Maybe you saw Google’s video tribute to Charlie Chaplin on his 122th birthday yesterday. Maybe you know a little about him. Filmmaker, comic actor, composer, kicked out of the US for his left-wing sympathies, returned 20 years later to accept an Honorary Award at the Academy Awards where he received the longest standing ovation in Oscar history (lasting twelve minutes). Maybe you saw Robert Downey Jr.’s outstanding performance as Chaplin in the 1992 film directed by Richard Attenborough.
Betcha didn’t know that Chaplin was a religious icon. Yes, the Cao Dai sect of Vietnam, described as a “monotheistic religion”, worships the immortal Charlie Chaplin. In The endless war: Vietnam’s struggle for independence, James P. Harrison writes,
[The] Cao Dai (“high place” or altar) was a remarkable syncretic religion, claiming inspiration from all the great religious thinkers from Buddha and Confucius to Jesus Christ and Muhammad to Victor Hugo, and even Charlie Chaplin. Founded in 1919 and organized after 1925, it established a “Holy See” under its Grand Master at Tay Ninh, southwest of Saigon.
Okay, perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to say they worship Chaplin, but they do revere him as a saint. And actually, 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 1920’s, he was arguably the most beloved man in the world. 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. When he kicked a cop or tricked a bullying boss or hit a pompous rich man in the face with a custard pie, he was doing 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. St. John Ervine, in a 1921 article for Vanity Fair, wrote, “Mr. Chaplin has conquered the world because he has remained of the world.”
I don’t know if Chaplin had any interest in Buddhism, but I know he was a great admirer of Gandhi. 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.
It took me many years to learn how to appreciate Charlie Chaplin’s artistry. Watching silent movies is a different sort of filmgoing experience than watching “talkies.” I’d see a Chaplin movie and feel that it didn’t live up to the hype. Then I saw a three-part documentary, Unknown Chaplin, by film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill (and narrated by the late James Mason), that shines a light on Chaplin’s filmmaking methods and techniques. Using rare footage and previously unseen outtakes, the documentary shows Chaplin rehearsing and experimenting, and reveals how he developed many of his gags. I got it after that.
For those who are unfamiliar with Charlie Chaplin and want to check him out, (in addition to the documentary) I recommend Modern Times, as it may be his most accessible work for us modern folk. Although it’s a comedy, it’s also a social protest film, a commentary on technology and economics that is just as relevant today as it was when he made the film in 1936. It’s also the film that debuted the classic song, written by Charlie, “Smile.”
Here is a clip from one of my favorite Chaplin shorts. It’s a gag you’ve seen many times before. I doubt Chaplin invented it just I doubt that anyone has ever done it better. Filmed in 1918, A Dog’s Life: