I recently discovered the sheer brilliancy of renowned comedian/actor Charlie Chaplin. Surely everyone has either seen a picture of him, huge baggy pants, Hitler-like mustache, whimsically twirling a cane but wow, I never thought twice about this silent film performer until…NOW! He was a true artist that can make you cry out loud and simultaneously weep from his sincerity.
I just went to a wonderful new museum in Switzerland that was built in his honor. It is ajacent to his home where he lived after he left the US in 1952.
What is truly remarkable about this artist is his absolute unique expression and courage. Watching his movements/choreography in his films is breathtaking. Yes, he is funny but he does so much more than evoking a laugh. The themes of his films were touching, tragic, and serious. Still, with his brilliant humor he spread joy and helped people understand our shared human nature, both devastating and divine. Chaplin said, “ I did not have to read books to know that the theme of life is conflict and pain. (Humor) activates our sense of proportion and revels to us that in an over-statement of seriousness lurks the absurd.”
My family and I watched his silent film entitled ‘The Child’ and something very special happened. I assumed that my young sons would not really enjoy the film based on the idea that they were too overly stimulated with high definition graphics and sound found in current films, but man was I wrong. This film under the arch of comedy showed a poor man essentially finding and caring for an abandoned baby. He raised the child until he was about 5 where then an orphanage took the child away from Chaplin because they thought he was too poor to properly raise him. But the deep love the child and Chaplin shared was so strong…remember this is a silent film. One has to rely on different sensibilities when watching silent films.
The emotional cues read in the faces and body was electrifying.
To my great surprise my 7 year old wept and ran out of the room. It was too difficult for him to watch. This silent film made in 1921 had a greater impact than most films he watches today.
One cannot help but to giggle and laugh out loud when seeing this man move, watch his facial reactions to things. He performs with every cell of his being. He spoke about how important it was to maintain one’s individualism, for artists this is especially true. Chaplin stressed the importance of an artist to be deeply connected to their time and respond and speak about our difficulties and joys. Chaplin’s politics and films were always based on his love for humanity.
His voice is loud and clear, his expression absolute. This coming from a man who came from abject poverty in the late 1890’s. His father died of alcoholism at age 37 and his mother suffered a permanent mental breakdown. He spent periods of his childhood in institutions for destitute children and made pennies joining a dance troupe as a young boy.
All in all, a young life that was not easy, a life that gave him the early introduction to loss, love and ambition. I am struck by his humanity. Chaplin was an artist that broke boundaries with humor and movement, an artist that was selfless.
He stared in his films but also composed the music, directed, and edited his films. I was surprised to learn that Chaplin did not write out the full content of his films ahead of time instead he let situations and relationships reveal themselves as they came. I too work this way when I make art: it’s pretty liberating…. and at times nerve wracking. When we are nervous it means we care and have humility; we do not take things for granted. Complacency is never good for creativity. Chaplin wrote, “How does one get ideas? By sheer perseverance to the point of madness. One must have a capacity to suffer anguish and sustain enthusiasm over a long period of time.”
Around 1940 Charlie Chaplin made a political satire drama called ‘The Great Dictator’ which was about Hitler and the Nazi regime. There is a scene where Chaplin (impersonating Hitler) was giving a speech…he shouted staccato nonsense… bumbling, slurring and spitting his words into a microphone. It is brilliant. Chaplin shows with sickening humor Hitler’s barbarous character. He took such horror and flipped it upside down and makes us laugh at the absurdity of a man who was responsible for orchestrating mass genocide.
Hitler saw the movie, reportedly by himself in a locked theater. When he exited the theater he had a blank expression. Just imagine what was going through his mind.
Art can allow us to see ourselves like nothing else can.