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What Made Charlie Run? : From destitution to global acclaim: A look at Chaplin on the 100th anniversary of his birth

April 16, 1989|STEPHEN M. WEISSMAN MD | Weissman is a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Washington, D.C. He is currently writing a psychological biography of Charlie Chaplin to be published by Alfred A. Knopf. This article reflects Weissman's research on Chaplin's life and his interpretation of the politics of the comedian's times. In addition to being an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at George Washington University Medical School, Weissman was recently a visiting lecturer at the USC School of Cinema and Television. He has written biographical studies of Frederick Douglass and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. and

No one was more shocked than Charlie Chaplin himself by his Little Tramp character's meteoric rise to fame in this country in 1915.

Having arrived on a vaudeville tour just five years earlier, the shy and reserved former British music hall comedian confided: "I can't understand all this stuff. I am just a little nickel comedian trying to make people laugh. They act as though I were the king of England."

It was precisely because admission to Chaplin's films at nickelodeons across the country was so affordable--just a nickel--that the quiet little Englishman was so rapidly crowned America's King of Comedy.

Viewed in retrospect, Chaplin's decision to concentrate upon developing his own psychological sentimental slapstick could not have come at a more opportune time. As far as the World-War-I-weary world was concerned, it was welcome relief.

By spring of 1915, he had created "The Tramp," his first bittersweet comedy with a signature ending in which--plucky and resilient after losing in love--his homeless comic hero waddles down life's highway, desolate and utterly alone.

That distinctive Chaplin touch of sentimental pathos coupled with the recurrent theme of going it alone stemmed from a deeply painful boyhood. By transforming his real-life experiences as a Cockney ragamuffin into his screen character, Chaplin was able to catapult from poverty to wealth and from obscurity into fame.

Homelessness--as pressing an issue in post-Dickensian England as it is in modern America--was integral to Chaplin's childhood and would become a haunting motif in the poignant social commentary of his later feature films as well. On a few rare but nightmarishly unforgettable occasions as a very young child, Chaplin had been forced to sleep on the streets of London and to forage for food in garbage pails. He knew painfully, as well, what life was like in the orphanages and poorhouses of Edwardian London. Chaplin's fictional film character both drew upon and comically depicted those agonizing early encounters with urban dislocation.

Chaplin's father was an alcoholic who died when Charlie was 12, and his mother became a chronically psychotic woman who was in and out of mental institutions.

Lives like Chaplin's are now being systematically studied by social scientists. They are finding that all children subjected to homelessness and severe stess don't turn out the same way. While many become severely disturbed adults, others, like Chaplin, surprisingly turn out to be smart, resourceful, streetwise, superkids (the psychological term to describe them is "invulnerables").

As adults they may go on to lead paradoxically high-achieving and remarkable lives as valued members of society. Chaplin was such a person, and his famous film character and alter-ego "Charlie" was as well.

Chaplin's first feature-length comedy and masterpiece, "The Kid" (1921), was a remarkable film in which the Little Tramp found, adopted and raised a lost child. While "The Kid" derived its immediate inspiration from 30-year-old Chaplin's personal bereavement (his first-born son had died a few days after birth, only 2 1/2 weeks before Chaplin began shooting the film), its twin themes of emotional loss and homelessness resonated with contemporary social concerns. On everyone's minds were the displaced refugee children of World War I, as well as for those persons grieving for loved ones killed in that war.

And among intellectuals, Charlie's cinematic lost child spoke to a lost generation. No movie maker and no other movie (with the exception of Griffith's "Birth of a Nation") had done as much in one single stroke to earn instant recognition for the cinema as a legitimate art form.

During the worldwide economic crisis of the 1930s, Chaplin attempted to place the grim problems of society into a comic perspective through the running satiric commentary of "Modern Times."

Stationing his Little Tramp squarely in the middle of the mess by casting him as a black-sheep factory worker who was no more a conscientious member in good standing of the organized masses than he was among those in the ruling classes, Chaplin poked good-natured fun at both sides. Kidding profit-conscious management for its indifference to the welfare of workers, he ribbed strike-happy, organized labor for its equally myopic unwillingness to let big business get back on its feet by making less aggressive wage demands. Steering clear of collective utopian solutions, his comedy ended with his own signature exit, wandering down life's highway. "Charlie" shuffled off into the dawn of a new day, arm in arm with an equally scruffy female companion (Paulette Goddard).

"Buck up--never say die! We'll get along," are his final comforting words to her and his Depression-conscious audience.

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