A Clown for All Times

by David Robinson

Still: Limelight


In 1916 the distinguished American actress Minnie Maddern Fiske already dared write that "a constantly increasing body of cultured, artistic people are beginning to regard the young English buffoon, Charles Chaplin, as an extraordinary artist, as well as a comic genius". Ninety years later, the American writer Andrew Sarris's view of Chaplin as "the single most important artist produced by the cinema" still prevails. Chaplin's reputation has triumphantly over-ridden periods of political mud-slinging and academic prejudice. He has never lost the love of a world-wide public such as no other artist of any kind has ever achieved. Seventy years after he last appeared before the camera, Chaplin's Little Tramp remains the world's best-known fictional human character, as well as the ultimate icon of the cinema itself.

Chaplin's art phenomenally spans three centuries. Still a vital presence in the 21st century, the most crucial period of his formation was in the 19 th century. He was twelve years old when Queen Victoria died; and by that time had suffered the privations and traumas of a childhood that was Dickensian in its London dramas. He had moreover already embarked on the profession as performer which was going to provide him with the artistic means to express what life had so early taught him. Here perhaps we find the decisive factor that makes Charles Chaplin unique and supreme among artists of the 20 th century. In his first ten years he saw more of the underside of life than most people, even in his day, ever lived to experience. While he was still a baby, his parents separated, leaving his mother to bring up her sons on pennies she earned as a seamstress. New clothes and adequate food were generally far outside their means. He saw his mother lose her health and finally her reason, while his grandmother sank into alcoholic dementia. He saw his young father die from alcohol abuse. He was painfully familiar with the inside of public institutions, and spent most of his seventh and eighth years in a home for destitute children. Thus madness, drunkenness, poverty, solitude, the squalor of the poor streets of South London were the world of his childhood. A boy of ordinary resilience would have succumbed. Chaplin absorbed it all - and survived.

Surviving, at ten years old he went to work, and as one of a group of small boys touring the music halls of late Victorian Britain, singing and performing clog dancing, he absorbed the crafts of the stage and the art of communicating with an audience. His greatest self-discovery though came at the end of his time with this troupe, the Eight Lancashire Lads, when they were engaged to play animals in the kitchen scene of Cinderella in the new and gigantic London Coliseum. As a comic cat, Chaplin first experienced the thrill of making people laugh; and later revealed the impact upon him of working alongside the great but now forgotten Spanish mime artist Marceline. From this moment, and for the rest of his life, Charles Chaplin's business was comedy - whether as the droll page-boy Billy in Sherlock Holmes, in comedy sketch companies like Repairs and Casey's Court Circus, and ultimately and most productively, for six years as a star of Fred Karno's Speechless Comedians.

When Chaplin entered films in 1914, at the age of 25, he was already a master of every aspect of comic craft - mime, movement, acrobatics, facial expression, mise-en-scène, gag creation, narrative structure, rhythm, communication. With Karno he had also learned the subtler tricks of juxtaposing comedy and pathos, and the use of music as an indispensable supplement to comic movement. In the years of touring with Karno. too, he learned improvisational skills with ‘cello, violin and piano, which were to be the basis of his work as composer. To all this he added the gifts of a protean actor - "the greatest actor of us all", said Laurence Olivier, not ordinarily given to complimenting his peers.

To this phenomenal range of craft skills, however, he added the heightened awareness of the human predicament forcibly impressed on him in his tough childhood and enlarged by years of wary, inquisitive observation of his fellow creatures during more than a decade of the rough-and-tumble of vaudeville life in Britain and new-century America. This was the miraculous combination - a great actor equipped with incomparable technical skills to express and interpret a phenomenal understanding of the human animal. Chaplin's movements, the fast-fleeting expressions of his features, always convey truthfully and completely the thoughts, the feelings, the soul of the creature within.

The final almost mystical element in his artistic preparation for the cinema was the day in January 1914 when - whether in minutes or hours we shall never know - in the costume shed of the Keystone Film Company, he threw together the outfit which would forever define the Everyman character of the Little Tramp. In the way of many great artistic creations, from The Canterbury Tales to Pather Panchali, the character is at once universal and uncompromisingly local. The clothes he wears may have come from American sweat-shops; the streets in which he moves are at once no city and every city, but the origins of that hat and cane, boots and baggy pants, and shabby tenement streets, are unmistakeably to be sought in his boydood London.

The skills he already possessed enabled him very quickly to master the techniques of his new medium the cinema. Within weeks of joining Keystone he was his own director; and was soon the equal of any director of his day. From the start he understood that technique was important to him only to provide the best stage for his character and performance. He never acknowledged the changing fashions of Hollywood style and technique or cared when critics interpreted this as conservatism, an inability to change with the times. In later years he would rebuke pedantic continuity assistants, "If they notice a little thing like that, it means they aren't watching me, and I have failed!"

Chaplin's character was loved by audiences because he shared and expressed all their own fundamental concerns and feelings and the buffeting of daily life - hunger, empty pockets, daily labour, desire, love, malice, hope. World fame and world tours however developed his already keen awareness of larger contexts of the human predicament. As early as 1917, in The Immigrant, he u comedy to interpret the griefs of emigration and - more daringly - the humiliation of immigrants by the American public authorities. In Shoulder Arms he succeeded in viewing the worst of wars through his particular medium of comedy. After seventy years, the concerns of Modern Times - urban living, automation, industrial conflict, drugs, prisons, political paranoia - are still startlingly relevant. In 1940 Chaplin's passionate personal address to the world on the verge of catastrophe, which ends The Great Dictator, embarrassed political left and political right alike. Today not a word has lost its simple, shattering truth and significance. Chaplin does not date, but always rewards revisiting and reassessment. For more than a century audiences have laughed - and learned - with Chaplin.

The Chaplin Foundation exists to ensure that new audiences continue to have the opportunity to know, understand and love the cinema's greatest artist.