Chaplin, (Sir) Charles (Spencer)
(Sir) Charles (Spencer) Chaplin 1889–1977
English director, actor, producer, screenwriter, and musical composer.
Chaplin is widely heralded as the first genius of the cinema. He will be forever remembered for the creation of one of the most popular characters in the history of film—the little tramp. "Charlie"'s tottering gait and expressive face distinguished the character that many imitated but few equaled. Audiences saw the tramp as a symbol of humanity—a man becoming involved in dangerous situations, only to escape each time and still retain a warm love of friends and foes alike.
Chaplin was born in the slums of London to parents who were entertainers. Charlie and his brother were sent to an orphanage at an early age, where there was little food and severe punishment for any wrongdoing. The fact that the tramp character was sympathetic to the poor and underprivileged appears to stem directly from Chaplin's childhood.
Chaplin was introduced to the stage while very young, and joined the Fred Karno vaudeville troupe in 1906. On a tour to the United States in 1913, Chaplin was discovered by Mack Sennett, who signed him to a contract with Keystone Studios, despite Chaplin's worry that he would fail in films as a mime. He made thirty-five films within a year for Keystone. Kid Auto Races at Venice was the first film in which the "little tramp" appeared, and the character soon became widely popular.
When Chaplin switched to Essanay in 1915, he was allowed to direct all fourteen of his films, and the slapstick became less frenzied, with the tramp's sentimentality becoming more apparent. The Tramp, made during this period, is viewed as Chaplin's first masterpiece. His now standard character took on many roles—the mischievous boy, the frustrated lover, the underdog—in order to unify the theme of the individual crushed by the pressure of society.
In 1919 Chaplin, along with D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, formed United Artists, and distributed his own films for the rest of his career. He wrote and directed A Woman of Paris, showing his great abilities as a director in a serious work. Chaplin had always had ambitions to star in a serious film, but did not get the chance until much later. In The Gold Rush, The Circus, and City Lights, Chaplin began to voice his increasing dissatisfaction with the modern world and its inventions. In fact, he refused to use sound, except for music, in City Lights, even though it had become a very popular addition to films. Modern Times was also mostly silent, and continued to satirize modern machines, but was also vicious in its portrayal of society.
The Great Dictator marked the decline of Chaplin's popularity. His divorces had made him more and more susceptible to ridicule and scandal, and the political commentary in the film further outraged many critics and fans. The Great Dictator was his first film in which sound was used throughout, and it was Chaplin's speeches that angered people the most. His concluding speech was thought to be Communist dogma, but Chaplin had intended it as a plea for freedom and peace. Chaplin played two roles in the film, and his tramp character was clearly overshadowed by Hynkel, the Hitlerian dictator. It seems not coincidental that Chaplin's popularity declined when he began to speak in philosophical jargon. The Great Dictator marked the last appearance of the "little tramp" on the screen.
Chaplin was labeled a Communist when, in 1942, after a paternity suit and another divorce, he urged American friendship with Russia. Monsieur Verdoux was widely picketed and withdrawn soon after its release. Most critics seemed to view the film as a "bad joke," others as a brilliant satire on capitalism. Limelight saw Chaplin at his most philosophically vocal, so much so that many critics wished he had never abandoned silent films. A most serious film, it deals with an aging clown on the decline, and appeared to parallel Chaplin's own life. When on his way to England to promote the film in 1952, the U.S. government branded Chaplin as a Communist sympathizer, and informed him that he probably would not be allowed back into the country. Chaplin settled in Switzerland, where he continued to live until his death. He returned once to the U.S., in 1972, to accept a special Academy Award and was triumphantly welcomed.
Chaplin is seen by many critics as an egotist who was successful only insofar as the tramp was successful. Others see him as a comic genius, writing scripts which paralleled his own early life, and making films in which his philosophical views were portrayed more effectively through mime than through the verbose lectures of his later films. His creation went beyond class boundaries, and it was the tramp's overtly "human" character that film audiences took to heart. His comedy continues to delight audiences today, and his lasting fame as a film pioneer and comedian is secure. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84; obituary, Vols. 73-76.)
Minnie Maddern Fiske
It will surprise numbers of well-meaning Americans to learn that a constantly increasing body of cultured, artistic people are beginning to regard the young English buffoon, Charles Chaplin, as an extraordinary artist, as well as a comic genius. To these Americans one may dare only to whisper that it is dangerous to condemn a great national figure thoughtlessly. First, let us realize that at the age of twenty-six Charles Chaplin … has made the whole world laugh. This proves that his work possesses a quality more vital than mere clowning…. To the writer Charles Chaplin appears as a great comic artist, possessing inspirational powers and a technique as unfaltering as Rejane's. If it be treason to Art to say this, then let those exalted persons who allow culture to be defined only upon their own terms make the most of it.
Apart from the qualified critics, many thoughtful persons are beginning to analyze the Chaplin performances with a serious desire to discover his secret for making irresistible entertainment out of more or less worthless material. They seek the elusive quality that leavens the lump of the usually pointless burlesques in which he takes part. The critic knows his secret. It is the old, familiar secret of inexhaustible imagination, governed by the unfailing precision of a perfect technique.
Chaplin is vulgar. At the present stage of his career he is frankly a buffoon, and buffoonery is and always has...
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According to recent press reports from Berlin The Circus has been hailed both as a supreme screen comedy and as a philosophic contribution of the highest significance. Some critics profess to see a philosophy in every scene. (p. 6)
Fortunately we have passed beyond that stage. We can enjoy Chaplin and let who will philosophize. There was a time, just before and after The Gold Rush, when we too used the heavy approach. There was much talk of the underlying pathos, the tragedy of frustration and other phrases invented by self-conscious critics who were afraid of laughing at Chaplin for his own sake. Echoes of this higher criticism seem to have reached Chaplin himself and to have cramped his spontaneity for a while, if we are to judge from some of the scenes in The Gold Rush where the pathos was laid on a little too thickly.
Chaplin has recovered from that phase and so have we…. [Whatever] Chaplin's philosophy may be, it has been present from the beginning in every one of his comedies and does not have to be hauled out on every occasion. Chaplin himself has been artistically most discreet about it, no doubt hiding much of its edge and its implications because he is a keen enough showman to know that too many philosophies are bound to spoil the laughter laden pudding of which he is the unchallenged chef. (pp. 6-7)
[It] is well to bear in mind that Chaplin's enormous success is due...
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G. W. Stonier
I do not think that [Chaplin] is a great genius or that in a hundred years' time his films, if they still exist, will excite the amusement they do to-day; but of this I am certain, that no other living person, writer or actor, exhibits as truly the particular element of city life which we call Cockney.
In this sense he is in the long tradition of English humour, starting with Chaucer and ending in the last century with Dickens and the music-halls…. His material is of the slightest, his tricks are the commonplace of every vaudeville comedian, he has created only one character, and that a theatrical one; yet he is as much above the Robeys and Fratellinis as Bach is above the usual village organist. None of his films, not even The Gold Rush or The Circus, can be properly judged by a standard which is purely artistic. That is not to say that Mr. Chaplin is not an artist, for he undoubtedly is, in his treatment, for instance, of pathos, and in the direction of his latest films; but all those positive qualities, which made him popular fifteen years ago, are as remote from any literary or artistic standard as a music-hall performance or a holiday fair.
G. W. Stonier, "Charlie Chaplin," in New Statesman (© 1928 The Statesman Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. XXI, No. 778, March 24, 1928, p. 763.
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The sad ending of [The Circus] is significant. The tragic mask is increasingly apparent in the comic make-up of the waif whom the world has so tenderly taken to its heart. The irresponsible harlequin is receding. The tendency may or may not enrich Mr Chaplin's art. But if it is true that each new film reveals an ever growing maturity of thought, one would welcome similar progress in the "direction." The Circus is neat and competent but here as previously, its author has failed fully to rise to the opportunity placed before him by the extraordinarily fantastic world of the character he has created. The great screen genius of our time should not be afraid to find for the play as a whole, the fully expressive visual form he has found for himself. (p. 414)
Alexander Bakshy, "A Knight-Errant," in The Dial (copyright, 1928, by The Dial Publishing Company, Inc.; reprinted by permission of J. S. Watson, Jr. and Scofield Thayer), Vol. 84, May, 1928, pp. 413-14.
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Barnet G. Braver-Mann
[The] grotesque figure we call "Charlie" has carried into cinema one of the oldest and most characteristic traditions of pure theatre, that of the Commedia dell'Arte. Chaplin is in direct line from the mimes of Roman comedy, the players of the Italian Commedia dell'Arte of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the English pantomime of the eighteenth century…. Like [the] players of other times Chaplin has built certain elementary frailties and foibles of human nature into the framework of a conventional figure known as Charlie, whose shabby costume furnishes the needed mask. (p. 23)
The influence of tradition appears most strongly in the highly individual way in which he makes his own pictures and in the use to which he puts his gift for improvisation when on the set….
Chaplin builds his films altogether on what he calls "feeling," that is, he begins, let us say, with Charlie, and studies the emotional values that his own creation will yield in various situations. The Harlequin of the films knows intuitively that the secret of comic effect lies in the relation between emotion and laughter…. Chaplin proves himself not only a rare clown but a practical psychologist when he makes his working basis for a film the result of an amazing thinking-through of all the possible emotional responses which are peculiar to an individual character. (p. 24)
Chaplin always tries for expression...
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["City Lights"] is a completely organized and a completely created whole which exists for itself without question and without comparison. The immediate effect of the picture is that it is funnier than many things [Chaplin] has done and infinitely inventive; the second effect is that it is magnificently organized, deeply thought out and felt, and communicated with an unflagging energy and a masterly technique. Chaplin is the only artist whose pictures always give the impression of being created before your eyes, with this extraordinary result, that when you see them you cannot believe that they have ever been shown before, and that when you see them a second time you are constantly surprised and elated by their perfection.
Chaplin's "secret" is so plain that it seems an absurdity to state it; nevertheless, it is a quality which occurs only once or twice in a generation. He creates illusions out of the actual material in his hand. Whatever he touches becomes the image of something else, an image associated with emotions. In "City Lights," these creative impulses are almost always turned to laughter and the danger is always that we will be so affected as not really to see what is happening.
There is one scene in which Chaplin is being entertained by a drunken millionaire, who pours a glass of brandy for each and then tilts the bottle so that it floods into the gap in Charlie's trousers. This is extraordinarily funny, but...
