Chaplin or The Weight of Myth

A new translation of a wonderful re-evaluation of the filmmaking of Charlie Chaplin.
Ted Fendt

By Mireille Latil-Le-Dantec. Originally published in Cinématographe, no. 35, February 1978 in an issue with a Chaplin dossier.

Translation by Ted Fendt. Thanks to Marie-Pierre Duhamel.

The Chaplinesque Quest

The overbearing weight of interpretative studies devoted to Chaplin makes any pretension to some "fresh look" at a universe already studied from every angle seem absurd from the outset. At least, on the occasion of the homages currently being made in theaters to the little man who would become so big, a few fragmentary re-viewings more modestly allow for the rediscovery of the thematic unity of this body of work and the inanity of any artificial divide between the "excellent" Charlie films and the "mediocre" Chaplin films – a divide corresponding, of course, to the event which his art was not supposed to have survived: the appearance of those talkies that – in the excellent company of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, René Clair and many others – he reacted to as to a catastrophe, prostrating himself before society and critics to be beaten by his own sticks.

Society, in fact, did not tolerate its buffoon – becoming openly philosophical – telling them in serious terms what he had never even ceased to shove straight in their face jokingly. Long attached to the permanency of Charlie's clown-like image, as with song refrains whose entire charm lies in their repetition, sycophants of art barely concealed their reticence before a mutation that, in their eyes, could only give birth to a bastard – especially since, from the start, Chaplin overturned the norms of sound films, so quickly confiscated by literature and theater: "variety" of characters, psychological "weight" and narrative or dramatic "continuity." Charles Chaplin seemed powerless to assume (or deliberately ignored – that's the point) the new "rules of the game." A spiritual brother to Jean Renoir in this respect – both indifferent to the laws of film genres – Chaplin disconcerted people with his "happy dramas" the way Charlie had with his sad comedies. He shamelessly mixed several aesthetics at once, refusing to abandon the situationist pointillism of gags and the rigid contours of his myth in favor of events and characters that, it was believed, called for seriousness and in-depth psychological exploration. A casualness, then, equal to and in the opposite sense of Charlie's earlier breaking of – to some people's eyes – the austere rules of mime by soiling the abstract purity of gags with his "ignoble heart"1 and making the dry sobriety required of puppets sticky with sentimentality. Behavior not dissimilar to that of a primitive painter who alone foresaw perspective and, when others were discovering its possibilities, instinctively sensed its traps and, burning a bridge, found another way of painting flat.

Aesthetically speaking, then, Chaplin evolves from The Great Dictator to M. Verdoux with the uncertain and risky steps of Charlie on the tightrope in The Circus, balancing between Charlie the Type and Chaplin the Actor, between Chaplin the Actor and Charles Chaplin the public figure with a love life as famous as that of Lola Montes and also followed by eyes going from friendly worry to admiration and, of course, including the sadistic anticipation of the fall. Too close to the clown or too close to the man? Never mind! The Cassandras of criticism, with a sadistic joy, predicted the fall of this aesthetic misfit without seeing that this subtle balance was the very physiognomy of his genius.

As we know, Chaplin diffused the sadism by staging it against himself. Because with Limelight he burned his own effigy in the Pirandellian footlights. Lights that, gradually, went from Charlie to the clown Calvero and then – with this cruel, Fellinian removal of makeup – to old Calvero, Charles Chaplin's twin brother, but also his antithesis due to the failure of his career and the rejection of a very young love. Holocaust or exorcism? Bazin vividly describes the ambiance of the bonfire of the vanities at the premiere of Limelight where, in the Parisian theater, a family accumulating the signs of happiness, celebrity and riches spent an evening bringing to life on screen the misery and solitude that – even if they were just a very old nightmare for Chaplin – had been the ultimate fate of many of the greats of the silent era, among whom was Buster Keaton.

This is why it is very hard to untangle from the objections that claim to be purely aesthetic, their obscurely passionate part of moral or socio-political origins. Those who have reproached Chaplin the most for his narcissism have not been the least relentless in targeting the man through the artist – exiled in luxury but, after all, still banished, the paradoxical object of the highest praises and the lowest insults.

