Essay Day - "Heart of the Tramp: Charlie Chaplin’s Ethic of Dignity"
It’s Wednesday, which means it’s time for ‘Essay Day’ here at Fade to Lack. As explained here, I have written a large number of essays during my time at the University of Colorado as a student in film studies, and I thought it time to share the best of those with my readers, so throughout the summer, I’ll be posting a new essay every Wednesday, all focused on film in one form or another, but often incorporating other research and fields of study.
This week’s selection is special in that it includes both a video essay and a written one, both completed for an Honors seminar on “The Ethics of Ambition” in the Spring of 2014. The assignment was to select a famous or notable figure and perform an ethical reading of their life, accomplishments, and ambitions. I chose Charlie Chaplin, one of my very favorite filmmakers, and both versions of the essay primarily focus on his art (his films) as the primary source of his own ethical reflection. The video version of the essay was completed for a group presentation, and includes footage from Chaplin’s films to better illustrate the points being made. The written essay is based on the narration from the video version, but includes lots of additional material, including extended ethical analysis of Chaplin’s life and films. The video essay is featured at the top of the page as a YouTube video, while the written essay is provided after the jump. Enjoy...
One of the most iconic moments in Charlie Chaplin’s filmography is the “Oceana Roll” dance, a sequence from Chaplin’s 1925 feature The Gold Rush in which the Tramp, Chaplin’s signature character, entertains his dinner guests by performing a comical dance routine with two rolls speared on the ends of forks. It is a piece of physical comedy so inspired that when the film was first screened in Berlin, the audience was so wildly enthusiastic that the print was wound back and the scene repeated, in what critic Luc Sante calls “a rare instance of a cinematic encore” (7). The anecdote is evidence of Chaplin’s staggering popularity and unprecedented global reach, for in a time when movies were silent, and language was not a barrier to their distribution or enjoyment, Chaplin’s iconic ‘Tramp’ character was, according to Sante, “the world’s most recognizable figure of any sort,” with Chaplin himself following only a little ways behind (8-9). He was one of the foremost fathers of the motion picture, creating not only the most popular and beloved cinema icon of the twentieth century, but a catalogue of short and feature films that are as entertaining and relevant today as they were nearly 100 years ago. What must be the ambitions of a man who achieved such heights as these, and for an artist whose work dealt heavily with the injustices of capitalism and economic inequality – always returning to the core, central theme of looking for the heart of a person, rather than judging by race, class, or status – what ethical principles or ideas guided his extraordinary life?
In his 1964 autobiography, Chaplin wrote that he had “no design for living, no philosophy – whether sage or fool, we must all struggle with life” (477). His personal narrative bears this out as, beginning with his childhood as the impoverished son of a mentally unstable single mother, where nothing (including housing) was ever consistent1, Chaplin lived a thoroughly unpredictable life, one that took him from the streets of London – a story David Robinson calls “the last great Victorian autobiography,” comparing Chaplin’s life to the characters of Charles Dickens (4) – to unprecedented levels of success in America, to universal love and adoration, and ultimately, to Cold War-era controversy and eventual expulsion from the nation that gave him fame.
Despite the many ups and downs of his professional and personal lives, Chaplin presented his own ambitions as modest, his successes painted almost as happenstance, his failures and hardships as unfortunate but never insurmountable. He wanted to do good work, to make good films and hold himself to a high personal standard – in speaking of his decision to continue producing silent features after the advent of synchronized sound, Chaplin explains: “...I was a pantomimist and in that medium I was unique and, without false modesty, a master” (322) – but did so with the reserve of personal fulfillment, rather than the egomania of asserting oneself above all others. He did not necessarily seek out fame or fortune; enormous, record-breaking paychecks were successfully negotiated, but money is not paramount in his personal narratives, and happiness, for Charlie Chaplin, was ultimately exemplified by the desire for contentedness. He closes his autobiography by writing: “With such happiness, I sometimes sit out on our terrace at sunset and look over a vast green lawn to the lake in the distance, and beyond the lake to the reassuring mountains, and in this mood think of nothing but enjoy their magnificent serenity” (477). This seems the clearest summation of Chaplin’s ambitions: Not fame or fortune, but merely a sustainable and empowering sense of fulfillment, one that makes sense for a man who grew up living a wildly non-contented, unpredictable life.