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Historically this remarkable film [Public Opinion (A Woman of Paris] is as important as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Potemkin. It was in its time a remarkable technical film. But its technique was concealed; it was rather an "emotional" than a "scientific" technique, an instrument for bitter comment rather than for the conscious construction of a filmic scene. [Chaplin's] technical gifts have been given to the cinema almost, as it were, unconsciously.
What is certainly more important than the accomplished technique of Public Opinion is the expression of an individual attitude. Such of the technique as is capable of transference has been assimilated by other directors, and if the film (as it does) remains, after nine years, of value, it is for intrinsic and personal rather than for technical reasons. Chaplin has a very remarkable personality, and in [Public Opinion] he has communicated a valuable experience with a considerable success. His instinctive knowledge of technique is used, not to construct "a work of art," but to enable him to say what he has to say as fully as possible. He has a deep and original knowledge of human experience. Not from a technical, but from any point of view of ultimate importance, Public Opinion must be placed in the same category as [Pabst's] Joyless Street, [Pabst's The Love of] Jeanne Ney, and [Pudovkin's] Mother. Like them, it is a...
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Between [Charlie Chaplin and Charles Dickens] there is, I think, an essential similarity. Both knew hardness in childhood. Both made their misfortunes steppingstones to success. They developed along different lines, chose different mediums of expression, but both quarried in the same rich mine of common life and found there treasure of laughter and drama for the delight of all mankind. (p. 24)
[An] indomitable spirit is an integral part of the make-up of the screen Charlie Chaplin. His portrayal of the underdog is definitely American rather than British. The English workingman has courage in plenty, but those whom prolonged unemployment has forced on the road are nowadays usually broken and despairing. The Chaplin tramp has a quality of defiance and disdain.
But the American scene as a whole has influenced Chaplin—its variety, its color, its animation, its strange and spectacular contrasts. And the States did more than this for the little English actor; they provided the opportunity for which, without knowing it, he had been waiting. They introduced him to the ideal medium for his genius, the motion picture. (p. 37)
Winston Churchill, "Everybody's Language," in Collier's (copyright, © 1935, by The Crowell Publishing Co.), Vol. 96, No. 17, October 26, 1935, pp. 24, 37-8.
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Modern Times is about the last thing they should have called the Chaplin picture, which has had one of the most amazing build-ups of interest and advance speculation on record…. [It is] a silent film, with pantomime, printed dialogue, and such sound effects as were formerly supplied by the pit band and would now be done by dubbing, except for Chaplin's song at the end….
Part of this old-time atmosphere can be credited to the sets. The factory layout is elaborate and stylized, but not in the modern way or with the modern vividness of light and shadow;… the costumes are generally previous; and as to faces and types, Chaplin has kept a lot of old friends with him, types from days when a heavy was a heavy…. (p. 117)
But such matters would not call for discussion if all together they did not set up a definite mood, a disturbing sense of the quaint. Chaplin himself is not dated, never will be; he is a reservoir of humor, master of an infinite array of dodges, agile in both mind and body; he is not only a character but a complex character, with the perfect ability to make evident all the shades of his odd and charming feelings; not only a touching character, but a first-class buffoon and I guess the master of our time in dumb show. But this does not make him a first-class picture maker. He may personally surmount his period, but as director-producer he can't carry his whole show with him, and I'll take bets...
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A long time ago, Charlie [Chaplin] achieved a perspicuity of style, or a readiness for being imparted…. Charlie had let go in a make-up and dance raising American acting to a world position, soon to offer comparisons with the histrionic poetry of the Japanese Noh.
There were differences. Instead of allowing him to say in concise Japanese verse, 'I am going on a journey down the road, it will lead me past' etc., and poising him graciously on the property, celluloid permitted him only movement and silence. The result was the composition of action on the screen: his back ambled off into the open. Drama was brought into the actual air. (p. 51)
Charlie's devices and "types" live with material thoughtfulness and thus historical meaning. It was some years ago that people began to see satire in Charlie, as distinguished from comedy to which rhetorics have tagged one definition or another and decided it ends well…. Charlie the actor never revealing his natural self is also Charlie in the set, an intelligence working itself out in the concrete. So that a new idea in a new Chaplin film is not merely a notion, a general sense of today, or an understanding of politics, art, life or whatever, but inventive existence interacting with other existence in all its ramifications: sight, hearing, muscular movement, coordination of all the senses acting on the surrounding world and rendering it laughably intelligent. (pp. 53-4)...
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To think of Charlie Chaplin is to think of the movies. Yet this unique actor, director, and producer has added little to movie technique or movie form. He has been not a technician but a pantomimist, a commentator, a satirist, a social critic. His artistic problems have not been cinematic; they have been personal, always being solved by feeling. His importance lies not in what he has contributed to film art, but in what he has contributed to humanity. If he is negligible as a movie craftsman, if he has evolved no new formal aspects to enrich the medium, he has created many moments to enrich society. Chaplin will always be known for his social outlook, his insight into human nature, his pantomimic skill, his ingenious development of the incident, and his evocation of a mood. It is these qualities rather than any plastic contributions which have made him significant as a screen artist. (p. 226)
Since his first screen appearance in 1913, Charles Chaplin has made history. As a whole, his career during twenty-five years has been marked by ripening ability and a steadily rising reputation. Until 1918 his pictures were experiments in technique and style, containing all the external characteristics that Chaplin was later to synthesize, and revealing his growing awareness of aims. His films during the following years were mature, rich in insight and understanding. In recent years, since the advent of the talkies, he has used his genius...