Is it not, for example, a desire for posthumous vengeance that is revealed in the panning of Chaplinesque comedy in the name of strictly Keatonian norms? Would it not be more worthwhile to savor the contrast of their particularities? Rectilinear trajectories, will power directed towards a goal, technical perseverance, endurance under pressure and challenges to nature and destiny make every Keaton film a Promethean parable. Is not the "human, all too human," provocative, precarious and uncertain itinerary followed by the Chaplinesque quest – whose unity is, however, affirmed by the totality of the silent and sound films – in contrast, better illuminated? The latter films, far from being discredited by the silents, on the contrary, stimulate a second reading of them, calling for understanding a deeper meaning in some gags and certain particular situations. Further on, we will attempt to identify some.

The Dictator and His Double

Let us beware, of course, falling into hagiography. Aside from the famous bravura sequences of the barber shaving the girl to the rhythm of Brahms' Hungarian Dance and his involuntary choreography resulting from a whack from a frying pan, The Great Dictator, for example, today has obvious inventive faults (the dictators arguing) and reveals many repetitions (the rotating canon, attached to the ground, comes from The Gold Rush; Hynkel's disgusted look at the smell left by the baby is reminiscent of The Pilgrim).

But nothing equals the discovery for which Chaplin clearly composed The Great Dictator, namely the emotional counterpoint of the ending produced by the shock between Hynkel's appearance – a puppet until then whose only language was mechanical – and the voice of the Other, the human voice progressively swelling with the self-assurance of those who are convinced that theirs is the just cause. The peculiar shiver that then grabs spectators who are caught in the cruelly fleeting illusion – because the voice comes from a marionette finally endowed with a soul – is not due, of course, to the sole fact of the sound or even the lyrical content of the speech. It is the use of the "two in one," the subversion of the sign and the reversal of appearances that Chaplin employs here (unknowingly joining the dialectical methods of the pre-Socratic philosophers), as he had done in all his films, with a sure instinct about the visual and aural means that cinema offered at that point.

In the conclusion of The Great Dictator, the location itself is also metaphorically the same and its opposite. The staircase to the honorary stage ascended to the accompaniment of funereal drumming suggests the scaffold and martyrdom. Likewise, the criminal Verdoux's march to the guillotine adopts the serenity of philosophical suicide. Likewise, Calvero's renunciation and his death backstage assure the endurance of art onstage.

Who is Verdoux?

In the same manner, we cannot tell when Verdoux is Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde since in the variability of his social roles he seemingly remains the same all while being both at the same time. Chaplin's great discovery (not his inventive weakness) is his barely varying the character's appearance and changing nothing in his performance (think of Charlie escaping the cop by multiplying himself in the fun house mirrors in The Circus). The cruelty of the fable, then, goes much further than the obvious moral lesson ("Money corrupts everyone") expressed in A King in New York. Even further than the implacable, anarchist logic that turns into an accusation against society that we would call premonitory if a certain Raskolnikov had not already suggested that his "right to crime," compared to Napoleon's, was only a question of means. James Agee – an excellent interpreter of Chaplin – is correct in detecting in him, beyond the victim of society (which he is as well but a bit too obviously), the somber reflection of our own private duplicity…or duality. In sum, the most serious taboo Verdoux breaks is that of presenting himself as cynical and tender at the same time. The breathless rhythm of the train wheels that comically emphasize the trips from the fake dwellings to his real home only serve to tragically narrow the distance between Jekyll and Hyde since happiness and crime are marked by the same signs. Logic alone can separate eternally complimentary good and evil, light and dark, fiction and truth. Verdoux the impostor, to lure her into his trap, arouses the sympathy of a rich woman by becoming emotional over his wife's final illness, contemplating the garden that is full of roses where not long before smoke rose ironically, the trace of his crime. But this conjugal fiction abominably recalls the reality of his love for his real, paralyzed wife and the flowery surroundings of his house. Just as he forbids his son from pulling the cat's tail, he let's an innocent caterpillar go free with a tenderness worthy of Archibald de la Cruz. Reciprocally, the businessman of crime cannot separate himself from the family man: he cunningly gets from his pharmacist friend a recipe to take life painlessly and without a trace that can be tested, if need be (he jokes), on any poor man tired of living. His wife, looking at him with a worried look, is alarmed to find him "changed," a difference that we, as spectators, are not really capable of appreciating in Verdoux, across all of his borrowed identities.

