Chaplin, Metastasis

Urban Comedy and Modernity

 | Essay |

  BY Morris Dickstein

No doubt there are as may different answers to that question as there are kinds of comedy, but here I’d like to explore the relation between comedy and social insecurity or eelings of marginality. My main exhibit is the work of Charlie Chaplin, the most celebrated comedian of the twentieth century, whose tramp-hero is the marginal man par excellence.

But akin to the pathos and defensive humour of Chaplin’s anti-hero is a long tradition o Jewish humor – whether naïve as in the famous Chelm stories or sophisticated, as in the work of S.J. Perelman, Nathanael West, Nichols and May, and Woody Allen – feeds on anxieties with which an audience can easily identify.

This kind o comedy becomes increasingly important as modern life becomes more urbanized and industrialized, as it dissolves traditional social ties and replaces them with more impersonal economic ones. The city, as Georg Simmel has written, “grants to the individual a kind and an amount of personal freedom which has no analogy whatsoever under other conditions.” Yet at the same time it creates uncertainties of identity and status unknown in rural and small-town society.

Under these conditions the Jew, with his long experience of marginality, his painful history in every society in which he has been un uneasy guest, becomes a modern Everyman. This helps explain why Jewish humor proves to have an enormous appeal beyond its natural constituency. Humor is rarely exportable, but Jewish vulnerability – and the impulse to defensive self-mockery – seems to be something that many other people have experienced.

All through his career in a Hollywood built by Jewish moguls out of an immigrant’s fantasy of the American Dream, Charlie Chaplin played cat-and-mouse with the idea of being Jewish. During the 30’s and 40’she was universally assumed to be atleast part Jewish. This was asserted as fact by his scrupulous biographer Theodore Huff in 1951, only to be denied by Chaplin himself in his autobiography thirteen years later. His most recent biographer, John McCabe, throws up his hands in despair at Chaplin’s many contradictory remarks on the subject. To Huff Chaplin was “an extremely complex personality… enigmatic about his birth, family background, childhood, and early youth”. To a degree this remain true even after the wealth of Dickensian detail which the actor finally put on record in his memoirs at the age of 75.

But there are many sources of marginality besides religion, including gender, early psychic wounds, class and social origins. Whether or not Chaplin was a Jew, his book certainly showed that he was a creature of the seamy underside of city life. Today it is hard to separate the tramp character from Chaplin’s own unforgettable account of how drink, destitution, insanity, death and the workhouse plagued his luckless parents during his early years, as this vaudeville family clung to the tattered remnants of its former gentility.

The tramp, after all, is a decayed gentleman holding on to the appearance of respectability long after the substance, if he ever had it, has vanished. In other terms, he is a character who – like the music hall comedians among whom Chaplin grew up – literally creates himself before other people, in a world that’s always a stage. Such a fluidity of identity is characteristic of city life, where the ascribed roles and family roots of rural society slide over towards anonymity, and people can sometimes become whatever they appear to be.

This play of appearances, rich with social nuance, is one of the keys to Chaplin’s art as well as his amazing modernity and timelessness, which some critics no longer recognise behind his “old-fashioned” technique.

It’s no accident that writers from Melville to Ralph Ellison have settled on the con man an trickster as an archetypal modern figure; Chaplin’s tramp survives through many of the same qualities of resourcefulness and self-adaptation.

No one has ever accused Chaplin of being a modernist, in the sense of belonging to a vanguard committed to asthetic experimentation. Though film is nothing if not a modern medium, Chaplin’s own artistic credo is rooted in vaudeville and pantomime, the clown tradition, and even Victorian melodrama. “To me,” he once said, “theatricalism means dramatic embellishment… the abrupt closing of a book the lighting of a cigarette; the effects offstage, a pistol shot, a cry, a fall, a crash an effective entrance, an effective exit… they are the poetry of the theatre.”

But Chaplin let himself out of his most theatrical film, A Woman of Paris; his tramp character is too protean to be accommodated by any well-made play. Living by his wits, full of invention, the tramp is always making himself up as he goes along, with his fluidity and grace of physical movement expressing his supple identity. If such self-creation is a facet of city life, it’s also typical of the Jew who is trying to pass indeed, it’s a distinguishing feature of modern life itself, when people can no longer kept, “in their place” because their place has been eliminated or altered beyond recognition, and they are constantly bombarded by images of alternative lives, which make them dreamy and discontented. It’s easy to forget that in films like The Bank and The Gold Rush, Chaplin is a great poet of revery; his lowly hero has lyrical dreams in which he triumphs as a lover or a man of action. These compensatory dreams mark him as a man of imagination but also confirm his status as an outsider, a social reject.

