Charlie Chaplin films are returning to cinemas – the perfect tonic for today
Look up into the cinematic skies, during these noisy, spectacle-filled times, and you will see a consortium of heavily merchandised superheroes fighting to save the world from the latest Central Casting villain.
Endorsing the debilitating idea that humanity’s woes should be outsourced to a privileged few – the same narrative peddled during political campaigns – the mega-popular Marvel Cinematic Universe epitomises the ethos of the times.
Fetishing the elite and ignoring the power of the people, the superhero genre – as Keith A Spencer wrote for Salon in 2018 – “embeds within itself the values and beliefs that make neoliberalism function”. Some MCU superfans respond like Pavlov’s dogs to the ringing of a new blockbuster bell, and view franchise properties not just as brands but reflections of their identity – with those who take a stand against the superhero dirge du jour inevitably considered contrarians, outsiders, party crashers.
One hundred years ago an almost unthinkably different form of blockbuster cinema existed: one that cherished human values of love, empathy and compassion, revolving around the humble figure of a man known as The Tramp. He emerged from the gutter, made us laugh, think and feel, and didn’t always win in the end. He was played by Charlie Chaplin – one of cinema’s first and biggest celebrities, and one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.
Chaplin’s 1921 classic The Kid – newly restored in 4K – is back in Australian and New Zealand cinemas this week, one hundred years after premiering. Its return kickstarts two seasons of Chaplin rereleases. The first, The Silent Era, runs until October – consisting of The Kid, A Woman of Paris (from August), The Circus (September), City Lights (October) and Modern Times (November). Season two, The Talkies Era, arrives next year with The Great Dictator (January), The Gold Rush (February), Monsieur Verdoux (March) and Limelight (April).
These films are amazing to watch at any time, but particularly so these days, their sheer elegance a tonic for the chaotic modern experience. The beauty arises in part through carefully crafted long or long-ish takes, which allow the performers to establish a rhythm, a presence, a physicality reliant on themselves rather than editing room illusions. Chaplin didn’t need the magic of the movies to entertain: he was magic himself, excelling not just in physical comedy but in expressing emotions through the mechanics of a joke.
The first full-length feature directed by Chaplin, The Kid, is a wonderful, funny, crowd-pleasing picture: the story of an abandoned boy and his adopted father who takes pity on him, and raises him as his own. City Lights, about a man who becomes a street sweeper to pay to restore the sight of a blind woman who she expects will be handsome and rich (he isn’t: he’s The Tramp), remains one of the greatest romantic dramas. It’s jolly and sweet and sad, with no guarantee the characters will get together.
Chaplin found inspiration in the stories of struggling people, rich and poor. In City Lights he encounters an eccentric millionaire by the side of a river who is in a deep suicidal funk, preparing to take his own life. In a comedic twist The Tramp ends up falling in the water, and the suicidal man comes to his rescue: a life-saving reversal. They become besties and hit the town. The millionaire loves The Tramp when he’s drunk but has no recollection of him when he’s sober.
Woman in Paris is a well-made melodrama Chaplin wrote and directed but did not appear in, featuring a great performance from Edna Purviance as the well-to-do titular character whose amazing smile is a facade, hiding her pain in plain sight. Modern Times certainly does star Chaplin; who could forget the sight of him being spun around on a giant cogwheel? It is based in a world where technological progress has made it better for employers and worse for workers; the first 20 minutes engage in Marxian commentary, even if audiences may not have picked up on it at the time.
Chaplin made a strong transition to the talkies era, a time when the careers of many other silent film greats, such as Buster Keaton, came undone. His most famous work from this period is The Great Dictator, in which he satirised Hitler: an extremely risky role at any time in history. Miraculously Chaplin pulls it off, in part because he got his targets right, making fun not of the actions of the Nazis, but their perverse outlook – which he described in his autobiography as “their mystic bilge about a pure-blooded race.”
Chaplin embraced ridicule, calling it “an attitude of defiance: we must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature – or go insane.” He punched up, and used The Tramp not to laugh at the poor (he himself came from an impoverished background) but to frame stories from the perspective of a person who didn’t have any pretension; who didn’t put on airs; who was one of us. There was rarely any doubt where Chaplin’s heart was and sometimes the comedian made his thoughts painfully explicit.
The final scene in The Great Dictator, for instance, is a still-astonishing example of breaking the fourth wall, beginning with Chaplin calmly noting that “the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone” but “we have lost the way.” Soon he has worked himself into a lather, screaming for all people to “unite” and “fight for a new world” against “brutes” and “dictators”. He famously implored his love interest, Hannah, to “look up … look up!” in order to see the sun breaking through and the dawn of “a new world, a kindlier world”.
The message is clear: we can build a great human society, united but diverse, with love and respect and plenty for everybody – but only if we work together. Compare that outlook to the cookie-cutter superhero movie, which typically presents two options: trust Black Widow, or Captain America, or Iron Man, or whoever to solve our problems – or face annihilation. One of those messages is inspiring and humane; the other crude and authoritarian.