The Great Dictate-er of Satire

An urban legend goes like this: A patient visits a psychiatrist to cure his depression. And the doctor asks the patient to watch a Charlie Chaplin film every day. To which the patient replies, “I am Charlie Chaplin”.

We do not know the authenticity of this piece of trivia, but all we know is that Chaplin has been through several ups and downs in his illustrious career. At one time Chaplin was one of the most influential American actors with his picture appearing in the Time Magazine’s cover page twice. And the same Chaplin was bundled out of America during the McCarthy era, since he was a left sympathiser.

A difficult childhood marked by poverty, Chaplin was housed in a school for paupers in London, when he was around 9 years old. A few years later, his mother developed mental illness and had to be admitted to a mental asylum. And with a father who was abusive and severely alcoholic, Chaplin’s childhood was nothing short of a tragedy. From this background arose the greatest comedian of history.

The birth of The Tramp

We know the Charlie Chaplin from his oscillating walk, holding a walking stick, a derby hat that seems an extension of his body, an untidy coat over baggy pants, just the sight of which would tickle a nerve or two of ours. This character also called as The Tramp was Chaplin’s most popular on-screen character that debuted in Kid Auto Races at Venice in 1914, by when he had already moved to the US. So says Chaplin about this character:

I had no idea what makeup to put on.... However on the way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small moustache, which I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born.

Thereafter, there was no looking back for Charles Spencer Chaplin who was not only acclaimed for his direction and acting, but also received an Academy Award for ‘Best Original Score’ for Limelight in 1973.

Immortal themes

Chaplin did not hide his political inclinations. He spoke about them through his movies both subtly and overtly. And he did speak loudly through his silent movies!

In Modern Times, which is a satire on the industrialised world, the movie opens to show an assembly line with workers tightening screws one after the other. A brilliant tutorial on Marx’s theory of alienation, where the worker is alienated from the products of his labour!

With the accelerating assembly lines and the automatic ‘feeding’ machine which reduces lunch time, Chaplin takes a dig at the profit motive of the capitalist which drives him/her to farcical extents.

In The Great Dictator, Chaplin takes on Hitler and Mussolini. Though this was Chaplin’s first attempt at a talking picture, his use of sound has been extremely appreciated. When Adenoid Hynkel, the ruthless dictator of Tomainia speaks through the public audio systems installed at street corners, you do not feel like laughing. A fear runs through your spine. Because, you are reminded that your country can very well be ruled by a Fascist like Hynkel, one of these days.

And it is in this movie that Chaplin delivers one of the best movie speeches of all time - "Look up, Hannah":

The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress: the hate of men will pass and dictators die and the power they took from the people, will return to the people and so long as men die [now] liberty will never perish...

Chaplin & The Big Bully

1950’s was the period of McCarthyism, when thousands of Americans were hounded and accused of being Communists and were subjected to severe investigations with little evidence. This led to loss of jobs and imprisonments. The movie industry was targeted heavily and Chaplin was a victim of this.

In 1953, Chaplin was prevented from entering the US, because he was suspected to be a communist party sympathiser. Chaplin decided not to contest the US ban and moved to Switzerland (where he passed away silently on a Christmas day in 1977) though he went back to the US in 1972 for receiving an honorary Oscar.

In February, 2012, MI5, UK’s internal counter intelligence and security agency, released details of how FBI had requested them for information which would enable them to ban Charlie Chaplin.

And how does Chaplin react to the bullying? He does what he was best at - satire! A King of New York, a British movie on US politics and society is released in 1957.

The life of Chaplin never ceases to amuse us, like his movies.

It’s not just because his 123rd birthday passed by that we must remember him. We must remember him because his messages are as much relevant to us as was in the period of the great depression and greater dictators. Nor have we transcended the malaise of capitalism nor the trauma of fascism.