Charles Chaplin died in Switzerland in the early hours of Christmas Day, 1977. Just over two months later, the coffin containing his corpse was stolen from a cemetery in Vevey. The goal of the body snatchers, it turned out, was to make money rather than provide a metaphor for Chaplin’s art and life, but they were more successful in the second project than they were in the first. At the end of Modern Times (1936), Chaplin as the tramp, accompanied by Paulette Goddard as one of the cinema’s most engaging and implausible waifs, walks away from the camera down a road which has since been endlessly reproduced in films.
Disappearance was his mode, the body no longer where you thought it was, whether he was escaping from a cop or a bully in his early silent comedies, or hiding from Martha Raye in a greenhouse in Monsieur Verdoux (1947). “The image of his empty gravesite,” Kenneth S. Lynn says at the beginning of his new biography, “came to symbolize his historic elusiveness, as a person no less than as a performer, and the difficulties he presents to the biographer of pinning him down.” Joyce Milton, in her biography, Tramp, comments rather more loosely, “In a way it seemed fitting that even Chaplin’s passing…was marked by mayhem, mystery, and controversy.” Writing in this paper in 1964, F.W. Dupee movingly connected the idea of disappearance with an earlier moment in Chaplin’s life, and with Chaplin as the eluded rather than the eluder.
His childhood was the scene, not of poverty and neglect alone, but of a more inclusive kind of distress. People and places were constantly disappearing. Some of them turned up again and again. But would they turn up the next time? Life was a perpetual vanishing act. Or wasn’t it?
The problem for Chaplin’s biographers, and indeed one of Chaplin’s own problems, was that he outlived his great films by quite a while, but couldn’t stay out of the political and legal limelight. He was born in London in 1889. His father, a music hall singer, was not at home at the time, and not much at home at any time. He seems to have left Hannah Chaplin, the boy’s mother, before the child was two, and saw his son only rarely thereafter. He died in 1901. Meanwhile Hannah Chaplin, possibly aided by a series of men friends, had been looking after Charles and his older brother, Sydney, but she was becoming increasingly unstable, and one day in 1903, after talking to a lot of dead and imaginary people, she declared that the floor of an infirmary room was the River Jordan and she could not cross it. She was certified insane, and after that spent much of her life in institutions for the mentally ill. “Vaguely I felt,” Chaplin wrote, “that she had deliberately escaped from her mind and deserted us.” A double disappearance: from her mind and from them. Chaplin and his brother had survived the workhouse and a couple of poor-law schools, and were now starting careers on the stage.
Lynn is anxious to show that Chaplin, in his autobiography, exaggerated the hardship of his childhood, and calls on Charles Booth’s monumental Life and Labour of the People in London (1889-1903) and the social geography of the city to show that the mother and two boys were not destitute. They lived in “working class comfort” rather than absolute poverty, they were among the “genteel poor” rather than the disreputable, half-criminal working class. I know these distinctions are important, since I grew up surrounded by people who thought of little else, but the biographer who insists on them seems to miss the horror of the workhouse, as well as the wider distress Dupee evokes. “In the fall of 1994,” Lynn writes, “I paid a visit to the Chaplins’ address in Methley Street and found workmen engaged in refurbishing its apartments. Although the rooms are small, they are certainly pleasant.” I’m not sure this visit is conclusive. You can worry about where the next meal is coming from in the most pleasant of rooms, and you can be very poor some of the time even if you have a windfall now and again.
But Lynn is not simply picking on Chaplin. He wants, throughout his book, to replace social explanations with psychological ones, and the poverty story gets in the way of his (undeniable) thesis about the centrality of the mother’s schizophrenia. “While the degraded social conditions of the outcast poor of South London were only observed by him and not directly experienced, the psychological pressures he was placed under were appalling.” I rather think the social and psychological conditions must have compounded each other and don’t call for this confrontational logic.
