Chaplin's Tramp: the Great Dictator

When we think of Charlie Chaplin the first thought that we might have is one of him wearing a bowler hat, cane, classic gags, and some of the most hilarious and heartwarming films in cinema history, but perhaps one of his most important contributions to the cinema is the ‘Dramady’-a genre of film that incorporates both elements of comedy and drama. The 1921 film ‘The Kid’, opens with an intertitle reading “A picture with a smile and perhaps, a tear.” Charlie understood that making someone laugh was easy but making something enduring requires an emotional connection. He tackled poverty and paternal love while still keeping the film light and engaging. This genre is found to be so effective because as humans it allows us to find humor in our vulnerabilities. The combination of comedic and emotional scenes is more reflective of real life than just comedy or drama on its own. Heavy themes like poverty and hardship without the emotional weight of a film like ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. The core emotional truths of films that Chaplin created made them accessible not only to people back then but also to people today which is exactly why he is regarded as a master. Chaplin used these tropes to put forth messages through his films, but to understand this better we must contextualize the kind of social climate Chaplin was creating within.

It was 1918 and the first World War had just begun. It had been a few years since The Tramp, Charlie’s signature character had made his way into everyone's hearts with his ill-fitting bowler hat, saggy trousers, shrunken dinner jacket, and mustache, with mannerisms that could sneak a giggle out of even the most sophisticated. The character struck a chord with most of America, especially with the lower class, and soon with the rest of the world as well. The genius of The Tramp lies in the fact that this character was an everyman before he was identified as an outsider-which partly is how he came to win over his audience and their sympathy while playing an unlikely leading man. If we look back at American films of the time, tramps were usually portrayed as villains: housebreakers, street muggers & train robbers. It was a conscious choice to present a vagrant as a hero or a lover. Every adventure of The Tramp made the audience relate and sympathize but it was a complex process for Chaplin to finally settle on this version of The Tramp, as opposed to the ones earlier he worked on through the years. This one was soft enough for children to watch but also drunk enough for adults to laugh at.

Soon his films were making waves and were known to be screened to bolster the morale of the troops fighting the war. Praised as a miracle cure in WWI, specially fitted projectors were fit onto the ceiling of field and base hospitals so that injured soldiers could enjoy the films flickering above. Even if for just a moment, laughing at the gags helped them forget the physical and emotional trauma they were suffering. As Chaplin himself said, “Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain.” His films crossed language barriers and entertained millions. While laughter may have helped keep the war-wounded alive, British soldiers in the trenches held up cardboard cutouts of Chaplin’s Tramp, hoping the enemy would die laughing.

But with all this attention also came criticism, Chaplin was under fire for not enlisting to fight along with his people. This leads to smear campaigns and made him an easy target for journalists and cartoonists alike. A 1917 French cartoon featured the Tramp wearing a German helmet instead of his usual bowler hat.

The star’s salary was the main bone of contention for most. Chaplin had invested £25,000 in support of the war, but this wasn't enough to convince. Though for many Chaplin contributed in his own ways- lifting the weight of a gloomy period, not just for British soldiers but for the world over. He became a source of entertainment and light. Chaplin was of more use in the film studio making people laugh than he would have been on the battlefield. However, the slacker attacks continued until reports revealed Chaplin had been rejected for the draft for being undersized and underweight. He still received white feathers even years afterward.

Later he joined the war effort in 1918 and produced a short propaganda film in favor of the Third Liberty Loan. That same year, he filmed Shoulder Arms. The film combines comic situations with the realism of the trenches. Released a few weeks before Armistice, the film was a huge success. Chaplin recalled how all his friends warned against making a comedy on war, calling it dangerous, but the idea excited him. He wanted to turn trench warfare into escapism. To be sure, Chaplin includes iconic elements of trench life, such as flooding, bad food, constant bombings, and loneliness. However, any moment of tension leads to humor or triumph. No one dies. The Tramp even gets to enjoy a wonderful daydream in which he captures the Kaiser. Great propaganda as well as a sublime comedy, Shoulder Arms became “a smash hit,” It was during the interwar period that Chaplin’s political consciousness evolved, as did his concerns about the economy. A staunch pacifist, the rise of fascism in the early 1930s worried him.

