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From the start, his extraordinary athleticism, expressive grace, impeccable timing, endless inventiveness and genius for hard work set Chaplin apart. In 1910 he made his first trip to America, with Fred Karno's Speechless Comedians. In 1913 he joined Sennett's Keystone Studios in New York City. Although his first film, Making a Living (1914), brought him nationwide praise, he was unhappy with the slapstick speed, cop chases and bathing-beauty escapades that were Sennett's specialty. The advent of movies in the late 1890s had brought full visibility to the human personality, to the corporeal self that print, the dominant medium before film, could only describe and abstract. In a Sennett comedy, speechlessness raised itself to a racket, but Chaplin instinctively understood that visibility needs leisure as well as silence to work its most intimate magic.
The actor, not the camera, did the acting in his films. Never a formal innovator, Chaplin found his persona and plot early and never totally abandoned them. For 13 years, he resisted talking pictures, launched with The Jazz Singer in 1927. Even then, the talkies he made, among them the masterpieces The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952), were daringly far-flung variations on his greatest silent films, The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928) and City Lights (1931).
The terrifyingly comic Adenoid Hynkel (a takeoff on Hitler), whom Chaplin played in The Great Dictator, or M. Verdoux, the sardonic mass murderer of middle-aged women, may seem drastic departures from the "little fellow," but the Tramp is always ambivalent and many-sided. Funniest when he is most afraid, mincing and smirking as he attempts to placate those immune to pacification, constantly susceptible to reprogramming by nearby bodies or machines, skidding around a corner or sliding seamlessly from a pat to a shove while desire and doubt chase each other across his face, the Tramp is never unself-conscious, never free of calculation, never anything but a hard-pressed if often divinely lighthearted member of an endangered species, entitled to any means of defense he can devise. Faced with a frequently malign universe, he can never quite bring himself to choose between his pleasure in the improvisatory shifts of strategic retreat and his impulse to love some creature palpably weaker and more threatened than himself.
When a character in Monsieur Verdoux remarks that if the unborn knew of the approach of life, they would dread it as much as the living do death, Chaplin was simply spelling out what we've known all along. The Tramp, it seemed, was mute not by necessity but by choice. He'd tried to protect us from his thoughts, but if the times insisted that he tell what he saw as well as what he was, he could only reveal that the innocent chaos of comedy depends on a mania for control, that the cruelest of ironies attend the most heartfelt invocations of pathos. Speech is the language of hatred as silence is that of love.