We can see, then, the force of Chaplin the actor's supposed weakness in "composing" different characters. It is society that accepts making identity depend upon costume. When, thanks to a reverse shot, we become Verdoux, we can see clearly that it is in his wife's eyes that he looks for himself and becomes lost. The only important truth comes from the heart's clairvoyance. And Bazin saw how happiness and social integration are linked in Chaplin's films to the quest for the woman. This is confirmed by the cruel scene depicting the second encounter between the poor girl and her powerful ex-assassin-to-be who remains, in her eyes, a helpful benefactor. In fact – the one exception – the criminal action is stopped by the presentiment of a spiritual affinity with this girl, a kind of alter ego. Verdoux humiliates her and kicks her out (as James Agee saw) with the sharp feeling of the danger of love, undermining a solitary will to power from within.2 In the aged criminal, having lost (or delivered from life, one hypothesis among others) those he loved, not without managing to lose himself too, this will to revolt and power gives way to a serene nihilism. And the third encounter with the formerly poor girl – now rich and married to a "very nice" canon salesman – confirms the inanity of his struggle. Verdoux voluntarily crosses the symbolic threshold of the hotel, where (the peak of humor) he has a lot of trouble getting arrested, and courteously reintegrates a social order where his death no longer has any importance: spiritually, it is already accomplished.

  • Double postulation of the human being (order/revolt, power/weakness, cruelty/tenderness, integration/independence).
  • The comparable ambivalence of events and the trap of appearances that are as much moral as they are social.
  • Finally, uncertainty about oneself and recourse to the eyes of others, especially women.

Charlie the buffoon, without seeming to, and maybe unbeknownst to Chaplin (a poet is not a manipulator of ideas), was asking these serious questions during the period when all he had were images.

The Double Charlie

First the interior conflict is exteriorized: big and little, weak and strong, David and Goliath. Even more significant is the composition of his own appearance, the little man with the famous waddle that was forever changed through an accident described in Mack Sennett's memoirs: the young actor poorly integrated into the troupe and in search of a style, grabbing here and there in the studio Fatty Arbuckle's enormous pants, Ford Sterling's clodhoppers, Billy Gilbert's cutaway tailcoat, etc. A hasard objectif3 where the costume undoubtedly reveals a subterranean language: not the typical bum's, but the wretch made pathetic through his ridiculous quest for social respectability and elegance through the dandy's cane. Charlie blasphemes bourgeois class style with untucked shirts and strings for belts while at the same time he aspires to it through corrective gestures: readjusting his clothes, the leitmotif of the hat tip or flower offering. Well before Verdoux, Charlie dreams in Modern Times of the sweetness of a bourgeois household and, in The Gold Rush, organizes a "proper" New Year's Eve dinner with sweets in the glasses, candles and presents. He is constantly trying to "set himself up" in a place from which he is immediately kicked out. Ambiguous wandering: natural or social? ("If I were accused of stealing the Eiffel Tower, I'd begin by going away," Apollinaire said).

The meaning of his social behavior is also ambiguous: same lover's glance for seducing a woman or softening up someone with power (cop or boxer). The flower – a sign of servility or a sign of love – offered to the foreman, sentimentally sniffed or discreetly hidden under his pillow with the photo of the flirtatious Georgia who is eventually moved by this secret (The Gold Rush). The cruelty is equally ambiguous: a sly kick or a brick thrown at an adversary offering peace – normal reflexes of the socially oppressed or the pure jubilation of aggressiveness? Most interesting of all is the way in which Charlie handles romance and tripping people with the same spontaneity. He loves and hates children: he shelters orphans (The Kid) but he also knocks over their candy, kicks them, steals their toast or bottle and hates newborns who wet themselves. Likewise, he trips homeless people to steal cigar butts but chivalrously picks up poor, oppressed, pretty girls. A Don Quixote before he becomes a Bluebeard, he loves and he hates women, while his hate is crystallized (sincerity or alibi?) over odious rich women.