Chaplin never forgot the struggles of his childhood, and if they informed his ambitions and personal life, they fueled his ethics doubly so, and those ethics, in turn, drove the substance of his filmmaking. Chaplin’s movies present the desire for personal happiness as paramount to the human condition, something all individuals should not only be permitted to act upon, but something all individuals should be cognizant of when dealing with others. Social, political, and ethical issues like these always informed his comedy, stemming from Chaplin’s belief that comedy stemmed from identification, from understanding the human condition and presenting scenarios that audiences could relate to, on one level or another. “A thing that puts a person in an embarrassing predicament,” Chaplin wrote, “must always be perfectly familiar to an audience, or else the people will miss the point entirely” (Chaplin, “What People Laugh At,” 96).
As Chaplin’s success and stardom grew, ethical issues came closer and closer to the forefront. When he was successful enough to coast, to play things simple and make safe, easily digestible slapstick comedies, Chaplin’s artistic ambition instead grew, with his formal and narrative innovations matched in full force by the depth of his filmography’s philosophical explorations. Perhaps the most powerful recurring theme in Chaplin’s work – and one which resonates especially strong knowing the man’s life story – is a rally against judgment, a call to look towards the heart of people rather than mock, disenfranchise, or ignore them due to appearance or economic status. The theme is most effectively explored in Chaplin’s greatest masterpiece, 1931’s City Lights, which explores the contrast between visual sight and actual seeing in the Tramp’s dual friendships, one with a lonely millionaire who greatly enjoys the Tramp’s company when drunk, but is appalled by the Tramp’s appearance when sober, and the other with a blind flowergirl the Tramp shows kindness towards. That kindness is repaid to the tramp in the form of true recognition at the film’s end when the flowergirl, her sight restored, recognizes Chaplin’s character not as a Tramp, but as the man who acted so selflessly towards her. Critic James Agee believed the sequence contained “the greatest piece of acting and highest moment in movies,” and the film’s closing image, of the Tramp sheepishly biting his nails, remains one of the most enduring and iconic shots in all of film history (113).
This is an ethic of, if not equality, dignity. Chaplin’s films exist in a thoroughly unequal world, and do not shy away from the ways in which various peoples are robbed of equal opportunity. Chaplin’s films do not (and cannot, if we are to identify with and take his stories seriously) correct the injustices of inequality, but they do affirm the inherent dignity of human beings. Dignity is something we can have and we can display no matter who we are. What we are capable of as people need not depend on our status, station, or appearance, but on our inner-selves, on our own internal capacities for maintaining and summoning dignity, and our ability to recognize and respect the dignity of others. The Tramp does this in being kind to the flowergirl; even though she is blind and poor, he recognizes her worth as a human being, and treats her as he would want to be treated. And when the flowergirl has the opportunity to return the favor, she does so, recognizing the Tramp for the person he is underneath, rather than what is said by his disheveled appearance.
Yet no scene in Chaplin’s filmography so powerfully (or depressingly) summarizes these ideas as the sequence in The Gold Rush in which the Tramp waits in vain for Georgia, the woman he loves, who had disingenuously promised to come have dinner with him on New Year’s Eve, a cruel joke played at the Tramp’s expense. The intercutting in the sequence, between the Tramp alone in his cabin, having laid out a modest but heartfelt spread, and Georgia and the townsfolk celebrating in the local tavern to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, turns Georgia’s insensitivity towards the Tramp into a powerful symbol for society’s insensitivity towards those who are outcast or otherized. Georgia judges the Tramp as only a Tramp, refusing him dignity and embarrassing him, and the weight of being mocked and belittled in this way is clearly heartbreaking to the Tramp (Chaplin’s acting in the sequence is phenomenally expressive). It is, to me, one of the saddest scenes ever committed to film, a moment in which pathos and ethics harmonize flawlessly to emotionally crushing effect.