This kind of ambitious dreaming is a characteristic modern theme, a theme of feverish aspiration inspired by images of other lives and higher possibilities. For Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, the streets, shops and department stores of Chicago form a gallery of possibilities undreamt of back in the small town. Don Quixote, Julien Sorel and Emma Bovary are uprooted by the books they read, but in the twentieth century our fantasy lives are usually stocked with movie material, with a galaxy of stars and easy wish fulfillments that are larger than life – indeed, that are a deliberate reversal of the frustrations of everyday life. Eventually, movies began to make this dream process one of their own themes.


Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924)

In Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924) Buster plays a projectionist who falls asleep and becomes part of the movie he is showing, during which he performs extraordinary feats denied to him in the most mundane story that frames this astonishing sequence. Chaplin’s tramp gets the girl more often in dream than in reality. Different as they are, Belmondo in Breathless and Woody Allen in Play it Again, Sam share a dream of becoming Humphrey Bogart. In this typical modern landscape, the comic incongruity separates fact from fantasy, social condition from dreamy aspiration.

No one has ever given a better account of the irreducible individual caught in the impersonal machinery of modern society than Chaplin in the great first reel of Modern Times. Yet comedy in general is something alien to our classic discussions of modernism, which invariably emphasise its bleaker and more problematic side, as in Irving Howe’s instance that “nihilism lies at the center of all that we mean by modernist literature.”

Comedy is much less alien to modern art itself, from the savage humor of Dada and surrealism to the linguistic dandyism of the early Wallace Stevens to the slightly Chaplinesque Jewish hero of Joyce’s Ulysses to the grim existential humor of Beckett, Ionesco and the Theatre of the Absurd to the playful wit of Picasso, Satie and Cocteau to the gay effusiveness of Pop Art and the New York Poets of the 50s and the 60s.

Many of the modernists were enthusiastic consumers of popular culture, which they preferred to the cant of the official culture of their day. They were drawn to the unpretentious vitality of the music hall and the cinema over the commercial slickness or suffocating seriousness of the theatre and the novel. The modernists loved art that looked naïve and spontaneous, however much subtlety had gone into it, art which seemed at one with its audience in a way that usually eluded them. The silent comedy of Keaton an Chaplin was extravagantly admired by the surrealists and early modernists for the way it effortlessly evaded the constraints of the official realism while remaining close to ordinary life.

Like Shakespeare’s plays and Dickens’ novels, Chaplin’s films transcend our artificial distinctions between high culture and popular culture. He was at once a consummated artist and probably the most beloved and widely known performer who ever lived. As an obsessive perfectionist he was almost unbearable to work for he usually shot hundreds of feet of film for every foot he eventually used. Yet he also prided himself on the universality of his visual language. His films are as  accessible to children as to greybeards they meant as much in the African bush, where his face was readily recognized, as in cosmopolitan New York, where a theatre in the 1920s showed his work for ten years running. He was devoted to pantomime as theessence of all acting, and he bitterly resented the coming of sound for impaling the cinema of language barriers and talking heads.

Several of the most traumatic moments of his early years, as described in his memoirs, are associated with sound and language.

His mother’s career as a performer – and the family’s fortunes – disintegrated when her voice began to fail her on the stage. His own career began prematurely, at the age of five, when he was led out to replace her before a jeering audience in the middle of a performance.

“That night was my first appearance on the stage and my mother’s last, “ he tells us, as if the poor woman had died while giving birth – to him. Years later he landed his first part as an actor and, still barely literature, needed his older brother to read it to him and help him memorise it.

Once, out of work, he goes on the stage as “Sam Cohen, the Jewish comedian, “ but finds himself unable to mater either the jokes, the physical appearance or the requisite accent he falls instead into an anti-Semitic caricature. His memoirs pass over this problem of identification only to underline his trauma as a performer:

That ghastly experience taught me to see myself in a truer light. I realized was not a vaudeville comedian, I had not that intimate, come-hither faculty with an audience and I consoled myself with being a character comedian.

Chaplin’s failure to play the Jew, to achieve rapport with the audience, turns him into a virtuoso impersonator of other characters. But his failure to achieve intimacy was also a failure with language.

