“To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it.” Charlie Chaplin
We don’t think of Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin being tragic or even a bit depressed. How could anyone responsible for such classics as The Kid,City Lightsand Modern Times be depressed? By 1917, his popularity was so great, nine out of ten men attending costume parties came as The Little Tramp (and a lot of tramps got into costume parties).
That’s not to say Chaplin didn’t have his ups and downs. As a child, he lived a Dickensian upbringing, being forced into The Lambeth Workhouse at the age of seven. His father was an alcoholic, his mother a failed music hall entertainer (actually, they were both failed music hall entertainers). His father died of alcoholism at 37 and his mother died in an insane asylum.
Like Dickens, Charlie escaped poverty through his imagination. Both developed what would later be regarded as “comically repulsive characters,” or “characters who became good through conscience or circumstance.”
Somehow Chaplin’s main character, The Little Tramp, became loveable in a sometimes tragic way, much like Chaplin himself. Through his life, he married three underage girls, all claiming pregnancy. His fate could have been the same as Fatty Arbuckle’s, but Chaplin survived divorce scandals and possible statutory rape charges, while making some of his greatest films.
J. Edgar Hoover hated Chaplin, calling him “dangerously progressive and amoral.”
He fought the end of the silent film era, started United Artists with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith, and even faced 23 years in jail under The Un-American Activities Act. J. Edgar Hoover hated Chaplin, calling him “dangerously progressive and amoral.”
Chaplin eventually left the United States, being fed up with America’s insults and pomposity, and possibly J. Edgar Hoover. He wouldn’t return until ’72 when The Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences gave him an Honorary Award. At the Academy gala, he received a 12-minute standing ovation.
It seems tragedies followed Chaplin around like one of his little dogs. Whether it was former wives, or Hoover, or the American public’s fascination with “crash and burn” stories, Chaplin had to face them all. Surprisingly, he did, making films right up until the 70s (some rehashed like The Circus).
It’s also interesting that Chaplin never used a composed script until he had spoken dialogue in The Great Dictator. His earlier silent films began with only a vague premise, almost as if he needed to place himself in a painful situation before finding what made it funny.
Bully waiters, for instance, had always upset and frightened Chaplin, yet they became some of his best skits, especially in The Gold Rush.
Very often, when he was stuck, he would leave his crew, going up on a hillside somewhere, and deciding what he’d do next. He never actually talked about his process, saying it was like a “magician revealing his tricks.”
When asked about tragedy in his life, Chaplin answered that you had to turn it around. In fact, going through his work, you get the impression Chaplin wanted to undo the heartbreaking circumstances of his own past. Bully waiters, for instance, had always upset and frightened Chaplin, yet they became some of his best skits, especially in The Gold Rush.
His bitter divorce from Lita Grey resulted in so much scandal, he paid her $800,000 to stop accusing him of infidelity, abuse and “perverted sexual desires.” It was headline news, and audiences suddenly wanted Chaplin’s films banned. Despite being on the verge of a nervous breakdown, he created The Circus, where The Little Tramp is besieged by monkeys on a high wire act. Perhaps the monkeys were his wives or the viewing public, but The Little Tramp became an accidental circus success, as did the film itself.
When Chaplin was accused of un-American activities in the 50s, it was like being told he’d supported bully waiters.
Through all his hardships, somehow Chaplin was able to turn pathos into something good. Chaplin obviously wanted goodness. His films, particularly during the Second World War and Cold War, often drifted into acrimonious speeches. The Hitlers and the Khrushchevs were no different than the bully waiters he detested. When Chaplin was accused of un-American activities in the 50s, it was like being told he’d supported bully waiters.
If there’s a lesson for the rest of us, it’s don’t go into movies. Another could be, don’t let tragedy be, well, tragic. I doubt Chaplin saw a silver lining in everything. Nor do I think he was a supreme optimist. He simply saw possibilities in everything from a little blind girl to a homeless dog. For him, they were made for humorous slapstick.
Every day, we see or hear people complaining. Whether it’s the #MeToo Movement, or school boards or labor unions. The internet has provided a forum, magnifying what’s become endemic in our society. People complain, feeling their circumstances should be solved by somebody else. They want justice, action and, most of all, entitlement. It’s the American way.
If only people could see the irony. Their lives, for better or worse, aren’t written in some sort of movie script. They can’t go to a premier of their lives and vote on a better ending. Even voting today is based on who blames the best. Trump blames immigrants, unfair tariffs and Democrats. He isn’t even a Republican, but blaming Democrats makes him one.
We hire a guy like Trump because we can’t do it ourselves. Everything’s too overwhelming. We elect great finger-pointers instead.
We don’t solve problems anymore, we seek out the offenders. We hire a guy like Trump because we can’t do it ourselves. Everything’s too overwhelming. We elect great finger-pointers instead.
Yet Chaplin found the overwhelming something he could turn into slapstick. It wasn’t a gift as much as a realization. We live in an amusing universe.
Stephen Hawking, famed theoretical physicist, once said: “Life would be tragic if it wasn’t so funny.” He even found distant galaxies funny. Star Wars may have been the greatest comedy of all time. Who didn’t want their doors opening to the sound of someone spraying Lysol?
Chaplin would have had a field day on The Starship Enterprise. Together with a bunch of monkeys, some bread rolls, and a little blind girl, he could have gone just about anywhere. That’s the beauty of the comic. They transform what could be a crisis into something amusing, punctuated by pratfalls.
Turn the sound down during a Trump speech and the man’s hysterically funny. Add a bunch of monkeys and he could get another term in office.
That may be why Chaplin was so successful. Whether audiences realized it or not, his movies were just as real as the dramas, the documentaries and the words of the president. Turn the sound down during a Trump speech and the man’s hysterically funny. Add a bunch of monkeys and he could get another term in office. People love slapstick. Trump knows that better than anybody.
It’s the secret of his success, and we should be mindful. He earned the presidency, not with words, but with the lack of any meaningful ones, which is the highest form of comedy. We remain transfixed because it’s so damn real.
We need to follow his example, and realize most tragedies need to be laughed at. Chaplin rectified past hurts and created closure on the big screen. It’s very therapeutic. Humour is therapeutic. As much as we want to take life seriously, we’re better off laughing. Chaplin understood that.
It’s about time we did the same thing. Seriousness isn’t getting us anywhere. That’s why I’m voting in the next election for the best comedian. Let’s hope it isn’t Trump. Let’s hope he runs out of material.
If he doesn’t, that’ll be a tragedy. God knows, we need a laugh instead.
Robert Cormack is a novelist, journalist and blogger. His first novel “You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can’t Make It Scuba Dive)” is available online and at most major bookstores (now in paperback). Check out Yucca Publishing or Skyhorse Press for more details.