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The Great Dictator opens on some pretty dated nonsense in the war zone and the kind of lighting and movie action they used in Shoulder Arms. What's new is the acting, the new and different character, a mixture of sharp mimicry and the devices of absurdity. And as we might have expected from the wonderful double-talk song in Modern Times, Chaplin is as acute and perfect verbally as he is in pantomime: he has the splenetic and krauty fustian of the German orator as exactly as Hitler himself….
[When a scene is funny] it is funny as always, in the shop, on the street, around the chimney pots, with some of the oldest Chaplin favorites still peeping through. But it is also tragic because a people is being persecuted; these Jews are straight characters, not the old cartoons; and the laughter chokes suddenly and is reluctant to start again. Chaplin likes to pull out all the stops on sentimental passages, but this thing is too near and meaningful. It isn't that a comedian should be denied indignation and kept clowning forever; it is that old thing in all art of the demands of unity, of a complete and sustained mood or tone. He was always a funny figure against the rude world, but the gulf between a kick in the pants and a pogrom is something even his talent for the humorous-pathetic will not cross. And his unrelieved six-minute exhortation to the downtrodden of the world, look up, stand up, etc., is not only a bad case of...
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[The Great Dictator], which is neither more or less episodic and shapeless than Modern Times, is at times unwontedly serious in its direction, weighted down, as it were, by its suspended advance towards Chaplin's final apologia. At such moments his failure fully to master the sound medium becomes painfully noticeable. The scenes are long; the composition stilted; the dialogue banal. Their object—for the most part—is to emphasise the misery of the Jews under the Nazi régime; but they are too dully sentimental to do more than bore.
It is only with Chaplin himself that we can feel and understand the cruelties and stupidities. As the little Ghetto barber, plunged after many years of amnesia into a vile world of stormtroopers and spies, his audacious application of pails of whitewash to the thugs says all, for the time being, that we need. The barber, indeed, is the old Charlie—though a little alarming at first because he talks, and we are not used to that….
There remains for consideration the finale. This will no doubt be a matter of considerable controversy, for in it Chaplin directly takes up the position of spokesman for humanity…. Those who are embarrassed and possibly enraged by being asked to consider the New Testament in relation to the realities of life will be embarrassed and possibly enraged by being asked to do so by Chaplin. They will at any rate have the excuse that the speech...
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Since Mark Twain, no anarchist of the full nineteenth-century size has emerged except Charlie Chaplin. But the hero of the Chaplin films, with his quixotic gallantry and courtesy, his pity for the weak, his apologetic and ridiculous isolation from society and the amount of damage he does against his own very good will to that society makes this Yankee cussedness an ideal worthy of respect. For all its plethora of revolutionary symbols, Modern Times is not a socialist picture but an anarchist one: an allegory of the impartial destructiveness of humor…. We are left with a feeling that the man who is really part of his social group is only half a man, and we are taken back to the primitive belief, far older than Isaiah or Plato but accepted by both, that the lunatic is especially favored of God….
This, of course, is not fully intelligible without some reference to religion, and it is in this that The Great Dictator shows its chief advance on Modern Times. To the Nazi the Jew sums up everything he hates: he is of a different race, he is urban, he is intellectual, he is often undersized, he has a sense of humor and tolerance. For these reasons he is also the perfect Chaplin hero: besides, a contempt for this big-happy-family racialism is the first principle of American anarchism. Imagine Huckleberry Finn without Jim or Moby Dick without Queequeg, and you can soon see why Chaplin had to be a Jew. But...
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I could write many pages … about the richness and quality of [Monsieur Verdoux] as a work of art, in fact, of genius; and as many more trying, hopelessly, to determine how Chaplin's intellect, instinct, intuition, creative intelligence, and pure experience as a master artist and as a showman, serve and at times disserve one another: for intellectually and in every other kind of self-exhaustion this seems incomparably his most ambitious film. And since the film is provocative of so much that cannot be examined as fun, I wish I might also use the many thousands of words I would require to do it adequate honor, purely as fun. And all the more because I love and revere the film as deeply as any I have seen, and believe that it is high among the great works of this century, I wish I might discuss at proper length its weaknesses as a work of art and of moral understanding. I have reluctantly chosen, instead, to suggest a single aspect of its meaning, which seems to me particularly important. And this itself, I fear, I may have reduced beyond usefulness. (p. 256)
Chaplin's theme, the greatest and the most appropriate to its time that he has yet undertaken, is the bare problem of surviving at all in such a world as this…. [He] has set aside the tramp, whose charming lessons in survival are too wishful for his purposes, for his first image of the Responsible Man, and of modern civilization…. The tramp is the free soul intact in its...
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It is agreed, some will say, that [in Monsieur Verdoux] Chaplin has created a highly personal work, and we admit that he has undergone a natural artistic transformation. We only feel that he has done all this in a wrong direction. And they add that the greatest crime of Monsieur Verdoux was the killing-off of the beloved little vagabond who had been such a charmer. His creator should not only have kept him alive but depended on him in his search for a new form of expression. I cannot share this opinion.