Later in the book – a book he was very proud of writing – the autodidact takes note of the insecurity at the root of his passion for reading “I Wanted to know, not for the love of knowledge but a a defense against the worlds contempt for the ignorant.”

The same social insecurity that turned Chaplin into a reader became the unacknowledged basis for his art. The Jewish comedian must have been the last role he was unable to play, for he turned himself into a performer who could mimic anyone and anything. “He could probably pantomime Bryce’s The American Commonwealth,” said James Agee, “… and make it paralyzingly funny into the bargain.”

Confused about his own identity, he became everyone and no one, and achieved a complicity with audiences that had eluded him as an individual. The long-standing myths about his background and even his birthplace, the enigma of his religion – which he often fed with misinformation – all belong to the domain of what he suppressed as he reformed himself with every part, every gesture.

By 1940, with the world in flames, he was even able to play the part of the Jewish barber, though not as well as he imitated the absurd dictator, who happened to resemble the famous actor (actually born only a week later). With this dual role Chaplin expressed his ambivalent identity. By telling us that torturer and victim were really the same person – that “”we have all of us,” as Wordsworth said, “one human heart” – Chaplin avoided casting himself solely as the victim, a role that history had already carved out for the Jews.

Once the Tramp could fight back in the early films he even had a great deal of the rogue in him. Now, even more than in Modern Times, he has been overtaken by history, overwhelmed by forces that render his defenses irrelevant. This is the last film in which the Tramp appears, ad it ends on an uplifting note which is actually a confession of failure: an impassioned speech – not by the Tramp, the Tramp is gone – but by the actor direct to his audience. Impersonation has run its course; the reign of language has begun.

What is suppressed in the mind remains covertly present, always threatening to reappear or showing itself in what does appear. This is the essence of Freud’s theory of wit as a defensive process in his Joes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, whose raw material is the self-deprecating Jewish anecdotes he love to collect. But Freud perversely ignores the social sources of these defensive strategies, and confines himself to the psychic process alone. Chaplin’s autobiography is full of evidence of his lucky inability to put the troubled conditions of his early years behind him. No sooner did he escape poverty than he began to make emotional visits to his boyhood haunts, visits in which nostalgia and revulsion were strongly intermingled. In one sense all of his work is a series of nostalgic visits to the marginal existence he had left behind yet integrated into his art through the character of the tramp.

As a child living from hand to mouth, from odd job to odd job, by the age of twelve, says his biographer Roger Manvell, “he had passed through virtually every strong experience that was to illuminate his art”. This come to mind later when Manvell catalogues the variety of roles the tramp would play in Chaplin’s earliest films. He was “a comic chameleon who could become anything the situation demanded – not only a waiter, an ex-convict or petty crook, a prop man in a vaudeville theatre, a janitor, a cook, a baker’s, a piano-mover’s or a paperhanger’s assistant, but also an errant husband, a city slicker, a film actor and a fake boxer”.

Thomas Bure, writer who shared his background and knew the dark side of London, met Chaplin during his famous return visit in 1921 at the height of his celebrity. Burke shrewdly observed that, 

He is first and last an actor, possessed by this, that or the other. He lives only in a role, and without it he is lost. As he cannot find the inner Chaplin, there is nothing for him, at grievous moments, to retire into he is compelled to merged himself, or be merged, in an imagined and superimposed life… It might explain why he is unknowable.

This may be true for most actors, who, as Diderot notes, may be most convincing, when they are most detached, and who may cease to be interesting the moment they try to “be themselves”. Actors, like other artists turn their early wounds into sources of strength, their marginality into mobility, their anxiety into empathy and finally into control.

What can be said of acting can also be said of comedy. It would be too sweeping to say that all comedy is based on insecurity, but this is certainly true of Chaplin’s comedy, and it connects him to the whole tradition of Jewish humour, from the defensive saintliness and ineptitude of the classic schlemiel, to the nihilistic antics of the Marx Brothers, to the neurotic intellectuality of Woody Allen.


The Marx Brothers

Chaplin’s early life was so painful he didn’t have to be Jewish the memory of his indignity was the fuel of his genius. Seen in this light, comedy is an obsessive return to – and mastery of – painful situations. The Comedian is the goat who volunteers for public sacrifice, and thus cements the bonds of the community he is the fool whose folly proves wise, the lowly subject who is finally crowned king. He disarms what most upsets him by exposing it publicly, by turning secret humiliations into shared laughter.