The young Chaplin got various music hall and theater jobs, and finally joined a group of comedians directed by the legendary Fred Karno. He toured England, France, and the United States with this team, until one day he received a telegram from an emissary of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Film Company. It said:
IS THERE A MAN NAMED CHAFFIN IN YOUR COMPANY OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT STOP IF SO WILL HE COMMUNICATE WITH KESSEL AND BAUMANN 24 LONGACRE BUILDING BROADWAY.
Chaplin’s film career was launched. He began to direct as well as star in films for Sennett, moved to Essanay, then Mutual, then First National Films, before founding United Artists, with D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks. All of his films from A Woman of Paris (1923) through Limelight (1952) were distributed by this company. By 1915 he was world famous, and by 1916 he was earning more money than the President of the United States.
His happiest period, Chaplin said, was his time at Mutual, when he made, among other films, Easy Street (1917) and The Immigrant (1917). He had affairs with many women; married and quickly divorced two young girls; may have been married to Paulette Goddard but probably wasn’t; survived a paternity suit and indictment for violations of the Mann Act (transporting a minor across a state line for immoral purposes); and finally, in 1943, married Oona O’Neill, with whom he lived happily, or as happily as most of us live, until he died. In 1952, the Attorney General revoked Chaplin’s reentry permit as he sailed for Europe, meaning that he would have to answer questions about his morals and politics in order to return to the US. Chaplin chose to stay away, and didn’t come back to the country until 1972, when he received an Oscar “for the incalculable effect” he had had “in making motion pictures the art form of this century.”
Striking a balance in biographical matters is always hard, but in Chaplin’s case it may be impossible. A young publicity agent says of Chaplin, late in his life, “He’s extraordinary. Really wonderful.” Lynn comments, “It was not part of her job, of course, to say anything about how unwonderful he could be.” Surely not, but is it part of the biographer’s job to say it, and keep saying it? Perhaps it is, if there is a consensus of wonder. Both Lynn and Milton acknowledge, as everyone must, David Robinson’s admirable and admiring biography of 1985. Read against Robinson’s work, Lynn’s book feels like a stern corrective. Read on its own, it turns into the case for the prosecution.
Of course, we might think that a biographer who wanted to pin Chaplin down, as Lynn says he does, had missed something important about his subject—elusiveness could be the major feature of a life, as well as an obstacle to the understanding of it, and in the second part of his book Lynn’s patience runs out, and he starts listening to every story he can find against Chaplin, as if, for instance, angry children and disgruntled employees were ideal witnesses. But before this bias sets in—I assume he got tired, as well he might, of Chaplin’s repeated abuse and deception of young women—Lynn’s gaze is fair and steady, and he manages to recreate the presence of an elusive person without denying the recurring magic of his disappearances. Lynn is particularly adept at bringing to life the extras and companions in Chaplin’s story—Karno, Sennett, Griffith, Fairbanks—and the worlds of entertainment they came from, the English music hall circuit, early knockabout film comedy, Hollywood before the invention of sound. There is a very good history of the movies to be found within this version of Chaplin’s story.
Milton’s book is less harsh, but also less cogent; entirely reasonable, but a little dutiful, as if she thought a life, even Chaplin’s, was just a life that could be told without an angle or a question. “All in all it was a happy period in Chaplin’s life,” she says of his early days in the movies. “Still, he remained a man of quicksilver moods.” “The paradox that good art can come from people who live disorderly personal lives was never more true than in Chaplin’s case.” These remarks are the reverse of explorations. Milton’s conclusion offers a rather dismal view of the movies.
Looking back on Chaplin’s work, one is struck by what a fragile mix comedy and the film medium have turned out to be. Comedy may be a craft, even a business, but laughter depends on surprise and the illusion of spontaneous connection between performer and audience. Movies make everything and everyone familiar.
This is really odd, when you think of all the comedians who have found themselves in film, from W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers to Mel Brooks and Woody Allen and Billy Crystal. In any case Chaplin’s comedy never depended principally on surprise and spontaneity. It depended on contradiction and incongruity and speed, and it was always seen to be meticulously planned. Even the “unexpected,” which Chaplin himself thought an essential element of comedy, was for him less a matter of surprise than of upskittled decorum or logic.
