There is just published a new biography: Charlie Chaplin by Peter Ackroyd. The publishers are marking the 125th anniversary of the comic’s birth.
It is, however, the wrong anniversary.
As 100 years ago this year, a 25 year old English music hall artist was asked to come to California to make a screen test. Soon he was stood dressed with cane and bowler hat and, as the director shouted “Action,” a screen legend was born.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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At the end of 1914, Chaplin had made 36 “Shorts” and was the most popular comic actor in Hollywood. By the end of the following year, he was the most famous man on the planet.
The early life of Chaplin could have been written by Dickens, such was its hardship and suffering, to say nothing of the characters that inhabited the south London world from which he came. In fact, the infamous blacking factory and debtors’ prison that marked the youth of Dickens were only streets away from where the actor had emerged. In any event, by the actor’s time not that much had changed. Just as in Dickens’ day, alongside the poverty and the daily struggle for survival, lurked a more insidious enemy—despair, with often alcohol and madness the only means of escape—both of which were present in Chaplin’s family. In later life, the adult actor rarely drank and retained a dread of insanity, no doubt due to the incarcerations in asylum after asylum of his mother, who, in spite of everything, tried her best to raise both Chaplin and his half-brother, Sydney. Inevitably, it was to be a chaotic childhood, with the family constantly moving, often from debts. The boys received little by way of formal education. To the outsider these formative years resemble some bizarre theatre piece acted out on the streets, with the daily melodrama only occasionally interrupted with comic interludes. Perhaps it is no wonder then, that, at the age of 10, the young Charles Chaplin took his acting to where it could be best used—the stage.
Chaplin entered the world of music hall—comedic turns together with popular music, largely for the benefit of the poorer classes. Initially a child dancer, he soon gravitated to other roles. Gradually, his name was becoming known, however, as 1913 proceeded, no one could have imagined what was about to take place. What looked like the well-worn career trajectory of a theatre actor was to change suddenly when, whilst touring for the first time in the United States, Chaplin was ‘spotted’. Keystone Studios, famous for its comedies, had had an actor walk out—they needed another one. Someone had seen an English actor on stage, but no one could remember his name. Eventually, Chaplin was tracked down, and was soon bound for Hollywood. The rest as they say—and, for once justifiably—is history.
On his arrival there, it was not long before something started to become clear: to Chaplin, the producers and directors, to the other actors and above all to the audience. At the genesis of the most important art form of the twentieth century, there had appeared one who was to transform it from a popular entertainment into art. The hour of Cinema had come and so had the man.
Today it is difficult to comprehend the scale of the fame Chaplin endured. ‘Endured’ seems the appropriate word, for, although there had been popular actors and stage performers, there were none that had had the fame that within two years of arriving in Hollywood the Englishman was to find. Soon he had become a phenomenon—some estimate his global audience at 300 million. By 1921, his first post-celebrity trip back to London was filled with crowds—everywhere, at all times—gathering wherever the actor was: besieging hotels, following after him, staring at him—all the while wanting to reach out and touch this new idol. For him any semblance of normal life was now impossible.
Watched around the clock on movie screens from California to China, Chaplin realized that he was captive there, trapped in the public gaze, and, would remain so for the rest of his life.
Success on screen was not matched by his life off it. In the end, it was to be a trail of unhappy relationships. A constant reminder of the sadness and madness he thought he had escaped, as the ghosts of London still cast their gloom. Consequently, as his name grew brighter on the lights above the movie theatres the shadows in his private life continued to lengthen.
As the years passed, the screen increasingly became his only haven, paradoxically a “private” place where his imagination could run free with his soul bared. Throughout, as with all artistic work, there was exhibited as much the artist as his work, and this included the spiritual, albeit in Chaplin’s case more covert than overt. Here was an artist who projected a world-view as much as contemporaries such as Picasso or Joyce, and one more accessible to popular audiences. In the midst of the Modernism that surrounded him, Chaplin’s work seemed to come from a different place, one more unconcealed, rejoicing in the ordinariness of human existence with all its hidden beauty and mystery.
By 1927 “the talkies” arrived.
In 1931, Chaplin had ignored this “advance” and instead released a silent film. At the time, this was viewed to be either the act of a madman or a genius. City Lights was instantly hailed as a classic and was soon a box office success. It featured the character of the Little Tramp. This cinematic masterpiece of characterization had evolved much from his first appearance in 1914. By now, a much more thoughtful, selfless and indeed endearing character had emerged—in turns both philosophical and compassionate.
From the opening shots, it is hard not to smile if not laugh when the Little Tramp appears. Along with Harry Lime’s performance in The Third Man, this is perhaps one of the most iconic entries in Cinema, and much the funniest. The story is, as in the best movies, pretty straightforward. The Little Tramp meets a blind flower-seller and is smitten. The comedy is, of course, that she thinks her admirer is a wealthy man. Along the way, after the saving of a man from suicide by the tramp the possibility arises of obtaining an operation for the blind girl to gain her sight.
It is a love story, but like few others captured on the screen. For here is a man in love who will do anything to help give sight to the woman he loves, and yet, all the time is fully aware that that may mean the end of the courtship. “Wonderful” she says on hearing of the possibility of an eye operation “I’ll be able to see you,” however, at this prospect, the tramp’s look is only one of terror.
The ending of the film has to be one of most sublime in all Cinema. And yet, it is impossible to be definitive about “how” it ends. The flower seller sees him, but doesn’t “see” him. Then she touches his arm, and in that touch she recognizes him.
Only a few days ago, with the Gospel that of the story of Emmaus, commenting on those downhearted followers of the Crucified, Pope Francis recalled a saying of Pope St. John Paul II namely that, in the light of Easter, we are all now pilgrims, no longer vagabonds lost in the paths of the world but instead making our way to Emmaus. True for Cinema’s greatest vagabond as much as for the rest of us?
Just like the downhearted disciples, at the end of City Lights the “blind” girl has lost sight of her “savior”: the one who “gave” her sight. Eventually, he does return to her if anonymously, simply passing by. And yet, at that moment so much is at stake for both as he watches for any sign of recognition. But it doesn’t come. It is only at the touching of his flesh as she gives him a flower that she begins to “see.” An echo of 2,000 years ago … the breaking of bread, “touching the Flesh,” and with it the weary traveler’s eyes open to Him who is in their midst—Love itself.
In St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, there hangs a painting: The Light of the World by Holman Hunt. It is a post-Resurrection scene. The risen Christ, still with the visible marks of Crucifixion, holds a lantern, a symbol of the Light that has come into the world and, in spite of everything, has not been extinguished. This is not the focus of the painting, however. Instead, it is the door upon which He knocks, asking entry through it to the heart within. The door is curious, though, for it has no handle. There is no way of opening it but from the inside.
At the end of City Lights, the Little Tramp stands awaiting the opening of the door of the heart of his beloved. Battered and bruised, having been to prison and back for her, something of which she is wholly ignorant, he waits. In those final moments, the Little Tramp becomes every one of us who has ever loved and longed for that love to be returned, but, as well, albeit through a lens darkly, he is a dim reflection of another Love that has waited, and waits for us still.
And that is how City Lights “ends.”
But, it is no ending. Deliberately so, perhaps, for “the ending” is still being written, in the hearts of all those now watching and all those who shall continue to do so until film ceases to exist and the world no longer sits in darkness watching lights upon a screen, but instead gazes upon the gathering glory of the returning true Light.