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Vol. LXIII, No. 15
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
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DVD Review

Chaplin’s Poetry of Extremes: A Birthday Celebration

Stuart Mitchner

The art of Charlie Chaplin, whose 120th birthday is tomorrow, April 16, comes out of what James Agee called “the finest pantomime, the deepest emotion, the richest and most poignant poetry.” Of course Chaplin’s poetry is a long way from the page-bound sort generally associated with National Poetry Month, his muse and medium being the derby-doffing, cane-flourishing little tramp who first appeared to movie audiences in February 1914 in Kid Auto Races at Venice.

“I had no idea of the character,” Chaplin admits when recalling the tramp’s conception in his autobiography, “but the moment I was dressed, the clothes and makeup made me feel the person he was.” The clothes he’d grabbed on his way to the wardrobe were over-sized, loose-fitting pants, big shoes, a cane, and a derby hat (“I wanted everything a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large”). The mustache was added to make him look older. Explaining the character to his director at Keystone, Mack Sennett, he described “a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow; always hopeful of romance and adventure. He would have you believe he is a scientist, a musician, a duke, a polo player. However, he is not above picking up cigarette butts or robbing a baby of its candy.”

The essence of Chaplin’s universal appeal is in that coalescing of extremes in a poet dreamer who can imagine himself as royalty one moment and, in the next, stoop to snatch a cigarette butt off the pavement. Poets of the page like T.S. Eliot and Hart Crane see a compatriot in Chaplin even when they seem to be doubting or dismissing or redefining his art. Eliot claims in an essay from 1923 that “the egregious merit of Chaplin is that he has escaped in his own way from the realism of the cinema and invented a rhythm.” True enough and Chaplin’s rhythm is central to his aesthetic, except that the “merit” of escape and invention isn’t “egregious,” it’s his genius, and his “rhythm” isn’t confined to words on a page, it’s physical; in that sense, he’s a poem come to life. He feels poetry, acts it, writes it with his legs, arms, eyes, eyebrows, mustache, mouth, cane, derby, and splay-footed, waddling walk. Forget the language barrier: people all over the world were — and still are — touched by Chaplin’s poetry, as Hart Crane seems to understand when he describes “the pirouettes of any pliant cane,” the “grail of laughter” and the “sound of gaiety and quest” in his poem “Chaplinesque.”

In Chaplin’s Boat

The summits of Chaplin’s art, such as the ending of City Lights (1931) and the New Year’s Eve sequence with the dance of the rolls in The Gold Rush (1925), loom among his works the way the late great Odes do in Keats’s. Somewhat less familiar but perhaps even more important because it so clearly leads the way to the others is The Kid (1920), his first full-length film and the one that inspired Crane to write “Chaplinesque.” In a letter to a friend, Crane puts Chaplin “with the poets (of today)” and goes on to explain that Chaplin, “especially in The Kid,” makes him feel himself “as a poet … ‘in the same boat’ with him.”

Charlie Chaplin’s 120th birthday will be celebrated this Saturday, April 18, at 3 pm, when the Arts Council of Princeton screens a selection of his Mutual period shorts. Turner Classic Movies will be showing Chaplin from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. in celebration of his birthday tomorrow, April 16. The films span almost half a century, from Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) to A King in New York (1957). The full schedule is at As for Henry James, one website claims you can read the works with your cell phone. The American Scene is available in its apparent entirety at americanscene.html.

Think of all the audiences, then, who felt and will go on feeling themselves in the same boat with Chaplin and his magical little alter ego, Jackie Coogan, the child he finds in the gutter and raises in his own bizarre but nonetheless humanly practical way. The chemistry of extremes that Chaplin creates is reflected in the extremes of taste and style in his audience, where people with seemingly nothing in common are equally susceptible to the nuances of his creation. In one of the wisest and most articulate reviews of The Kid, Francis Hackett refers to the “sly game” Chaplin plays “with an audacity that conquers prig and groundling in the same instant, and gives both of them a chance to be amused.”

However much Hart Crane and T.S. Eliot might bristle at being lumped in with the priggish element, phrases like “egregious merit” do have the stink of the snob about them. The deep-dyed prigs find it hard to forgive Chaplin for making them laugh at some piece of slapstick vulgarity and then (worse yet) for putting a lump in their throats before they know what’s hit them. Friends and colleagues to whom he described the concept of The Kid doubted that even Chaplin could manage to reconcile slapstick and sentiment. The premise of the tramp fathering a five-year-old is packed with emotional dynamite. But, as Hackett points out, Chaplin steers “his course clean away from farce in the direction of sentiment” with “a boldness no other comedian could attempt,” pushing “far enough to earn laughter and not so far as to exploit it.”

Put a self-conscious child actor into this volatile mix and Chaplin might have had a third failure on his hands (his two previous films, Sunnyside and A Day’s Pleasure, having been panned by both press and public). Put a five-year-old miracle named Jackie Coogan into the mix, fill in the picture with atmospheric evocations of Chaplin’s gritty London childhood, garnish with warm, funny human touches, and top it off with a dream sequence out of slapstick heaven that literally swoops and soars, and you have a film that as a piece of sheer movie mastery is right up there with Chaplin’s finest work.

Jackie Coogan’s rapport with Chaplin from start to finish is so perfect it would seem uncanny, almost suspect (is this tiny genius a midget, a supernatural being?) if it weren’t so thoroughly believable. There’s not a single false move, not so much as a wink or a simper. The child goes about his business every bit as effectively as Chaplin goes about his. Without any coyly obvious costuming elements, the child’s raggedy style (he wears baggy overalls and a big floppy cap) plays off of and parodies the tramp’s; it’s a burlesque of a burlesque. Their true to life, unaffectedly loving partnership, the shared adventures and misadventures in the street and the flop house (a Dickensian marvel), and especially their home life where the Kid cooks and serves up pancakes for them to share, says his prayers, and has his ears cleaned — all this pitch-perfect human comedy sustains and illuminates the crucial sequence where the boy is taken away crying, arms outstretched. A passionately emotional scene that could easily have been a fatal embarrassment, or at best a smilingly tolerated piece of quaint sentimental overkill, becomes instead one of the great Chaplinesque moments.

The Tramp and the Master

It’s admittedly a bit of a stretch, putting Henry James and Charlie Chaplin in the same column with a nod to National Poetry Month. But if you keep in mind the prig and the groundling idea, it begins to make some kind of sense. Born in the U.S. on this day, April 15, 1837, James lived most of his working life in England. Born in England on April 16, 1889, Chaplin lived the most productive years of his life in the U.S. James surely would have heard of Chaplin, and given the Tramp’s immense popularity in England in 1915, he might well have been coaxed to attend a showing of The Tramp or His Night Out. It’s easy to imagine the pained, despairing expression on James’s face as he suffers the drunken antics of Chaplin and Ben Turpin staggering arm in arm through a chaotic shambles in His Night Out. You can also imagine how delighted Chaplin would be by the comic dynamic of the austere Master as a captive audience to a slapstick nightmare.

But then should you dip into James’s memoir The American Scene, wherein he describes his return to his homeland in 1906 after the better part of a lifetime abroad, you’ll find the Master perversely captivated by the challenge of fitting his high style around lowly crazed crowded subjects like the Hoboken waterfront (“the rude cavities, the loose cobbles, the dislodged supports, the unreclaimed pools, of the roadway; the unregulated traffic, as of innumerable desperate drays charging upon each other with tragic long-necked, sharp-ribbed horses”), a theatre in the Bowery (“the vision of the other big bare ranting stupid stage, the grey void, smelling of dust and tobacco-juice, of a scene on which realism was yet to dawn, but which addressed itself, on the other hand, to an audience at one with it”), and “a very wonderful afternoon” spent “in being ever so wisely driven, driven further and further, into the large lucidity of — well, of what else shall I call it but a New Jersey condition?”

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