Chaplin’s economic themes mirror and expand upon these philosophical, interpersonal ones. His 1936 film Modern Times saw the Tramp working in a factory, and explored the mechanization of the human body, the dehumanization of the American worker, and the gap between the American Dream and the American Reality, all through the eyes of two characters – the Tramp and a young Gamine2, played by Chaplin’s third wife Paulette Godard – whose optimism and belief in each other allow them to move forward, even when they literally have nothing (again, dignity can exist and perpetuate even when socioeconomic equality has run dry). Chaplin was interested, here and in other films, not only in how people of a lower economic class saw themselves, but how they perceived the seemingly desirable lives of the wealthy. For example, the Tramp and the Gamine, after hiding from the police in a suburban neighborhood, cheer themselves up by engaging in a fantasy sequence where they collectively imagine living cozy upper-middle-class lives. Every detail of the scenario revolves around self-sufficiency. The characters want for nothing, are utterly comfortable and happy, and need not even walk outside to get their milk – the cow comes right to them. The suffering, toil, and stress of poverty’s day-to-day struggle has been replaced by complete and utter comfort, an absence of all the labor that defines them in reality. The dignity they feel within is, in their fantasy, expressed in their environment. This, we might say, is Chaplin’s truest conception of the American Dream – the ability to live a dignified life on all levels, something denied to those living in poverty.
Venturing further back in Chaplin’s filmography again gives us a darker contemplation of these ideas. At the end of Chaplin’s 1921 feature The Kid, the Tramp, after having his adopted son taken away by the state, falls asleep and dreams of heaven, but is only able to imagine such a place in the confines of his own status quo, as a mildly nicer version of the impoverished street he lives on, where all the problems that follow him in life – bullies, unsympathetic cops, and want – persist in this other world. In Chaplin’s films, the reality and psyche of economic hardship is as difficult to escape externally as it is internally. When pondered in a thoroughly unequal world, even imagined scenarios of dignity have boundaries. It is an idea that feels intensely personal, something Chaplin would have genuinely experienced, having lived the lives he dramatizes as a child.
Chaplin’s ethical and political musings culminated most forcefully in his 1940 feature The Great Dictator, where these myriad ideas are applied to a global political scale, ruthlessly satirizing Adolf Hitler and the bigotry of Nazi Germany over a full year before the United States would enter World War II, and at a time when many Americans still openly sympathized with the Nazi agenda. It was an utterly brave film to make, the kind of risk only an artist of Chaplin’s stature could take, but few at his level ever would. Boldest was the film’s conclusion, in which Chaplin faces the camera directly, breaking character and interrupting the flow of the story to deliver a stirring six-minute speech denouncing nationalism, hatred, and warfare – ideas attentive viewers of Chaplin’s films would know had always been on the director’s mind, but would be delivered in no uncertain terms here, and which would be heavily controversial as a result.
I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible – Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost. The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in man, cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all.
Note how Chaplin frames the horrors of war and dictatorship as an affront to that most paramount of human issues – dignity and equality. There is room for everybody to be happy, to have what they need to live dignified, contented lives, but the actions of mankind has made this obvious possibility a seeming impossibility. Even the machinery we built to improve our ways of living has only left us in greater want. We have lost our humanity, argues Chaplin, and over the rest of the speech – which would go on for several more pages if I printed it all here – he urges his listeners to fight against those who would deny human dignity, who would turn us into machines without the capacity for empathy or understanding. He dismisses the Nazis as “machine men, with machine hearts,” and argues that the people, not the dictators, have the power to unite and “make this life free and beautiful.” It is a call to arms, an urge to interventionism, but if ever there were a war where calling upon people to fight seems justified and ethical, it would be World War II. Our historical perspective tells us that World War II was a major turning point, a moment in history where, had things gone differently, our modern conceptions of freedom and dignity might not even exist. Chaplin had that historical perspective in the moment, before America had entered the war, before the American propaganda machine argued similar ideas in much less complex, much more oversimplified terms. He was calling on mankind to fight, but saying anything else would, it seems to me, run counter to the ethics of dignity Chaplin espoused throughout his artistic career.