In giving up the rundown shoes, the old derby hat and willowy cane of the raggedy little guy whose pathetic hangdog look used to melt our hearts, Chaplin has gone deliberately into a world that is more dangerous, because it is closer to the one we live in. His new character, with neatly-pressed trousers, impeccably-knotted tie, well-dressed and no longer able to appeal to our pity, does not belong in those good old situations, outlined in strong broad strokes, where the rich trample the poor in so obvious a manner that even the most childish audience can immediately grasp the moral of the story. Before, we could imagine that the adventures of the little tramp took place in some world that belonged exclusively to the movies, that they were a sort of fairy tale.
With Monsieur Verdoux, such misapprehension is no longer possible. This one really takes place in our time, and the problems faced on the...
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All comedy is based on man's delight in man's inhumanity to man. I know that is so, because I have made forty million people laugh more or less every day for sixteen years, and this has been the basis of all the comedy I have created. I think it is the basis of all comedy.
But I had forgotten, until I saw Chaplin again, that comedy can become sublime when it makes men sorrow at man's inhumanity to man by making men pity themselves.
When the history of art in our time is written, and when the ideological passions of our time are laughable curios, the great artist that our time has produced will be recognized as Charlie Chaplin. (pp. 25-6)
In the Chaplin films you will find thousands of miraculously funny gags (and no matter how much they've been copied, his originals have still a pure, bright freshness). You will find scores of unique characters, each warmly funny because, no matter how wildly they're drawn, they're based on real, instantly recognizable types. You'll find a treasure-trove of hilarious and intricate comedy situations—you'll find everything that comedy is made of. But the most important thing you'll find is this: that for all his dazzling succession of gags, characters, and situations, Charlie Chaplin told again and again, with infinite variation, one story—the story of man's inhumanity to man. And that is a very funny story. (p. 26)
Chaplin, more than any other...
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Chaplin's first picture in five years has for its theme "the glamor of the limelight—from which age must pass as youth enters."… However Limelight is garnished with a little Freud, some ballet, a few aphorisms about life, and a certain artiness….
In accord with Chaplin's tendency of recent years, there is little comedy in Limelight. One of Chaplin's lines in this picture is: "Life isn't a gag any more. From now on I'm a retired humorist." There is scarcely a trace of the gags, satire, fantasy, caricature and slapstick of his earlier work. (p. 466)
Limelight is filled with autobiographical overtones. Although there is something in it of Chaplin's father, a music hall entertainer of the nineties, much more of the story and of the dialogue derives from Chaplin's position today. He was stung to the quick by the financial failure of Monsieur Verdoux, the only one of his 77 films which did not make money. (p. 468)
[Because] of his egocentricity, he never really immerses himself in the story. There is a pervading narcissism, and not infrequent vanity….
It would be pleasant, at this point in Chaplin's career, to state that Limelight is his greatest film. Unfortunately, it is not…. Limelight seems to have been designed to please audiences, instead of merely Chaplin himself, as of yore. Chaplin long ago became too refined to be able to do...
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Thirty years ago Chaplin had encompassed tragi-comedy with a purity of form and feeling unique in the cinema, and from a historical point of view the qualities of Limelight are beautifully logical; what is less logical, perhaps, is the intense success with which they have been realised. At 63 Chaplin has executed an imaginative portrait of the artist as an old man and shown his creative powers to be at their height. The cinema is apt to exhaust its great talents early, but Limelight has all the vitality and sureness of Chaplin's best work, and it touches some new moments of experience. (p. 123)
The poetic unity of Limelight is a deep, calm, fatal emanation of sadness…. (p. 124)
The directness of sentiment in Limelight has found its detractors, as direct sentiment always does; nothing exposes an artist more. It is easy enough to write about today's Chaplin as "sententious" …, as "self-pitying" … or "self-infatuated" …, but these charges seem to reflect a temperamental dislike of the film's approach rather than to refute it. They miss the essential thing, the passion which is the motive and the justification of Limelight. Nothing could be truer to itself; the difference is in the identification point. Charlie the tramp, the anarchist, was everyone's symbol, and Chaplin since The Great Dictator has ceased to be that. In his last three films he has become articulate, and...
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J. L. Tallenay
"Limelight's" scenario unquestionably sounds melodramatic. Various critics have expressed the opinion that it is poorly done. Its very construction involves instances of ineptness: the entire first part of the film is broken up by long monologues on the part of Calvero, and the dramatic action takes too long to get under way. Finally although it is fictitious the film has a number of sequences that sound a personal and autobiographical note which may strike some people as discordant.
But despite these seeming weaknesses, and perhaps even because of them, "Limelight" is a major work of extraordinary richness and unprecedented originality.
Its primary originality is precisely in the personal tone which Chaplin has adopted. Never before has the motion picture reached a similar degree of intensity in the dialogue between the author and his audience. Not that "Limelight" is a confidential work addressed only to the initiate. For here again Chaplin has succeeded in addressing himself to different levels, different strata, of the public….
The word 'dignity' which recurs in this picture as a leitmotiv would seem to supply the key: a comic figure, no matter how much he is weighed down with honors, senses that his dignity as a man is constantly threatened by the very laughter he is able to create. To illustrate his universal theme of the sadness deep within a man who makes the public laugh, Chaplin,...
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I think that [Limelight] is to be considered a mea culpa: an expression by the comedian that is more than art or entertainment; in brief, a moral credo that was designed to set everyone straight about its creator's positive and enduring convictions as a member of human society. It would be foolish to pretend such an assumption is irrelevant; that a work of art or a piece of entertainment is that and no more, has no moral value, and is not to be construed as an expression of private opinion, and so on. There are myriad signs that Monsieur Verdoux, like its predecessor The Great Dictator, not merely carried a view of contemporary life intended seriously in the moral sense but also was Chaplin's personal platform as a contemporary thinker. (p. 75)
In The Great Dictator, Chaplin dissolved the traditional Tramp into two strictly contemporary phases of social personality: Hitler's parody, Hynkel, was bohemian, irresponsible, hallucinated, malevolent, and generally unhappy and frustrated; the Barber was gentle, humble, gay, loving, loved, and well acquainted with decent human values. If we reflect upon the long film repertory of the Tramp from the year when his original arrived on American soil, 1913, we may observe that as a personality he has exhibited, from time to time, all those qualities belonging respectively to the "twins" of The Great Dictator!…
What happened, then, to...
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Limelight cruelly exposes the limitations of Chaplin as producer, for it is everything, most of the time, a movie shouldn't be: overwritten, underdirected, slowly paced, monotonously photographed, fumblingly cut—and oh so dreary, far beyond any justification from the milieu, a penury of the soul…. The first ten minutes, roughly, are good Chaplin, relatively pure cinema…. Up to this point, or shortly thereafter, the situation is managed with a fine balance of tragic and comic, dramatic and ludicrous, theatrical and cinematic. But from here on, Chaplin abandons all effort to keep his invention within these disciplined commutations of method. The whole gorgeous potentiality breaks down, washes away in a welter of tears, archness, smut, coincidental meetings, Pagliacci closeups, and in talk, talk, talk. For interminable stretches he either sets his camera while two or three actors play out a scene virtually face front, with no cuts to benefit either their comfort or the scene's modulations, or he simply moves in to a close shot from middle distance. These are almost the limits of his motion. When, during a ballet sequence, he suddenly gives us four overhead shots in as many minutes, the change of perspective is so unprepared for as to seem completely out of key.
Chaplin should have long ago—as far back as Modern Times, for instance—placed his idiosyncratic genius for pantomime and his...
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The lapses of genius are always interesting, sometimes baffling, and inevitably sad. The important thing is that they don't, in the long run. greatly matter. Genius means, as often as not, an infinite capacity for taking risks: and with an artist like Chaplin, who has played for high stakes and never been concerned to hedge his bets, there is no possibility of failure in any small way. His new film. A King in New York, is for me as much of a failure as Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight were successes. Those were flawed masterpieces; this seems a failure that occasionally—but only occasionally—touches the edge of brilliance. And it is a film that appears at once important and of little lasting account; immensely revealing and discussable, as any work of Chaplin's must be, and at the same time a picture by which one would no more consider judging its creator than one would judge Shaw by one of his very late plays. This is not to suggest that A King in New York looks like the work of an ageing man, something to be written off as coming out of the dim twilight of an artist. It has a good deal more to it than that. If it stands apart from Chaplin's other work, it is because here the artist's comment on his times reflects not the sureness of knowledge but the uncertainty of betrayal. (p. 78)
After the great defiant statements of Monsieur Verdoux, the twilight wisdom of Limelight, the actual words of...
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I don't see any great difference between the first and the second parts of A King in New York. I didn't expect to laugh. We all read the newspapers, and I was well aware of Chaplin's misfortunes in America. I knew what his new film was about and I knew how profoundly sad his preceding films were. We could have known that A King in New York would be the saddest of all, also the most personal. The man who made The Gold Rush can, if he wants to, make his public laugh or cry at will; he knows all the tricks; he's an ace, that's sure. If we neither cry nor laugh at A King in New York, it's because Chaplin made up his mind to touch our heads instead of our hearts. The awful gentleness of this film makes me think of [Resnais's] Nuit et Brouillard, which also rejected the simplemindedness of the propagandist or the hater. (pp. 58-9)
The film doesn't broaden out or force itself on the viewer. There are no scenes that are amusing or ironic or bitter. It is a rapid and dry demonstration of a single point, almost like a documentary. The shots of New York and the two images of airplanes that Chaplin inserts are like a montage of documents. A King in New York is not comparable to a novel or a poem; it is more like an article, a few pages from a journal called "Charlie Chaplin comments freely on political reality." (p. 59)
If A King in New York...
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The Gold Rush, certainly, is one of Chaplin's achieved masterpieces of silent comedy, the work of a great artist of sentiment and pathos. (pp. 31-2)
The story-line (The Gold Rush was made after A Woman of Paris) has become firm and rich. And if the film has none of the flabbergasting imagination of a Keaton … it nonetheless creates a comic world as viable as any, and with a great deal of genuine poetry to it. (p. 32)
The key elements in the vision?—The search for love, above all; this time found in the person of a girl harder and less "good" than the usual Chaplin heroine…. The existence of good and evil, too; the Big Jims and Black Larsens of the world exterior to the tramp's person, who struggle violently, often for objectives the tramp has no hope of reaching through struggle, and can only attain through luck or guile…. It is worth noting that in Chaplin films as a whole evil is portrayed rather convincingly and in detail: greed and poverty, guile and deception; but the goodness of the tramp rests upon charm and pathos much of the time, or, as in City Lights, is dramatized mawkishly.—Most of all, the vision shows the world as a series of traps and dangers: physical peril, hunger, trickery that will not always be reversed. It is a world, like those of all great artists, having the power to haunt us afterwards, physically: we see that world in our mind's eye, more real...