Two small instances come to mind from Monsieur Verdoux, surely some kind of masterpiece in spite of its talky patches and its occasional attempts to turn a serial killer into a nice family man—as if loving one’s family, complete with crippled wife and overfed son, was a justification, even in a comedy, for bumping off a run of rich widows. Chaplin momentarily forgot what he otherwise knew so well. You don’t need a justification for anything that’s funny, and anything, even murder, can be funny.
Verdoux counts some of his ill-gotten gains, in the form of a thick pile of banknotes. He does this more than once, and he also looks through a telephone directory in the same manner. He riffles the notes and the pages at tremendous speed, like a gambler shuffling his cards in a cartoon, a vaguely abstracted look on his face, as if this extraordinary manual dexterity had nothing to do with him. I’m not sure why this image is funny, but I laugh every time I see it. What’s certain is that Chaplin thought of it as a bit of “business”; that it recalls Verdoux’s former career as a bank clerk, but transforms it into an act, a dissociated skill; the murderer is a man who does tricks.
The other instance anticipates Humbert Humbert’s scheme for murdering Charlotte Haze in Lolita. Verdoux takes one of his wives out in a boat on a lake, and is ready to strangle her with a noose, when he realizes they are being watched from the shore. He realizes this because the watcher is yodeling. And is quickly joined by other yodelers, a whole chorus. This is funny, I think, because it does something Chaplin so often does, particularly in The Great Dictator (1940). It introduces the ridiculous into a territory we thought was safe from it; and it reminds us that the ridiculous is weirdly neutral, evenhanded, in relation to danger and power. You could be killed by a clown, or saved by a yodeler.
Chaplin was a great admirer of the Russian Revolution, and said some worse than stupid things about Soviet achievements. In more than one speech in 1942 he remarked that the American people were beginning “to understand the Russian purges, and what a wonderful thing they were. Yes, in those purges the Communists did away with their Quislings and Lavals and if other nations had done the same there would not be the original Quislings and Lavals today.” Lynn, rather mildly, calls this “breathtaking naiveté,” and makes allowance for the context, since Russia had now joined the war against Hitler. Milton is fiercer on this issue. “The Stalinist purges had often been denied or rationalized, but rarely had they received such a ringing endorsement.”
Clearly Chaplin’s remark is indefensible, and involves the dogged blocking-out of common knowledge about the purges. But Chaplin’s politics generally were rather erratic, so that Lynn can speak both of a “lack of ideological discipline in his socio-economic ideas” and of a “tyrant who spouted the peace messages of the Communist line.” In 1952, a former Communist, Paul Crouch, told the Immigration and Naturalization Service that Chaplin had not been a member of any local Communist Party, but “remained a member at large directly responsible to the Central Committee.” “Can Crouch be believed?” Lynn asks. “His testimony, although detailed, was hearsay.” “Preliminary searches conducted at my behest in archives in Moscow came up dry,” Lynn adds.
In his films, especially in The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin’s politics scarcely seem like politics at all; more like a wishful, sometimes fuzzy, sometimes sharply focused appeal to an old-fashioned ethic of kindness, or whatever is the reverse of ruthlessness. “We want to live by each other’s happiness,” the Jewish barber says at the end of the first of those two films, “and not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone….” Monsieur Verdoux, in his speech at his trial, says he was “forced to go into business for myself,” and insists that in comparison with the contemporary “world,” which is “building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing,” he is only “an amateur.”
This is not subtle, and the reference to the atom bomb is purely topical, but the satirical equation between business and murder had been made in dozens of Hollywood movies, and continues to be made. A character or a metaphor or a piece of plot suggests that crime does pay, or that business is only legalized crime, or crime is only illegal business. You don’t have to be a Communist to think such thoughts, and you don’t have to take the idea literally. It’s a figure of speech, a provocation to argument. Milton calls it “a Marxist twist, suggesting that murder for profit is just another form of capitalism”; but John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, performed some hundred years before Marx was born, makes just this suggestion.