The Great Dictator (1940) was a politically engaged film mixing both irony and tragedy. This being one of his most famous films, took him a step further than ‘just a comedian’, he famously spoke directly against nationalism and militarism. He played two characters, a caricature of Hitler and the role of a Jewish barber oppressed by society. For his first full-length “talkie”, the filmmaker dared to say out loud what many would have rather preferred to keep silent. Many called him a communist but Chaplin responded in a way of trying to appeal to the humanity in people, speaking about the pain Russian mothers might be enduring not being very different from our own mothers. Chaplin came to the decision to do a film like The Great Dictator in the first place because he saw a German propaganda film, and realized that the only way he could do his bit to combat Hitler himself was through mockery and so he went on to create his first full-length sound film. It lampooned Hitler, making a mockery of the German state. Hitler was parodied heavily during this film and it was received with great enthusiasm across the board. Even Hitler had been reported to insist on watching the film twice, although that fact is up for dispute. The monologue toward the end of the film has become infamous, a plea to the audience to reject fascism and war. The film was nominated for 5 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor. A shift began in Charlie Chaplin’s work, where it became clear that Chaplin’s work would be ever increasingly political.

Sometime during the 1950s, the Red Scare was at its height with many actors within Hollywood being accused of being communist sympathizers, Chaplin topped the list with public opinion of him growing sour. One of his own films, Modern Times, had been noted as having anti-capitalist beliefs. After a tour of Europe, he tried to return to America, only to learn he wasn't welcome anymore. There was intense scrutiny on him and he was requested to make a case as to why he should be able to stay. Rather than choose to stay, however, Charlie made the decision to move to Switzerland, disavowing America and its political witch hunt. Although he was under the FBI's view for forty years. To make matters worse, although Chaplin was not a Jew, his wife was, and so was his half-brother Sydney. By association, and largely due to Chaplin's portrayal of a Jewish protagonist in The Great Dictator, the rightwingers of his day savagely attacked him with anti-Semitic rhetoric. Chaplin, however, did not bother to correct them. By not taking any steps to deny he was Jewish, Chaplin publicly conferred the status of the most popular star in the world at the time upon the planet's most hyper-oppressed minority, right in the midst of the Nazis Party's genocidal 'final solution.'

For the soldiers in the first world war trenches and field hospitals, and for the vast worldwide audience that adored him, their relationship couldn’t be changed, the laughter Chaplin's Tramp induced was the antidote to the anxieties and concerns of their lives. Nothing could poison them against him. The scandal motivated him to render The Tramp more sympathetic, more prone to sweetness than petty theft and violence. Notably, The Tramp is what enabled Chaplin to be able to foray into the political issues of his day, using his films as a vehicle for his own expression, the subjugation of the politic and animosities of war.

By 1947 ‘Monsieur Verdoux’ was released, and the same year Chapli was Chaplin was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a precursor to the red-scare McCarthyism that dominated the 1950s. He was ultimately denied re-entry to the U.S. in 1952.

At a time of war, not just one but two, Chaplin found a way to communicate with his audience, even without words sometimes, to put them at ease and even if for a few seconds make them forget their troubles. But it wasn’t just escapism. He made them introspect and shone a light toward the realities, not just their own, but of those, they might have never wanted to encounter. This worked because he knew how to interweave slapstick comedy, drama, and political satire. The Tramp was the first example of this, with the rich not wanting to be faced with the reality and implications that the world had left onto the poor-the tramp became a gateway into that world, making him a more accessible, relatable character but also showing them a different world. The Tramp allowed for a common viewing experience to take took away the burden and suffering from the consequences of war. A bomb doesn’t differentiate based on class.

Although Chaplin’s Tramp is considered memorable due to his physical humor and demeanor, the character and its creator both have paved the way for future generations, changing the face of cinema and comedy alike.         

07 July 2022
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