April 16, 1889– Charles Spencer Chaplin
Even funnier than the man who has been made ridiculous is the man who, having had something funny happen to him, refuses to admit that anything out of the way has happened, and attempts to maintain his dignity.
No film star so captured and enthralled the world as did Charlie Chaplin, he was a London street urchin who became an immortal artist for his deft and effective humanization of man’s tragicomic conflicts with fate. In more than 80 movies from 1914 to 1967, he either portrayed or elaborated (he was a writer and director as well as an actor) the theme of the little fellow capriciously knocked about by life, but not so utterly battered that he did not pick himself up in the hope that the next encounter would turn out better.
His harassed but gallant Everyman was the Little Tramp, part social outcast, part philosopher. He was “forever seeking romance, but his feet won’t let him,” Chaplin once explained. He always managed to maintain his dignity and self-respect. Moreover, he survived with superb agility, a little bit of luck and a touch of pluck. There was pathos to the Little Tramp, yet he really did not want to be pitied.
The essence of Chaplin’s humor was satire, sometimes subtle as in The Kid (1921) and The Gold Rush (1925), sometimes acerbic as in The Great Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a brilliant film. Monsieur Verdoux‘s satire of a business and war-minded world deserves to be more appreciated than was in the late 1940s. Chaplin:
The human race I prefer to think of as the underworld of the gods. When the gods go slumming they visit the earth.
He became a worldwide icon through his screen persona, “The Tramp”, and is considered one of the most important figures in the history of the film industry. His career spanned more than 75 years, from childhood in the Victorian era until a year before his death in 1977, and encompassed both adulation and controversy.
Chaplin’s childhood in London was one of poverty and hardship, as his father was absent and his mother struggled financially, and he was sent to a workhouse twice before the age of nine. When he was 14-years-old, his mother was committed to a mental asylum. Chaplin began performing at an early age, touring music halls and later working as a stage actor and comedian. At 19-years-old, he signed to the prestigious Fred Karno Film company, which took him to America. In 1914, he began appearing in short films for Keystone Studios. He soon began directing his own films and by 1918, he was one of the most famous figures on our pretty planet.
I want to see the return of decency and kindness. I’m just a human being who wants to see this country as a real democracy…
In 1938, the world’s most famous movie star began to prepare a film about the bigly monster of the 20th century. Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) looked a little like Adolf Hitler. After all, Hitler had the same little mustache as Chaplin’s Little Tramp character. Exploiting that resemblance, Chaplin wrote a satire in which the dictator and a Jewish barber from the ghetto would be mistaken for each other. The film is The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s first talking film and the highest-grossing of his career, although it would make his life incredibly difficult and contribute to leaving the USA.
In 1938, Hitler was not yet considered to be the essence of evil by most Americans. Powerful isolationists strongly insisted on a nonintervention policy when it came to the troubles of Europe, and rumors of Hitler’s policy to exterminate the Jews were welcomed by American anti-Semites. Hitler’s earliest opponents were accused of being un-American, possibly communists, for fighting against fascism and Hitler was still considered an ally.
The Great Dictator ends with a long speech denouncing dictatorships, and extolling democracy and individual freedoms. For liberals, this sounded like true American values, but to many conservatives, it sounded like a bunch of commies.
If Chaplin had not been an early fighter against fascism however, he probably wouldn’t have made The Great Dictator. When the horrors of the Holocaust began to be known, Hitler was no longer funny.
In the period when Hitler and his Nazi Party rose to prominence, Chaplin was internationally popular. He was mobbed by fans on a trip to Berlin in 1931, which pissed-off the Nazis. They published a book titled The Jews Are Looking at You (1934), describing the comedian as “a disgusting Jewish acrobat” (although Chaplin was not Jewish)
Chaplin wasn’t the first to mock the Nazis. In 1933, The Marx Brothers released Duck Soup, with Groucho Marx playing the dictator Rufus T. Firefly in a comedy that had already had ominous undertones about what was already happening in Europe. Two short films The Three Stooges, You Nazty Spy! (1940) and I’ll Never Heil Again (1941) also made fun of Hitler.
Even after The Great Dictator, the great Ernst Lubitsch, a German exile, made To Be Or Not To Be (1942) with Jack Benny as an actor who becomes embroiled in the Nazi occupation of Poland.
But, Chaplin’s film took aim at Hitler himself. Chaplin later wrote that it could only have been funny, if he had not yet known the full extent of what the Nazis were up to. The film’s mockery of Hitler got it banned in Spain, Italy and neutral Ireland. But in the USA and Britain, it made a powerful impact that is hard to imagine today. Except for maybe Mickey Mouse, Chaplin’s Little Tramp was the most recognizable and loved fictional character in the world, and although Chaplin was technically not playing the Little Tramp in The Great Dictator, he still looked like him, but this time not in a comic fable but a political satire.
In the last few minutes of the film the comedy ends and Chaplin’s character makes an impassioned plea for the citizens of the world to end fascism:
You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give men a chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will!
Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!
In 1940, the world noticed because Chaplin used his own comic persona against Hitler to successfully ridicule him as a buffoon. Film fans totally bought the film’s humor. The film was a hit, and it received five Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Screenplay for Chaplin, Best Score for gay songwriter Meredith Willson, and Best Supporting Actor for Jack Oakie for his portrayal of Benzino Napaloni, Dictator of Bacteria, a parody of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
Chaplin put his Little Tramp and $1.5 million of his own money on the line to ridicule Hitler. Plus, he was instrumental in raising millions of dollars for Jewish refugee centers. It is a very funny film and a brave one. Chaplin never played a little man with a mustache again.
Chaplin was always open in his criticism of the injustices he saw taking place his adopted country, the good old USA. He became a target of Right-Wing Conservatives. Congressperson John Rankin of Mississippi pushed for his deportation. In 1952, J. Howard McGrath, the Attorney General announced that Chaplin, who was on a sailing vacation, would not be permitted to return to the USA unless he could prove his “moral worth.” Chaplin was furious and refused to return, taking up residence on a small farm in Switzerland.
He did not return until 1972, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave Chaplin an Honorary Oscar. Chaplin was initially hesitant about accepting but decided to return to the USA for the first time in 20 years. His return attracted a lot of press. At the ceremony he received a 12-minute standing ovation, the longest in the Academy Award history. Visibly emotional, Chaplin accepted his award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century”.
In his declining years Chaplin looked back with happiness on his early days in the movies:
I was able to try anything in those days, I was free.