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The Timeless Comedy of Charlie Chaplin

By Heather at The Film Detective

“A Day Without Laughter is a Day Wasted” - Charlie Chaplin

Imagine sitting in a dark theater. Up on the screen, a scrappy Jackie Coogan at the tender age of six peeks his head around a street corner. A large stone sits in his small hand. Setting his sights on a large window across the way, the kid artfully pitches the stone through the window, shattering the pane. Now imagine he suddenly turns to you sitting in the audience. You’re stunned in your seat as the kid hurls a rock your way, breaking the boundary separating the spectator and the spectacle. The giant screen shatters like a broken window. Suddenly, Charlie Chaplin comes along with a pane of glass, ever ready to replace the window that bridges the gap between dreams and reality. If cinema was a window, Charlie Chaplin would be the glassworker. There are many reasons to remember the king of comedy this April. Beyond celebrating his birthday on April 16th, many could benefit from a little extra cheering up in the wake of hard times. Charlie himself was no stranger to hardship, having grown up in the early 1900s impoverished in London. Both of Charlie’s parents worked in the field of entertainment. However, when his father died, Chaplin had to start work at an early age to support himself and his mother. Charlie suffered a great deal during this time, as his mother was later committed to a sanitarium, leaving Chaplin to fend for himself.

In context with the scene described earlier, Jackie Coogan plays an orphan who is taken in by the Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) in the 1921 film The Kid. Tragedy strikes when the little boy is displaced and brought to live in an orphanage. The film begins with the words: “A picture with a smile--and perhaps, a tear.” This opening line perfectly underscores Chaplin’s comedic credo which oscillates between the poles of tragedy and comedy. This comedy in particular proves that these poles are more codependent than oppositional.

Moving past his use of tragedy for laughs, Chaplin had also mastered the greatest tricks of the trade in the comedies of early cinema. For instance, Chaplin dabbled with slapstick and pantomime humor in films like The Adventurer in 1917 or The Rink in 1916. With these films, Chaplin was able to beguile his viewers with his own idiosyncratic performance of slapstick. In the same nuanced way that his films balanced elements of comedy with tragedy, the beauty of Chaplin’s slapstick was how it operated on the subtle hilarity he conveyed through facial expression and gesticulation.

Chaplin’s comedy further worked to create some much needed levity during the Great Depression. He poked fun at the upper class through a myriad of laughable depictions which always seemed to end with some down on his luck Tramp giving the boot to a stuffed shirt officer. The Tramp character, a curious little man with a mustache and cane, epitomized this sensitivity geared towards the downtrodden. In this way, his comedy indulged the imagination of the working class, giving them a world where the little guy can triumph over the powers that be. Throughout his life, Chaplin’s experience with suffering and hardship helped to inform an intrinsic comedic styling which he would later be hailed for. A styling which repurposed tragedies in a way that could bring smiles and lighten the hearts of his audience. While many of his films wrought humor out of devastating material, it’s also important to note that Chaplin’s comedy was also delicate and sensitive to the pathos of the masses. It is this amalgamation of tragedy and comedy that continues to entice his viewers still today. The comedies of Charlie Chaplin are timeless. In these trying days where smiling doesn’t come so easy, we could all take some cues from Chaplin’s many tales of resilience and hope in times of uncertainty. To get a closer look at the comedic treasures of Charlie Chaplin, The Film Detective is hosting several Chaplin classics that are currently available for streaming. Watch timeless favorites such as The Rink (1916) and The Adventurer (1917), or witness Chaplin’s rise to fame in Chaplin’s Art of Comedy (1966) on The Film Detective!


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