100 Years of Seeing and Hearing Charlie Chaplin

by Brian Bergen-Aurand

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It has been 100 years since Charlie Chaplin’s character of the Tramp first appeared on screen in the Keystone comedy Kid Auto Races at Venice (screened 7 February 1914). [Mabel’s Strange Predicament was the first film featuring the Tramp character but was not screened until two days after Kid Auto Races on 9 February 1914. Chaplin’s first screen appearance, not as the Tramp, occurred in Making a Living, which was first screened just a week earlier on 2 February 1914.]

Charlie Chaplin as the Tramp in Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914).

The recently published collection of essays, Refocusing Chaplin: A Screen Icon through Critical Lenses, edited by Lawrence Howe, James E. Caron, and Benjamin Click (Scarecrow Press, 2013), marks the centennial of the Tramp’s debut not so much by celebrating Chaplin’s early work but by highlighting new approaches to his middle and later work from the mid-1920s to the 1950s. Certainly, there is mention and some analysis of Chaplin’s films before his independent filmmaking–which he released through United Artists beginning in 1923. However, the primary focus of this collection lies in its concern with Chaplin’s films (and personal statements and promotional materials) around the medium’s turn to fully synchronized sound. In fact, with its special interest in reevaluating Chaplin’s innovations regarding film sound, it might be argued that the collection could have been entitled Retuning Chaplin: Silent Master and Sound Innovator. [In the interest of full disclosure, I should acknowledge that I submitted an essay on the function of Chaplin’s City Lights in the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas for this volume but that my submission was not accepted.]

According to the collection’s preface, the book, “approximates a kind of laboratory experiment in which the richness of Chaplin’s work…and the virtues and vicissitudes of interpretive theory can be tested, recalibrated, and further extended…[treating] Chaplin as both a case study and a test case.” (vi). In this light, the various chapters examine specific moments in Chaplin’s career, themes and ideas that run through several films, filmic elements that mark Chaplin’s work time and again, and the intersections of cinematic, social, political, and ethical issues that permeate Chaplin’s career as a filmmaker and public figure. (There is much here on the films and little on Chaplin’s biography, for a refreshing change.)

Individual essays employ phenomenology, Marxism, feminism, gender studies, deconstruction, psychoanalytic criticism (Lacanian), new historicism, performance studies, cultural criticism, and rhetorical analysis (or a mix of these theoretical apparatuses). They consider closely Chaplin’s characters in terms of movement and gesture, his mastery of pantomime, the excessiveness and seriousness of comedy, the roles of female characters in the films, questions of technology and progress, the relation between images and icons/visuals and visions–especially of the relation between Chaplin and the Tramp, the Other under capitalism, and Chaplin’s ambivalent regard for film sound. Although the chapters discuss other films from the periods under consideration (noting especially Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and Fritz Lang) and do acknowledge the overall trajectory of Chaplin’s filmmaking, several chapters explore in detail The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), and Limelight (1952). Three chapters render extensive engagements with Modern Times (1936).

Despite a few under-developed points in discussions of gender, sexuality, and ethical conceptions of “the other,” most of the chapters in this book are quite good–quite readable, interesting, and edifying. Furthermore, the discussions (throughout many of the chapters) of character movement and gesture, the seriousness of comedy, and film sound are especially well developed and compellingly argued.

The essays that develop phenomenological, social, cultural, and ethical regard for pantomime trace the relation between temporal and spatial movement at the center of this performative technique to analyze how  gesture and movement function contextually with reference to surrounding objects, people, and locations. And so much of Chaplin’s pantomime takes places in domestic spaces that it is hard not to see a link between his actions and his habitus or ethics. The Tramp and Chaplin’s other pantomimic permutations display a body never quite “at home,” whether in his own bedroom, an Alaskan cabin, a wealthy man’s abode, or a dictator’s office. (He is more at home in his ghetto barbershop and Calvero’s apartment, though, where the function of pantomime had shifted from comedy to drama.) This may be why so many Chaplin films end with the Tramp back on the road, shuffling away from home.

Almost every chapter of the book addresses Chaplin’s comedy to some extent, focusing often on two points: comedy and laughter and comedy in relation to excess and lack. The history of taking comedy seriously is plagued by the conflation of laughter with comedy. Since Plato, philosophers have defined the humorous in terms of laughter. Although some moments in this book also appear infected by this affliction of misidentification, they do not all succumb to it, and some propose innovative understandings of slapstick comedy’s political and ethical valences in terms of vulnerability and performativity in social and cultural situations. Furthermore, in exploring these situations, several of the essays provide solid explications of comedy with regard to absence and presence, mimesis and difference, and excess and lack, again addressing humor without reducing it the affect of laughter.

From The Circus.

In the end, though, it is the analyses of Chaplin’s ambivalent relation to film sound that most excites me about this volume. No one disputes Chaplin’s mastery of pantomime, of early film choreography, or of his talents as a “silent film” comedian. What these essays exploring Chaplin’s innovative and challenging (not just resistant and antagonistic) development of films teach us is how much Chaplin’s films offer alternative modes of thinking film sound. Much of what the authors describe of Chaplin’s non-continuity, non-narrative, non-cause-and-effect deployment of film sound recalls what the Soviet montage theorists Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Alexandrov wrote on sound, although the authors in Refocusing Chaplin never mention this connection. According to their analyses, though, we should return to Chaplin’s films for how they make us hear. Sound in Chaplin functions as counter point, juxtaposition, mimetic commentary, thematic foil, and political caution. From The Circus onwards we must learn to see sounds and hear images.

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[Currently, Brian Bergen-Aurand is editing a collection of essays on Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics, and Comedy.]

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