A young woman Monsieur Verdoux plans to poison and then decides not to—because her situation resembles his, because she says she herself would be willing to kill for love—later flourishes and marries a munitions manufacturer. “That’s the business I should have been in,” Verdoux says ruefully. “They’ll be paying big dividends quite soon.” “In business,” the girl says of her husband, “he’s quite ruthless.” Verdoux says, “Business is a ruthless business, my dear.”
It is in this context that Lynn’s reading of Chaplin seems most tilted, as if the cold war were just starting up again, full of new energy. Lynn writes of “the sneering anti-Americanism of Monsieur Verdoux“; thinks that only the presence of “an anti-American intelligentsia” could account for the film’s success in Paris; sees The Great Dictator as marred by a “glaring failure” to poke fun at Stalin as well as Hitler. Some very large assumptions and prescriptions are in the air here. It’s anti-American to say business is ruthless, or that weapons are lethal, or a business. Attacks on capitalism are attacks on America. When you’re attacking anything, don’t forget to attack communism as well.
“Shabby gentility” was Chaplin’s own term for the style of his famous screen character, but he also had an interesting theory of comedy. Milton quotes him as saying, “An idea going in one direction meets another idea suddenly…. You shriek. It works every time. I walk on the stage, serious, dignified, solemn, pause before an easy chair, spread my coat-tails with an elegant gesture—and sit on the cat. Nothing funny about it, really, especially if you consider the feelings of the cat. But you laugh.” We might think of the unfortunate cat as representing everything that contradicts a person’s pretensions. A tramp going up, we might say, meets a gent going down. The gentility is failed gentility, but the shabbiness fails too, becomes a scruffy form of elegance.
All the well-known, highly imitable gestures—think of Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard finding her one moment of resurrected brilliance and lightness of heart in her re-creation of Chaplin for an admiring William Holden—add up to a riddle you can read almost any way you want, because the material is headed in such crisscrossing directions. You see the shuffle, the twirling cane, the tipped hat, the endlessly buffed and contemplated fingernails, the desperately insincere simper and smirk, and you think: Is this man a rogue or a softie, a sneak or a victim, how far would you trust him, could you fail to fall in love with him? Do you want him to be an underdog, as he is almost everywhere? Become a policeman, as he does in the wonderful Easy Street, and clean up the neighborhood? Get the girl, as he does in The Immigrant and Modern Times? Fail to get the girl, as he does in The Circus (1928) and City Lights (1931)? Get the girl and get rich, as he does in The Gold Rush (1925)? The Chaplin character can do all these things and much more, and do them all in character.
But the comedy, as Chaplin’s phrasing suggests, is a comedy of ideas even more than of character. His very screen personality is an idea, or clash of ideas. “I wanted everything a contradiction,” he said of his initial invention of the tramp costume for a Mack Sennett film. “The pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look young or old, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small moustache….” So much of what is funny in Chaplin’s films depends on comic concepts, gags or bits of business that have to be thought up as gags or business before they can be played out. “An extreme case of refined artifice,” as Dupee said. Of course, the execution is important, and Chaplin’s timing alone, his perfectionism, his amazing conversions of clumsiness into grace and grace into embarrassment, set him apart from most (but not all) other comics. Watch him in The Immigrant, resisting a burly waiter’s suggestion that he should not be wearing his hat in a restaurant. The waiter is the mountainous Eric Campbell, with glaring gaze and a form of makeup which makes his immense eyebrows seem to point upward and outward like those of the Demon King in pantomime, or a court official from The Mikado.
