Charlie Chaplin’s Potent Message For Today
by, Anthony Fertino
History has always been a crucial yet tough educator, through objectivity and the unobstructed power of hindsight. Our collective past is a comprehensive, potent resource of moral lessons. However, it does not only emphasize moments of humankind’s weakness—it also details our greatest achievements.
This is important because history can often feel cyclical. While our lives may seem turbulent right now, also full of extremes in our society and politics and economy, this is hardly the first instance of such strain. It is vital to recognize that we have improved ourselves through the rights movements of the 60’s. That we have survived apparently insurmountable obstacles like The Great Depression. There are always methods of growing, healing, and coping.
Famed comedic artist Charlie Chaplin allowed audiences to approach very difficult subjects in a healthy, inviting way. Chaplin’s films were open to poignant, sensitive discussions because he co-founded United Artists, acquiring full artistic control. Which he certainly took full advantage of. Chaplin wrote, directed, and starred in countless movies, even composing music for quite a few of them. Which is considerably inspirational in and of itself, a shining example of positive ambition.
Now, it would be understandable if modern audiences found it challenging to try silent movies, let alone anything black and white. But Chaplin possessed an uncanny ability to combine accessible comedy with genuine pathos and serious themes. This was nothing less than brilliant. Chaplin’s tactics healed audiences that were enduring the Great Depression, and will remain timelessly curative for anyone facing extreme adversity. As such, his coping strategies are a perfect fit for the financial stress our current pandemic has wrought.
Chaplin was very forthright in his depiction of poverty, wielding his own personal understanding. Chaplin’s famous “Tramp” character is often starved, and desperate for work. He is frequently mistreated by his employers, or hounded by the police. The Tramp’s clothes are weathered, and his shelter is scarce. He is also distinctly small, compared to his many adversaries. Chaplin’s level of authenticity and sincerity will unify the viewers who suffer equally, and generate sympathy from those who do not. The Tramp is truly the most lovable underdog, who very rarely gets a typical Hollywood ending. Instead of simple rags-to-riches tales, Chaplin mostly depicts resolution with satisfying relationship arcs. He accentuates the truest riches in life.
Further, comedy always boasts the capacity to combat negative power through transformation. For example, before the United States had even entered World War II, Chaplin dared to mock the Axis powers in The Great Dictator. Chaplin distinctly undermined their leaders’ menace, by satirizing their personalities and methods. Chaplin criticizes egomaniacal behavior and tyranny, by pointing out its absurdity with hilarity.
The pomp and circumstance and the childlike pride are all subject to wacky antics. In fact, literal war machines are toyed with, presented as ludicrous and dangerous things. But Chaplin also gravely, passionately calls for unity and humanity at the end of the film. The Great Dictator also happens to be one of the few movies that boasts sound, making it far more accessible for those who might find silent filmmaking too daunting.
However, enjoying Chaplin’s silent classic Modern Times is a perfect way to deal with adversity. Firstly, Chaplin is frequently something of a hopeless romantic, and this story is no exception. His comedic whimsy naturally lends itself to charming and convincing romantic exploits, which offer a cozy and heartwarming tone. It also serves as a perfect balance to the many hardships presented on screen.
In Modern Times, two characters that undergo equally difficult hardships ultimately fall in love. Rather than escaping poverty altogether, Chaplin instead allows his protagonists to endure together. To confront adversity and overcome it through meaningful relationships is a potent message. Like the rest of Chaplin’s extensive filmography, Modern Times is a powerful exercise in empathy.
~ by, Anthony FertinoAnthony is a frequent contributor to both The Gamer and Screen Rant, and the author of two novels. His film analysis and suggestions are part of our regular column, “Making The Day,” here on This American Quarantine.