Charlie Chaplin, in the Lens of History Greats including Winston Churchill and Graham Greene weigh in on the legendary comic actor Charlie Chaplin in a new essay collection. Editor Richard Shickel talks about The Essential Chaplin.
NPR logo

Charlie Chaplin, in the Lens of History

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5574520/5574523" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Charlie Chaplin, in the Lens of History

Charlie Chaplin, in the Lens of History

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5574520/5574523" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Charlie Chaplin was acclaimed a genius and he spent much of his time unable to find work. He created the first unforgettable and universal character in cinema, and then a lot of the filmmaking business forgot about Charlie Chaplin. He created so much laughter, but for much of his life he was considered a sad case. Not someone to pity, though, but to admire.

Richard Schickel, the distinguished film critic, has collected 35 essays about Charlie Chaplain, from the likes of James Agee, Graham Green, Winston Churchill and Alistair Cooke, that trace the indisputable genius through triumph and decline. His book is called The Essential Chaplin: Perspectives on the Life and Art of the Great Comedian. Richard Schickel joins us from NPR West.

Mr. Schickel, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. RICHARD SCHICKEL (Film Critic): Well, thanks for having me.

SIMON: You describe, in your own introduction to the essays that it might be difficult in our time to appreciate the rapid velocity of his ascension.

Mr. SCHICKEL: Yeah. In the very early days of the movies - and he came to them in 1914 - there weren't even really movie stars, as we understand the term. He, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, really pioneered being that enigmatic creature that we now call the movie star. And so he had to improvise a kind of huge celebrity life that just landed upon him. There weren't press agents in those days. There wasn't adequate police protection. He really had to make it up as he went along, what it was to be a celebrity, how to protect his privacy, how to protect his humanity. He did a reasonably good job at being famous.

SIMON: As you describe it, he became famous making movies for Mack Sennett.

Mr. SCHICKEL: First for Mack Sennett, then - his ascension was incredibly rapid. I mean, you know, he's making, I don't know, 125 a week that first year at Sennett. You know, three years later he was signing a million dollar contract. People just picked him out. I mean, he was a more subtle comedian. You know, he was a slight man, and Sennett's comics tended to be large, clumsy guys. And so people kind of picked out the subtlety in Chaplin. And then, of course, he had, you know, a little one reel film like One A.M. It's just about man who's had too much to drink trying to get up the stairs and into his bedroom. Well, it's just hilarious.

And by 1919, he had his own studio. He was beginning to make features. And people seriously said that he was, with the conceivable exception of Adolph Hitler, the most famous man in the world.

SIMON: Perhaps not calling it this, but you, at least to my mind, wrote the best pithy description of his genius when we toss around that word as saying that he was a man who could invest motion with emotion.

Mr. SCHICKEL: As a pure comedian, with a capacity to touch on pathos, I don't think he has any real peer in the entire history of movies. There was a very interesting balance between high hilarity and deep pathos. I was just reading a nice piece by Gary Giddens about him, and Gary makes the point that no comedian of his era or maybe any era could balance those two really antithetical moods better than Chaplin, and Gary says in the piece, a lot of comedians have foundered on the pathos part of it, you know, whether it's Jerry Lewis or whoever who's trying to be - invest our deeper emotions in his work, and they kind of fall down, and it goes over into the realm of sentimentality. And I think Chapin did not often fall into the purely sentimental in his more serious passages in films like City Lights or Modern Times.

SIMON: You suggest too that what on screen seems like it has to be improvisation was anything but that. It was carefully rehearsed...

Mr. SCHICKEL: Well, he was an interesting cat in that way in that he could never write out his gags, because they were so physical and so made for the movies, so he had to make them on his feet as it were. You know, he'd just get himself and whatever other actors he required out there and they would just start improving. And he was capable of doing, you know, 40, 50, even 80 takes of a sequence. You know, he really couldn't imagine his gags. He had to see them in a physical context.

SIMON: I want to ask you about the character, the Little Tramp. You know whose essay I must say I found, first out of curiosity, it was amazing, but I found particularly interesting to read on the subject of the Tramp and forgive me for trotting this phrase into it, social mobility, was Winston Churchill. Churchill suggests that the Tramp was always roving, looking for something else, that there was restlessness to the Tramp. It wasn't just being down on your luck.

