“He was someone – more than anyone, more than any artist I know – he loved people. He was such a generous man, and he loved people. That’s what his films are about. They’re about people and a love for humanity, and an optimism for humanity!”
— Geraldine Chaplin
One of my favorite podcasts is Maltin on Movies, a discussion of movies by film critic Leonard Maltin and his daughter Jessie. I was happening upon one of their latest episodes in which they interviewed comedian Bill Hader at SXSW when their conversation turned towards the eternal Chaplin vs. Keaton debate. This succinct conversation seemed, in my mind, to have encapsulated the hundreds of books and articles written comparing the two titans of silent film comedy, exploring their craft, sense of humor, and styles of performances.
Bill Hader tells a story about showing his daughter the old two-reelers and, in a single sentence, she sums up the major difference between Chaplin and Keaton. Said his daughter of Chaplin: “He wants me to like him.”
Maltin goes on to verbalize the contrasts between the two. Keaton being a “cool” comedian, but Chaplin being a “warm” one. Keaton had that ironic detachment from his surroundings, but Chaplin worked in perfect harmony with the gags that permeated his stories and used them to generate love and sympathy for the Tramp.
More than anything else, that single remark summarizes Charlie Chaplin as a people-pleaser, as a sensitive soul who wanted more than anything else to use his abilities as an entertainer to make the audience truly feel something. It’s the pathos of Chaplin in pictures like City Lights and The Kid that allows us to fall in love with the Tramp. By his very nature, Chaplin would not have succeeded as enormously as he had if he hadn’t the heart that he developed.
Another one of my favorite stories comes from the mouth of Geraldine Chaplin, Charlie’s own daughter, who recounted a time she brought a boyfriend home and he started professing his admiration for Buster Keaton.
“I remember once – he was then very old – and I came with a boyfriend of mine. We arrived and he spoke with my father a little bit about the silent films, and he went on to talk about Buster Keaton; and my father just got smaller and smaller, and he just shrunk, and he was so hurt – it was like someone had stabbed him. And he just became very very quiet, and suddenly he peeped in a little voice, he looked at my friend in the eyes and said, “But I…was an artist.””
— Geraldine Chaplin
True pathos, the kind of pathos that eschews the staid formula of trite romance in favor of earned emotional gratification, is an exceedingly rare and difficult concept to master. In many ways, Charlie Chaplin was the first to pioneer the emotions of pathos for the silver screen. While others exaggerated the interests of love through elaborate doughy-eyed embraces and insularly romantic dramas, Chaplin focused his sentimental skills into the most intimate of gestures: a flower girl recognizing the contours of a hand, a walk into the sunrise, a message of hope heard over the radio.
It was the exploration of what made the audience weep and smile that had people falling in love with the Tramp. His selfless devotion to a blind flower girl, his resilience against the hardship of modern times, his small part in raising an abandoned orphan, his plea to common decency and humanity in the face of evil.
His sentimentalism was never mawkish, never nauseating. His melodramas spoke to the warmth of the human spirit and evinced the soul of a sensitive artist. Chaplin placed himself as the underdog, and in doing so, made sure that every aspect of the Tramp was sympathetic and lovable. He couldn’t not be loved.
“What had I seen in his eyes, in the moment when no one else knew he was in the doorway?”
— Roger Ebert
The last story I want to share concerns an encounter between Charlie Chaplin and, my fellow Chicagoan, film critic Roger Ebert in 1977. After being applauded by thousands of adoring fans in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, Chaplin found himself standing in the doorway of a hotel dining room, with only Ebert noticing him at a glance. In those few moments, Ebert detected a melancholy in Chaplin, as if he was afraid no one would recognize him, that he had lost the ability to make people happy.
He never had to face those fears, because as soon as Ebert pointed out Chaplin, everyone turned around and began applauding him again.
For the Charlie Chaplin who spent most of his life seeking validation through the adulation of his pictures, such must’ve been one of the most important goals. Behind the twinkling of those blue eyes remained a boy of the orphanages, a street urchin abandoned by a father and divorced from a mother, forced to perform onstage to make ends meet – to survive. Even as he became the most famous entertainer of the twentieth-century, that aspect of him remained.
Charlie Chaplin poured his soul into his art in a way that proclaimed the universal value of life. He wanted his audience to know that every emotion evoked in his pictures were reflective of himself and what he believed in. In a 1942 re-issue of The Gold Rush, Chaplin narrated the ending of the picture with the sentence, “And so it was: a happy ending.”
As a people-pleaser, as a lover of people and a lover of humanity, he craved a happy ending. He expected nothing less than a happy ending. We all want to be liked, that’s the universal truth of the Tramp – it’s what makes us relate to Chaplin.
“All images from Chaplin films made from 1918 onwards, Copyright © Roy Export S.A.S. Charles Chaplin and the Little Tramp are trademarks and/or service marks of Bubbles Inc. S.A. and/or Roy Export”