottom of his heart, Calvero finds it a struggle to believe what he is saying-Terry, the dancer, wins through with Calvero's help of laughter and philosophy ("To hoar you talk no one would think you were a comedian.") but only to find she must give emotional support to Calvero. For him at that stage of the game "life begins to be something of a habit." "The trouble with the world," he says, "is that we all despise ourselves." "Life isn't a gag anymore. I can't see a Joke." Calvero is weary, frightened of failure.
And Chaplin himself has been haunted by failure. We have learnt a lot from Samuel Goldwyn, the Hollywood friend of Chaplin. He always received Chaplin's confessions of dread. "You know, Sam if 'City Lights' is a failure. I believe it will strike a deeper blow than anything.
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