The Righteous Tramp: Part II

Chaplin's THE KID in political, historical, & biographical context

To see the The Kid, go here (note: this is the original release cut of the film, containing scenes Chaplin later removed). To read Part I of this essay, go here.

As I’ve stated in the previous essay, in drawing out the moral implications of The Kid, I’ll try to restrict my analysis not to Chaplin’s world but to the Tramp’s — on-screen. This is not only a means around the mercurial, inconsistent personal morals, ethics, and politics of Chaplin’s actual and very long life, well documented in Richard Carr’s lucid political biography of the filmmaker, though it is worth noting that for all the wild swings Carr charts in Chaplin’s own journey — broadly following a leftish path shaped by sympathies of anarcho-liberal-socialist persuasions, marked periodically by (sometimes very) brief fascinations and flirtations with communism, fascism, and Fordism — the moral universe inhabited by the Little Tramp from The Kid to The Great Dictator is, as we will see, remarkably consistent.

Furthermore, it was not Charles Chaplin with whom international moviegoing audiences engaged and fell in love, around the world — freed from the inhibiting Babel-rubble of language — and decade after decade: it was Charlot. Chaplin’s personal decisions around citizenship and sex with very young women and teenage girls would, at the dawn of the McCarthy era, come to bear an almost unimaginable personal and political freight, and colour his legacy for decades, along with stunting the final years of his career. But it will be the two decades of silent feature films — particularly The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator — that are remembered in the coming centuries, and it’s across these which a moral constellation offering the beginnings of a workable outline of a secular, or at least agnostic, socialist morality is assembled, beginning with The Kid.

Nevertheless, there are elements from Chaplin’s own life, from the important changes in the emergence of film as a technology and an art form, and of world history, which ought to inform some of the subtle ways in which we can read the film today; starting with the idea that though Chaplin himself can only play one of the three main characters in the picture, they are each of them — the Tramp, the Kid, and the formerly penniless Woman, “now a star of great prominence” — alter egos or fantasy versions of himself. In giving Chaplin this trinitarian triple-billing, I’m going two better than Sigmund Freud, who suggested in a letter in 1931 that, psychologically speaking, Chaplin was an easy nut to crack:

He is undoubtedly, a great artist; certainly he always portrays one and the same figure; only the weakly, poor, helpless, clumsy youngster for whom, however, things turn out well in the end. Now do you think that for this role he has to forget his own ego? On the contrary, he always plays only himself as he was in his early dismal youth. He cannot get away from those impressions and to this day he obtains for himself the compensation for the frustrations and humiliations of that past period of his life. He is, so-to-speak, an exceptionally simple and transparent case. The idea that the achievements of artists are intimately bound up with their childhood memories, impressions, repressions and disappointments, has already brought us much enlightenment and has, for that reason, become very precious to us.

One wonders what Dr. Freud might have made of the fact that work on The Kid began less than a fortnight after the death of Chaplin’s infant first son, Norman Spencer Chaplin. It is an idiosyncratic enough decision to begin work on a film about foster fatherhood in the moments after the death of a baby; it verges on the inconceivable to leave behind the teenaged mother, Mildred, as one begins “auditioning babies.” The crowning, tragic weirdness is that this is so far from being the most personal, autobiographical lodestar laid into the picture.

Both Peter Ackroyd in his Charlie Chaplin and Carr in his Charlie Chaplin: A Political Biography from Victorian Britain to Modern America, have done remarkable jobs of untangling the mythical and mysterious from the actual, archival, and knowable in Chaplin’s own childhood — figures from Churchill to the Nazis to Chaplin himself have had reason or seen fit to invent or massage the facts about his early life. These inventions — with the exception of the non-factual and propagandistic Nazi attempts to “impute” Jewish heritage (which Chaplin later made a political point of not denying) — seem wholly unnecessary in terms of myth-making when one considers that the incongruity between Chaplin’s dire origins and his ultimate arrival as the world’s first and immeasurably wealthy movie star could not have been more vertiginous.

