Charlie Chaplin’s Art

From the New Republic, 3rd February 1917

THERE died last winter, in New York, a notable artist who was comparatively unknown because he had the ill-luck to miss his right artistic medium. He was a circus clown — “Slivers”, of the delectable “baseball game”. He was condemned to pantomime because of a voice that was inadequate to public utterance, but he was a comedian of surprising imagination, a serious observer, a real student of comic effects, and inherently pathetic even at his funniest.

Charles Chaplin has come into the kingdom that poor Slivers missed. He wears, as Slivers did, a grotesque costume. He has the same gift for clowning — an ability to translate any natural gesture into caricature without the slightest apparent exaggeration — a gift that seems inherent in his body as grace is so often in the body of beauty.

Slivers used to say: “Put a real clown in the middle of a three-ring circus, with nothin’ to work with but a shoe-lace, an’ he’ll make the whole tent laugh.” Slivers did it by virtue of a penetrating imagination. He would see the shoe-lace as anything from an angle-worm to a string of spaghetti, and see it and relate himself to it so convincingly that he made you see it as he did.

Chaplin performs the same miracle with a walking-stick. He will see it—outrageously—as a tooth-pick, but he will use it exactly as you see tooth-picks used at a lunch counter, looking at you with an air of sad repletion, with a glazed eye from which all intelligence has withdrawn, inwardly, to brood over the internal satisfaction of digestive process—absurdly, but with unimpeachable realism.

Or, he is a clerk in a pawnshop, and a man brings in an alarm clock to pledge it. Chaplin has to decide how much it is worth. He sees it first as a patient to be examined diagnostically. He taps it, percusses it, puts his ear to its chest, listens to its heart-beat with a stethoscope, and, while he listens, fixes a thoughtful medical eye on space, looking inscrutably wise and professionally self-confident.

He begins to operate on it—with a can-opener. And immediately the round tin clock becomes a round tin can whose contents are under suspicion. He cuts around the circular top of the can, bends back the flap of tin with a kitchen thumb gingerly, scrutinizes the contents gingerly, and then, gingerly approaching his nose to it, sniffs with the melancholy expression of an experienced housekeeper who believes the worst of the packing-houses.

The imagination is accurate. The acting is restrained and naturalistic. The result is a scream.

And do not believe that such acting is And do not believe that such acting is a matter of crude and simple means. It is as subtle in its naturalism as the shades of intonation in a really tragic speech.

In one of Chaplin’s films, another actor, disguised as Chaplin, walked into the picture and was received by the audience with a preliminary titter of welcome. He went through a number of typical Chaplin antics with a drinking fountain that squirted water in his face. There was half-hearted laughter. He was not funny. He moved through a succession of comic “stunts” unsuccessfully before it dawned on me that this was not Chaplin at all.

When Chaplin followed in, and repeated the exact passages that had failed, the laughter was enormous. It was the difference between a man acting a comic scene and a man living it, and the difference was apparent in a thousand niceties of carriage and gesture and expression of face. In this hairbreadth of difference lies the triumph of Chaplin’s art.

Expressed in salary, it is the difference between a few dollars a day and a half-million a year. In reputation, it is the difference between the obscurity of the still unknown comedians who competed with Chaplin in the early films and the success of the most famous clown in the world — for Chaplin is as pre-eminent a favorite in Paris, for Instance, as he is here. It is the difference between a genuine artist and an artificial one.

That difference goes very deep. Slivers used to say: “It’s imitatin’ life — that’s what does it. You can’t get it by muggin'” — making faces — “it has to be real to you. Why, in that baseball game … ” And he would describe how he had built up his elaborate caricature of a catcher from innumerable observations, holding his glove between his knees instead of dropping it on the ground—when he paused to put on his chest-pad — because So-and So always did it that way, and snatching off his mask with just this gesture because it was the way he had seen another catcher do that.

And he would say: “You know, it’s hard work — that turn. You have to keep in your mind where all the players are, on the field and on the bases, all the time. It keeps you watchin’.” He was as serious about It as a Russian realist. And, as a result, you would see the baseball fans at the circus wiping the tears of helpless laughter from one eye at a time so as not to lose sight of him for an instant.

The curious thing is that none of the clowns who worked with Slivers in the circus learned the lesson from him. They imitated his “make-up”. They stole his “business”. But they never reached his secret. And on the films, to-day, as on the stage, you will find all the would-be comedians “mugging” diligently, trying to “put over comedy” with consciously comic gesture and intonation, saying to the audience tacitly, “I’m funny — laugh at me,” and concluding that the audience is “a bunch of boneheads” because they do not laugh.

The author gives the stage comedians amusing lines, and Chaplin has no lines. Elaborately humorous plots are invented for the spoken drama, and Chaplin’s plots are so simple that the popular legend credits him with Improvising them as he goes along.

He is on a stage where the slapstick, the “knockabout”, the guttapercha hammer and the “roughhouse” are accepted as the necessary ingredients of comedy, and these things fight against the finer qualities of his art, yet he overcomes them. In his burlesque of Carmen he commits suicide with a collapsible dagger, and the moment of his death is as tragic as any of Bernhardt’s. His work has become more and more delicate and finished as the medium of its reproduction has improved to admit of delicate and finished work.

There is no doubt, as Mrs. Fiske has said, that he is a great artist. And he is a great lesson and encouragement to anyone who loves an art or practises it, for he is an example of how the best can be the most successful, and of how a real talent can triumph over the most appalling limitations put upon its expression, and of how the popular eye can recognize such a talent without the aid of the pundits of culture and even in spite of their anathemas.

— Harvey O’Higgins