The Jewish comedian may have few other avenues to success and recognition. Striking out indiscriminately at himself an at the world, he is a prime example o what J.M. Cuddihy calls, ‘the ordeal of civility”, the trauma of social acceptance for the ambivalent outsider. Yet long before Jewish emancipation from the ghetto, as far back as Aristophanes, humor took upon itself the double mission of satirizing society and reconciling us to it.

By ventilating discontent, by playing on the distance between is an ought, humour can be either subversive or quite harmless – a safety-valve for the status quo. The cynicism of folk wisdom, so free of illusion, is also free of hope, shot through with a sense of fatality. In this sense humour is conservative.

Yet very little has been written about the contrary tendency its subversive and anarchic potentialities. In the comedies of Howard Hawks, for example, rapid-fire dialogue becomes the spirited equivalent o swift, sure physical movement in the silent films of Chaplin and Keaton. Just as Chaplin plays off his own agility against lumbering “heavies”, who are too slow or rigid to match his resourceful dexterity, Hawks sets off his own irrepressible id-figures against characters who lumber orally, who o not flow. In Hawks the theme is a Freudian one – an explosion of energy and libido against the rigid ramparts o routine an constraint – but in Chaplin, who did not grow up rich, as Hawks did, the theme has a much more social dimension.

In a 1918 article called “What People Laugh At”, the key word Chaplin uses is “dignity”. People love to see the early comedies make fun of cops, he says “Here were men representing the dignity of the law, often very pompous themselves, being made ridiculous and undignified.” There is also, he says, “the delight the average person takes in seeing wealth and luxury in trouble”. On the other hand, the tramp is the man who, “having had something funny happen to him, refuses to admit that anything out o the way has happened, and attempts to maintain his dignity… All my pictures are built around the idea of me getting into trouble and so giving me the chance to be desperately serious in my attempt to appear as a normal little gentleman.”

(One example is Chaplin’s famous drunken solo in One A.M., a routine he had often done on the stage. Instead of doing a rip-roaring drunk he tries hilariously to remain in control. “Intoxicated characters on the stage are almost always ‘slightly tipsy’ with an attempt at dignity, because theatrical managers have learned that this attempt at dignity is funny”)

This “dignity”, the visual emblem of class an respectability, is not simply a way of maintaining appearances in a shifting world where appearance helps determine social position. Directed at the rich and powerful, it is an instance of what Freud calls the comedy of “unmasking” – “the method of degrading the dignity of individuals by directing attention to the frailties which they share with all humanity, but in particular the dependence of their mental functions on certain bodily needs.” Attacking their dignity is a way of deflating the authority of the law and the snobbery of the rich. But for the underdog character, the social misfit, this attempt at dignity is a psychological necessity, an instrument of survival. The tramp keeps his self-respect even when he gets respect from no one else. When his kernel of humanity goes unnoticed, we notice it, for we share it.

The advantage of the tramp over his larger and stronger tormentors is not simply his physical agility but his agility of min. In The Gold Rush the starving man turns shoe-leather and laces into a gourmet meal, a triumph of mind over matter, while his companion, a man of more limited imagination, looks on in disbelief. But when he is hungry enough his min plays tricks on him and turns the Tramp into an enormous chicken. Later, Charlie, whose imaginative flights are less predatory, conjures up a dream o love and warmth around the dance of the Oceana rolls, a fantasy that is later realised by the film’s happy ending. In this picture, unusually, the Tramp finally becomes rich, as Chaplin himself had, but on the boat bound for home he wins the girl only by reassuming his Tramp costume and falling back into steerage. Only then does he know that he’s loved for himself, not for his money.

The subversive qualities of Chaplin’s films and of most comedies arise out of a deep-seated conservatism. Chaplin stays close to the bone of human experience, emphasizing our need for food, love, warmth, nurture an self-regard, which society often fails to provide. Modernist works, with notable exceptions – Beckett’s plays, Joyce’s Ulysses, Kafka’s Metamorphosis – rarely function well on this basic and quotidian level.

When modernists express their wonder at Chaplin they often slight his fundamental humanity and turn him into a surrealist, or a formal innovator like themselves. “The egregious merit of Chaplin”, says T.S. Eliot, “is that he has escaped his own way from the realism of the cinema and invented a rhythm.” Even James Agee who had celebrated his own discovery of ordinary life in the tortured pages of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, echoes Eliot when he says brilliantly that “Chaplin got his laughter less from gags, or from milking them in any ordinary sense, than through his genius for what might be called inflection – the perfect, changeful shading of his physical and emotional attitudes towards the gag.”

Chaplin’s own accounts of his own working method are quite different, stressing above all his need for close observation and likeness to life. (As early as 1915 he wrote: We rehearsed over fifty times some of the small situations… This way because I was striving for naturalness, and it meant intense concentration and hard work for all of us.”

I cannot here discuss in detail the Marx Brothers and their occasional scenarist S.J. Perelman, and his brother-in-law, Nathanael West, and finally, the more consciously modern comedy of Woody Allen. But I believe they exploit some of the same outsider motifs that ally Chaplin’s work to the tradition of Jewish and urban humour.

“Jews are marginal men,” wrote Isaac Roenfeld in 1944, and the Jewish writer is a “specialist in alienation,” yet this disability gives him an ideal perspective on modern society, in which displacement, exile and change are almost the norm rather than the exception.

One of the ways the Jew triumphs over his marginality and expresses it is through language, making an alien tongue the instrument of his needs. Yet for the immigrant, as for the pantomime artist, language is the great stumbling block. Out of the delirious word-play of Perelman, the Marx Brothers develop their own vertiginous relation to language Groucho’s puns and machine-gun insults, Chico’s zany misunderstandings, Harpo’s child-like translation of words into objects. Language is the weapon with which Groucho batters the impermeable fortress of Margeret Dumont’s bulky respectability. Like Chaplin’s, their comedy is directed against all forms of pompous inflexibility, but it is also more manically destructive, more absurd and surreal. Harpo’s rubbery physicality, so gleeful and infantile, is the least common denominator of all human experience. He is the anarchic id:: when he hears the word culture he reaches for his scissors. And when he destroys a book we are told, “he gets mad because he can’t read”. His attitude towards language is defensive, prophylactic.

For Woody Allen, whose New Yorker stories are an offshoot of Perelman’s, the problem is to get away from language – from the excess baggage of intellectuality and one-liners that burden his early movies – and to do something more physical and more visual (two deeply rooted Jewish taboos). In later films like Annie Hall and Manhattan he resolves this not by imitating silent comedy and pop movie genres, as he had once tried to do, but by going for deeper characters and real emotions, as Chaplin did when he rejected both the songs, jokes, and comic routines of vaudeville and the custard pies and frantic chases of Mack Sennett.

Allen uses more modern and more local material: the brittle world of the upper East Side, the regular bulletins he gets from his analysis. In case he feels too much at home with himself he makes the disastrous Stardust Memories, a film that wallows in self-pity, misanthropy, and classic Jewish anti-Semitism.

Allen’s work shows that even a Freudian, and one who has made it, can keep in touch with his insecurities, just as Chaplin kept in touch with his poverty an vulnerability even as a wealthy man.

Chaplin was physically at home in the world but socially he was destined to feel homeless. He remained an English subject, but after the fluidity of identity he achieved in America, England became impossible for him. After his first tour of the States with the Karno company, his homeland made him moody and depressed: ‘I loved England, but it was impossible for me to live there because of my background I ha a disquieting feeling of sinking back into a depressing commonplaceness.”

Not long afterward, when he began to make films in America, he made a two-reel comedy full of touches of pathos called The Immigrant, which, 57 years later, he could still describe as the closest to him as of any he had ever made.

This film, as Isabel Quigley says, was simply highlighting the ‘outcast’ aspect of Chaplin’s nature. The tramp is an eternal outsider to ordinary society, the immigrant an outsider compared with the native, and Chaplin himself was not merely an immigrant in America  - how precariously poised there, later events were to show – but an immigrant in the entire society to which, with success, he had suddenly climbed. For a climber, however much welcomed, never belongs…

The event of the 40s and the 50s, along with his own contentious character, conspired to rekindly Chaplin’s feelings of rejection. He concluded his career with several bittersweet films, one of which, Monsieur Verdoux, was a masterpiece. That Chaplin never found a home, that he continued to hold family and fortune together by his wits, was painful for his life but vital for his art. By the time of Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight, and A King in New York, when he is losing his public and losing his country, with the tramp completely behind him, he turns rejection into a new marginality and a different kind of strength.