Born Charles Spencer Chaplin in South London, during the reign of Queen Victoria, the world's "first international movie star" continues to delight and fascinate audiences today (Milton 1). In particular, Chaplin's invention of a stalwart character that remained his trademark "tramp" touches on deep subconscious elements in the viewer and reflects broader social, psychological, and historical trends. Although he grew up in the slums, Chaplin's mother was a music hall singer who took young Charlie with her to the theater to hear her performances and the other acts in the show. Thus, young Charlie was introduced to the power of performance art. Chaplin also developed an ear for music in this way, listening to as well as observing the theater performances in London to which he was privy. By the time Chaplin was nine years old, he was a multitalented performer who was on his way to America with a comedy theater company belonging to Fred Karno.
Chaplin understood from an early age, therefore, the dramatic importance of fusing music with comedy. During his Fred Karno years, Chaplin learned to achieve "effective comic contrast by accompanying gross slapstick with delicate 18th century melodies," (Export 1). Encounters with diverse types of performance art, from vaudeville to opera, culminated in Charlie Chaplin leaving the Fred Karno group for the budding art of motion picture making. Because of his background, music remained "ubiquitous" in all Chaplin films, including The Kid (1921), and his first talkies like Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940). By the time he was only 33 years old, Chaplin had made more than 70 films.
Around 1914, Chaplin started to experiment with a persona that would become his most iconic -- and one of the most iconic of all film history -- the tramp. A tramp was "literally a hobo," and yet was much more than that on a symbolic level and on the level of social commentary (Milton 29). Using the tramp as a trope has been criticized as a form of laziness and conceit: Chaplin into "displaying himself" as a work of art, sacrificing the overall integrity of his productions for the persona (MacDonald 5). As MacDonald puts it, "he had in mind not art but himself," (MacDonald 5). Yet Chaplin was unlike his counterpart and contemporary in silent filmmaking, Buster Keaton. Chaplin's background growing up in London, his early encounters in Paris, and his evolving awareness of politics and sociology added a socially and politically conscious dimension to his films. Critics like MacDonald describe Chaplin's political awareness as mere sentimentality, but that would be doing Chaplin a disservice (5). His knowledge of how film can be used as a tool for social change is why Chaplin was willing occasionally to sacrifice quality on the set. Elements like "hack photography, scripts, direction, and the cheapest stock sets" are part of the Chaplin feature film repertoire without detracting from the actor himself (MacDonald 5).
Chaplin's silent film The Kid was his feature-length directorial debut. Chaplin stars as The Tramp, opposite the titular kid (Jackie/John Coogin). What is remarkable about The Kid is how Chaplin is able to retain the core features of The Tramp's character while allowing The Tramp to learn, grow, and change. He is a three-dimensional tramp. At first averse to caring for the child, The Tramp comes to love and care for him as his own and must endure challenges and trials to prove his merit as a parent. The Tramp symbolizes the empowerment of the poor, downtrodden, and working class. Chaplin's character reflected the undercurrent of anxiety of economic strain, but it also represented something else: the return to the "low domains" that had become off limits to the bourgeois (Schulyer Lynn 4). Filmgoers and patrons of the arts, within the bourgeois domain, looked to The Tramp as the vicarious fulfillment of a longing to be free from obligations and social conventions.
The Tramp also symbolizes a return to purity of spirit, and thus, The Tramp and the Child are one and the same element. Many of Chaplin's films contain a child-like worldview and innocence, according to Tyler. Yet The Tramp is also transformed into a paternal figure. He is childlike in spirit, but matures into a responsible adult. Caring for the child, he is spiritually and morally upright, which are features that clearly do not depend on material wealth or social class status. The Tramp is the triumph of the working class. Chaplin "received terrific boost in his box-office appeal once he assumed the identity of a tramp," because the character reflected the "complicated attitudes toward tramps that Americans held at that time (Schlulyer Lynn 11).
Chaplin had vowed not to carry The Tramp into talkies, which is why some of Chaplin's later work in talkies has a completely different mood and feel. The childlike wonder and innocence permeating films like The Kid and others in the Tramp series remains extant occasionally, though. In Modern Times, Chaplin's factory worker character is practically and for all intents and purposes the tramp in different garb. His character works in a factory, and is thus on the lower rungs of the social ladder. After being falsely accused of being a member of the Communist Party, the protagonist is arrested and sent to jail. He thus remains in a tramp-like social position, and this also allows Chaplin to explore the emerging Communist scare sweeping the nation. Amid anti-Communist propaganda, Chaplin creates a film that is at once proudly Marxist and mocking the American stance against socialist values. Using comedy permits Chaplin an escape route or a veil from which to hide his beliefs. Moreover, as Lemaster claims, Chaplin's use of subtlety helped him create a sense of pathos and charm that allowed Charlie the Tramp to become an Everyman," (110). As with The Kid, Modern Times is about the triumph of the Everyman in a world that was becoming increasingly more sinister.
The Great Dictator seriously captures Chaplin's concern for the increasingly sinister nature of international relations. Devoid of the mask The Tramp had provided, Chaplin seamlessly weaves himself another one in this film. As a literary device, the mask allows Chaplin to explore multiple dimensions of his persona and that of the audience member. In The Great Dictator, Chaplin remarkably wears two different masks and plays two different characters that ultimately fuse in a comedic case of mistaken identity. A barber is mistaken for a dictator: a message that mocks and warns at the same time. Chaplin suggests that the greatest evils in the world, like Hitler, may reside in the Everyman just as the greatest good in the world does too. Chaplin was later accused of being a Communist, during the height of the scare, which caused his 1952 film Limelight to be passed over and two decades later re-reviewed and honored at the Academy Awards. It is therefore poignant and ironic that Chaplin produced The Great Dictator ten years prior to Limelight, as if Chaplin had foreseen that the social and political problems plaguing the world would affect him personally.
Musical score, cinematography, and other elements of the craft are in fine form in The Great Dictator, as sophisticated as are in Modern Times. Diagonal camera angles, rapid cuts between scenes, and deft mis-en-scene reveal Chaplin's gift for direction as well as acting. As a spoken actor, Chaplin relies only slightly less on his body language. His nonverbal communication, honed to a tee, speaks many more volumes than his lines do in Modern Times and also in The Great Dictator. His acting skills in The Kid rely only on body language and facial expression.
As a director, Chaplin also controls the pacing of his talking films well. He does this in his silent features and shorts, as well as in the talkies.…