If the ethics of Charlie Chaplin’s art seem perfectly in balance, his personal life was more complex. As a filmmaker, Chaplin was a demanding perfectionist, and could be cruel or inconsiderate towards his coworkers as a result. He had many lapses in judgment when it came to romance, with both of his first two marriages forced by impregnating 16-year-old actresses, and he was accused by multiple wives of infidelity, though most of the more extreme accusations against him have since been proven or admitted to be untrue. Chaplin was not necessarily uncharitable, though he did not exercise his social or ethical beliefs in the form of philanthropy, and it was not until his fifties that Chaplin seemed able to truly settle down and live the quiet, contended life he seemed to desire all along. His expulsion from the United States in the 1950s, due in part to his openly socialist leanings, is too complex an issue to enter into here (it also involves possible sexual crimes committed, though all the evidence shows Chaplin was innocent of the crimes for which he was accused), though I would at least suggest that any other set of politics would be entirely out of keeping with Chaplin’s character and beliefs – something one only needs watch his films to understand.
In any case, Chaplin is upfront about his failings in his writing, neither falsely modest nor incapable of self-criticism, and strives, as honestly as he can, to illustrate the circumstances, people, and places that made him the man he was. “I am what I am,” he wrote, “an individual, unique and different, with a lineal history of ancestral promptings and urgings; a history of dreams, desires, and special experiences, of all of which I am the sum total” (267).
His is a story worth learning from, the tale of a boy raised in poverty, who quickly achieved unprecedented fame and fortune, and yet never forgot the trials of his youth, whose ethics came from experience and whose ambitions lay in personal fulfillment, who dramatized the issues he considered most important in a form people all over the world could enjoy and be enlightened by, and who leaves us today with a profound message of recognizing and fighting for human dignity, even in scenarios of profound inequality, to ponder and learn from for generations to come.
1 - Chaplin’s first major change in status quo came after his mother’s first institutionalization, at which time he was sent to live with the father he barely knew, and a stepmother who openly resented Chaplin and his brother Sydney. It was the only extended period of time Chaplin spent with his father, who died while he was young, and after his mother came back from the mental hospital (having lost her career in Vaudeville, which would never be recovered), times grew increasingly tough, with the Chaplin family changing apartments every few months, and Charlie and Sydney being sent to workhouses every so often. The awful conditions of the workhouses left a particular impression on Chaplin, one so strong that the fear of being sent to one was later dramatized as a key plot point in his 1921 film The Kid.
2 – Chaplin rarely gave his characters names. The Tramp is almost always the Tramp, unless he is fulfilling another function (he is called a “Lone Prospector” in The Gold Rush, for instance), and other characters are referred to in similar terms, always underlining their social status or standing. Since the names are introduced in the opening credits, we are specifically introduced to these characters through society-specific lenses, which Chaplin then subverts or expands upon as the films go on and the characters develop. They start out unequal, defined by class or appearance, and are revealed to have dignity and depth – exactly in line with his larger ethical framework.
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Jonathan R. Lack has been writing film and television criticism for ten years, for publications such as The Denver Post’s ‘YourHub’ and the entertainment website We Got This Covered, and is the host of The Weekly Stuff Podcast with Jonathan Lack and Sean Chapman. His first book – Fade to Lack: A Critic’s Journey Through the World of Modern Film – is now available in Paperback and on Kindle. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanLack.