Someone should write an essay called “In Praise of Pretentiousness,” because in the first years of adulthood—please, those years only!—a little insufferable pretentiousness goes a long way. It was pretentiousness, I admit, that led me into a Charlie Chaplin film festival when I was a freshman at Grinnell: I showed up to appreciate silent films. But that fateful afternoon I didn’t end up appreciating Chaplin’s art; I ended up falling in love with it. If “laughing your ass off” refers to laughing yourself off your seat, then it is no hyperbole, as anyone who has watched the mechanical feeding scene in Modern Times can attest.
One more story: I have a friend in Belgium who just took his four-year-old daughter to see a packed screening of Modern Times. At the end, as the Little Tramp and his girlfriend walk off into the sun, the entire theater, kids and grownups alike, rose to their feet and gave the ghosts a tearful ovation. I tell these two anecdotes simply to disarm any reservations any of you may harbor about seeing old, black-and-white, silent movies. Charlie Chaplin is popular art: children, highbrows, lowbrows, and all the brows in between love The Tramp.
So, the main reason to watch Charlie’s movies is that they tap into the deepest wellspring of delight. There’s never a time when Charlie Chaplin isn’t timely. But if you still need an excuse to watch his movies, or—if you’re like me—watch them for a twentieth or thirtieth time, then our current economic crisis is as good as any. For his movies speak more clearly about the mythic features of our mess than any others I know.
Chaplin’s films are often associated with The Great Depression: isn’t the plight of that age epitomized by a homeless little guy in undersized jacket, oversized pants and shoes, and tilted bowler, trying to make it in a universe tilted against him? But even City Lights (1931), the film most associated with the Depression, was made before the stock-market crash, though it certainly spoke to many people’s condition when it was released. Still, from the birth of the Tramp in 1914 Chaplin always understood, intuitively and later explicitly, some partially conscious, partially unconscious myth we all have of our basic humanity in “modern times.” Nowadays, our cruder imaginations call this figure by names like Joe Sixpack: he’s the guy, all the most recent advertising campaigns tell us, who is really in need of a bailout. Chaplin refined this character, this myth, in his greatest films—The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936)—to elicit maximum pity from us. I don’t use the word myth lightly here. The Tramp is a truly contemporary figure that strikes us as true and commands, at least while he shines on the screen, our full assent, as perhaps Poseidon once did in the midst of a storm.
The Chaplin movie that most directly deals with The Great Depression is Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a movie about a banker who loses his job after the stock market collapse and becomes a strangely adorable bigamist and serial killer: He marries rich women and kills them for their fortunes. Great critics like André Bazin and Robert Warshow have pointed out that this cruel character is the flipside of the sympathetic Tramp—the yang to his yin—much like the Hitler figure in The Great Dictator (1940) is the complement to the Jewish barber. (Chaplin on Hitler: “He stole my moustache!”) As a great myth himself, Verdoux is interpretively bottomless, but at least one feasible take on him is that he symbolizes capitalism, which seems to be both fundamentally decent and fundamentally destructive. He kills his wives, partially, to provide for his child and his first ailing wife.
We haven’t exited the structure of Chaplin’s mythology. We still think with the figure of the innocent little guy. Perhaps we should learn from him that this figure is inseparable from the violent socio-pathologies that flow, invisibly except in times of crisis, through our economic system. There have been two major responses to our current economic woes. The first: We should bail out Main Street rather than Wall Street because it’s Wall Street that screwed up. The second: We have to bail out guilty Wall Street and innocent Main Street, because they’re inextricably bound together. The second response is, in my opinion, closer to the truth of our situation. But do we want to rescue Verdoux to save the Tramp? Is there a yet more realistic third response? I myself haven’t heard it. I’m just hoping I’ll never have occasion to write on the relevance of The Great Dictator.