FINEST HOUR 142, SPRING 2009
BY WINSTON S. CHURCHILL
First published in Collier’s, 26 October, 1935; later published as “He Has Made the Whole World Richer” (Sunday Chronicle, London, 9 February, 1936); and “Chaplin—The Man Who Has Made the World Rich with Laughter” (Screen Pictorial, May 1936). Reprinted by kind permission of Winston S. Churchill. Cohen C480.
“HAD THEIR PRODUCERS AND STARS LEARNED FROM CHAPLIN AND THE EUROPEANS, THE SILENT SCREEN MIGHT HAVE DEFIED THE TALKIES. PANTOMIME IS THE TRUE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE.”
In a room in St. Thomas’ Hospital, London, a man lay dying. He had had a good life—a full life. He had been a favourite in the music halls. He had tasted the triumphs of the stage. He had won a measure of fame as a singer. His home life had been happy. And now death had come for him. While he was yet in the prime of manhood, with success still sweet in his mouth, the curtain was falling—and forever.
The other windows of the hospital were dark. In this one alone a light burned. And below it, outside in the darkness, shivering with cold and numbed with fear, a child stood sobbing. He had been told that there was no hope, but his wild heart prayed for the miracle that could not happen, even while he waited for the light to go out and the compassionate hesitations that would tell him his father was no more. The dying man and the child outside the window both bore the same name—Charles Chaplin.
Destiny shifts us here and there upon the chequerboard of life, and we know not the purpose behind the moves. His father’s death brought a safe, comfortable world crashing about Charlie Chaplin’s head, and plunged his mother, his brother and himself into poverty. But poverty is not a life sentence. It is a challenge. To some it is more—it is an opportunity. It was so to this child of the theatre. In the kaleidoscopic life of London’s mean streets he found tragedy and comedy—and learned that their springs lie side by side.
He knew the problems of the poor, not from the aloof angle of the social investigator, but at first hand. They were his mother’s problems—and his own. But the very struggle of life gave a new zest to common things. And upon the margin of subsistence human nature has few reticences. It reveals itself far more clearly and fully than in more sheltered surroundings. So daily Charlie’s keen eyes noted some new aspect of the exposed expanse of life around him. In somewhat similar circumstances, many years before, another boy had found, amid the rank luxuriance of London life, a key to fame and fortune. He also had been desperately poor. He also had missed much that should be the birthright of every child. But the alchemy of genius transmuted bitterness and suffering into the gold of great literature and gave us the novels of Charles Dickens.
Between these two there is, I think, an essential similarity. Both knew hardness in childhood. Both made their misfortunes stepping-stones to success. They developed along different lines, chose different mediums of expression, but both quarried in the same rich mine of common life and found there a treasure of laughter and drama for the delight of all mankind.
Mark Twain, left fatherless at twelve, had substantially the same experience, though in a different setting. He would never have written Huckleberry Finn had life been kinder in his youth. So we need not regret the shadows that fell over Charlie Chaplin’s early life. Without them his gifts might have shone less brightly, and the whole world would have been poorer. Genius is essentially a hardy plant. It thrives in the east wind. It withers in a hothouse. That is, I believe, true in every walk of life.
The reason the historic English families have produced so many men of distinction is that, on the whole, they have borne great responsibilities rather than enjoyed great wealth. Their younger sons, especially, have usually had to make their own way in the world, to stand on their own feet, to rely on their own merits and their own efforts. I am glad that I had to earn my living from the time that I was a young man. Had I been born heir to millions I should certainly have had a less interesting life.
Naturally and inevitably, once school days were over, the youthful Charlie Chaplin found his way on to the stage. And when he was twenty-one he signed a contract which took him to the United States and Canada with the Fred Karno Comedy Company. This American tour was, in some ways, as important to the development of the Chaplin that we know as were his early days in London. It was one of the great formative experiences of his career. We in England like to think of Charlie Chaplin as an Englishman, but America gave a new direction, a new edge to his quality. It opened to him new fields of character and circumstance.
Twenty-five years ago, when the young actor crossed the Atlantic, life in the States was more fluid than in England—more fluid perhaps than it is today. Its forms had not set. Personalities were more important than conventions. Democracy was not only a political institution but a social fact. Class distinctions mattered comparatively little when the hired hand of today was so often the employer of tomorrow, and the majority of professional men had paid for their university training with the work of
TRAMPS AND HOBOS
Even poverty wore a different face in America. It was not the bitter, grinding destitution Charlie had encountered in the London slums and which has now, thanks to the extension of social services, largely disappeared. In many cases it was a poverty deliberately chosen, rather than imposed from without.
Every cinema-goer is familiar with the Chaplin tramps, but I wonder how many of them have reflected how characteristically American are these homeless wanderers. In the dwindling ranks of the English tramps one finds all sorts of people—from varsity graduate whose career has ended in ruin and disgrace, to the half-imbecile illiterate who has been unemployable since boyhood. But they all have one thing in common—they belong to the great army of the defeated. They still maintain the pretence of looking for work—but they do not expect to find it. They are spiritless and hopeless.
The American hobo of the early 1900s was of an entirely different type. Often he was not so much an outcast from society as a rebel against it. He could not settle down, either in a home or a job. He hated the routine of regular employment and loved the changes and chances of the road. Behind his wanderings was something of the old adventurous urge that sent the covered wagons lumbering across the prairie towards the sunset.
There were also upon the highways of America, in the days of prosperity, many men who were not tramps at all in the ordinary sense of the term. They were travelling craftsmen, who would work in one place for a few weeks or months, and then move on to look for another job elsewhere. Even today, when work is no longer easy to secure, the American wanderer still refuses to acknowledge defeat. That indomitable spirit is an integral part of the make-up of the screen Charlie Chaplin. His portrayal of the underdog is definitely American rather than British. The English working man has courage in plenty, but those whom prolonged unemployment has forced on the road are nowadays usually broke and despairing. The Chaplin tramp has a quality of defiance and disdain.
But the American scene as a whole has influenced Chaplin—its variety, its colour, its animation, its strange and spectacular contrasts. And the States did more than this for the little English actor; they provided the opportunity for which, without knowing it, he had been waiting. They introduced him to the ideal medium for his genius, the motion picture.
It was a sultry day in July, 1913. A bored film magnate, Mr. A. Kessel, was strolling along Broadway. Pausing at Hammerstein’s Music Hall to chat with the manager, he heard roar upon roar of laughter. The sound interested him. It had been a long time since anyone had made him laugh. “I expect it’s that young Chaplin that’s causing the cackle,” said the manager. “He’s pretty good.”
So in went Mr Kessel to see the Fred Karno Comedy Company perform “A Night in a London Music Hall” and to investigate young Chaplin.
Soon he was laughing with the rest of the audience. But when Mr. Kessel laughed in a place of public entertainment, his mirth meant business. Round he went to the back, was ushered into Chaplin’s tiny dressing-room, and at once proceeded to offer the Englishman seventy-five dollars a week to play in Keystone comedies. It was more money than he had ever earned before, but Charlie said “No.” That only made Mr. Kessel more determined. He raised his bid to one hundred dollars a week. Still Charlie said “No.” For the moment the film magnate left it at that. But now he was no longer bored. He had a new interest in life. He
Presently he returned to the attack. This time his offer was one hundred and fifty dollars. Charlie still hesitated, but in the end he accepted. And so to Hollywood and the beginning of the most astounding career in cinema history.
THE CHAPLIN PERSONA
It is Mr. Chaplin’s dream to play tragic roles as well as comic ones. The man whose glorious fooling made “Shoulder Arms” a favourite with war-weary veterans of the trenches wants to re-interpret Napoleon to the world. There are other characters, as far removed from those in which he won pre-eminence, which he desires to portray. Those who smile at these ambitions have not appreciated Chaplin’s genius at its true worth. No mere clown, however brilliant, could ever have captured so completely the affections of the great public. He owes his unrivalled position as a star to the fact that he is a great actor, who can tug at our heartstrings as surely as he compels our laughter. There are moments, in some of his films, of an almost unbearable poignancy.
It is a great achievement, and one possible only to a consummate actor, to command at once tears and laughter. But it is the laughter which predominates, and Mr. Chaplin is perfectly right in desiring an opportunity of playing straight tragedy. Until he does so, his pathos will be regarded as merely a by-product of his toothbrush moustache and the ludicrous Chaplin walk.
I believe that, had it not been for the coming of the talkies, we would already have seen this great star in a serious role. He is the one figure of the old silent screen to whom the triumph of the spoken word has meant neither speech nor extinction. He relies, as of old, upon a pantomime that is more expressive than talk. But while the silence of Charlie Chaplin has lost none of its former magic, would Mr. Charles Chaplin, in a role of a kind completely unfamiliar to his audiences, and of which they would almost certainly be highly critical, be able to “get away with it”?
Frankly, I do not wonder that he hesitates, just as he did when Mr. Kessel offered him his first film contract. But he would be taking no greater risk now than he did then. So I do not think that he will hesitate forever. Pantomime, of which he is a master, is capable of expressing every emotion, of communicating the subtlest shades of meaning. A man who can act with his whole body has no need of words, whatever part he plays.
It is the supreme achievement of Mr. Chaplin that he has revived in modern times one of the great arts of the ancient world—an art the secret of which was as completely and, apparently, as irrevocably lost as that of those glowing colours, fresh and vivid today as when they were first applied, which were the glory of the van Eycks.
The golden age of pantomime was under the early Caesars. Augustus himself, the first of the Roman emperors, is sometimes credited with its invention. Nero practiced it, as he wrote poetry, as a relaxation from the more serious pursuits of lust, incendiarism and gluttony. But the greatest pantomimes—the name in Ancient Rome denoted the performers, and not the art of which they were the exponents—gave their whole lives to acting in dumb show, till they had mastered the last potentialities of expression in movement and gesture.
When Christianity triumphed, the pantomimes fled. Their favourite subjects were too frankly physical for the Fathers of the Church, and they were not sufficiently adaptable to seek new ones in the shadow of the Cross. But the subjects were there, had they realized it. Chaplin showed that in “The Pilgrim.” You remember the sequence in which, as an escaped convict disguised in clerical attire, he finds himself in the pulpit, and tells the story of David and Goliath? It is a wonderful piece of miming, in which we follow every detail of the drama.
It was by accident that Chaplin rediscovered the art which, 1900 years ago, cast its spell over the City of the Seven Hills. As a youth he was a member of a variety company touring the Channel Islands, home of a sturdy race to whom the King of England is still the Duke of Normandy. The islanders, speaking mainly the Norman-French patois of their ancestors, could not understand the Cockney phrases of the players, whose best jokes fell flat.
At last, in desperation, the company decided to try to get their effects by action and gesture. A single performance under the new conditions revealed Charles as a mime of genius and also showed him how powerful was the spell which this acting without words could cast over an audience.
From that time he developed his natural gift for pantomimic expression and so unconsciously prepared himself for the day when the whole world should be his audience. But the full flowering of his art came only after he was launched on his film career. He adapted his technique to the cinema and as he grew to appreciate at once the limitations and the possibilities of the screen, his mastery of the new mode of acting was perfected. He had realized that, as he himself had put it, “People can be moved more intensely by a gesture than by a voice.”
American films generally were then in a highly favourable position. They were simpler, more direct than the best of the continental pictures, and consequently met the needs of a far wider audience. Had their producers and stars learned from Chaplin and the Europeans, the silent screen might have defied the talkies. The sound picture would have come just the same, but it would not have scooped the pool.
If we are ever to realize to the full the art of the cinema, I believe that it may be necessary deliberately to limit the mechanical aids we now employ so freely. I should like to see films without voices being made once more, but this time by producers who are alive to the potentialities of pantomime. Such pictures would be worth making, if only for this reason, that the audience for a talkie is necessarily limited by the factor of language, while the silent film can tell its story to the whole of the human race. Pantomime is the true universal tongue.
There are thousands of cinemas throughout the world which have never been wired for sound, and which constitute a market for non-talking pictures. Nor is it safe to assume that this is a shrinking market. There are many countries which lack the resources to make their own talkies. There are millions of people whose mother tongue will never be heard in any cinema and who understand thoroughly no other speech. As the standard of life rises throughout Asia and Africa, new cinemas will be built and a new film public will be created—a public which can be served most effectively by means of pantomime.
The English-speaking nations have here a great opportunity—and a great responsibility. The primitive mind thinks more easily in pictures than in words. The thing seen means more than the thing heard. The films which are shown amid the stillness of the African tropical night or under the skies of Asia may determine, in the long run, the fate of empires and of civilizations. They will promote, or destroy, the prestige by which the white man maintains his precarious supremacy amid the teeming multitudes of black and brown and yellow.
TO PLAY NAPOLEON
I hope that we shall not have to wait another four years for the next Chaplin picture. But it would be worth waiting for if he built up a team of actors and actresses who could use pantomime effectively. He has already shown his power of inspiring others by his production of “A Woman of Paris” and the grim realism with which the hardships of the Klondike pioneers were portrayed in “The Gold Rush.” And I see no reason why, if he can train such a company, he should not realize his ambition of playing the victor of Arcola. I think he might give us a picture of the young Napoleon that would be one of the most memorable things in the cinema.
Our difficulty in visualizing him in such a role is that we think of him as he appears on the screen. We think especially of his feet. Napoleon never had feet like that. Neither has Chaplin. The feet are a “property”—the famous walk is the trick of a clever actor to suggest character and atmosphere. They are, in fact, the feet and walk of an ancient cabman, whom the youthful Charlie Chaplin encountered occasionally in the Kennington Road in London. To their original owner they were not at all humorous. But the boy saw the comic possibilities of that uneasy progress. He watched the old man and copied his movements until he had mastered every step in the dismal repertoire and turned it into mirth.
The same power of observation, the same patient thoroughness, could be used—and would be used—to give us convincing characterizations of serious roles. Charlie Chaplin’s feet are not a handicap; they represent an asset— the power to convert the thing seen into the thing shown. And the real Chaplin is a man of character and culture. As Sidney Earle Chaplin put it, when interviewed at the tender age of five, “People get a wrong impression of Dad. It’s not good style to throw pies, but he only does it in the films. He never throws pies at home.”
I believe, therefore, that the future of Charlie Chaplin may lie mainly in the portrayal of serious roles in silent, or rather, non-talking films, and in the development of a universal cinema.
He need not ignore sound entirely. His pictures can be wedded to music. Natural sounds may be introduced. But these effects would be accessories only; the films could be shown, without any serious weakening of their appeal, in cinemas which were not wired for sound.
If Mr. Chaplin makes pictures of this kind, I think that he will not only increase his already great reputation, but he will blaze a trail which others will follow, and add enormously to the range of cinematic art.
It is a favourite cliché of film critics, in discussing talking pictures, to say that we cannot go back. In effect, they suggest that, because technical progress has given us sound, all films must be talkies and will continue to be so for ever. Such statements reveal a radical misconception of the nature of progress and the nature of art. As well say that, because there is painting in oils, there must be no etchings; or that because speech is an integral part of a stage play, dialogue must be added to ballet. To explore the possibilities of the non-talking film, to make of it a new and individual art form, would not be a retrograde step, but an advance.
There are many brilliant and original minds associated with the cinema today. But there is no one so well equipped for this experiment as Mr. Chaplin. Possibly no one else would dare to make it. I wish him good luck—and the courage of his own convictions and his own magnificent powers. But I hope also that he will not forget the world’s need of laughter. Let him play in tragedy by all means. Let him display to us the full extent of his histrionic genius. But let him come back—at least occasionally—to the vein of comedy that has been the world’s delight for many years.
Get the Churchill Bulletin, delivered to your inbox, once a month.