Chaplin and the Youth Complex

Chaplin had a curious relationship to children. "I feel rather inferior to [them]," he said at one time. "Most of them have assurance, but have not yet been cursed with self-consciousness." (Robinson 1985: 278) While free from self-consciousness in many early films and, often, spritely and innocent in his raffish way later on, Charlie the icon always had assurance, and in real life, Chaplin longed to present himself as the same spritely, childlike icon -- to project a carefree image of himself the same way that young children did. He wanted, the present author believes, to share childhood with his icon in an idealized way (given, particularly, that his early childhood was spent in poverty). But once his life was consumed in stardom, he found that the youthful aspect of his pleasures tended more toward the teenage than the grade-school in degree (see his relationships with women for more on this). Since no one enjoys the uncomfortable results of a romantic liason gone wrong, the present author guesses that Chaplin's attempt to make his icon childlike was a wistful self-idealization, perhaps the self he would have liked to recapture. Donna Haraway has referred to how the mature woman may feel an urge to be "liberated," but that liberation in our culture involves definition of the opposite. "Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness . . . [of] oppression, and so of possibility" (Haraway: 191). For Haraway a woman may already be used to doing things that aren't traditionally 'ladylike'. But she must understand how the patriarchy represses her to get more satisfaction out of her non-ladylike activities, to define being a liberated woman by what it means not to be one. Chaplin may have longed to return to childhood while keeping his mature sexual desires in adulthood: since childlike adults are not accepted at all in real life, the oppression he felt left him forced to compromise. Thus ethereal Charlie functioned as an outlet for the childishness.

While the Tramp had kicked obnoxious brats out of the way in early films, Chaplin's The Kid (1920) was an example of how the actor-director expressed his feelings about real children on the screen: an emotional story in which the Tramp adopted a foundling youth. Charles Maland explains how "Charlie and [Jackie Coogan's young boy character] exhibit a deep emotional bond. When Charlie cares for the infant in his comic improvised nursery, when the two perfect their window-breaking and repairing service . . . we see how close they have become" (Maland 1989: 57). Some authors have seen Coogan's character as a younger and more idealized Charlie, perhaps (to the current author) making a surprisingly realistic statement about how the real Chaplin could never completely revert to youth even within a film, within the icon. Notably, Chaplin's longing for childish innocence could still involve such things as window-breaking (albeit, here, wishfully for a good cause), so he didn't view childish innocence as a Goody-Two-Shoes "purity" so much as as a freedom from responsibility, the kind that inevitably resulted when he played teenage lover and, in real life, romanced such young women as Lita Grey. (Years later, Luc Besson's film Leon (The Professional) would put a macabre twist on Chaplin's window-breaking scene, when Jean Reno and his young adopted daughter/lover Mathilda "practice" for gangland hits with the same glee -- perhaps reflecting on how Chaplin's love of children in reality and as Charlie contrasted uncomfortably with child-bride relationships, which only took place with serious consequences outside of the Charlie persona.) At a time -- the early 1930s -- when Charlie's antics increasingly contrasted with the complexities of Chaplin's real life, the comedian would make (non-sexual) visits with children an important part of his life, as if to try to get closer to his icon. Importantly, it is clear from his private journals that the goal was personal and not for publicity. His British visit to the Hanwell Schools, where he had been a student in his lonely youth, was of great emotional value to him; the children there acclaimed him and he prepared gifts for them and a return visit. But, typical for the moody Chaplin, his empathy for children came and went: he instead lunched with Lady Astor on the planned day. "The press, who had also turned out in numbers, did not fail to point out the echoes of The Gold Rush in the tea table set out in the school dining hall for the guest who did not arrive." (quoted in Robinson 1985: 426) Charlie, forced in the words of Haraway to accept adulthood, clearly found it difficult to drift back to childhood frequently without becoming, perhaps, too aware of the dichotomy between what he would have liked to be and what he was. What did the critics say about Chaplin's relationship to childhood? Sergei Eisenstein's Charlie the Kid (1944) noted that the film's title was "worthy of being used to identify his creator; the appelation reveals his inner nature" (quoted in Robinson 1984: 90). Perhaps not precisely, but enjoying an idealized childhood unlike his own genuine infancy was clearly important to Chaplin. "[Chaplin] has preserved the outlook and spontaneous reactions of a child," Eisenstein went on, describing the icon, the film-Charlie. "Hence his freedom from the ordinary fetters of morals..." Eisenstein blurs Chaplin and Charlie somewhat here, and it is quite frankly no surprise: the icon was what the man wanted to be. As creator of the icon, the man -- while only sometimes one with his fictionalized image -- can be protected by it all the time. No matter how real, or partly real, the traits icons' creator-owners share with them may be, they are used as a lens to view the real person. So Chaplin, like Charlie, was freed more from the "fetters of morals" than your average comedian, all by virtue of his icon. That Chaplin held accountable for his non-childish traits at all was just one of those unfortunate benefits of living in reality some of the time.

-- David Gerstein

 (For a larger selection of Sergio Eisenstein's article, click here.)

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Text (C) 1995 David A. Gerstein