What to Stream: The Radical Insolence of Charlie Chaplin

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Charlie Chaplin had a big problem with law as it was enforced, order as it was imposed, and the norms of propriety and morality as they were applied—namely, against the downtrodden, the afflicted, and the outcast. “City Lights” (1931), perhaps his most acclaimed film (currently streaming on the Criterion Channel, Prime Video, and other services), begins with a bunch of grandees unveiling a large monument titled “Peace and Prosperity.” When the sheet is raised, we see a regally seated woman as the sculpture’s central figure, on which a real-life man is sleeping: Chaplin, in his signature role of the Little Tramp, a homeless man of degraded gentility, with a torn and patched dress suit, a cane, and a bowler hat. Even while asleep, Chaplin’s Tramp is an affront to authority.

Chaplin was born in London, in 1889, and grew up in desperate poverty. After working in vaudeville and moving to the United States, he went into movies in 1914 and found instant success. As the Tramp, a character that he devised on the spur of the moment for one of his earliest films, he became wealthy and world-famous while still remaining faithful to his experience of hardship. This alter ego is a fallen dandy, clad in the tattered vestiges of finery and living unhoused or in squalor, whose attempts to inhabit refined social realms have the effect of burlesquing the social codes of refinement—and whose futile efforts to fit into workaday life expose the oppressions and exclusions that pass for normalcy. He indignantly endures afflictions imposed upon the poor, but not without kicking back, in symbolic gesture and in practical deed.

Chaplin eventually made explicitly political features: in “Modern Times” (1936), his Tramp became a worker trapped in the gears of industrial machinery (literally) and in a maelstrom of anti-Communist persecution; “The Great Dictator” (1940) unleashed ridicule on Hitler; in “Monsieur Verdoux” (1947), his role as a Bluebeard who marries and murders in order to live off his victims’ money, draws a brutal parallel between the acquisition of wealth and mass murder. But even his early films, rooted though they are in Victorian melodrama, are inherently political, seething with radical rage at the sufferings of the poor. The blithely destructive force of wealth, abetted by the crushingly cavalier power of law enforcement, are at the dramatic center of film after film, and much of Chaplin’s comedy mocks the honored emblems of respectable society. In “City Lights,” one of the figures in the monument where the Tramp sleeps is a warrior, who is lying down and wielding an upward-pointed sword that, as Chaplin maneuvers among the sculpture’s parts, pierces the Tramp’s pants and, seemingly impaling his backside, suspends him by the blade. Thus, when a band plays “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the assembled officials stand at attention, the Tramp does his best to salute, too—even though he is, in effect, utterly and obviously fucked, with the sword of peace and prosperity up his ass. (When he gets free of it, he makes his feelings clear: he sits on the reclining marble warrior’s face.)

It’s amazing that Chaplin got away with such ribald derision of authority—and all the more amazing that, for all his comic ingenuity, he proclaimed his deeply earnest intentions at the start of his very first feature film, “The Kid,” from 1921 (which is streaming on Criterion, Max, and elsewhere). He doesn’t open on the Little Tramp but on an unnamed woman (Edna Purviance) who emerges from the jail-like gates of a charity hospital with an infant in her arms; a title card declares that her “sin was motherhood,” and, as she leaves, Chaplin, with startling audacity, cross-fades from her to an image of Jesus bearing his Cross up a hillside.

The movie revolves around the Tramp’s efforts to raise the child, whom he finds abandoned and names John. By the time he is five, John (now played by Jackie Coogan) has started working with the Tramp in the scam by which the unofficial adoptive father earns a living: John throws rocks at windows, and the Tramp, a glazier, just happens to show up in time to repair them. When the child-welfare authorities learn that the Tramp, who is fanatically devoted to John, isn’t the boy’s legal guardian, they seek to separate the pair and the police step in. After a magnificently acrobatic chase scene, across pitched rooftops—in which Chaplin doesn’t hesitate to send an officer sliding down, in an implicit plunge to his doom—“The Kid” becomes a frenzied and paranoid drama of fugitives on the run.

