The Phases of Charlie

Excerpted from "The Phases of Charlot" by Timothy Lyons, 1979. "Charlot" is used to refer to Charles Chaplin's on-screen presence, with "Charlie" indicating the Little Tramp; since the Tramp is the icon of our current study, the current excerpt will cover that character alone.

There are two kinds of characters in literature which may be fittingly called Charlot. The first is the typewhich exists solely to repeat the actions of others who have come before. And there is the symbol, which is a character who reflects all kinds of ideas, fantasies and influences. The type wears itself out, self-destructs into an ineffectual cliche; the symbol extends itself until it replaces the ideas, fantasties and influences it represents. The development of Charlot is from what appeared to be a character type to what soon became a symbol.

I. Charlot: Charles the Comedian (Keystone) 1914
Charlot was merely a seed in Charles's mind. Improvisation and experimentation allowed parts of the character to emerge. We first catch a glimpse of him as he wanders into view of a camera photographing Kid's Auto Race at Venice (1914), out-of-place and ill-at-ease. Then we meet him periodically flirting with women in the hotel, at the park, in a movie studio, and elsewhere. At times he is married, at other times not; he sometimes has a menial job and sometimes he is unemployed.
During this period, Charles played the comedian, using elements of Charlot if they were successful in evoking laughter. Conforming to Sennett's demand for results, Charles lacked the freedom to allow Charlot to show himself. Instead, Charlot was a puppet made to do what other people wished. Charlot the child was ruled by his superiors and unable to reveal his true personality, although like any child, his early experiences would shape his later development.

II. Charlot: Charlie the Comedian (Essanay) 1915
After the hectic adventures at Keystone, Charles allowed a character of sorts to emerge. The character was Charlie the adolescent, constantly trying to please, always seeking the satisfaction of the audience's laughter. Whether his deeds were sincere was secondary to Charles; acceptance was Charlie's primary goal.
He gets a new job, has a night out, joins his dog in a boxing match, flirts in the park, elopes, saves a woman from bandits, plays at the seashore, works as a paperhanger, masquerades as a woman, works in a bank, is shanghaied, spends an evening at a music hall, burlesques Carmen, and escapes from prison. We know very little about why he does what he does, since he doesn't reveal to us where he's been or where he's going. Many of the people he meets seem familiar to us, and he appears to be chasing after the same woman in each film, but in all his actions he lacks sincerity. Charlie is a social climber, seeking to get the best of what is available, and not above scandalous pranks to achieve his goals.

III. Charlot: Charlie the Tramp (Mutual) 1916-1917
Charlie looks the same, acts the same, in each of our encounters with him. He may wear different clothes, but his actions assure us that he is the same tramp we saw in the last film. He becomes involved in the most outrageous situations, none of his own making, where he destroys a department store, ruins a fire department, foils the gypsies' attempts to kidnap a woman, battles an unruly wall bed, is mistaken for a count, causes havoc in the pawnshop, disrupts a movie studio, is a failure as a waiter, is an inept recruit for the police department, unsuccessfully takes "the cure," is an immigrant in trouble in a restaurant, and (again) escapes from prison.
His adventures suggest he is always getting into some kind of trouble, but he is equally adept at getting out of these situations. He is a tramp because he has no roots; but in spirit he is a kind person beset by obstacles that all of us can envision encountering -- but unlike us, he is masterful in turning the odds around and leaving unscathed. He is an admirable character.

IV. Charlot: Charlie the Symbol (First National) 1918-1923
The tramp now seems to occupy the same territory, a city of sorts, a recognizable location in which we can spot the same buildings from one film to another. All the people are the same as those in the previous film; they may have different names, but they serve the same purpose in meeting Charlie no matter in how many films they appear. And the things that Charlie does are things to which we relate in spirit: fighting hunger, dreaming of heroism, attempting to get away from the pressures of everyday life, devoting himself to an abandoned child, trying to make ends meet, and coping with the prejudices existing in society.
Charlie's actions are universal ones. In The Kid (1921) especially we can see the depth of the character, his tenderness and fighter instinct to protect those less fortunate than himself. The forces he confronts are ones of social prejudice (the unwed mother, the do-gooders), authority (the policeman, the orphanage personnel), and economic imbalance (he the tramp is able to raise the kid with little or no money while the kid's mother accumulates wealth as an opera star). The possibility of his being understood, perhaps even accepted by society, is indeed great at the end of The Kid. Charlie is no longer merely an outcast; he clearly wants to join.

V. Charlot (United Artists) 1923-1940
When a character becomes so meaningful to us that the mere suggestion of his presence, physically and/or spiritually, conjures up in us all the ideas we have ever associated with the character, he becomes a symbol.
Charlot in The Gold Rush (1925) appears in an incongruous setting for him (The Frozen North), and we understand the meaning of his "search" (for gold, for companionship, for love), the pain of his rejection, and the tenuous joy of his "success." In the final section of the film, we see Charlot with evidence of his material success, but he has lost Georgia and, regardless of what we feel about her, we understand the emptiness of achievement without reward. His final winning of Georgia suggests the optimism of Charlot's spirit.
In The Circus (1928) and in City Lights (1931), Charlot puts aside his own interests and feelings to accommodate others; he sacrifices his own happiness by providing the one gift which will deny his own fulfillment: Rex and family tranquility for Merna in The Circus; sight for the blind woman in City Lights. In Modern Times (1936) he again covets the affections of someone less well-off than himself; but this time he manages to defeat the inhuman enemy of technocracy. His spirit of optimism is one which the gamin[e] adopts and one which ensures their future together. Finally, the optimism we have felt for this character seems justified: there is hope for him, and perhaps for us, too.
We're not sure we'll see Charlot again, until in The Great Dictator (1940) he risks his life to tell us exactly what he has been thinking, his goals for peace and brotherhood, his ideas for world freedom. They are idealistic goals, we pragmatists know, and we question whether they will ever become reality.


Text retyped by David A. Gerstein