Though life had begun in modest comfort, with both Chaplin’s mother and, especially, his father enjoying success in live performance, things very quickly went south when Charles Chaplin Sr. first abandoned his family, then began drinking himself to death (the young Charlie would later begin his accession to enormous fame and fortune by playing a pantomime drunk, first onstage in the Music Hall and Vaudeville, then in shorts like One A.M. [1916] and even after The Kid in The Idle Class [1921] — by the time of City Lights [1931], he let Harry Myers play the role of the wealthy drunk). Chaplin’s mother’s fortunes began to fade after not only being abandoned but starting to lose her voice; famously, young Charlie’s first time on stage — at the age of 5; the age of child actor Jackie Coogan Jr. in The Kid — was when he went out onstage to sing after his mother’s voice failed, and received a hail of coins thrown by a grateful audience for his efforts. As his father was slowly disappearing and dying, his mother’s health, both physical and mental, was deteriorating, and Charlie and his older half-brother Sydney were sent to the workhouse, where they, too, were separated from each other. The Kid’s abduction away to an Orphan Asylum-cum-prison was anything but an abstract idea for Chaplin — but neither was a reunion between mother and son. After putting it off, worrying that it would affect his work and his mood, Chaplin finally brought his essentially invalid mother over from England to live close to him in Hollywood in 1921, the year The Kid was released, with its happy ending reuniting its three principal characters.

It is, though, a strange onscreen reunion, and an odd kind of happy ending — something more like a dissolution into a kind of loving, unitary oblivion, the audience shut out behind the door like Kay Corleone would be in the final images of The Godfather. The final shot, on the front steps of what we assume must the Woman’s mansion, echo the only other image of a mansion that we’ve seen in the picture: the luxurious home outside of which the automobile containing the Kid was stolen. There, too, we were confined to the front steps, unable to cross the threshold — only this time, the three characters whom we’ve been following are going to, without us. But it’s only in the closing moments of the movie that we realize that, in movie terms, there is no possible happy ending: it wouldn’t be right for the Kid to continue living in poverty with his adoptive father the Tramp, his now-wealthy Mother living out the rest of her life without her son; similarly, it wouldn’t be right for the Mother to show up at the police station festooned in bird feathers, a reverse-cuckoo drawing her baby back into its nest, casting the Tramp back out into the street after his five years of loving sacrifice. There is also nothing in the story which has prepared us to want, expect, or accept a partnership between the Tramp and the Woman, who belong to different octaves of reality, as the Tramp almost always did from his (usually unrequited) love interests. Chaplin the filmmaker has, in effect, engineered a Mexican stand-off of emotional resolutions.

He has done it before, in his shorts, but has backed away from the implications at the last second: in The Vagabond, the abused servant girl (played by Purviance) whom he rescues from the traveling caravan falls in love with a painter (not unlike the Kid’s biological father), and in the end the Tramp demonstrates his heroism by sacrificing his happiness for hers, telling her to go and live with her restored family in safety and comfort; in the final moments, though, Purviance’s servant girl rewards the Tramp for his self-sacrifice by taking him with her. The reuniting act of restoration in The Kid, though, is more uncanny and disquieting; following on the heels of the heaven sequence, there is something in it of the quality of a dream, wherein a lost loved one has come back, but somehow the details aren’t quite right. To start with — and this may simply be a pedantic observation of a simple inconsistency, but — if this is the woman’s home, then why was she staying in a hotel earlier? Why is the Kid still wearing the filthy clothes in which she found him?

There is obviously one possible explanation: that Chaplin was still new to this level of narrative depth in his moviemaking, and that the ending is simply ragged. But another explanation, and one not necessarily inconsistent with the first, is that the ambiguities and ambivalences which attended to the fates of his three on-screen characters flowed from the real connections and contradictions between the elements of Chaplin’s own persona that they represented: the abandoned and terrified little boy had grown up to project his fears and fantasies into an underdog alter ego, the Little Tramp, which had turned him into a figure of inconceivable wealth and renown, “a star of great prominence” — but one who couldn’t, no matter how rich and famous he got, ever save his young self. “The abrupt end of the picture is puzzling,” writes Simon Louvish, “until one realizes that Chaplin has distilled the essence of his story and cannot end any other way and still fulfill the brief of comedy rather than tragedy.”