MOMA’s “Silent Movie Week” series, running August 2nd to 8th, includes a restoration of an even earlier showcase of Chaplin’s defiance, his 1917 short “The Adventurer.” It opens with a title card announcing a “man hunt,” as a police officer on a beachside hillock aims and fires a rifle. Other officers join, and the person they’re chasing soon makes his antic appearance: Chaplin, dressed in the striped jumpsuit and cap of a prisoner, pops his head up from the sand and finds himself looking down the rifle barrel of a policeman obviously looking the other way. The chase escalates (as does the police violence), and the main plot is set in motion when the convict, now wearing just undergarments, makes his escape by swimming to a distant pier, arriving just in time to rescue several people who are drowning. One of them happens to be a high-society matron whose daughter (Edna Purviance, again) gratefully takes him to the family mansion to recuperate. She puts him in fancy clothes and introduces him to family and friends as Commodore Slick, while he unctuously courts her, twits another of her suitors, and puts on airs with the staff, until the police, tipped off by his rival, show up and another chase ensues.

There’s no Tramp in “The Adventurer,” except, as it were, mathematically—as the average between the convict and the socialite. Put a convict in the clothes of a socialite and he becomes one; when Chaplin’s character wakes up in fancy striped pajamas, he initially assumes he’s back in prison garb. Just as the Tramp passes as a member of high society by being treated like one, so, Chaplin suggests, one also becomes a convict not by committing a crime but by being convicted of one, regardless of the truth of the matter. This horrific arbitrariness—by highlighting the law’s rampant prejudice against the poor, the willingness of the police to assume depravity in the deprived—confers a desperate legitimacy on the convict’s escape.

The same dynamic underpins “City Lights,” in which a rich alcoholic (Harry Myers), suicidal because his wife has left him, is twice talked out of killing himself by the Tramp. The man embraces his savior as a bosom buddy for whom no gift or favor is too large, and drunkenly gives him his Rolls-Royce. But, once sobered up, he has no recollection of having met the mustachioed man who lays claim to the car. Likewise, when the Tramp later tells his benefactor about a young, blind flower seller (Virginia Cherrill) whom he has been trying to help financially, the man, again drunk and disoriented, gives him a thousand dollars for an operation that will restore her sight. The Tramp’s possession of such a sum arouses suspicions that lead to a devastating outcome, in which the police and the courts are equally complicit and equally guilty.

It’s in “City Lights” that the character of the Tramp reaches the purest expression of his nature. He is, above all, an aristocrat of the emotional realm, endowed with exquisite manners, an appreciation of the arts, a preternatural gracefulness, vast reserves of empathy and love. He has a heightened awareness of injustice and inequity and a bitter understanding that the soulful heroism of society’s vulnerable is destined to be ignored. This is something that Chaplin’s mass audience also understood intuitively. They also could identify with his taste for the pleasures and luxuries that money buys, even as they lie beyond his reach barring happy accidents, and with his sense of wounded vanity that his own sublime character, hidden beneath his bedraggled appearance, passes largely unrecognized. That’s why the Tramp, notwithstanding his charitable devotion to his fellow man in need, also has a bitter streak of resentment that he acts out with stealthy, seething, derisive aggression. This slapstick ferocity, in which he’s as often the slapper as the slappee, imparts a sense of payback and comeuppance, of revolt on an intimate scale, that is crucial to the character’s epoch-defining energy. Chaplin, as the Tramp, was a man of the people when the people were aggrieved, oppressed, and stifled—and an aristocrat inasmuch as the best of humanity is found among the despised and disdained, who indeed deserve to rule. Movies may in many respects have progressed, technically and aesthetically, since Chaplin’s rise; but their spirit has in some crucial ways regressed, into sympathy with the avatars of power rather than with its rebellious victims. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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