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[MacDonald quotes from a review which he wrote in 1956:]
Monsieur Verdoux is really two films, one a sentimental melodrama, the other a comedy in the old Chaplin style that burlesques the melodrama. What makes it confusing is that Chaplin shifts gears between the two without apparently knowing he is doing so…. It is unsettling to see an actor brilliantly taking off the conventional rhetoric of his trade one moment and the next employing it seriously, especially since Chaplin's serious rhetoric expresses a vain and foolish concept of himself—as the tragic man-of-the-world, disenchanted, elegant, sensitive, the gallant protector of the weak who, to make the bogus diamond shine all the more brilliantly, are usually crippled or blind. In the film after Verdoux, the disastrous Limelight, this mawkish exhibitionism goes right over the edge…. (p. 18)
There is even a third film here, that bursts into the last part with shattering banality, a 'message' drama…. It was a sad day for Chaplin when the intellectuals convinced him he was the Tragic Clown, the Little Man. From a parodist, he graduated into a philosopher, but since his epistemology was all instinctive, even physical … it didn't help him in his new role. The nature of reality, which he understood intuitively as a mime, became opaque to him when he tried to think about it, and where he once danced lightly he now...
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Walking away from the camera, down a dirt road, his cane bobbing behind him, Charlie Chaplin is not a comedian but a clown. Emmett Kelly was the same kind of clown, smiling through a painted-on frown.
In Chaplin's films, the frown is painted on with a camera, and the audiences have to supply the smile themselves. Chaplin's deadly seriousness makes it clear that he does not understand why the joke should be on him….
The difference between Chaplin and the other great screen comics was that Chaplin played a clown. The others, by and large, played comedians, with a few exceptions such as Lahr, Keaton, and possibly Jerry Lewis.
Comedians and clowns aim in opposite directions. Comedians live in imaginary worlds that look just like our own. In "The Apartment", for example, Jack Lemmon inhabited a flat as realistic as it was unlikely.
Clowns, on the other hand, live in real worlds which consist of a few props. No worlds are more real than the clown-worlds of "Waiting for Godot" or Chaplin's early shorts.
Comedians use fantasy to make the real world seem funny. Clowns use reality to make our fantasies seem ridiculous.
Chaplin was also the only one in his world who believed in its conventional morality. He believed honor should be defended. He believed customers in restaurants should be polite. He believed little flower girls, especially if they are...
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The recent reappearance of Chaplin's The Circus  provides an example of a rich film which has been overshadowed by its predecessor (The Gold Rush, 1925) and its successor (City Lights, 1931). True, The Circus lacks the superb economy of The Gold Rush and it does not plumb to the depths of pathos of City Lights. But its virtues are rather special, and, I think, ones which we, forty years later, are in a special position to notice. For The Circus is one of the few films in which Chaplin's nineteenth-century sensibility deals symbolically with art and despair in a truly twentieth-century way.
It is a commonplace that the conemporary cinema has begun to comment on art as well as life; in Lola Montes, 8 1/2, Persona, and Blow-Up, we see directors exploring the nature of cinema itself. In the light of this tendency, The Circus seems highly modern.
Perhaps Chaplin's most objective analysis of his screen persona, it uses the circus as a metaphor for both Film and Existence. Like Bergman in Sunset of a Clown, Chaplin fills his circus with symbols that suggest both the depths of art and the bleakness of life.
From the star on the hoop that fills the iris in the very first shot to the crumpled-up star Charlie kicks away in the last shot, the film traces patterns of circularity. On the plot level, this pattern is enacted in...
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It is easy to foresee what people will find to criticize in Monsieur Verdoux. There is a fairly complete list of them in an article in La Revue des Temps Modernes which goes about as far as anything could in misrepresentation. The author of the critique expresses herself as profoundly disappointed by Chaplin's work because to her it seems ideologically, psychologically, and aesthetically incoherent. "Monsieur Verdoux's crimes are dictated neither by a need for self-defense nor in order to repair injustices, nor by a deep ambition, nor by the desire to improve anything in the world around him. It is a sad thing to have expended so much energy and proved absolutely nothing, to have succeeded in producing neither a comedy nor a film with social implications, and to have beclouded the most important issues." (p. 103)
If Verdoux has a "meaning," why look for it in terms of some moral, political, or social ideology or other, or even in reference to psychological categories that we are in the habit of seeing as revealed in the characters of our theater or our novels, when it is so easy to discover it in Charlie?
The critic quoted above attacks Chaplin's performance, accusing him of failing to escape altogether from the comic format of his former character, of hesitating, not choosing one way or another, between the realistic interpretation that the role of Verdoux...
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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…. Surely what is best and wisest in him can be found in The Tramp. (p. 13)
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…. Through all the long...
