In 1922 a young writer named Myles Connolly wrote a piece for the Catholic magazine America titled “Chesterton’s Cap and Bells”. Connolly had just met the great writer, and he starts off by comparing Chesterton to another Englishman: Charlie Chaplin:
When Max Eastman asked Charlie Chaplin what it is he does to make them laugh, that good artist very sensibly replied: “I make them conscious of life. ‘You think this is it, don’t you?’ I say. ‘Well, it isn’t, but this is, see?’ And then they laugh.” It is thus that Chesterton entertains: he makes people conscious of life.
Connolly goes on to say that in his opinion, Chaplin is the one “who could catch the spirit of ‘Napoleon of Notting Hill’ or ‘Manalive’ and give us a film drama that would thrill even the chronic movie-goer with the beauty of honest love, the glory of wholesome adventure, and the grandeur of home.”
Not long after this Myles Connolly wrote his own novel deeply inspired by Chesterton (and Chaplin, I would suggest), Mr. Blue, the story of a sort of anti-Gatsby who reacts to the Jazz Age by embracing a joyful asceticism. Connolly would also go on to become an Oscar-nominated screenwriter whose credits include co-writing the classic Jimmy Stewart comedy, Harvey. (I love connections like this—finding out that there’s a link between a giant imaginary rabbit and G.K.C. makes my day.)
But back to Chaplin.
Two favorite movies in our house are Chaplin’s The Kid and The Circus. Yes, Modern Times and City Lights are better movies. But they don’t include kids and monkeys. And that makes all the difference to children.
Chaplin’s work is regarded by some as overly sentimental, but that’s an unjust perception. Sit down and watch the actual films again and you get a fuller picture. The movies are hilarious, but carry an undercurrent of poignancy that leavens the sweetness by acknowledging suffering and pain. Sentiment is there, but so is hardship and real danger, giving emotional authenticity to the catharsis when the Tramp wins out. And when he wins out, it’s often at his own expense.
In The Kid a single mother is introduced as she emerges from a charity hospital with her baby. The film’s judgment is on the father, depicted as an irresponsible and callous artist. As the mother carries her child, her image fades out and is replaced with an image of Christ carrying the cross. In desperation, she places her child in the car of a wealthy family with a note pinned to his blanket. The car is promptly stolen and the child abandoned in the slums.
The Tramp stumbles across the baby and at first tries every way he can think of getting rid of him, even contemplating for a moment whether he could put the baby down a sewer grating. But when he finds the note, he realizes he has to help. Together, the kid and the Tramp struggle to get by in their impoverished neighborhood; scamming people into paying the Tramp to fix windows the kid breaks, fighting off local bullies, running from authorities. By the end of the movie child and mother have been reunited, but the future for the Tramp is left ambiguous.
In The Circus, we see both the best from the Tramp and the worst. After he stumbles into a starring role in a circus run with an iron fist by a cruel ringmaster, the Tramp falls in love with the ringmaster’s daughter, a beautiful acrobat named Merna. At first the Tramp is unaware that his bumbling antics are drawing huge crowds to the show. But after it’s revealed to him, he uses this new power to get better pay and begins treating those around him just as disrespectfully as he was once treated. It’s only after his heart is broken when Merna falls in love with a handsome new tightrope walker that the Tramp’s behavior begins to change. After a final act of selflessness he walks away, headed to his next adventure.
My kids have made me promise that this weekend our movie night will feature another Chaplin movie. My six-year-old wants to see The Gold Rush, and my seven-year-old wants to see Modern Times. My four-year-old just wants to see Charlie escape from the lion again in The Circus. So this clip below is for you from him. Enjoy!