Charlie Chaplin, Stranger and Brother

By Oms, Marcel | UNESCO Courier, October 1989 | Go to article overview

Charlie Chaplin, Stranger and Brother


Oms, Marcel, UNESCO Courier


CHARLIE Chaplin, who was born a hundred years ago this year, was one of the world's best loved public figures, greeted by cheering crowds wherever he went. Yet he also attracted suspicion, dislike and even hatred.

There is a disturbing contradiction in these two extreme responses, neither of which can be said to be totally undeserved or totally justified. Perhaps it is the fate of brilliant clowns to embody both the white-faced clown and his stooge, the auguste, and, when they abandon their motley, to attract both love and hatred according to the temper of the times, as if they were trying to reveal themselves, and us, as complete human beings.

This kind of fundamental misunderstanding came to a head in 1927, when Chaplin, attacked by the gutter press and a wide sector of public opinion, was defended from the fury of his critics by the surrealists in a tract entitled Hands off Love. This text, probably written mainly by Louis Aragon, contains some admirable expressions of faith in the Chaplin myth: "Obedient to the dictates of love, he has always been obedient to the dictates of love, that is what his life and all his films unanimously proclaim." And the text concludes: "Suddenly we understand the place of genius in this world. It takes possession of a man, makes him an intelligible symbol and the prey of real brutes. Genius tells the world the moral truth which universal folly obscures and tries to suppress. So thank the man who, on the vast screen of the West, over there on the horizon where the suns are setting one by one, today projects your shadows, great human truths, perhaps unique moral truths, which are worth more than all the Earth."

That same year, 1927, Chaplin made the Circus. In this film featuring clowns, an equestrienne, wild beasts, a conjuror and an acrobat, he revealed his debt to the traditions of the sawdust ring and paid tribute to the set pieces, classic acts and conventions of the circus. A tramp on the run from the police, Charlie takes refuge in the big top, disrupts the show, unwittingly puts on a star performance in the ring, and enters the magic circle of the circus.

the Circus puts the Chaplin problem in a nutshell. The hero tries to escape his fate and is trapped inside the show that makes his name. Then when he wants to escape from the show, which is alienating him, he has to knuckle under. This skilful dialectic of rejection and attraction encapsulates the Chaplin tramp character. Although seemingly the most ordinary of men, he is actually an outsider. He is a rejected outcast, a wanderer desperate for affection, a tramp destined to beg forever.

The public were loyal to Chaplin partly because they recognized him for what he was and identified with him and partly because they felt the revulsion we feel for a side of ourselves that we cannot accept. The surrealists who held out a friendly hand to Chaplin the victim later strongly condemned his sentimentalism". Luis Bunuel reproached him for allowing himself to be crippled by the intellectuals of the whole world" and for "trying to make us weep with hoary sentimental commonplaces".

Such passions, contradictions and inconsistencies reveal the strength of the feelings which Chaplin has aroused.

The 'little fellow' Charles Chaplin first visited the United States in 1911 with Fred Karno's music-hall troupe. He returned the following year and stayed on to appear in vaudeville routines whose growing success owed much to the traditions of English music hall. He soon established a reputation with a number of classic sketches which he later adapted for the cinema. Two of them, A Night in a London Club and An Evening in an English Music Hall, were built around the character of a fractious drunk and could be constantly varied depending on the reactions of the audience.

When he started out in films in 1914 Chaplin played bit parts. The screen character for which he is remembered did not yet exist. …

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