Happy Birthday Charlie Chaplin and 5 reasons why the tramp is more relevant than ever

Happy Birthday Charlie Chaplin and 5 reasons why the tramp is more relevant than ever
126 years of cinema — Over a century ago Charlie Chaplin was more radical in entertainment, politics, cinema and comedy than most of the controversial stars working today.

I grew up watching Charlie Chaplin films. Apart from one bootlegged VHS of The Jungle Book – that had no sound – and a battered copy of Singin’ In The Rain, which I watched well over a hundred times, it was the only vaguely kid-friendly telly in our house.

But that’s no bad thing. Charlie produced some of the most lol-heavy and politically subversive cinema of the Twentieth Century and, despite being born 126 years ago today, his legendariness very much endures.

So, in celebration of The Little Tramp, here are some reasons I think you should give Charles a chance.

He invented slapstick

Well he popularised it at least. Although there had already been a healthy tradition in British comedy of hurting oneself for giggles, Chaplin went one step further in his Music Hall sketches of the 1900s, playing a drunken ‘swell’ in evening clothes, half-falling out of his box, annoying the performers and the audience alike (this is like 100 years before Party Boy ‘shocks’ the God-fearing public on Jackass). His slapstick sketches continued to be a huge part of his movie work and, remember this is pre-CGI, the stunts are pretty nuts. I love this rollerskating in a department store one from Modern Times. Don’t fall Charlie!

He was the first real celebrity

In 1915, only two years after he was discovered by director and ‘King of Comedy’ Mack Sennet, Charlie Chaplin was already the most famous entertainer in the world – apparently the only man Lenin ever said he wanted to meet. By 1919, he had co-founded the distribution company United Artists, which gave him complete control over his films and took the power back from the Hollywood industrial complex. United Artists kind of paved the way for artists’ rights and led to agencies being developed to represent artists fairly.

He championed the poor

Chaplin believed in equality. In his later films he became increasingly political – Modern Times, especially, is a scathing attack on the powers that be in the wake of the Great Depression. His sympathy for the working man eventually led to him being exiled from America – a country he had helped establish the movie business in and given his entire life to – by the psychotic socialist witch hunter Republican U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy. Like the sneaky snake he was, McCarthy waited until Chaplin was out of the country before he revoked his re-entry permit. Although many believe Chaplin would have been able to re-enter the country if he had tried, once he was informed of the news, Chaplin cut all ties with the US, and was quoted as saying: “Whether I re-entered that unhappy country or not was of little consequence to me. I would like to have told them that the sooner I was rid of that hate-beleaguered atmosphere the better, that I was fed up of America’s insults and moral pomposity.” Yeah! This scene in Modern Times where he picks up a fallen flag and unknowingly becomes the leader of a protest movement is poignant and hilarious.

He was down with street culture

Chaplin grew up in Victorian London amid absolute poverty. His father was a wily drunk who was out of the picture while Chaplin was only a few years old and he was taken from his mother and sent to a workhouse when he was just seven years old. His mother was committed to a mental asylum when he was ten. Charlie slept rough, worked hard and navigated the streets with his quick wit and unparalleled ability to entertain. His observations in these years – of down-and-out street culture – informed a lot of his work. In particular, he was very funny with references to drugs and alcohol. I love this scene from Modern Times where a crook puts cocaine in a salt shaker and Charlie accidentally cokes up his grits.

He rallied against fascism

The Great Dictator, a political comedy-drama film that satirised Adolf Hitler, was Charlie’s first talkie film. Released in 1940, when America was still at peace with Nazi Germany, it is a boldly damning portrayal of fascist Europe and, being Charlie’s most successful film ever, it probably coloured a lot of Americans’ view of the situation. In this speech, Charlie – who plays a Jewish barber mistaken for the Hitler character – delivers the most stirring speech ever. Particularly relevant at election time perhaps? Take note Cameron.

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