Charlie Chaplin was to comedy what Claudio Monteverdi was to operatic music. Inimitable. Timeless. Here’s why. Flashback, Chaplin’s memorable film, City Lights. Chaplin plays the little tramp — as usual. In one hilarious sequence, he saves a drunk from leaping to his death. The drunk turns out to be a millionaire who befriends Chaplin and the two spend the evening together, drinking and partying. The next day, when he’s sober, the rich man does not recognise Charlie. He even snubs him. Later, the millionaire gets drunk again. When he spots Chaplin, he treats him as his long-lost friend. In the morning, of course, the sober millionaire does not recognise Charlie. He treats him as an intruder and has the butler kick him out by the ‘seat’ of his pants. The scene ends as the little tramp, with his famous toothbrush moustache, tells the camera his view of contemporary society and the evils of drunkenness. This was the genius of Chaplin — using the ‘message as the medium,’ or comedy as a social manifesto, in a manner born, but never before or after personified.
Chaplin was born in London to Charles Sr., and Hannah Harriette Hill-Chaplin — both small-time entertainers. When Charlie’s parents separated, soon after his birth, the little kid was left to the care of his mother who, through years of emotional upheaval, suffered a mental breakdown. She went to an asylum. Charlie and his older half-brother Sydney were brought up at an orphanage. His was, doubtless, a traumatic childhood — and, it provided the ground swell for his creative flair and brilliance to sprout, with more than a sense of Freudian element.
Chaplin [April 16, 1889-December 25, 1977] sure inherited from his parents ‘stage’ genetics, or gift of the gab on the sets, of entertaining people. He could mime superbly and also dance with consummate skill — both mandatory prerequisites in the silent era. Besides, he also drew on his own poverty and battle for survival to sculpt his legendary character — the tramp.
Chaplin got his first major acting ‘break,’ in 1913, when he signed up with Fred Karno Company — a British vaudeville unit that was touring the US. He made immediate impression and was signed on by Mark Sennet of Keystone — renowned makers of slapstick one-reelers. It was actually Sennet that inspired Chaplin to make his first film, Kid Auto Races at Venice, a movie which also marked the debut of Chaplin’s famous alter ego, the tramp.
How did the character evolve? In Chaplin’s own words, “I had no idea of the character. But, the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the make-up made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on to the stage he was fully born. When I confronted Sennet I assumed the character and strutted about, swinging my cane and parading before him. Gags and comedy ideas went racing through my mind.”
Chaplin now explained to Sennet: “You know, this fellow is many-sided, a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure. He could make you believe he’s a scientist, a musician, a duke, a polo player. However, he’s not above picking up cigarette butts or robbing a boy of its candy. And, of course, if the occasion warrants it, he’ll kick a lady in the rear — but, only in extreme anger.”
Within a short span of time, Chaplin went to Essanay Films on a contract of $1,250 a week — a huge sum those days. And, in 1916, Mutual signed Chaplin for a whopping $10,000 a week.
The impoverished lad from London had come a long way. However, the inner urge of every artist began to propel him in a new direction — Chaplin was anxious to make his own films. As he was indulging in slapstick and sentiment in his earlier films, he was also experimenting. He was always trying, no less, to create a poetic celluloid movement through settings and props, through mime, and through his elegant though seemingly ‘clumsy’ excursions. Soon, he was in a unique position of being able to script, produce, direct and star in his own right.
Chaplin sure expressed his cinematic genius with universal empathy, because his highly imaginative mind allowed him to mix sentiment, pathos, humour and lyricism like no one else. Result? Classics followed in quick succession: The Kid, The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Great Dictator — a dig at Adolf Hitler’s megalomania — and, so on. Even though some of his last few feature films, Monsier Verdoux, Limelight and A Countess From Hong Kong, did not become great hits, Chaplin’s cinematic genius and humanism continue to enthral newer generations of audiences all over the world, in a language everyone understands — Chaplin’s own.
Chaplin, of course, made his own kind of movies and on his own terms. He made them in the old-fashioned way, insisting on seeing to every detail himself. He did not like sound — not music though — and, resisted changes in Hollywood and its film-making process. This did not affect him and his talent for making wonderfully side-splitting films. This explains why Chaplin came to be — and, still is — idolised with unreserved directness. His scenery is a collage — not just a metaphor. It’s a cocoon of Chaplin’s expressions which one has always tried to break through to the reality outside. As a critic commented, "Chaplin’s work resembles a hall of mirrors reflecting only one image — Chaplin himself."
Chaplin was also as well-known for his fastidious and far too demanding mindset. No matter the length or no length of the role, Chaplin took each actor through every minute detail. He was convinced that a successful scene was not just about the actor, but everyone on the cast. He expected everyone to run the extra mile — he never believed in the ordinary. He believed in the unity of things too — not just the expression, or emoting the character on the screen. He also did not believe in half measures, time or budget. His whole vision was keyed to public response to his work.
He was adept at improvisation — he could just invent a new line in front of the camera with just a little tweak. He was to a point, therefore, unorthodox and, most importantly, he could restructure a scene. He could change actors, likewise, midway. No one complained, because Chaplin could “walk on the stage, serious, dignified, solemn, pause before and easy chair… and sit on the cat.”
The rest is pure enchantment. Chaplin gave the tramp and his psyche a new identity. The way he wielded his walking stick; the pattern of his splay-footed, shuffling walk; or, the waltz which would get transformed into a hurried sprint when pursued; his shy and almost restrained smile; the mercurial swiftness with which he would dodge someone, not to speak of his ability to skate at the edge of the precipice. All these images urge us to rewind and witness every bit of Chaplin, over and over again.
Chaplin’s magic is eternal — it has audiences laughing at his antics even before one gets to know that the little fellow, with the bowler hat, baggy trousers, toothbrush moustache, and delightfully expressive cane, was a transplanted cockney entertainer.
Yet, despite all the adulation, Chaplin’s life was mixed — of triumph and trauma. He attracted as much attention for his films as for his affairs and marriages — three of which were disasters. The only happy marriage that lasted was his fourth with playwright Eugene O’Neill’s 18-year-old daughter, Oona, when Chaplin was 54. Besides this, Chaplin was in the public eye for his shaky sympathy for communist ideals. He also once made a stormy exit from the US on ‘political grounds’ and returned to the land that had made him a celebrity, like no other, only to receive his Oscar.
All the same, whether he was at home or on the sets, Chaplin orchestrated the show. Acting, for him, was all sublime artistry and reels of celluloid captured its essence and more. What was also amazing about Chaplin’s consummate excellence was his own sense of beliefs and the astounding success he achieved with extraordinary predilection.
Chaplin remains a class act. His everlasting mosaic celebrates his imperishable, ever-lasting pre-eminence as Comedy’s First Knight — for the next hundred years.