There is no point in The Kid with more visceral power than the twin moments of the Kid and the Tramp’s being ripped apart by the authorities and the desperate happiness of their reunion kisses in the flatbed of the truck (the boy and his father kiss each other flush on the lips, and while the image is somewhat unfamiliar and even jarring it feels incredibly authentic in its rising to the drama of the situation). Decades later, in his autobiography, Chaplin recalled the trouble that they had had shooting the scene:

There was a scene in which we wanted Jackie to actually cry when two workhouse officials take him away from me. I told him all sorts of harrowing stories, but Jackie was in a very gay and mischievous mood. After waiting for an hour, the father said: ‘I’ll make him cry.’

‘Don’t frighten or hurt the boy,’ I said guiltily.

‘Oh no, no,’ said the father.

Jackie was in such a gay mood that I had not the courage to stay and watch what the father would do, so I went to my dressing-room. A few moments later I heard Jackie yelling and crying.

‘He’s all ready,’ said the father.

It was a scene where I rescue the boy from the workhouse officials and while he is weeping I hug and kiss him. When it was over I asked the father: ‘How did you get him to cry?’

‘I just told him that if he didn’t we’d take him away from the studio and really send him to the workhouse.’

I turned to Jackie and picked him up in my arms to console him. His cheeks were still wet with tears. ‘They’re not going to take you away,’ I said.

‘I knew it,’ he whispered. ‘Daddy was only fooling.’

This passage, written by the elderly Chaplin looking back on work from decades earlier, seems to bear out Freud’s assessment of the Tramp as a wish-fulfilling alter-ego writing the wrongs of his traumatic past. Not only is it clear that Chaplin was playacting at saving his younger self on screen; he can’t resist the impulse to do it again even in the retelling of the story about Coogan. Note the slippage in vocabulary: the officials, clearly marked in the film as representing the County Orphan Asylum, have become “workhouse officials”; Jack Coogan Sr. improbably threatens to send his son to the “workhouse,” rather than the much more common American synonym, ‘poorhouse.’ The Tramp was a psychological bridge between the traumatized young boy and the star of great prominence helpless, despite great wealth and talent, to save him.

Share

There were elements of each of Chaplin’s parents in the figure of the Woman, of course, and the success and prominence enjoyed by her character fell somewhere in the great chasm between the early successes enjoyed by Charles Chaplin Sr. and those enjoyed by his son. By 1921, Chaplin had been making movies for seven years — prodigious years at the chaotic dawn of filmmaking, over the course of which the twin inexorable tendencies of his career were towards greater and greater fame and fortune, and greater and greater creative control.

If the Woman’s prominence and success were in a different register than Chaplin’s, the fact was understandable — everyone’s on the planet was. By the time he made The Kid, Charlie Chaplin had been thrust up by motion pictures as its first bona fide, international Hollywood movie star. As the ur-movie star, it is incredible to think of how many of the features of Chaplin’s stardom are still embedded in the grammar of Hollywood celebrity culture today: titillation at the contrast between humble beginnings and now-regal trappings; repelled-magnetic fascination with sexual decadence and misbehaviour; the charges of hypocrisy born from the discrepancy between bleeding-heart underdog politics or charitable endeavours and ostentatious personal living; the bizarre love-hate that exalts stars and then, resenting the power that has been bestowed, roots for their comeuppance.