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[A King in New York] is produced in typical Chaplin style—tackily. The lighting, photography, settings and editing are banal and cheap. The music is music-hall. The concern for accuracy is so small that, in what is supposed to be New York, the doors to a theater orchestra are labeled "Stalls," an elevator is labeled "Lift," and in a street scene we see the office of a famous London bookmaker. The direction is, as always, Chaplin-centered and theater-oriented. Most of the actors seem hardly to have been directed at all, and the predominant motions of the film are of actors' entrances and exits, rather than any intrinsic cinematic mode. (p. 247)
The script, by Chaplin, seems a series of ad hoc inventions with only the vaguest general plan. Whenever the phone rings or the door-buzzer sounds in Shadhov's hotel suite, which is the story's "basic" set you know that the sagging plot is going to get another boost…. The script has … effective satire on film violence, wide screens and TV commercialism. The one consistency in this adventitious collection of bits is that most of the seeming disasters turn out to be advantageous. Shadhov is trapped by a hidden camera into making a TV spectacle of himself, and it transforms him into a celebrity. He "blows" a TV whiskey commercial by coughing, and it makes him a comedy hit. The implication—that nothing is too ridiculous for American success if only it's sufficiently "exposed"—is much...
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Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.
At their funniest [Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), and A King in New York (1957)] hark back to the sort of antics in Charlie's early work. The brightest moment in any of them is a mime recital in Limelight at which Charlie's accompanist is Buster Keaton! Yet even in Limelight there is a pall hanging over the most comically intended moments….
[At] the mime recital in Limelight, we have the uncomfortable feeling Charlie is putting his whole reputation as a laugh-getter on the line. This is the effect of preceding scenes where Calvero plays to an empty house in his nightmare and is hooted off the stage in reality. At the recital it's as if we're being challenged to laugh, and our laughter is therefore nervous. We see Calvero's performance from the viewpoint of the music-hall audience in the film; and like any audience put in that one's position, we laugh out of politeness, half fearing someone will be humiliated if we don't laugh. Implicit on Charlie's part is an attempt to recapture the comedic style of his youth, as if it were an innocence whose loss were now being regretted terribly….
[That] innocence was indeed irretrievably lost by the time of these three late films. What makes them a separate, isolated part of Charlie's career is the fact that they forsake the Tramp character he'd played in every film since his second Mack Sennett comedy. The figure who...
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It is possible to propose … that [Maya Deren's] Meshes of the Afternoon finds its central derivations from a film made by Chaplin in 1916…. 1 A.M., a momentary departure from Chaplin's preoccupations with the Tramp, contains a wide range of formal characteristics which influence Meshes, not only directly but by an indirection through Dada and surrealism. Dada, the aesthetic movement which generated surrealism, which engendered the comic and irrational strategies of surrealist cinema, is, of course, most intimately affiliated with American comedy, with Sennett and Keaton and Chaplin. The leap from Chaplin's 1 A.M. to Dada to [Buñuel's] Un Chien Andalou to Meshes of the Afternoon covers, quite obviously, a whole range of aesthetic variables which constitute the history of film itself, but it is here possible to substantiate formal affinities between two diverse works, possible to determine derivations, by way of a simple inventory of respective designs. Such an inventory, however, does not propose that Deren consciously modeled Meshes on 1 A.M., but rather, that a certain historical-aesthetic process generated various formal "genes" which can be objectively detected in seemingly unrelated specimens.
1. The titles of both films suggest a specific time of day—a time in which normal activities are suspended and ordinary things suddenly assume an unfamiliar hostile visage....
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There are things to find fault with in Monsieur Verdoux, but I should say that there is something heartening even in Charlie Chaplin's faults, because they are faults of excess, not of deficiency. If some scenes in Verdoux are puzzling, is it not because they might mean several things, not that they might mean nothing? In the revolutionary act of making the screen say something, Chaplin has made it say too much. There is more material in his latest film than he is able to manage—which is to say, more than any living dramatic artist could manage. (p. 161)
Chaplin takes the familiar moral dichotomy between the private life and the public, which in modern life has taken form as the dichotomy between the solid citizen's respectable Christian home and his dirty Machiavellian dealings in business, and he broadens the moral contrasts until they are expressible in terms of his own art, which is, if you like, slapstick. The strong contrast between the kind of treatment the material suggests and the kind of treatment it actually meets with at Chaplin's hands is likely to baffle the solemn modern spectator, whose imagination has been deadened by naturalism. For Chaplin's purposes, however, the broader the contrast, the better. Like the classic comedians, he thrives on the contrast, (pp. 162-63)
Chaplin is broken, but about his boss, the stockholder and speculator, polygamist and murderer, Henri Verdoux. The...
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[Before The Gold Rush, Chaplin] made very few films that took the Tramp out of contemporary city or country life. Tramps are, after all, a by-product of industry, urban or rural. Evidently (we can deduce after the event), Chaplin's unconscious saw at once, in those stereoscopic pictures, the advantages of the novelty of putting the Tramp into a context that, so to speak, had no direct relation to Trampdom, the possibilities for the "epic" that he was seeking. And, presumably, he saw the power in putting the image of the Tramp, whose black moustache is the center of the figure's color gradations, against predominantly white backgrounds. All in all, it was a chance to simultaneously vary and heighten what he had done up to now. (p. 299)
[The Gold Rush] is the "epic" that Chaplin was looking for. (p. 300)
[A] title announces "A Lone Prospector," and we see a narrow mountain path on the edge of a steep drop. I always laugh at once, not just because I know Chaplin is coming and the path is dangerous, but because—separated from the opening only by one title—the scenery is so patently phony compared with the reality of the Pass. Thus, early in the film, Chaplin sets a pattern that weaves throughout, the real world posed against the theater of that world, unblinking reality as the ground for a comic abstract of that reality. It's dangerous to mix modes like that, of course, unless you are able, as Chaplin...
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