Mar 202004

For once I’m with Teachout; Chaplin gets on my nerves too. For reasons I will defer to the 20th century’s best hater, the old Enemy, Wyndham Lewis:

The childish, puny stature of Chaplin — enabling him always to be the little David to the Goliath of some man chosen for his statuesque proportions — served him well. He was always the little-fellow-put-upon — the naif, child-like individual, bullied by the massive brutes by whom he was surrounded, yet whom he invariably vanquished. The fact that the giants were always vanquished; that, like the heroes of Ossian, they rode forth to battle (against the Chaplins of this world), but that, like those distant celtic heroes, they always fell, never, of course, struck the Public as pathetic, too. For the pathos of the Public is of a sentimental and naively selfish order. It is its own pathos and triumphs that it wishes to hear about. It seldom rises to an understanding of other forms of pathos than that of the kind represented by Chaplin, and the indirect reference to “greatness” in a more general sense, conveyed by mere physical size, repels it.

In this pathos of the small — so magnificently exploited by Charlie Chaplin — the ordinary “revolutionary” motif for crowd-consumption is not far to seek. The Keystone giants by whom, in his early films, he was always confronted, who oppressed, misunderstood and hunted him, but whom he invariably overcame, were the symbols of authority and power. Chaplin is a great revolutionary propagandist. On the political side, the pity he awakens, and his peculiar appeal to the public, is that reserved for the small man.

But no one can have seen a Chaplin film without being conscious also of something else, quite different from mere smallness. There was something much more positive than scale alone, or absence of scale, being put across, you would feel. First, of course, was the feeling that you were in the presence of an unbounded optimism (for one so small, poor and lonely). The combination of light-heartedness and a sort of scurrilous cunning, that his irresponsible epileptic shuffle gives, is overpowering. It is Pippa that is passing. God’s in His Heaven; all’s well with the world (of Chaplins at all events). And, secondly, you would experience the utmost confidence in your little hero’s winning all his battles. The happy-ending (for the militant child-man) was foreshadowed in the awkward and stupid, lurching bulk of the Keystone giants; in the flea-like adroitness of their terrible little antagonist. It was the little skiff of Drake against the Armada over again. In brief, your hero was not only small, but very capable and very confident. Throughout he bore a charmed life.

To the smallness, and to the charmed life, you now have to add the child-factor… His little doll-like face, his stuck-on toy moustache, his tiny wrists, his small body, are those of a child as much as is the “four-foot something” body of Miss [Anita] Loos. And without the public being conscious of it, no doubt, it was as a child that he went to its heart, which, as far as the popular audience is concerned, is maternal.

Besides, he isn’t funny.

(Update: Colby Cosh, Rick Coencas, and David Fiore agree with me. George Hunka and Ed Kemmick don’t.)

  16 Responses to “Being Little”

  1. I don’t know about all that, but has anyone actually seen anyone laugh at a Chaplain film?

    I saw a movie he did a movie later in his career, I remember, without a moustache, and he did a funny bit of can’t put the key in the lock because I’m too drunk, and then there was a little bit of vaudeville which was okay, but apart from that all the ones I’ve seen were dull.

  2. I saw The Gold Rush with a film buff audience that laughed indiscriminately at everything in the movie. I found it far more damning than if no one had laughed at all.

  3. Film buffs, aren’t they delightful? I once went to see one of my favorite movies, Carmen Jones, Otto Preminger’s all-black Carmen someone remind me to write about it one of these days at one of the local art houses, and the audience sniggered every time one of the actors broke into song. At a musical.

  4. Aaron,
    More on being little from Wyndham: "….,’little life’ obsesses the impoverished landscape. It becomes a dogma of perfection, like Christ’s ‘little children.’ It is a highly organized cult, associated with others of the same blood with itself. And whereas formally it was confined to grown-up and elderly people, now real children also play at being ‘children,’ even outdoing their most skillful adult imitators."
    Had Wyndham had other categories using his "Taxi-Cab Driver Test For Fiction" – like small-man comedy or blogs or movies, I’m sure Abbott and Costello would have come closer to passing than Chaplin.

  5. Well Ed, since your remarks sound a lot like criticism, how about we discuss this critic to critic, with the understanding that we must ultimately defer to readers and viewers, classes from which we are apparently excluded?

    You call the roller-skating scene in City Lights "breathtaking," and so it is, in its virtuosity. It is easier to admire than to laugh at. I haven’t seen The Circus; maybe someday, when I boost my meds. But I am well-acquainted with the usual suspects, including The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times, which contains one of the unfunniest allegedly classic scenes in movie history, the little number on Taylor and Scientific Management in which Chaplin is strapped to the feeding device that goes haywire. See how stupid the bosses are! Watch the machine dump the soup in Charlie’s face! Ha ha ha!

    I accept history’s verdict that people laughed then; I would be astonished if anyone still does. No one can be funny all the time, but this scene is both famous and characteristic.

    It is odd that you call Chaplin "simple," an adjective that applies far better, in his movies, to his adversaries. "Scurrilous cunning," as Lewis puts it, is far more accurate. I’m also not sure why simplicity, rather than complexity, is "godlike," but then I’ve been rather in the dark about God’s ways since the Angel Gabriel descended one night and took my red phone away.

