There was once a man by the name of Charlie Chaplin, a bigger than life character. His creation, the Little Tramp was the most famed and recognizable figure on the face of the planet. A genius if there ever was one.
I can’t remember the first time I saw a Chaplin film, it seems that he always existed in one’s consciousness, but I remember as kid we would sit around the TV at night and when there was a Chaplin short on, we would get closer to the TV, right into the screen, laugh out loud, that was the first time that I became aware of the man with the small mustache, baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and the derby hat. Even today, his images is still as universally recognizable as his early days, one of the few artist, who had manged to break all boundaries through his art.
Why is Chaplin so lovable? Sentimentality is the answer, when at the end of City Light (1931) , in cinema’s most touching scene, the Little Tramp is out of jail and walking around broke and homeless, he encounter the flower girl, her sight restored thanks to him, he recognize her, but she is unable to recognize him and take him for another street tramp, all seem to have been lost, but then, she touches his hand, she recognize him, “You?”, closeup of the tramp, his eyes full of sorrow and happiness at the same time, who could not feel sad and joy at that moment. That is Chaplin’s comedy, we laugh and cry at the same time, because we relate to it, his sentimentality is always the right dose.
Chaplin’s first appearance as the little tramp was on Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), at 11 minute length, it stand out as Chaplin’s early dilemma with the audience, to make the pubic fall in love with him, the little tramp plays spectator in a car race, he keeps getting in the way of the camera , no matter where the camera is, we see the Little tramp, it’s Chaplin telling us “Get ready for me, you have seen nothing yet” The audience is everything to Chaplin. In Limelight (1952), it’s the lost of the audience that drive Calvero into performing his last show that kills him, he is now a washed-up drunk clown, in need to get his audience back, his reoccurring nightmare is performing in front of an empty theater, as much as we love Chaplin, he worked hard to makes us give him that love, he gave his best and asked us in return to give him our heart, and we did and still do.
A true artist is somebody who changes over time, who expresses that changes through his work. Life is an endless struggle of ideas and emotion, and when an artist travels through this space, he express those fear through his medium, and Chaplin’s medium was Cinema. It will only take two days in a life of a person to watch everything that Chaplin has done, from his early Keystone Shorts (1914) to his last film, A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), one sees a dramatic change from a young man who is early work is that of pure entertainment into an older philosopher who is obsesses with humanity’s suffering be it; poverty (The Kid, 1921) class different (A Woman of Paris, 1921), Greed (The Gold Rush, 1925), the cruelty of life and beauty of it (City Lights , 1931) capitalism and the unjust division of labor (Modern Times, 1936) the stupidity of war (The Great Dictator, 1941), the injustice in the world, as the Little Tramp stand in front of the judge referring to the Atomic bomb, “it’s all business. One murder makes a Villain; Millions, a Hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow” in Monsieur Verdoux (1947), the artist’ lost love with the audience as in Limelight (1952), the McCarthy’s hearings, the communist hunt and the state of in 50s as in A King in New York (1957) and his final film was a goodwill message to America and the Soviet to stop the arm race, A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) A great resume of films that makes Chaplin more of a dramatist in class of Shakespeare than just a cinematic comedian.
Once when asked, why is his camera is always statistic and not more interesting like that of Buster Keaton? Chaplin answered back saying, “Because I’m interesting!”. Indeed, there are few actors who are who more interesting on screen the Chaplin (put Marlon Brando and Greta Garbo on the list), Chaplin always dominate the space on the screen, one cannot help looking away when the Little Tramp is on screen, he is everything within the frame, Chaplin is the Little Tramp and the Little Tramp is Chaplin. When one think about the image of Chaplin, oddly enough, most of us think of the Little Tramp with baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. The mistaken identity became so popular that Chaplin was unrecognizable in real life to his fans. There is a story that once he went on a contest to ‘most look a like of the Little Tramp’ and he lost. In King Vidor’s Show People (1928), there is a scene in which Chaplin makes a cameo, after leaving the scene, Marion Davies asks “Who was that stranger?”, and to her surprise it was no other than the biggest star of his time, Charlie Chaplin.
Chaplin’s technique is simple: Minimalism. Simple set-ups with a camera at eye level, straight angle, use of high key light, cut into action, and very few camera movement. What remain on the screen is the characters and their movement. The story and the character comes before anything in the frame. The hard part of shooting like this is the actor’s strict order on hitting their mark and delivering lines on time, sometime Chaplin shot a scene more than dozens of times until he was satisfied with it. That was one of the reason that it took Chaplin years of work to turn out a single film, consider the fact that from 1931 to 1967 Chaplin only made 7 films (that is almost 5 year for a film). Simplicity made Chaplin among the few who resisted the upcoming of sound. Even after shooting his first sound film The Great Dictator (1940) he kept away from using the script strictly, there was always space to improvise. Having his own studio helped with multiple takes, improvising gags and going over budged (something that destroyed Buster Keaton was losing his freedom as an artist and signing to MGM).
One thing that even today no filmmaker has achieved:The complete creativity and freedom that Chaplin had. It is hard today to imagine that a filmmaker could have its own studio, complete freedom to write, act, produce, direct and write the music for his own film. Chaplin had it all, and he left us the greatest gift that anyone can offer, the gift to smile.