The Seven Lively Arts
by Gilbert Seldes


"I Am Here Today:" Charlie Chaplin

(pages 41-54)

For most of us the grotesque effigy dangling from the electric sign or propped against the side of the ticket-booth must remain our first memory of Charlie Chaplin. The splay feet, the moustache, the derby hat, the rattan walking-stick, composed at once the image which was ten years later to become the universal symbol of laughter. "I am here to-day" was his legend, and like everything else associated with his name it is faintly ironic and exactly right. The man who, of all the men of our time, seems m ost assured of immortality, chose that particularly transient announcement of his presence, "I am here today," with its emotional overtone of "gone tomorrow," and there is always something in Charlie that slips away. "He does things," said John S. Sargent once, "and you're lucky if you see them." Incredibly lucky to live when we have the chance to see them. 

It is a miracle that there should arise in our time a figure wholly in the tradition of the great clownsa tradition requiring creative energy, freshness, inventiveness, change-for neither the time nor the country in which Charlie works is exceptionally favourable to such a phenomenon. Stranger still is the course he has run. It is simple to take The Kid as the dividing line, but it is more to the point to consider the phases of Charlie's popularity, for each phase corresponds to one of the attacks now being made upon his integrity. He is on the top of the 


world, an exposed position, and we are all sniping at him; even his adherents are inclined to say that " after all" he is "still" this or the other thing. One goes to his pictures as one went to hear Caruso, with a ghoulish speculation as to the quantity of alloy in the "golden voice." It is because Charlie has had all there ever was of acclaim that he is now surrounded by deserters. 

That he exists at all is due to the camera and to the selective genius of Mack Sennett. It is impossible to dissociate him entirely from the Keystone comedy where he began and worked wonders and learned much. The injustice of forgetting Sennett and the Keystone when thinking of Chaplin has undermined most of the intellectual appreciation of his work, for although he was the greatest of the Keystone comedians and passed far beyond them, the first and decisive phase of his popularity came while he was wi th them, and the Keystone touch remains in all his later work, often as its most precious element. It was the time of Charlie's actual contact with the American people, the movie-going populace before the days of the great moving pictures. He was the seco nd man to be known widely by name-John Bunny was the first-and he achieved a fame which passed entirely by word of mouth into the category of the common myths and legends of America, as the name of Buffalo Bill had passed before. By the time the newspaper s recognized the 


movie as a source of circulation, Charlie was already a known quantity in the composition of the American mind and, what is equally significant, he had created the first Charlot. The French name which is and is not Charlie will serve for that figure on th e screen, the created image which is, and at the same time is more than, Charlie Chaplin, and is less. Like a very great artist in whatever medium, Charlie has created the mask of himself -- many masks, in fact and the first of these, the wanderer, came in the Keystone comedies. It was there that he first detached himself from life and began to live in another world, with a specific rhythm of his own, as if the pulse-beat in him changed and was twice or half as fast as that of those who surrounded him. H e created then that trajectory across the screen which is absolutely his own line of movement. No matter what the actual facts are, the curve he plots is always the same. It is of one who seems to enter from a corner of the screen, becomes entangled or in volved in a force greater than himself as he advances upward and to the center; there he spins like a marionette in a whirlpool, is flung from side to side, always in a parabola which seems centripetal until the madness of the action hurls him to refuge o r compels him to flight at the opposite end of the screen. He wanders in, a stranger, an impostor, an anarchist, and passes again, buffeted, but unchanged. 

The Keystone was the time of his wildest gro- 


tesquerie (after Tillie's Punctured Romance, to be sure), as if he needed, for a beginning, sharply to contrast his rhythm, his gait, his gesture, mode, with the actual world outside. His successes in this period were confined to those films in which the world intruded with all its natural crassness upon his detached existence. There was a film in which Charlie dreamed himself back into the Stone Age and played the God of the Waters-wholly without success be cause he contrasted his fantasy with another fantasy in the same tempo, and could neither sink into nor stand apart from it. But in He's Night Out the effect is perfect, and is intensified by the alternating coincidence and syncopation of rhythm in which Ben Turpin worked with him. Charlie's drunken line of march down a stairway was first followed in parallel and then in not-quite-parallel by Turpin; the degree of drunkenness was the same, then varied, then returned to identity; and the two, together, were always entirely apart from the actuality of bars and hotels and fountains and policemen which were properties in their existence. In this early day Charlie had already mastered his principles. He knew that the broad lines are funny and that the fragments which are delicious-must "point" the main line of laughter. I recall, for example, an exquisite moment at the end of this film. Turpin is staggering down the street, dragging Charlie by the collar. Essentially the funny thing is that one drunkard should so 

gravely, so soberly, so obstinately take care of another and should convert himself into a policeman, to do it; it is funny that they should be going nowhere, and go so doggedly. The lurching-forward body of Turpin, the singular angle formed with it by Ch arlie's body almost flat on the ground, added to the spectacle. And once as they went along Charlie's right hand fell to one side," and as idly as a girl plucks a water-lily from over the side of a canoe he plucked a daisy from the grass border of the pat h, and smelled it. The function of that gesture was to make everything that went before, and everything that came after, seem funnier; and it succeeded by creating another, incongruous image out of the picture before our eyes. The entire world, a moment e arlier, had been aslant and distorted and wholly male; it righted itself suddenly and created a soft idyll of tenderness. Nearly everything of Charlie is in that moment, and I know no better way to express its elusive quality than to say that as I sat wat ching the film a second time, about two hours later, the repetition of the gesture came with all the effect of surprise, although I had been wondering whether he could do it so perfectly again. This was the Charlie whom little children came to know before any other and whose name they added to their prayers. He was then popular with the people; he was soon to become universally known and admired-the Charlie of The Bank and of Shoulder 

Arms; and finally he became "the great artist" in The Kid. The second period is pure development; the third is change; and the adherents of each join with the earlier enthusiasts to instruct and alarm their idol. No doubt the middle phase is the one which is richest in memory. It includes the masterpieces A Dog's Life, The Pawnshop, The Vagabond, Easy Street, as well as the two I have just mentioned, and, if I am not mistaken, the genre pictures like The Floorwalker, The Fireman, The Immigrant, and the fa ntastic Cure. To name these pictures is to call to mind their special scenes, the atmosphere in which they were played: the mock heroic of The Bank and its parody of passion; the unbelievable scene behind the curtain in A Dog's Life; Charlie as policeman in Easy Street, which had some of the beginnings of The Kid; Charlie left marking time alone after the squad had marched away in the film which made camp life supportable. Compare them with the very earliest films, The Pile Driver and the wheel-chairman f ilm and so on: the later ones are richer in inventiveness, the texture is more solid, the emotions grow more complex, and the interweaving of tenderness and gravity with the fun becomes infinitely more deft. In essence it is the same figure-he is still a vagrant, an outsider; only now when he becomes entangled in the lives of other people he is a bit of a crusader, too. The accidental does not occur so frequently; the progress of each film is plotted in 

advance; there is a definite rise and fall as in A Dog's Life, where the climax is in the curtain scene toward which tends the first episode of the dog and from which the flight and the rustic idyll flow gently downward. The pace in the earlier pictures w as more instinctive. In The Count the tempo is jerky; it moves from extreme to extreme. Yet one gets the sense of the impending flight beautifully when, at the close, Charlot as the bogus count has been shown up and is fleeing pell-mell through every room in the house; the whole movement grows tense; the rate of acceleration perceptibly heightens as Charlot slides in front of a vast birthday cake, pivots on his heel, and begins to play alternate pool and golf with the frosting, making every shot count lik e a machine gunner barricaded in a pill-box or a bandit in a deserted cabin. 

It was foreordained that the improvised kind of comedy should give way to something more calculated, and in Charlie's case it is particularly futile to cry over spilled milk because for a long time he continued to give the effect of impromptu; his sudd en movements and his finds in the way of unsuspected sources of fun are exceptional to this day. In The Pawnshop' Charlie begins to sweep and catches in his broom the end of a long rope, which, instead of being swept away, keeps getting longer, actively f ighting the broom. I have no way to prove it, but See Appendix. 


