Chaplin Triumphant

At the release of City Lights in Vienna, the actor was mobbed

On The Town | Michael Buergermeister | February 2010

A covey of town dignitaries in frock coats and top hats flock around a statue hidden under a tarp before the eager eyes of the gathered crowd. The men turn, with great pomp and circumstance, lift the cloth to unveil the city’s newest monument. What they find instead is a monument of a different sort: The Tramp, in ill-fitting jacket and undersized derby, is sitting there huddled at its base – an icon of 20th century cinema. A ripple of appreciative laughter washed over the audience of the Austrian Film Museum as they watched the opening movie of the major retrospective of films by Charles Chaplin: City Lights.

The retrospective, which took place in December and January, showed roughly ninety films, made between 1914 and 1967, including classics such as One A.M., The Floorwalker, The Gold Rush, The Circus, Modern Times and The Great Dictator.

A "romantic comedy," City Lights is at one and the same time frivolous and profound.  A tramp falls in love with a blind flower seller, played by Virginia Cherill, and is befriended by a millionaire whom he has saved from drowning. Soon after meeting her he saves a millionaire from drowning. The tramp is, the millionaire assures him, his friend for life. The next day he doesn’t recognize him. The cycle is repeated. Each time the millionaire is drunk he embraces the tramp. Each time he is sober he disavows him. Once, when drunk, he gives the tramp a thousand dollars.

But then fate turns, and the millionaire is attacked by a burglar; when the tramp raises the alarm he is promptly arrested. The tramp escapes and delivers the thousand dollars to the blind flower seller. The money will enable her to pay for both her rent, which is in arrears, and to restore her eyesight. Upon departing he says he is going away. She, imagining him to be wealthy, thinks he is going abroad. He, knowing better, realizes he is going to prison. After serving time he returns. The sight of the flower seller has been restored and she has bought herself a shop. At first she laughs at the tramp when he pays her attentions. Then she recognizes him…

After City Lights was released in 1931, Chaplin went on a world tour. When he came to Vienna and arrived at the Franz Josef’s Bahnhof he was mobbed to such a degree that a near riot broke out. In the midst of the wild crowd he did not lose his calm nor cease to wave his hat benignly.  His attitude seems like a metaphor for his life: born into a sea of troubles, he was forever buoyant, and never lost his faith in either himself or in humanity, regardless of how wild, barbaric and positively evil those around him grew.

It is not without irony that the Nazis used newsreels of his visit to Berlin in the same year (believing him to be Jewish) in an anti-semitic film and most ironic of all is the fact that Hitler was one of his greatest admirers. He watched The Great Dictator at least twice. Chaplin later said that had he known about Auschwitz he would never have made the film. Awareness of Auschwitz is perhaps the reason for the darkness of his post-war productions, though the fact that the Americans seemed to be moving in the same direction as Germany had moved in 1933 (which is why Thomas Mann moved back to Switzerland) undoubtedly played a part. His brilliantly dark comedy: Monsieur Verdoux, based on an idea from Orson Welles, with its theme of murder as a form of business by other means, cannot have endeared him to the military industrial complex. In it a former bank clerk seduces wealthy widows and poisons them as a way of making ends meet and supporting his disabled wife and boy.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of the retrospective was the early films. Chaplin played different characters (including a woman in A Busy Day in 1914) before realizing that the figure of the tramp allowed him the greatest scope for his talent. Not only did the mask of the tramp allow him to play the drunk (his father was an alcoholic and died at the age of 37) it allowed him to play the underdog with an anarchic, humanistic, socially critical edge. The development of Chaplin the director and creative genius can be seen developing hand in hand with Chaplin the performer; the experience of the latter informing the ideas of the former.

Chaplin’s method was, according to his extremely readable autobiography, to drive himself nearly crazy thinking about how best to create comic scenes, inspired by props such as an escalator, with utmost economy.  As a perfectionist, he was willing to repeat a scene innumerable times before he was content (he spent nearly two years working on the first scene of City Lights). Such artistic freedom is sadly unimaginable in this day and age, in which a script is necessary and a director is lucky to have more than a month, and usually a good deal less, to make a movie. Chaplin was, long before Godard, the quintessential auteur: He personally dealt with every detail, from the make-up to the music, which he composed himself.

The retrospective also offered many keys to the secret of Chaplin’s greatness. It is no coincidence that Chaplin was a product of London’s Music Hall pantomime culture at the turn of the century (in only two theaters was the spoken word allowed). He was a consummate pantomime artist and it is no coincidence that Eisenstein was a great admirer. As a performer he had begun at the age of five and turned professional at the age of nine (both his parents worked in Music Halls).

His experience of injustice in his youth made him a passionate humanist and gave him his radical, anarchic edge. His experience on tour gave him a profound fear of failure and taught him the art of comedy. It is no accident that Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers all had experience of the fickleness of live audiences.

What set Chaplin apart from the others?  Perhaps it is the fact that we all identify with his "little man" and his truths: that only love, humanity and compassion count.

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