This is a repost of sorts, parts of this piece culled from a couple of previous posts, prompted by Thursday’s Turner Classic Movies schedule. Every year in August TCM does Summer Under the Stars where they dedicate each 24-hour period of programming to one actor or actress. Yesterday, it was Charlie Chaplin, and boy, I needed him.
Chaplin was one of the world’s greatest comedians, and yet, I rarely laugh during his films. I am, however, captivated by his sublime artistry and touched by his sensitivity – he was a genius. There is something about his Little Tramp character that to me is not only timeless, but very Buddhist.
Although I’ve tried and I’ve tried, I have not been able to find a connection between Charlie Chaplin and Buddhism. Well, except for the Cao Dai (“high place” or altar) sect of Vietnam that worships Charlie. Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to say they worship Chaplin, but they do revere him as a saint, and then Coadaism is not exactly Buddhism, it’s a monotheistic religion that James P. Harrison describes in The endless war: Vietnam’s struggle for independence as “claiming inspiration from all the great religious thinkers from Buddha and Confucius to Jesus Christ and Muhammad to Victor Hugo, and even Charlie Chaplin.”
Now, at one time Chaplin was about as close as you can get to sainthood while still breathing. From the late teens of the last century and into the 1930’s, he was arguably the most beloved man on the planet. Almost everyone could relate to Charlie in one way or another, especially everyday people, working class people, folks who were closer to the bottom than the top. Charlie represented them. He was all of them, packed into one baggy pair of pants. When he kicked a cop or tricked a bullying boss or hit a pompous rich man in the face with a custard pie, he did what they wanted to do – strike a blow against authority. Charlie’s Little Tramp character was usually left with the short end of the stick, rarely got the girl he loved, and at the end of many of the films, he wandered off alone, lonely and a little sad.
Because his films were silent, they transcended language. People the world over considered Charlie to be one of them. The upper classes could appreciate his artistry and use of pathos, while the lower classes could cheer him on. St. John Ervine, in a 1921 article for Vanity Fair, wrote, “Mr. Chaplin has conquered the world because he has remained of the world.”
While there may be no direct connection between Chaplin and Buddhism, he did have a connection to Gandhi. He was a great admirer of the Mahatma. The two met in London in 1931. Gandhi was staying at Kingsley Hall Community Centre, operated by Muriel Lester, a Christian pacifist. In her 1932 book Entertaining Gandhi, she relates this story in which it seems Gandhi was one of the very few people who had not heard of The Little Tramp:
One of my clearest mental pictures is of Mr Gandhi sitting with a telegram in his hand looking distinctly puzzled. Grouped round him were secretaries awaiting his answer. As I came in, the silence was being broken by a disapproving voice saying ‘But he’s only a buffoon, there is no point in going to meet him.’ The telegram was being handed over for the necessary refusal when I saw the name.
“‘But don’t you know that name, Bapu?’ I inquired, immensely intrigued. ‘No’ he answered, taking back the flimsy form and looking at me for the enlightenment that his secretaries could not give.
‘Charlie Chaplin! He’s the world’s hero. You simply must meet him. His art is rooted in the life of working people, he understands the poor as well as you do, he honours them always in his pictures.’”
Off-screen, Charlie was not all that saintly. He had his peccadilloes, so to speak, which I will not go into here. But on-screen, as the Little Tramp, he seemed to perfectly capture the essence of the human spirit. He once made the Buddha-like statement, “Loneliness is the theme of everyone.” Chaplin knew loneliness, he knew suffering. He grew up in a hard era – the end of the austere Victorian age – his father an alcoholic, his mother* mentally ill, Charlie and his half-brother Sydney labored in a workhouse and lived in a home for orphans and destitute children. Charlie Chaplin knew more suffering by age 10 than most of us have known our whole lives. He understood in the depth of his being that when someone makes a declaration of no surrender and sticks to it no matter what, amazing things can take place in that person’s life. That sentiment is superbly expressed in the transcendent final scene of his last ‘silent’ film, Modern Times.
Usually, it’s not a good idea to show the final scene of a film, but in this case it may inspire any who have not yet seen the movie or experienced Charlie Chaplin to make an effort to do so. You probably know the background music, you’ll say or sing the words in your head as it plays, a song written by Chaplin . . .
One of the most enduring, and touching, images in film . . . the Little Tramp – and this time, he gets the girl – and they walk off together down that long, dusty road . . .
Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking . . .
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* A somewhat interesting aside: Chaplin’s mother, Hannah, had an adulterous affair with a man name Dryden and 3 years after Charlie was born, she gave birth to George Wheeler Dryden, who in 1938 became father to a certain Spencer Dryden, later the longest-serving drummer for the Jefferson Airplane.