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.
Last time on Sight Unsound we explored the beginnings of Charlie Chaplin’s career. When we left him, Chaplin had just been on a 16 month journey around the world and begun an interesting transformation into Charles Chaplin, auteur. His films would start to take on a much more overtly political tone, beginning with Modern Times…
And for those who prefer a long-read, here’s the full text, which we originally published last year…
Referred to as The Matrix of its time, Modern Times was Chaplin’s way of looking into the mechanisms that kept labourers working for the profits of other men and a call to arms to the masses to break the chains that bound them to commerce. It became a Marxist glance behind the filter of 1930’s America.
The film takes references from Fritz Lang’s totalitarian epic Metropolis in the way men interact with the machinery of their workplace in long straight uniformed lines, and how Chaplin and his fellow prison inmates after his arrest move and react to whistles from a superior. In the most famous sequence from the film Chaplin becomes part of the machinery itself being absorbed into its wheels and cogs just as the workers in Metropolis are. No longer an individual he is merely a part of the production process.
This deliberate reference showed how Chaplin viewed the dystopian nature of modern production. However, the most striking reference to his left leaning ideology is when Chaplin finds himself at the front of a socialist march waving what is obviously a red flag, the colour bleeding through the back and white film stock.
Our hero doesn’t wish to join the march, but finds the flag dropped in the middle of the road from the back of a lorry. Being a helpful chap he chases the truck down waving the flag to try and get the drivers attention. Suddenly a large protest march arrives behind him with various banners and placards adorned with socialist slogans. As the police come to break up the march Chaplin dives into a drain to try and hide, but is ultimately found and arrested.
In this Chaplin is alerting us to his reluctance to carry the message of socialism. Having it almost thrust upon him and feeling that it is his duty to alert the world to the struggles of the masses as, after all, he is just a helpful kind of person rather than a world leader. In hiding in one of the more obvious places the chasing police might look, he knows that trying to conceal his political leanings will be useless and ultimately discovered by the US authorities who police cultural output, but feels that he must do so at the current time.
One of the greatest political works from Chaplin came soon after in The Great Dictator, where the Tramp is now recast as a Jewish barber who assumes the identity of Adenoid Hynkel, the despot of the local region whom he bears a striking resemblance to.
In the film Chaplin is most obviously lampooning Hitler who at the time of production was rampaging across Europe in an attempt to unify the continent under the Third Reich and it’s ideology of racial superiority. During the feature’s production, America was assuming a stance of appeasement towards Hitler and the film was a great risk that Chaplin took. He said of the film: “I was determined to go ahead, for Hitler must be laughed at.”
The narrative makes use of Chaplin’s skilled physical acting with him now using mime to depict the power hungry dictator in numerous situations that not only highlights the character he is playing, but the fears that Chaplin has for the developments in Europe.
During one scene Hynkel and another European dictator representing Mussolini are sat in barber chairs, each cranking their seat further towards the ceiling until Hynkel’s is as high as it can go leaving the other dictator sat on the floor with his chair broken. A simple representation of the hunger for superiority, but also a depiction of their counterparts in Europe, and ultimately who Chaplin believes will be victorious at the expense of the other.
The most visually haunting scene features Chaplin’s Hynkel dancing with the globe in his office, lovingly staring at the continents that he is yet to take, while balancing it across his shoulders, arms and buttocks as if playing with a toy. At the end of the scene, as he grasps the globe tightly in his hands gazing maniacally as he squeezes too hard and the world pops right before his eyes. A powerful visual metaphor not only for Hitler’s lust for global domination, but also a warning for the outcome Chaplin predicted for the world should he reach his goals.
The Great Dictator was also one of the first in which we heard Chaplin speak. Although for the most of the film the Jewish barber played by Chaplin is meek and mild as we would expect from The Tramp, in the end he truly finds his voice, morphing into Chaplin himself (now as Charles rather than his comedic counterpart) and delivers a rousing speech to the assembled crowd. Loaded with left wing dialect the speech is both anti-war, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist.
It is no mistake that Chaplin breaks the forth wall during the end of his delivery quoting Luke 17:21 from the bible pleading with the audience to take his message to heart inspiring those in the cinema not just to support the fight against Hitler, but seemingly to the worldwide struggle of the common man. Chaplin at first, as he did in Modern Times, seems reluctant to begin the speech saying: “I can’t” when called upon to take the podium.
However, the reply comes from a co-conspirator in the Hynkel, barber swap: “You must”. The perfect reluctant hero who has grown during his journey, but also a fascinating insight into the torn psyche of the actor/director. Even at his most radical it appears that Chaplin is conflicted about whether he should hide the true message of the piece, despite it being well signposted throughout the feature.
Although it’s true that Chaplin only truly grew from Charlie The Tramp to Charles Chaplin during one of the final features of his career, his Marxist ideals leaked through the piece of stock he put in the can. Born into poverty, all of his work looked back on his own personal history, which saw him spend time in the workhouses of Victorian Britain sometimes with the nostalgic filter of vaudeville, other times with a crushing realism of a British New Wave film. Either way Chaplin seems to be an anomaly in the Hollywood system of the time. Both capitalist and communist; both comedian and thinker; both Charlie and Charles.