Mr. SCHICKEL: The Tramp is often employed. You know, he's a street sweeper, he's - you know, he's doing odd jobs, even a policeman in one or two films, you know. So he was not the pathetic creature, you know, begging for handouts. He was always an up and doing little guy, you know. I mean, he was trying to make a living, he was trying, as Churchill suggests, probably to rise in class, but he always had the option open to him of the open road, you know, a love affair goes bad, he loses a job, whatever happens, and you know, he could kind of waddle off down that road twirling his cane and looking for his next adventure. So, you know, he's a busy little guy.

SIMON: I want to get you to talk about the Great Dictator. I must say, of course, it's one of the few films that we can present a clip of. Chaplin had - boy, is this a phrase - strong feelings about Adolph Hitler.

(Soundbite of movie, The Great Dictator)

Mr. CHARLIE CHAPLIN (Actor) (In character): (Gibberish spoken).

Mr. SCHICKEL: Whatever else you say about The Great Dictator, which is a film I think everybody feels somewhat ambiguous about, the production of that film was an act of great moral courage on Chaplin's part. I mean, no one was...

SIMON: The early 1930s.

Mr. SCHICKEL: Early and late 1930s. I mean, you know, no one was directly assaulting Adolph Hitler the way Chaplin did. Of course, his advantage was that everybody noticed that they looked a little bit alike.

SIMON: I'm struck about the fact that you have this monster using the techniques of modern mass communication for all the worst reasons and then you have this acclaimed genius of what in those days was considered an emerging technology who in a sense is trying to remind people that there are other things you could with it too.

Mr. SCHICKEL: I think it's a very, very good point. It has to have been very significantly on Chaplin's mind when he was making The Great Dictator. Now, there is a little touch in him - Andrew Sarris said it - he said there's a little bit of - there's a little touch of Hitler in him and there's a little touch of Hitler in him, and there's a little touch of Hitler in all of us. I mean, it's kind of a grim thing to say, but I think it's true. You know, there is in all of us a desire to speak to the world, a desire to impose our ideas on the world, and you have in Chaplin a man who has the mastery of those instrumentalities by which you can communicate those thoughts. And you know, it was an enormously successful movie.

SIMON: Is there an essay you want to draw a particular attention to in here?

Mr. SCHICKEL: I mean, there are some that are in there because, frankly, I disagree with them, you know, I mean - but they're there because they represent viewpoints of Chaplin that at the time seemed interesting, you know, and kind of we moved on beyond those. I mean, there's - for example, there's a very long piece by James Agee about Monsieur Verdoux.

SIMON: About Verdoux, yeah.

Mr. SCHICKEL: Yeah, which I think is really not a very good piece, but it is, you know, an invaluable statement of a certain kind of attitude toward Chaplin and his work. Agee's particular reverence for Chaplin, I mean, you know, I guess I would call attention to that - this is me as a critic talking - about how critics can really get things wrong, you know? I mean, we have our enthusiasms, we have our passions and we invest them in something and it turns out to be, you know, this sort of (unintelligible) about Monsieur Verdoux.

But I do follow that with, you know, Dwight McDonald's, you know, sort of brisk dismissal A) of the film, and B) of Agee's writing about the film. I want to suggest that this was not just a bland beloved figure, that he stood, you know, really pretty close to the center of popular culture in the 20th century. I guess for me the point is to sort of return Chaplin to controversy, to a variety of opinion about him and say, look, this is not some antiquated, quaint figure that we have to indulge because of our nostalgia for silent moviemaking, but he is a vital figure whose life and career illuminate a lot of issues that are still issues when you talk about popular culture or popular culture's relationship to the larger world.

SIMON: Richard Schickel, who is the editor and has written his own fine introduction for The Essential Chaplin: Perspectives on the Life and Art of the Great Comedian. Mr. Schickel, thanks so much.

Mr. SCHICKEL: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

SIMON: And he will explain how critics played a role in Charlie Chaplin's career in an excerpt from his book that appears on our Web site, NPR.org.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.