  6. Do I dare admit that I did find the feeding-machine scene quite funny? I don’t think I laughed out loud (when I watched "Modern Times" again as recently as a couple of months ago), but I didn’t laugh out loud at "The General," either, which I saw in the past year. With Keaton as with Chaplin, I am constantly in awe. They were both superb actors, able to express more emotion in silent films than whole auditoriums full of method actors can do nowadays. I don’t see any reason to insist on the primacy of Keaton or Chaplin. I happen to like Chaplin more (admitting that I have a lot more Keaton to see; try finding his movies at a video store in Billings, Montana!), but so what? By godlike simplicity, I meant to suggest that Dickens and Chaplin had something elemental about them, something that has always made it possible for people to relate to them on an immediate, emotional level. Both Charlies turn my crank; I am impervious to critical assaults.

  7. There’s no such thing as "funny" or "not funny". There’s only "I think he’s funny" or "I don’t".

    Chaplin was – for me – funny, and more than that. He was a brilliant (objective word) actor, mime, writer, director, composer, and a few other things I probably left out.

    He was also a product of, and for, his time. So most of his material spoke to that time. What do we know of today about a blind flower-seller on a street corner?

    That he’s still watched and talked about and written about says that his stuff stands the test of time.

    Whether or not anybody likes Chaplin, or Steve Martin, or Adam Sandler, is purely a matter of personal taste.

    And taste, like a taste for olives or Shostakovitch, is something that can be developed over time.

  8. Ed: I certainly did not mean to suggest that you shouldn’t laugh at Chaplin not that it would be of any use but only to explain my own antipathy.

    Mike: Development implies progress, an advance. If taste is purely personal, how can it be be "developed"? What would that even mean?

  9. Aaron: Dang, people always get friendly too quickly in these discussions. I wanted more criticism of my hastily written ideas. I got carried away, trying to "defend" an esthetic position, rather than simply explaining why I like Chaplin. It was probably Windbag Lewis going on a bit too long about Chaplin that bothered me.

  10. Your aesthetic theory, so far as I am able to distill it, amounts to mystification. You say what the source of Chaplin’s and Dickens’ appeal is not not political (and I agree), not comprehensible by "critics" (there I must differ, or there’d be no sense in discussing it at all) but you never get around to saying what it is. Your capsule history of comedy, however, is quite wrong. The revenge fantasy is still very much with us, in comedy and drama both, to the point where it is nearly impossible to cite a movie in which a corporate chieftain is a sympathetic character.

    Lewis was an exceptionally brilliant but unpleasant man who was always broke and therefore often wrote in haste. That said, if there’s a better description of the Tramp walk than "irresponsible epileptic shuffle" I have yet to read it. He also identifies precisely the attributes that endeared Chaplin to the public, and those attributes, considered in isolation, are not attractive. I suspect you object as much to the demystification in his remarks as to their length.

  11. All emotional reactions are personal. That they differ from person to person only tells us that people hold different values subconsciously. For example, a Nazi might feel joy at the news that another million Jews were gassed today, while I would feel violent anger. Just personal differences? Well, sure, but objective ones. Some people laugh at "freak-shows." I feel disgust.

    I cannot recall ever actually laughing during a Chaplin film. For me, they are tediously dull except when they become overtly political. At that point, they become incredibly sticky, sappy, and sloppy cliches. (Hitler was an evil dude, no doubt, but, surely, he was vulnerable to sterner satire than Charlie was capable of dishing-out.) Yes, Chaplin was great mime-artist, like a number of silent screen stars were, but a great "writer"?? I think not.

  12. Well, Ed,
    Immense Chaplin popularity is due precisely to him being "a hero to the common people because of his leftist sympathies".
    I recall some soviet critic connecting him to the Great Humanist Tradition of Compassion for the Little Man (which, of course, made Chaplin a darling of soviet propaganda and one of the approved World Artists).
    Vulgar marxism, that’s what brings popularity with masses – look at Mike Moore, another defendant of common man.

  13. Aaron, you got to quote your English authority, so please allow me to quote mine. The authority is G.K. Chesterton and he is talking about Dickens, but what he says applies as fittingly to Chaplin, and backs up my comparison of the two.
    First: "The key of the great characters of Dickens is that they are all great fools. There is the same difference between a great fool and a small fool as is there is between a great poet and a small poet. The great fool is a being who is above wisdom rather than below it."
    Second: "It may be noticed that the great artists always choose great fools rather than great intellectuals to embody humanity."
    Third: "Few of us see through the shining riddle of the street, the strange folk that belong to the street only — the street-walker or the street arab, the nomads who, generation after generation, have kept their ancient secrets in the full blaze of the sun. Of the street at night many of us know even less. The street at night is a great house locked up. But Dickens had, if ever man had, the key of the street. His earth was the stones of the street; his stars were the lamps of the street; his hero was the man in the street."
    Chaplin was a magnificent fool, and he, like Dickens, had the key of the street.
    And Tatyana: Chaplin stinks because some Soviet critic liked him? Yeah, and Wagner was responsible for the Holocaust.

  14. No, Ed (and don’t start ‘soviet’ with capital "s"; no respect allowed), but it’s a pretty good indicator that’s something’s rotten.
    Now, let me ask you: does your heart bleeds for Little Man?
    I thought so.

  15. That’s the spirit; keep things at a high intellectual level. And no, I won’t be violating accepted rules of English usage to make a political point. I’m too big a fan of Orwell to do that.

  16. Ed,
    let’s not abuse hospitality here. You have something to say to my
    original argument (which you never disputed)- here’s my mail.
    Bring it on.

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