Recruited out of the Vaudeville/Music Hall circuit by early slapstick silent film pioneer Mack Sennett, Chaplin had undergone a rigorous course of practical study in the wild west of early movies (these days, for instance, he would never have been allowed to take the “intellectual property” of his Little Tramp, whose specific characteristics developed gradually over the course of many silent shorts for various companies, out on his own as he eventually did). In his films for Keystone, Essanay, and Mutual, single- and two-reel shorts (as compared to the “six reels of joy” promised on the poster for The Kid) Chaplin’s Tramp and proto-Tramp character(s) were essentially human cartoons; violent, slapstick agents of chaos with, at best, a vague affinity for the underdog but nothing resembling a moral code until he began his approach to feature filmmaking. Each time Chaplin signed with a new company, they “increased his salary exponentially but, just as crucially, his level of artistic control.” And with that creative control, Chaplin began to prod for a depth in his comedies, along with a growing length, developing storylines that, though somewhat anemic by our contemporary standards, began to introduce a genuine human element into an industrial comedy model that had until that time been something more akin to early YouTube uploads or America’s Funniest Home Videos.

1914’s Kid Auto Races At Venice, Chaplin’s first appearance in the now-recognizable costume and with some of the mannerisms of the Little Tramp, is merely a six-minute long, single-gag loop of Chaplin refusing to get out of the way of a cameraman trying to capture the action, and occasionally stepping perilously out into the raceway; 1916’s 24-minute The Fireman is, for most of its runtime, very little more than a test of the idea that there is nothing funnier than people bending over and being kicked in the ass, until a very minor plot about insurance fraud takes shape over its closing minutes; in 1917, The Immigrant, at 30 minutes, follows Chaplin and Purviance as a pair of immigrants who meet on the boat to America, when he attempts to sneak his gambling winnings into her jacket — they later meet again by chance, with her having lost her mother, and negotiate the harshness and opportunity of their new situation together; by 1918’s WWI satire-propaganda hybrid Shoulder Arms, with its runtime of 46 minutes, the now-enlisted Little Tramp is pursuing complex missions behind enemy lines dressed as a tree, rescuing Purviance’s French peasant girl from sexual violation at the hands of a German officer, and hoodwinking the Kaiser — in a scheme involving Purviance in drag with a tire-grease moustache — into being taken prisoner.

Present at the birth of popular film, Chaplin helped to shape its deep grammar, doing as much as anyone to sculpt what movie comedy would be like, particularly in the silent era, but in some ways still resonant today. It’s easy to lose sight of just how revolutionary a change is encapsulated in the six years between the (proto-)Tramp’s first appearance in Kid Auto Races at Venice and The Kid: a ten-fold increase in running time and an infinite expansion of richness and depth in terms of character development, theme, human connection. Over those years, grateful audiences — both popular and critical, American and international — rewarded Chaplin with loyalty and a growing fame that has become an almost totally metabolized and banal part of our late-capitalist spectacle-economy but which was, at the time, unlike anything anyone had ever seen.

But with the two pictures immediately preceding The Kid, Sunnyside and A Day’s Pleasure, Chaplin had hit choppy waters — literally, in the case of A Day’s Pleasure, a good chunk of which takes place on a violently heaving pleasure-cruise. “Sunnyside was released in June 1919, and was not greeted warmly by the critics. An article in Theatre was entitled ‘Is the Chaplin Vogue Passing?’ It is in truth an unremarkable comedy that makes some attempt at satirising the pastoral idyll which was one of the constituents of the American dream.” Even this interpretation, by historian and novelist Peter Ackroyd, may be giving Sunnyside a bit too much credit for insight or bite; whatever the case, when Chaplin’s character tricks his girlfriend’s developmentally-delayed brother into going outside to play in the road so that the couple can get some alone time, we know that we’re not yet within the moral constellation that The Kid will set in place. A Day’s Pleasure is a fun if mostly forgettable rarity in which Chaplin plays not the Little Tramp but a relatively well-to-do family man — with an automobile! — who takes his wife and children for an outing, and mayhem ensues. Chaplin biographer Simon Louvish reproduces, in his Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey, an editorial from the April 1920 edition of Photoplay titled ‘A Letter to a Genius,’ and reading, in part:

Yet, we must call you a genius-on-vacation. And we must add that it is time your vacation were over. How many people are wishing that now! We haven’t seen you since ‘Shoulder Arms.’ ‘Sunnyside’ was anything but sunny. ‘A Day’s Pleasure’ certainly was not pleasure.

