Happy Birthday Chaplin — celebrating 131 years of the king of comedy

Comedy is one of the first genres to develop in the early days of cinema, with Keystone studios in the forefront of this type of cinema. Made without the benefit of a written script, these comedies were rough and strictly within the classical comic tradition as well as the influence of vaudeville. They would not take death seriously unlike the classical comedy which had its origins in the primitive fertility rites of ancient Greece which functioned as a reminder that death is not final and employed the comic character, the ‘magic doctor’ (later used by Moliere in his films to satirize the ineptitude of men of the medical profession) who restored the protagonist. Injuries weren’t fatal; instead, they added to the comic situation.

“A day without laughter, is a day wasted.” said a man who needs no introduction, whose art is still revered and considered to be one of the most universal and timeless of all, who taught the world that the universe is essentially a funny place, in all its chaos and tragedy. In his own words, “laughter is very close to tears and vice versa”. Chaplin, born Sir Charles Spencer on 16th April 1889, went through countless hardships as a child, and as he grew up, he emerged as the finest comic actor as well as filmmaker of the silent film age.

Chaplin did films like Tango Tangle and Dough and Dynamite in 1914 and 1915 respectively, before coming up with his signature baggy clothes, walking stick and the iconic moustache. He starred with Fatty Arbuckle, who was given the role of the protagonist. The Champion and A Night in the Show are well-known Essanay films in which he stars. Easy Street is one of the most famous Chaplin-Mutual films. Though not as hilariously funny as some, it has one of the most ingeniously worked out plots with overtones, which certain critics have read as social criticism and others, as a satire on puritanism. Chaplin, a tramp walks into a Mission. Reformed by the Minister and the angelic Edna, his first good deed is to return the collection box he had stolen. He dispenses his charity to the poor along with Edna. In one of the funniest of the Mutuals- The Cure, in addition to the fast action, we also see some subtle pantomime and examples of Charlie’s graceful agility. The plot starts with Charlie being treated by a rough masseur whose drunk bellhop tosses Charlie’s trunk full of liquor into the well with the consequential amazing effects on the patients. It ends with him promising Edna that he will reform, after which he falls right into the well. Chaplin, spinning in a revolving door and believing that the big man’s winks are for him and not Edna, are some of the funniest scenes in The Cure. The Adventurer is one of his best and most typical old-time screen comedies filled with wide chases, slapstick and clever pantomime.

Keystone comedies were instrumental in moulding the careers of many film comedians, one of which was Charlie Chaplin. Though he bears the mark of Keystone manners upon him, he adds freshness, unique to his style, which was useful when he realized he was underpaid and decided to make a move to Essanay Studios. Talking about the kind of method he employs to the comedy he portrays, Chaplin says, “All you feel while you’re acting is ebullience…When you get older, you know how to approach humour. The best definition I ever heard of humour is that it’s getting people in and out of trouble. That’s what I try to do. I’m emotional about most things but objective about my work. I don’t get satisfaction out of it. I get relief”. Critics like Gilbert Seldes and Elie Faure have attempted to analyse the complex art of Chaplin with the obvious consequential analysis. The stock character Chaplin designates to himself is that of the Little Man or The Tramp. The Little Man tries to fit into the clothes of a large man; not just in size, but also in their social standing. His character, thus, is known to be representative of these subtleties that critique class disparities.

Moreover, the gait that is associated with Chaplin’s characters is significant in its connotations. The angle of the walk, the jaunty handling of the cane, the sprightly manner of his feet, which face the side, altogether make the character which is the source of Chaplin’s humour representing a contradictory attitude towards society. His character is not as good as everyone else. He is either better or worse. He is the master of others or their slave; but never their equal. He moves speedily from impertinence to a cringing attitude not unlike that of the ‘Wandering Jew’, whose differences have caused him to be unjustly kicked around by society. He lives in either a ghetto or a palace; he is either a second-class citizen or the master of his own history. Thus, he is a living satire of his own times, social habits, customs and institutions.