Campbell is also the man who terrorizes the town in Easy Street, arms flailing in fast motion, knocking over policemen and fellow thugs with indiscriminate dispatch. He is very large, and the little fellow is unquestionably in no position to argue with him. At first Chaplin pretends not to understand about the hat, perhaps really doesn’t understand. Then Campbell takes the hat off Chaplin’s head and slaps it on the table. Chaplin puts the hat back on, Campbell takes it off again. This game is repeated several times, until Chaplin judges that Campbell is really beyond the baiting stage and will probably now hit him. But he doesn’t just leave the hat off. He picks it up, suspends it above his head as if to wear it, then flings it in the air and drops it on the table again. Then he picks it up yet again, seems to be about to put it on, but rolls it gracefully along his shoulder and round the back of his head as a way of hanging it on a hook on the wall. The timing of both actors is marvelous, as it converts all the threats and the jumps of vaudeville into a weird dance of bullying and teasing. But even here the sequence has to have been worked out with extreme precision, virtually choreographed, and the element of contradictory, conceptual comedy—what forms of resistance are left to the powerless?—is very strong.
One of the features of this kind of comedy is that it doesn’t always sound funny in description, but it always sounds intricate, carefully plotted. The whole restaurant sequence in The Immigrant is like this, and it is one of Chaplin’s great moments. The immigrant/tramp finds a coin on the street, and decides it will buy him a meal. Before he enters the restaurant, though, the coin falls through a hole in his pocket back onto the street: even the costume is part of this gag. Things don’t look promising when another diner is unceremoniously roughed up and dumped on the street because he was ten cents short of what he owed. Another tramp now comes in, flourishing what looks like the coin Chaplin found and lost—has he just picked it up outside? The newcomer pays the burly waiter with it, and the coin drops through the waiter’s pocket as it earlier had through Chaplin’s. After some brilliantly timed business—the waiter turns around each time Chaplin is about to pick the coin up—Chaplin retrieves the coin, and pays with it.
Are his troubles over? No, because the waiter bites the coin and finds it false; it visibly bends in his teeth like a piece of putty. Playing for time, Chaplin orders another cup of coffee. At this point, an artist comes over, gets into conversation, and wants to take care of the check. End of scene? No, because Chaplin, in a perfect fit of shabby gentility, courteously but recklessly declines, indicating that he will pay for himself, assuming of course that the artist will insist. The artist does insist, several times, but Chaplin says no once too often, and is stuck with the check again. Finally the artist pays his own tab but Chaplin is able to steal the change while no one is looking and pays the suspicious but mollified waiter with that.
These are old vaudeville routines, or variants on old vaudeville routines, but that is part of their charm. Their continuing success shows how wonderful the old routines were. But there is no real suspense here, no serious embarrassment or worry, no fear of violence, although violence is fulsomely shown. What is there? There is a predicament, a favorite word in early film comedy, and indeed in melodrama. A predicament is a fix, an image of what trouble looks like when it’s over, or when it’s someone else’s; when it’s a story you can tell or show. What makes the sequence from The Immigrant so hilarious is that it offers predicament on predicament, and we respond, not to the unlucky eater’s plight, but to the comic invention which keeps compounding it, finding more and more plights for him, and to the style with which he survives each one. An idea going in the direction of defeat meets another idea—going in the direction of a peculiar victory. And more subtly, an idea going in the direction of knowledge—we know what this scene is about and how it will end—meets several ideas going in the direction of doubt—who would have thought of that twist, and maybe the scene will never end.
Chaplin’s comedy often sags into cozy sentimentality, as in the nauseous Limelight, and at several moments in most of the earlier movies. But some of the ideas that used to give pause even to Chaplin’s fans now seem nothing short of inspired. The fact that Chaplin retains the mannerisms of the tramp, even when he has given up the tramp costume and begun to talk in the movies, means that a high degree of stylization remains in unlikely and even shocking narrative contexts, like a mime surviving in a world of speech, although the mime himself speaks. Monsieur Verdoux is simultaneously a serial killer in a black comedy and a figure from vaudeville up to his old acts. There is a splendid moment when Verdoux is on the run not from the police but from the wife he has twice failed to kill, the one in the boat, whom he meets again just as he is about to get hitched to yet another rich victim. Verdoux starts scooting around and hiding, like his old self in a fast silent comedy, runs into his new bride-to-be as she comes down the stairs, executes a startling balletic twirl, says, “See you later, dear,” and is next seen climbing over the garden wall. It’s not just that Chaplin has made a film about Landru, the French Bluebeard, or even that the tramp has become Landru, the little fellow as literal ladykiller, it’s that Landru has become the tramp, and whatever feelings we have for the tramp are transferred to this monster.