A Good Deed is Always For Naught

In addition to the character's contradictions, there is the tragicomic inversion of the evaluation of his actions. Good is born from evil and vice versa. Charlie can help the immigrant because he cheats at the game and the blind girl because he extorts money from the rich drunk. But harm can be born from good intentions: either you throw the helpless guy into the water when you want to pull him out or he throws you in when you've pulled him out (City Lights). The sadomasochistic element comes out fully when it comes to love. Well before Verdoux made himself a tireless lady killer to pamper his sick wife, Charlie stoically endured the tests inflicted by the hand of a beloved (frying pan to the head and plates broken over his neck in The Great Dictator, pots of water to his face and his waistcoat unraveled in City Lights).

Finally, the subversion of social codes happens very naturally thanks to the gag with the monk's clothes. Meaning, of course, The Pilgrim. Likewise, ironically, the little man's costume only garners him consideration when it is mistaken for the "very successful" disguise of the rich man of whom he is unwittingly the spitting image (The Idle Class); or when, having become a millionaire in The Gold Rush, he puts his old rags back on for the curiosity of journalists, therefore risking being caught as a stowaway. And as in Marivaux, the "rich frock/poor frock" game is often combined with the themes of disguise and marriage (from The Gold Rush to A Countess in Hong Kong). But rare are the happy, fairy tale endings where the beggar accepted in marriage turns out to be a prince in disguise.

Gags and the Duplicity of Things

Ultimately pure of any moral or social implication, gags establish the traps of appearance as well. To take a few examples:

1) The dialectic of the hidden and the shown

Error of interpretation: Chaplin's back apparently shaking with tears is only translating the preparation of a cocktail in a shaker. The polite smile isn't directed towards the person implied but – alas – to the person placed behind him who he can not see (The Gold Rush, reused in Verdoux).

Exterior revelation of something strange inside: hiccuping after the ingestion of a slipper (The Gold Rush), coins (The Great Dictator) or a whistle (City Lights); bubbles after a bar of soap is swallowed (idem).

2) The theme of twin objects (inseparable from the theme of lookalikes and the source of the same annoyances). In City Lights alone, consider:

  • the above mentioned bar of soap and the cheese intended for the sandwich;
  • the iced cake and the old man's bald head encircled by a crown;
  • the spaghetti and the paper streamers;
  • the two cigars, one unlit, the other lit, infernally switching until the painful intrusion of the second on the wrong end makes the innocent sausage suspicious.

City Lights or Love Light

This questioning of knowledge and this systematic attack on logical identity are, we could say, mere gags. Nevertheless, they accumulate very curiously in one of Chaplin's most perfect films, and maybe the cruelest alongside M. Verdoux, where the search for identity takes on a particularly painful resonance. In a rarely attained harmony, the plastics of subversive comedy (the scene of the statue's unveiling), the above mentioned gags, Chaplin's most famous comic situations (the boxing match, the night club, etc.) come together with ease in a well-constructed melodramatic narrative. And this melodrama is entirely centered around "recognition" (in both senses of the term): that of Charlie and that due to Charlie by the two other protagonists. The rich guy who he saved from suicide only recognizes his vagabond "friend" when he's drunk, while the blind girl saved with money from the first, loves him, while believing him to be rich.

In the final scene where, healed, she discovers the poor silhouette of her prince charming, this recognition – a recognition of which love is both the criteria and what is at stake – is planted like a milestone between the optimistic recognition in The Gold Rush and all of the openly pessimistic recognitions in M. Verdoux. But this milestone pierces us with a suspense that is infinitely cruel. "You can see clearly now?" the benevolent beggar asks. Yes, the blind girl can see clearly, but what is this new clairvoyance the now satisfied girl has? It is in the vagabond's face, full of expectant sadness, that we must look for it and fear – alas – that it is no longer true clairvoyance, that of the heart. And in this rare close up of Charlie's face, which is the summation of the clown's entire search for love, we wish to see a spiritual testament.

1 Translators note: Reference to an article by André Saurès, "Le Coeur ignoble de Charlot" ("Charlie's Ignoble Heart"), published on July 3, 1926 in Comoedia in Paris. It was subject to an outraged reply by Jacques de Baroncelli in the following issue and is referred to by André Bazin in his article "De Sica: Metteur en scène."

2 I see only three solitudes with which Verdoux's may be compared: the Pickpocket's, Guido in 8 1/2 and The Man who Loved Women: the collector of objects, the collector of characters and the collector of women.

Translators note: Objective chance or coincidence, Surrealist motto of André Breton.  


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