(Sir) Charles (Spencer) Chaplin

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Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.

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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 emerged so late from the Tramp's cocoon is an elegant boulevardier—the deposed monarch in A King in New York, the dapper has-been in Limelight, the suave and fastidious bluebeard in Monsieur Verdoux. In a sense this fellow isn't so different from the Tramp. He's the Tramp dignified by a bit of success, the person the Tramp aspired to be. Or maybe he's the Tramp grown worldly-wise at last, for in the progression of the films up to these last three we can almost see the new man emerging….

The Circus and City Lights still exemplify the sort of timeless romantic farce Charlie had been perfecting ever since he outgrew slapstick. But in Modern Times and The Great Dictator the Tramp is suddenly thrown into the very thick of contemporary history. (p. 463)

Maybe Charlie found it impossible to play the Tramp anymore because he had come to feel that the ways in which the little fellow is society's victim are no longer funny. Though he had never before apologized for his sense of humor, he did say after World War II that he regretted making The Great Dictator. After his own persecution here during the fifties, he may well have thought he had become the Tramp—the lonely outcast, shunned and excluded by his own society—a bit too painfully to make jokes about it….

[The] main reason Charlie could no longer play the Tramp has to have been that, even in his own mind, he no longer was the Tramp. The Tramp's is a popular art; and like all popular art, it relies on a lack of self-consciousness in the artist. It is other-directed. It reflects the lives of the millions of people in Charlie's audience who enjoy the Tramp because they can identify with him. But the aging boulevardier in the three late films is a self-reflective figure, even a self-pitying one at times. He is much more like the serious sort of modern artist—the poet or painter—who is unpopular and from whom audiences feel alienated…. By the time he made Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight and A King in New York, Charlie's original genius as a screen comedian had indeed become moribund. (p. 464)

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr., "The Late Charlie Chaplin," in Commonweal (copyright © 1974 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. XCIX, No. 18, February 8, 1974, pp. 463-64.

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