In fact, the lukewarm responses to Sunnyside and A Day’s Pleasure hadn’t been Chaplin’s first taste of public criticism, with the charge led from the newspapers. As Richard Carr outlines, the politically ambiguous — or, better: ambidextrous — Shoulder Arms was the culmination of Chaplin’s deeply fraught relationship with the First World War. While millions of men not much younger than Chaplin were dying in Europe’s trenches, with soldiers fighting on behalf first of the country of his birth and upbringing, then the adoptive country of his incredibly lucrative adulthood, Chaplin was making his fortune from silly movies, and the jingoes and scolds had sought to make an example of him. According to a story told by Alistair Cooke, and cited by Chaplin biographer Richard Carr, when the future Masterpiece Theatre host was a young man and met the filmmaker he had made the mistake of mentioning that his parents had owned a copy of the song “When the Moon Shines Bright on Charlie Chaplin,” a jingoist tune mocking the star for not serving in the war; even those many years later, Chaplin told Cooke that the song had terrified him. Carr adds: “It was the first World War — and others’ reactions to his actions during it — that would ultimately politicize Chaplin.” Over the course of WWI, along with the political and existential loss of innocence experienced by so many believers in North Atlantic modernity, Charlie Chaplin had come to learn that movie stardom came with a concomitant intensification of scrutiny and entitlement on the part of the public.

Louvish conjectures, convincingly, that the ferment of criticism likely alloyed with the unrest of the times to help produce in Chaplin the desire to break into a new dimension with his comedy:

[he] wrestled with his desire, his pretension even, to use the primal elements of pantomime to break out of the cycle of tit-for-tat slapstick and make his mark on a changed world. For 1919 saw not only the rise of leisure […i]t was also the era of labour unrest, strikes and the big Red Scare in the wake of Russia’s revolution in October 1917, which had sent rumbles all over the world among both the rulers and the ruled. In the industrial heartland of America there were, by November 1919, at least a million men and women on strike against their employers for better pay and conditions. In September the United Mineworkers’ motion to strike even demanded the nationalization of the mines.

To this I would only add that also in 1919, the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba — site of the only theatre in the world, the Winnipeg Pantages, upon whose stage both Charlie Chaplin and your humble author have both performed comedy — was rocked by a general strike that very briefly established something close to the “dual power” of worker self-government that preceded the Soviet revolution.

In his autobiography, at least, Chaplin puts his thinking about what he was trying to do with The Kid in dialectical terms:

Gouverneur Morris, author and short-story writer who had written many scripts for the cinema, often invited me to his house. ‘Guvvy,’ as we called him, was a charming, sympathetic fellow, and when I told him about The Kid and the form it was taking, keying slapstick with sentiment, he said: ‘It won’t work. The form must be pure, either slapstick or drama; you cannot mix them, otherwise one element of your story will fail.’ We had quite a dialectical discussion about it. I said that the transition from slapstick to sentiment was a matter of feeling and discretion in arranging sequences. I argued that form happened after one had created it, that if the artist thought of a world and sincerely believed in it, no matter what the admixture was, it would be convincing. Of course, I had no grounds for this theory other than intuition. There had been satire, farce, realism, naturalism, melodrama and fantasy, but raw slapstick and sentiment, the premise of The Kid, was something of an innovation.

There is no small element of (admittedly well-earned) self-congratulation in this passage, and one can image the big welt in the middle of old Guvvy’s forehead from being dunked on so viciously — nevertheless, it seems fair to think of Chaplin as one of the radical artists of the post-WWI era (radical in a way that didn’t always clearly delineate between aesthetic radicalism and political radicalism) who sought to completely renew and rebuild forms, even in a medium as new as the cinema, in a world upturned by the war.

Next up, we conclude with Part III: The Kid and socialist morality — what does Chaplin’s film have to teach us about violence, property, money, sex, authority, and love? And what can comedy in general teach us about how to be in the world today? That piece will be for paid subscribers only, so please consider subscribing for full access to that & other writing!