Today we mark the 125th anniversary of silent film star Charlie Chaplin’s birth. While best remembered for his character, the Little Tramp, his career was much broader than that one famous visage. He was a director, a screen writer and a composer. Along with other film luminaries, D. W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, Chaplin founded the United Artists production company. Long recognized as one of the most influential filmmakers of all time, it’s fitting that we take stock of his legacy.
Perhaps his greatest impact was not as a pioneering film comedian, although he was certainly that. Rather, it is his integration of biting and insightful social commentary that makes his work especially consequent.
Chaplin spent a large portion of his life living in the United States, but he never became a U.S. citizen. He was also an ardent pacifist and accused of Communist sympathies.
These twined forces led U.S. Immigration officials to bar his return from an overseas tour. With his wife Oona O’Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, and their eight children, Chaplin moved to Switzerland. He did not return to the United States for 20 years. Only in 1972, when he was presented with a special Academy Award for “the incalculable effect he has had on making motion pictures the art for and of this century” did he return.
We see Chaplin’s social and political commentary on full display in the films, Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940).
Modern Times marked the final film appearance of Chaplin’s Little Tramp. Chaplin’s protagonist faces a number of forces arrayed in conspiracy against him. It’s the height of the Great Depression. Mass unemployment coincides with a terrific rise in industrial automation. Humans come to serve the great industrial apparatus instead of the other way around. This nexus of automation and desperate poverty was very troubling to Chaplin.
Chaplin saw the effects of the global crisis firsthand as he embarked on an 18-month world tour during 1931-1932. In Europe, Chaplin saw the rise of nationalism and the increasing economic, social and political marginalization of many people. According to his official website, “He read books on economic theory; and devised his own Economic Solution, an intelligent exercise in utopian idealism, based on a more equitable distribution not just of wealth but of work.”
In 1931 he told a newspaper interviewer, “Unemployment is the vital question … Machinery should benefit mankind. It should not spell tragedy and throw it out of work.”
We see a similar theme in The Great Dictator. In what is a clear parody of Hitler’s Germany, Chaplin manages to explore all the deleterious effects of nationalism, anti-Semitism and persecution. What is perhaps most amazing is Chaplin’s ability to positions these difficult themes in a poignant and often humorous light.
In the present era, many filmmakers attempt to do what Chaplin did with such aplomb. Unfortunately, few succeed. It is easy to present a heavy-handed morality tale. It’s easy to show pain and suffering. It’s easy to vilify ready-made bad guys. It’s not easy to frame all the hurt and injustice of the world in story that is not so self-important.
Writers and artists have known this truth for a long time. The 16th century Japanese swordsman and author, Miyamoto Musashi, once wrote, “Think deeply about the world and lightly about oneself.” This is exactly what Chaplin did. Chaplin gave the rest of us an accessible window into difficult themes, and in doing so made generations not only laugh, but also think.