His character is the hoper of far-flung hopes, the dreamer of improbable dreams with nothing to discourage him. In this way Keystone Comedies’ traditional pseudo-death had been transformed into personal optimism doomed to fail. He is defeated time and again in his humble plans. For instance, he thinks he has found a place to rest- a bench in the park and a newspaper for a blanket pretending to find peace in the made-up comfort he has created, only to have a policeman order him to move away. His dogged optimism does not seem to rise out of stupidity but rather out of an implicit faith in the logic of events.

Very few of his films have omitted the note of tragedy, with most of them following the pattern of the homeless waif being sheltered from the indifferent or hostile world. A growing insight into the complexities of the human character, including one’s own, has, as its inevitable consequence — sympathy and identification with the weaknesses and foibles of others. Chaplin was able to elicit a complex laughter from his audiences — that which comes along with tears and human sympathy and makes the unique form of slapstick employed by Chaplin not very different from the satire found in Restoration comedy that caused a reader to not laugh at a character whose hardships they commiserated with. Lesser comedians try to make everything funny, but Chaplin knew that comedy has a profound meaning if it was genuine comedy and appreciated the value of contrast. Comedy is never very far from tragedy; which Chaplin serves to remind us time and again in his films. This reminds me of the words of author, Joyce Carol Oates — “Tragedy is the formal expression of humankind’s capacity for insight; farce is tragedy’s actual, anarchic face.” Most of his films end with the Little Man ambling jauntily down a long road, pitting his tiny might against the emptiness and discouragement of the world, following a zigzag path towards an unknown destination which inevitably waits him but which we know he is nonetheless ready to greet with unwavering optimism.

The Kid is one of those comedies that experimented with more real emotions through themes of family, childhood, gender roles, responsibility, love and tenderness as well as economic class differences. A reflection of the hardships he faced as a child coupled with his longing for love and companionship as is known through his four marriages, The Kid portrays the importance of positive role models and the healing power of humour. The tragedy is not absolutely subtle as is known by the music and the intense scenes. For instance, when the doctor leaves and the Tramp (Chaplin) sits next to the sleeping child, he checks his pulse and then with the saddest eyes looks into the distance not knowing what fate has in store for the poor child. Quite appropriately then, The Kid is said to be ‘a picture with a smile and perhaps, a tear’.

When Al Capp decided to write a book on comedy and came to the part of Chaplin, he was finally able to get a screening of City Lights arranged for his critique. After an hour and a half of roaring with laughter, there came the final scene. This is when the blind girl, who, no longer blind now, realises that the miserable little tramp, to whom she is giving a quarter is her dream Knight and when the Tramp realises that the masquerade is off, he is both, overjoyed because she is blind no more and breaking with sadness because now she sees him for who he really is. Shattered by the tragedy at the end, none of the people in the projection room had the courage to look at each other. They had laughed wholeheartedly at the gags. Suddenly, they were afraid to look at each other, through their tear-stained faces, afraid to see in each others’ eyes that, which each one is worried that the other would see — the tragedy of their own lives and pity for themselves, after being touched by what they had just seen.

Most comedy has been based on the pleasure derived from man’s inhumanity to man. However, comedy can gain the quality of being sublime when it shakes up men who look at others’ troubles and make them their own. In Chaplin’s films one finds a number of ridiculously funny gags, unique characters, who are based on real, recognizable types, each story about man’s inhumanity, which is a a funny one. We laugh at these tales because as human beings, we are full of self-doubt, worry, feelings of inferiority, desperately in need of assurance and hope.

Chaplin’s career piqued during a period when the world was wrought with the two greatly disastrous World Wars, The Great Depression and the disillusionment of the American Dream. That’s where Chaplin and the universality of his comedy come in. His style was simple yet loved and appreciated across different cultures and age groups. His appeals to the need to escape the frustrations of the world and is, thus, still very relevant. In Chaplin’s own words, “Humour…heightens our sense of survival and preserves our sanity. Because of humour we are less overwhelmed by the vicissitudes of life”.

References

Corrigan, Robert W. Comedy, meaning and form. Harper & Row, 1981. Print.

Fiebleman, James. In Praise of Comedy. George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1939. Print.

Fifty famous films:1915–1945. British Film Institute, 1964.Print.

Kuriyama, Constance B. “Chaplin’s Impure Comedy:The Art of Survival” Film Quarterly 45.3 (1992): 26–38. Academic Search Premier.

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