City Lights (1931) begins with a scene of splendour as the gathered dignitaries and the jubilant crowd attend the unveiling of a new monument, a group of statues personifying valour, industry and justice. As the nattering speeches finish and the veil is finally drawn a slumbering figure is revealed: Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, using the civic statuary as a hammock of sorts. His awkward attempt to extricate himself produce a series of rude gestures at the attendant powers-that-be and do-gooders, who are forced to pause in their fury at him when the national anthem is played. The scene could stand as emblematic of Chaplin’s use of comedy to attack the po-faced guardians of morality.
Chaplin’s irreverence is at once seemingly innocent and cunningly pitch perfect. It is, for want of a better word, subversive. The moment the Tramp made his debut, it was obvious that he was a complex oppositional figure. Poverty-stricken but also mock genteel, a misfit indigent with ideas above his station, both parodic and strangely pure. The Derby bowler, the cane, even the fastidious neatness of his famous moustache bespeak a wish for refinement in sharp absurd contrast with the embarrassed state of his circumstances. The slapstick would always be matched by ballet-like grace, oafish bullies would be defeated with wit, agility and a discreet subtlety of movement. His enemies would be lazy foremen, immigration officials, bullies, policemen, waiters and figures of authority generally. As Chaplin’s independence increased and his art matured, his urge to stand up for the downtrodden became evermore pronounced. J. Edgar Hoover kept a thick file on the suspected communist sympathiser and there was a concerted effort to make life difficult for the little man and which would finally see the pre-emptive refusing of a visa to return to the states.
The Tramp has never been more of a tramp than in City Lights. He wanders the streets aimlessly, badgered by newsboys on the corner, eyed suspiciously by the police and getting his entertainment from glancing surreptitiously at the nude bronze in the shop window. He falls in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherill) and becomes friends with a suicidal and drunk millionaire (Harry Myers) who once sobers fails to recognise his best buddy of the night before. When the possibility of a miracle eye operation is posited, the Tramp decides to earn money through a series of schemes, the funniest of which is to compete for the purse in a prize fight against the dopey-faced Hank Mann.
There ‘s sentiment here, but there is also real poverty and an ending which is heartbreaking in its ambiguity. From a filmmaking point there is also the awareness that by now the talkies had arrived and though Chaplin remained opposed to them – “like painting a statue” was his conclusion – he began to bow to the inevitable and several sound effects were incorporated into the comedy: the speeches of the politician are render as incomprehensible jabber, there’s a swallowed whistle and increasing attention is paid to the score Chaplin wrote with his collaborators. Albert Einstein and his wife attended the premier as Chaplin’s guests. The scientist had been so impressed by Chaplin’s political acumen he told him he should have been an economist. While touring City Lights in Europe, the idea for his first talkie came, following a meeting with Mahatma Gandhi, (Gandhi, Einstein, such are the names of Chaplin’s acquaintance). The script was written that would see the Tramp finally talk and sound effects would become even more integral, but in the end Chaplin decided against the innovation and the result is one of his most accomplished films.
Modern Times (1936) sees the Tramp now a working Joe, a slave to the factory whistle whose meanderings are curtailed by the machinery he must attend to. The obvious literal criticisms of industrialisation see the workers subservient to the machines, fed nuts and bolts, swallowed by the machinery and who themselves becomes idiotically robotic from the brainless repetitive tasks they must complete to the clock. To protest that Chaplin himself is no radical, the Tramp picks up a red flag that has fallen off the back of a lorry and finds himself accidentally leading a march of striking protesters. Once more it’s a girl who gives Tramp purpose in life, but the Gamin (Paulette Goddard) is no damsel in distress.
Rather she is a spunky mischievous type more similar to Jackie Coogan’s Kid, who’s willing to break the law if it’ll put food on the table and does her best to help the Tramp as well as be helped by him. Their walk off into the sunset is both the iconic hopefulness and a nostalgic wish to escape back to the relatively carefree life of the pre-industrial tramp. In 1940, The Great Dictator saw Chaplin finally succumb to the talkie, but in doing so he also seemed to let loose with his most overtly political film to date. An attack on Hitler specifically – the now unavoidable sharer of the most famous moustache in the world award – and fascism more generally, it’s staggering to believe that at the time the film was considered controversial and a big risk for his career. Chaplin plays a Jewish barber, with a well aimed spit in the eye to all the Nazi propaganda that claimed (erroneously) that Chaplin was Jewish. His wonderful reply was: “I never had the honour to belong to that noble race.” Recognising the historic doubling, he also plays Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of Tomania, and it is here that he produces some of his best comedy. The dance with the globe is justly famous, but the nonsense speech is terrifying in its accuracy. Chaplin had watched Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), laughing all the way through. He knew that the comedy was already there. The absurdity only needed to be teased to the surface.
There are some great exchanges with Jack Oakie as Mussolini stand in, Benzino Napaloni. There’s the Shakespearean Comedy of Errors and mixed identity but Chaplin uses his similarity to broadcast a passionate anti-Fascist speech. The Tramp’s elocution-shaped plummy tones are disconcerting at first and the stepping onto the soapbox so obviously is and was a risky gamble – many in Chaplin’s camp advised against it. But the historical moment was too big and Chaplin if he was going to be forced to speak was going to speak his mind and the obvious humanity of his sentiments ring true today. History rewards his vision. Chaplin once said: “I remain just one thing, and one thing only – and that is a clown. It places me on a far higher plane than any politician.” At first it seems that Chaplin wants to disentangle himself from politics, but actually he is claiming the clown to have a higher political validity and these films are proof that this clown had more to teach us then those clowns who call themselves politicians.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty