Charlie and the Iconic Construct of Class

Early on in his film career -- and on the stage even earlier -- Charles Chaplin played members of a low social order and, indeed, in real life he arose from one, stating during the early years of his celebrity that "the saddest thing I can imagine is to get used to luxury" (Gehring 1983: 5). But the height of his fame and afterward, he hob-nobbed with celebrities almost exclusively; at times, Chaplin seemed to prefer their company to that of commoners or anyone without his own class status. Yet he continued to make powerful statements about class by virtue of his icon, and at times he expressed sympathy with the common man. What were his real feelings -- how did the icon diverge from its famous creator? I find that the early Charlie symbolically fights the social oppression of the real world while the artist, at that time, pushes it out of his mind or acts contradictorily about it; the later Charlie, the icon substantiated with the real, really did fight social oppression, in actual terms.

Chaplin felt the class gap consistently through his early life, as his family life disintegrated around him, but the older he grew, the more he learnt as well about how behavior and class were seen, in public, as being linked. Early in Chaplin's vaudeville days -- probably about 1906 -- the effects of his time in legitimate theater still lingered, so at one point he decided to show his burlesque-audience the stuff he was really made of. He tried to eschew comedy and deliver dramatic monologue the next time he got a solo turn in his troupe, but the sight of a "low" music-hall comedian aspiring to a position out of his station caused Chaplin's drama to be taken as more comedic than his comedy (1983: 7).

Upon the arrival of Chaplin at Keystone and the development of Charlie, the character was at first extremely raffish and vulgar: in Laughing Gas, for instance, he "hits a man on the mouth with a brick, causing the man to spit out a mouthful of teeth" (Maland 1989: 6). Not only was this seen as gross (perhaps rightly so), but the public linked the vulgarity to class: members of what Santayana called "the genteel tradition" (1989: 15) refered to Chaplin's origins in "the slums of Whitecastle" (1989: 16), and Keystone's own early ads for Charlie depicted him in vulgar poses to emphasize a class-related link (as at left). Chaplin planned to clean up the Tramp's image almost immediately, and soon Charlie's "vulgarisms," while not removed, were downplayed somewhat. To pick up the humor gap while remaining respectable -- and perhaps poking fun at respectable folk, as well -- pretentiously upper-class behavior now became a hallmark of the Tramp's style. "Heroines were often several notches above him in social class," notes Gehring (Gehring 1983: 47); indeed, Charlie was shown at times as having to pretend in order to make himself her social equal, starting with the early Her Friend the Bandit (a now-lost film in which he mimicked absent Count De Beans), Charlie played posh through such gems as The Adventurer (1917, illustrated at right), then culminated in the supreme City Lights, in which he is believed to be a millionaire for much of the film. But most of the time, Chaplin was content to show his character less often faking a social climb than living his Tramp life with a nobility that outranked his position. Indeed, Chaplin's outfitting of the icon in slightly dandy clothing accentuated this characteristic: "A walking stick," Chaplin later stated, "marks a man as rather a 'swell'. And so when I come shuffling on to the scene with my little cane and my serious air, I give the impression of an attempt at dignity, and that is exactly my object." (David Robinson 1984: 48)

Class could be superseded within the Charlie icon, but only temporarily; here we see where the icon came into conflict with society's class-based values. When Charlie appeared out of his station with (fictive) wife and family in A Day's Pleasure, or in other roles where he really was more well-off than usual, many claimed that it was a compromise of the Tramp's character. Actually, the only real compromises involve use of some less artistic, more slapstick humor than was usual for that period of Chaplin's work; the difference in Charlie's surroundings does not really affect the usual Charlie mannerisms and behavior. Yet the class-based morals of real-life society prompted many to find the A Day's Pleasure situation (and some similar ones) inappropriate to the character's intrinsic identity. It is as if the audience winked behind Charlie's back and agreed that (A) no one can escape class and (B) no one should be able to.

Perhaps Chaplin understood the dichotomy. Parker Tyler speaks of the contrast between his real-world high-society self and how, trapped in that self and admittedly fascinated by its environment, Chaplin may have mainly let out his feelings about class in fiction, through his films. "Far from conquering reality . . . Chaplin remained one who perpetually escaped into art . . . . The Little Tramp was definitely an underdog, and Chaplin could triumph over the Tramp's environment [real-world poverty] only symbolically" (1948: 80). By depicting class inversion in a fictional setting rather than compromising his reality in protest, Chaplin was doing his best to fight class prejudice while remaining in his privileged class.

He seemed to be aware of it. Perhaps in an attempt to justify his own wealth by contrast to the poor, Chaplin would denigrate the effects of his celebrity, as if to say neither rich nor poor were happy. "Nothing fails like success," said successful Chaplin. "I mean by that, that money never satisfied a spiritual or intellectual need. . . I doubt whether a rich man ever has a real friend. . . . I always understand poor artists; rich ones always seem to me a contradiction in terms" (Maland 1989: 64). In City Lights, the Tramp struggles to make money to help restore the sight of a blind girl he loves, and her acceptance of him upon finally viewing his lower-class appearance is ambiguous at best. Charlie and Chaplin masterfully use fiction to make a point about class prejudice with the subtlety of a blackjack. But the prejudice includes believing the rich have it all: the film's millionaire is seen as destitute, drunken, and miserable (above). Modern Times again makes a statement; the "fictional" world of the icon meshes theoretically with the real, its comedy becomes more blackly satirical, and Charlie is literally force-fed with the will of the upper class; however, the upper class (his boss) is hardly content either, overwhelmed by technology as well. Chaplin certainly made social comments that could have affected his audiences' thoughts about themselves and their economic standing, which was certainly a way that "symbolic" action would have a real-life effect. Of course, it was indisputably so with regard to The Great Dictator. While not a film quintessentally about class, the story of Adenoid Hynkel could hardly help but emphasize the ridiculously posh way that a dictator lavished himself with luxury while folk in the ghetto starved. By speaking out against such tyranny (albeit for race-oriented reasons), Chaplin would find that his Tayloresque drive to "symbolically" fight for change would burst out of the fictional film context and into the real world. Now filmed political activism would now begin to brew a very real political quandary. But that was a different story.

-- David Gerstein

(For a larger selection of Parker Tyler's article, click here.)

(When Chaplin began to mesh his own voice with Charlie, it came out especially in relation to the machine age, Nazism, and leftist politics.)


Text (C) 1995 David A. Gerstein