Chaplin’s eeriest effect in this line occurs at the end of The Great Dictator. We have seen Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel, haranguing a huge crowd in rabid mock-German, managing to be both very funny and genuinely scary at the same time. At the end of the movie Chaplin as the tramp, alias the Jewish barber, is mistaken for Hynkel, and finds himself making a speech to a huge crowd. Chaplin is diffident at first, speaks tentatively, his face quite unlike the face he wears as Hynkel. But as he warms to his theme, the need to fight for democracy, and to resist greed and hatred and intolerance, he begins to shout and to contort his features exactly as Hynkel did. If we didn’t have the sound and the words, we might think this was Hynkel, that there was no difference between a thuggish dictator and a victimized barber. Ranting is ranting, we might suppose, whoever does it. Anger is anger, whatever its grounds. It’s hard to imagine that Chaplin, the master of mime and silence, didn’t notice this effect, didn’t intend it. But it’s also hard to imagine why he would want it. Unless of course the effect was calculated from the very beginning, in Chaplin’s casting of himself in both parts. An idea going in one direction meets another idea, and Chaplin plays both ideas, the meeting ground is his face.
The suggestion then, in The Great Dictator and in Monsieur Verdoux, is not that tramps are monsters, but that tramps and monsters share physical features and a habitable world. And that both the tramp and the monster may be roles, inflected by history and context, rather than eternally fixed destinies. “Virtues are less acquired than vices,” as Chaplin rather sententiously put it. “Good is in everything—even in evil.” This is precisely the opposite of the Manicheism which informed the cold war, and may be part of the reason for Chaplin’s political hard times. He didn’t believe in perfect evil, and couldn’t explain that taking sides is sometimes a virtue and sometimes not. His declared intentions in film often run to simple sermons, but his performances as an actor release quite different energies. Max Eastman, quoted by Joyce Milton, writes of the “wholly unintegrated flights” of Chaplin’s mind, which is a way of saying “how deep down he was an actor.” Eastman’s implication is not only that Chaplin firmly believes in a role while he is playing it, but that he believes only in roles: “He could not be relied upon to be, or to continue to be, anything in particular.” I doubt whether this is true of Chaplin all the time, but it is certainly true of his screen acting and his screen persona.
When the little tramp comes into view in The Gold Rush, tottering along an icy ledge in the Klondike, he is carrying camping and mining gear but wearing his familiar Chaplin kit, city clothes and hat, and without an overcoat. He has wandered in not only from another movie, but from another realm of the imagination, a place where you and your clothes are a bundle of well-known signs; where you are not so much a person as a metaphor with a funny walk. At the end of the film, when the tramp and his friend have struck gold and become rich, our hero gets out of his Charlie clothes and wears two expensive overcoats, one on top of the other. Charlie has become Chaplin, a rich man. A photographer asks him to pose in his “mining clothes,” that is, the tramp outfit in which Chaplin made his fortune. Chaplin complies, becomes Charlie again, except that what used to be his costume is now a nostalgic disguise, an impersonation of a former self. This is a tramp who has struck gold, but the image invites us to remember that Chaplin struck gold by impersonating a tramp.
The gag is pretty dizzying, but Chaplin himself knew about dizziness. “How does one get ideas?” he asked in his autobiography. His answer provides Lynn with one of his chapter titles. “By sheer perseverance to the point of madness.” Chaplin’s perseverance turned out well, but of course it could have missed its mark. Chaplin’s movies, and indeed his life, remind us of all the tramps and others who don’t make it to Easy Street, who get to dress up only as themselves, and whose roles do become destinies, because the play they are in is endless and all there is.
July 17, 1997