I’ve often wondered why the films of Charlie Chaplin are able to have such a large effect on me. Like most of my generation, I’m very much a product of the times I’m living in: raised on a diet of Netflix, memes, and Donald Trump, the forces of modernity have left me cynical, confused, and with an attention span that will not tolerate a Facebook video more than 30 seconds long.
So why is it that the silent, sentimental, and unapologetically idealistic films of Chaplin are able to exert such a hold on my imagination?
Part of the explanation probably lies in the fact that Chaplin is an immensely talented filmmaker. He took the film medium in its early days, still struggling to establish itself as an art-form that could transcend slapstick and banality, and elevated it into something higher. In the guise of his beloved on-screen persona, ‘The Tramp’, Chaplin presented audiences with a lovable outsider, a shabbily dressed man who simply sought to maintain his unshakeable dignity in a hostile and confusing world.
This on-screen persona has a certain timelessness to it, and I think this is largely because the films have no spoken dialogue. With the coming of sound in the late 1920s, Chaplin was resolute in swimming against the tide, still refusing to make the transition to the ‘talkies’ even as late as 1936 when he released Modern Times. For Chaplin, silent films had an appeal that was universal, a beauty which transcended time and space, while talking films could only appeal to the fragment of the global population who could understand them. Watching his films today I am struck by how much truth there is to this idea; I feel a much greater affinity towards the silent worlds which Chaplin constructed for me than those of the early sound years. Often, it must be said, it is the spoken dialogue which dates a movie, and I believe it was Chaplin’s willful rejection of sound which explains why his films have aged so well.
[…] at times the Tramp appears tragically pathetic in his social ineptitude […] Yet Chaplin’s films always ultimately redeem him.
His films are also hilarious. If anyone tries to tell you that his humour is too slap-stick or ‘dated’ then don’t engage; simply nod politely and walk away. Just think of the scene in Gold Rush (1925), when the little tramp, desperate to keep his trousers up whilst dancing with his crush, finds what he thinks is an auspiciously placed length of rope. After tying the rope around his waist, it quickly transpires that the rope is attached to a dog, who, after lunging towards a nearby cat, launches the bemused Chaplin across the room.
Yet it is not just the fact that Chaplin is one of the most gifted physical performers in the history of American cinema (the only rivals may be Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers). For me, it is Chaplin’s unabashed sentimentality which keeps bringing me back to his films. There is a kind of warmth about his movies, a vein of idealistic humanism running through them which affirms ones faith in the essential goodness of ordinary people. Even though films such as The Gold Rush are populated with bullies, social-climbers and the downright mean-spirited, the happiness of these characters is portrayed as volatile and chimerical. Better to follow the example of the Tramp, whose unwavering kindness and acute sensitivity to the feelings of those around him means that, whilst they may reject him, he is revealed to have an inner depth to his character which compensates his conspicuous loneliness.
Chaplin’s sentimentality had a subtlety to it, never overstated largely because we rarely heard him speak. Yet its subtlety makes it no less memorable. Personally, I’ll never forget the nervous yet hopeful expression of the Tramp as he enters the dance hall in Gold Rush; the sheer physical exuberance he expresses in the same film when he secures a date for New Years Eve with his crush, Georgia; and the feelings of disappointment and dejection etched onto his face when she stands him up and goes to another party instead.
It is Chaplin’s celebration of the social outsider which makes his films so personally significant for me. The Tramp is someone who just wants to fit in, yet whose confidence is disfigured by both his shabby clothing and his small stature. His films attach a pathos to the social outsider as he struggles to make his way in the world; at times the Tramp appears tragically pathetic in his social ineptitude, hilariously out of place in a world which does all it can not to welcome him in. Yet Chaplin’s films always ultimately redeem him. What’s more, they do so in a way which serves to uplift anyone who, like the little tramp, has ever walked into a dance hall (or any social situation for that matter) riddled with anxieties and insecurities, yet determined to participate.
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This, for me, is the magic of his films, and why they are not only wonderful entertainment but an enduring source of comfort.
By Sam Collings-Wells