01 January 2010


As a rare and wonderful holiday treat, the Franco–German television network Arte has been regaling viewers with several of Charlie Chaplin’s best films. They hold up well on television, while Keaton’s don’t, really: I always prefer Buster on the big screen, to scrutinize his uncanny grace and to marvel at the mechanisms of his comedy. The small screen reduces Chaplin’s sentimentality — his Achilles heel, for this fan — to manageable proportions.

The proof of this came in The Kid, which I’d never seen before. Oh, the Victorian mawkishness of the plot! Poor Edna Purviance abandons her supernaturally adorable baby, but rediscovers him a few years later, when he has become the even more improbably adorable Jackie Coogan. Corny. Yet this is the framework for an emotional honesty that’s infinitely appealing, seen most clearly in the depiction of the Tramp’s relationship with the Kid. These are simple characters, and their devotion to each other is painted in bold colors — but delicate strokes. You see it in the ferocity with which the Tramp battles the director of the orphanage to rescue the Kid, and the equal ferocity with which, having won that battle (for the moment), he clutches the Kid in an embrace.

You also see it in the brief, lovely sequence when the Tramp (who’s working as a glazier) and the Kid (who’s helpfully throwing rocks to break the windows the Tramp will replace) scurry away from an inquisitive policeman. The Tramp wants to make it appear that he and the boy don’t know each other, but the Kid keeps sidling up next to him. So the Tramp kicks him away (gently, one presumes) — and the Kid keeps running back to him. Again and again, until they turn the corner and disappear from view.

It’s a beautiful little ballet, one I’d like to see on the big screen one day. I’ve seen it many times in life, in my interactions with the children I love though they’re not mine, my godchildren. I know the feeling. And if I’ve never had the Tramp’s dream — in which he and the Kid are reunited as angels, and their slum is transformed into a paradise — it’s because I’m not a genius, as Chaplin was.

Who knows how many other life experiences Chaplin depicted, eliciting that same recognition in other audiences? Yeah, his movies are sentimental — but so are people.

Chaplin told this tender story, and made it funny, as well. Again and again, in the films I’ve watched over the past few weeks, I found myself laughing — just as hard, if not quite as often, as I laugh at Keaton’s pictures. Here is the Tramp, in dire poverty and wrenching distress, and yet I laugh. Chaplin guarantees that I’ll laugh, both because the Tramp never gives up hope (so you don’t take the peril too seriously) and because the gags are so brilliantly conceived and executed.

We don’t seem to trust silence anymore, I realized, as I watched The Gold Rush, to which the distributor appended a voiceover narration, spelling out every plot point and several of the gags. Apparently the title cards, though retained, were deemed insufficient. Another sign of that Ted Turner–style nervousness that dubs and colorizes everything it touches, like a Midas of tinsel. Happily, all I had to do was turn off the volume.

I wonder whether, as a culture, we have lost the ability to say so much without words. In movies (and television) today, even our pratfalls are loud. Most are accompanied by a “Hey, look at me” obviousness that would have horrified Chaplin and Keaton. Some of the problem may lie with the very nature of contemporary comedies: on the rare occasion a filmmaker is allowed to control a comedy, it’s a guarantee that he (even rarer, she) will be a wordsmith. And their characters don’t shut up.

Chaplin himself became such a filmmaker, as I came to understand while watching — also for the first time — Limelight, his last American picture. Dear Lord, how Chaplin’s character, Calvero, yammers on! Speech after speech. And one of his music-hall numbers derives its modest charm from his repeating the word “love” as fast as he can, two or three thousand times. (I lost count. I also fell asleep.)

Granted, some of the verbosity contains sweet kernels of poetry, yet all of Calvero’s exhortations to Claire Bloom to find hope and to rise above her circumstances, can be summed up and outdone by any of a thousand of Chaplin’s pantomimes from earlier films. “Yadda-yadda-yadda,” you want to say; “hush up and eat your shoe, will ya?”

He seems to have worried that he wasn’t funny anymore, and some of Limelight’s darker scenes show Calvero confronting unamused, even hostile audiences. The reality was worse, as the California courts hounded him for things he hadn’t done, and the U.S. government for words he hadn’t spoken.

It’s human nature to tear down what we have built up. The greatness of the structure becomes unbearable to us; we seek out the cracks in the foundation, then start chipping away. We are still doing this to our heroes today, and we were doing it two thousand years ago, too. Go pick your examples. Yet in hindsight, it seems clear: we didn’t deserve Chaplin.

1 comment:

William V. Madison said...

It's futile to write about Chaplin, I think. Only a few artists, and one actor, have been able to suggest him. And yet I felt compelled to try.