Welcome to our weekly video series Sight Unsound, where filmmaker and writer Ted Wilkes offers his own alternative theories on film, television and pop culture.
This week: a look at Hollywood legend Charlie Chaplin. Whose career saw him grow from comedian to communist filmmaker, rivalling the mighty propagandists of the Soviet Union.
And for those who prefer a long-read, here’s the full text, which we originally published last year…
Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin, or Charlie to his friends, suffered from a very odd and rare form of multiple personality disorder.
At times he was The Tramp for whom the world was one long comedic sketch; objects morphed into hilarious props, simple tasks became vaudeville ordeals and exquisite sight gags were around every corner.
However, as his career progressed Charlie slowly grew into Charles the communist filmmaker, who would rival the titan propagandists of the Soviet Union.
Charlie first appeared as The Tramp in Kid Auto Races at Venice. Chaplin seems lost on the course moving from left to right in front of a camera that’s trying to film the races behind him. In the short Chaplin forces the viewer to notice him, shoehorning his way into what we’re meant to believe is a broadcast of the event.
This obviously gives us many opportunities to see near misses and the heavy-handed racing action, moving the man with the funny walk, bowler hat and cane out of the way with hilarious consequences. However it’s the first time that Chaplin is trying to position himself in the national conscience. Similar short films followed dictated by the market of the day and the technology on offer to filmmakers at the time.
Chaplin simply seemed to be following in the footsteps of other, already established comics such as Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. He was destined to be the slapstick star of the multiplex.
Although, in 1919 this changed when Chaplin formed his own distribution company United Artists, which gave him complete control of his films. Not only a shrewd business move, but one that gave credence to the idea that Chaplin is an auteur. The material he produces contains his own voice, thoughts and beliefs.
He was widely known to write, direct, produce, edit, star in and compose the music for his films. There was little in any production that he did not have a hand in.
One of the first productions from Chaplin’s new company was The Gold Rush, a feature that sent The Tramp to the Klondike Gold Rush. Critic Geoffrey Macnab has called it: “An epic comedy out of a grim subject matter.” We see our hero surrounded by crushing poverty, in one scene he is forced to eat his own shoe out of hunger.
Despite this, Chaplin seems to look at poverty though a nostalgic lens. We see The Tramp on a hero’s journey that will ultimately see the underdog striving against the odds and receiving his rewards for sticking it to the hardships he faces. Although highlighting issues of poverty, they are never really addressed in the film, with Chaplin still insisting that the narrative must serve the jokes rather than the other way around.
The “message” of the film, if one was even intended, is lost among the laughs.
Chaplin’s next film however begins to go deeper into his own political beliefs. City Lights has a scene where a well-dressed man and woman unveil a new statue in the middle of a town. Their speech is mimicked by a kazoo, showing the banal nature of the platitudes they’re heaping on the tribute to an unnamed dignitary.
Upon dropping the sheet to reveal what the crowd have been waiting for, we instead see Chaplin curled up asleep on the knees of the marble structure. The crowd is incensed with the homeless man spoiling their view.
As the underclass, The Tramp sullies their view of a perfect world and rather than being understood and assisted, he is chastised for existing. As Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek states Chaplin “distorts” the upper-classes’ world view and The Tramp accepts this and tries to escape, doffing his hat to them in deference. However, he is held in the situation, unable to make a clean escape, and is now trapped in their view forcing them to recognise him as an issue.
The reason for The Tramp’s continued poverty in City Lights is his need to help pay for an operation that will restore the sight of a young flower girl who is the romantic interest in the film.
At the end of City Lights we are left with a tantalising open-ended moment where the flower girl first casts her new found vision across The Tramp. He has been hiding from her since she regained her sight because he is distressed at what she might think of him should she actually see him as a poverty stricken man.
Chaplin resisted the use of sound in this film despite the technology being available to him to do so. In this we might see an anxiety that Chaplin had about voice in his work, both literally and metaphorically.
Would it be that people wouldn’t want to hear what he had to say and would judge him negatively for it? We wouldn’t have to wait long to discover. His next feature Modern Times was similarly absent of dialogue, but continued to build upon the political nature of his work.
In July 1932 after travelling for 16 months around the world Chaplin confessed, “I was confused and without plan, restless and conscious of an extreme loneliness.” During his travels he met several prominent thinkers of the time, especially in Europe where Marxism was much discussed and he became increasingly worried about world affairs.
Chaplin seemed to take a particular interest in the struggles of the common man in America and feared that increased machinery in the workplace would increase unemployment. Out of these concerns Modern Times was born, and Charlie started to morph into Charles.
More next week in Charlie Chaplin, from Comedian to Communist – Part Two.
For more in-depth and slightly wayward film analysis, check out our movie features section including this look at Russ Meyer’s best movie Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.