Cinema: Exit the Tramp, Smiling

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Charles Spencer Chaplin: 1889-1977

Critic Edmund Wilson once rhetorically inquired: "Have we ever turned out anything that was comparable artistically to the best German or Russian films?" Few disagreed with his answer: "I can think of nothing except Charlie Chaplin, who is his own producer and produces simply himself."

To the last, Chaplin, who died at 88 on Christmas Day at his home in Vevey, Switzerland, produced simply himself. But that self was not so simple. It was first introduced to America as a vaudeville clown in 1910, and the country did not respond warmly. Charlie's comic flare failed to ignite enthusiasm until the epochal one-reeler in which he tried on Fatty Arbuckle's pants and Chester Conklin's jacket. In that moment The Tramp was born, and with him a long parabola of triumph and humiliation. The arc described a career bred of deprivation and encompassing nearly every cinematic skill, from producing and directing to the writing of scenarios and scores, gags and tragedies.

Charles Spencer Chaplin had risen from the darkest of London slums. His father was an alcoholic; his mother sewed blouses for 1½ pence each. Charlie's great character was a memory of that Dickensian experience, a waif in the tradition of Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. Comedy derives from the Greek kōmos, a dance. And indeed, as The Tramp capered about with his unique sleight of foot, he created a choreography of the human condition. In classics like Modern Times, The Gold Rush, The Great Dictator, objects spoke out as never before: bread rolls became ballet slippers, a boot was transformed into a feast, a torn newspaper enjoyed a new career as a lace tablecloth. Such lyric moments lifted Chaplin to pantheon status. He became the friend of kings and critics. Einstein sought him out; Churchill praised him. George Bernard Shaw called him "the one genius created by the cinema." Millionaires welcomed Charlie into their homes and their ranks.

Let a man rise in show business, even to so stratospheric a level as The Tramp's, and there comes an evening of the Long Knives. For Chaplin, night came early and stayed late. He became embroiled in a series of affairs. He married and divorced two teen-agers and earned a reputation as Hollywood's outstanding satyr. His dalliances shocked the nation and nearly ruined his career. But Chaplin always managed to rescue himself with new apologies and fresh performances.

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