I am sure from the context that this is all he had originally had in mind to do with the scene. Suddenly the tape on the floor creates something in his mind, and Charlie transforms the back room of the pawnshop into a circus, with himself walking the tigh t rope-a graceful, nimble balancing along the thin line of tape on the floor, the quick turn and coming forward, the conventional bow, arms flung out, smiling, to receive applause at the end. Again, as ever, he has created an imaginary scene out of the ma terials of the actual. 

The plotting of these comedies did not destroy Charlie's inventiveness and made it possible for him to develop certain other of his characteristics. The moment the vagrant came to rest, the natural man appeared, the paradoxical creature who has the wis dom of simple souls and the incalculable strength of the weak. Charlie all through the middle period is at least half Tyl Eulenspiegl. It is another way for him to live apart from the world by assuming that the world actually means what it says, by taking every one of its conventional formulas, its polite phrases and idioms, with dreadful seriousness. He has created in Charlot a radical with an extraordinarily logical mind. Witness Charlot arriving late at the theatre and stepping on the toes of a whole r ow of people to his seat at the far end; the gravity of his expressions of regret is only matched by his humiliation when he discovers that he is, after all, in the 


wrong row and makes his way back again and all through the next row to his proper place. It is a careful exaggeration of the social fiction that when you apologise you can do anything to anyone. The same feeling underlies the characteristic moment when Charlot is fighting and suddenly stops, takes off his hat and coat, gives them to his opponent to hold, and then promptly knocks his obliging adversary down. Revisiting once an old Charlie, I saw him do this, and a few minutes later saw the same thing in a new Harold Lloyd; all there is to know of the difference between the two men was to be learned there; for Lloyd, who is a clever fellow, made it seem a smart trick so to catch his enemy off guard, while Chaplin made the moment equal to the conventional crossing of swords or the handshake - before a prize fight. Similarly, the salutation with the hat takes seriously a social convention and carries it as far as it can go. In Pay Day Charlot arrives late to work and attempts to mollify the furious construction-gang boss by handing him an Easter lily. 

The Kid was undoubtedly a beginning in "literature" for Charlie. I realize that in admitting this I am giving the whole case away, for in the opinion of certain critics the beginning of literature is the end of creative art. This attitude is not so fam iliar in America, but in France you hear the Charlot of The Kid spoken of as "theatre," as one who has ceased to be of the film entirely. I doubt if this 


is just. Like the one other great artist in America (George Herriman, with whom he is eminently in sympathy), Charlie has always had the Dickens touch, a thing which in its purity we do not otherwise discover in our art. Dickens himself is mixed; only a p art of him is literature, and that not the best, nor is that part essentially the one which Charlie has imported to the screen. The Kid had some bad things in it: the story, the halo round the head of the unmarried mother, the quarrel with the authorities ; it had an unnecessary amount of realism and its tempo was uncertain, for it was neither serious film nor Keystone. Yet it possessed moments of unbelievable intensity and touches of high imagination. The scenes in and outside the doss-house were excellen t and were old Charlie; the glazier's assistant was inventive and the training of Coogan to look like his foster-father was beautiful. Far above them stood the beginning of the film: Charlot, in his usual polite rags, strolling down to his club after his breakfast (it would have been a grilled bone) and, avoiding slops as Villon did, twirling his cane, taking off his fingerless gloves to reach for his cigarette case (a sardine box), and selecting from the butts one of quality, tamping it to shake down the excess tobacco at the tip-all of this, as Mr Herriman pointed out to me, was the creation of the society gentleman, the courageous refusal to be undermined by slums and poverty and rags. At the end of the film there was 

the vision of heaven: apotheosis of the long suffering of Charlot at the hands of the police, not only in The Kid-in a hundred films where he stood always against the authorities, always for his small independent freedom. The world in which even policemen have wings shatters, too; but something remains. The invincible Charlot, dazed by his dream, looking for wings on the actual policeman who is apparently taking him to jail, will not down. For as they start, a post comes between them, and Charlot, without the slightest effort to break away, too submissive to fight, still dodges back to walk round the post and so avoid bad luck. A moment later comes one of the highest points in Charlie's career. He is ushered into a limousine instead of a patrol wagon-it i s the beginning of the happy ending. And as the motor starts he flashes at the spectators of his felicity a look of indescribable poignancy. It is frightened, it is hopeful, bewildered; it lasts a fraction of a second and is blurred by the plate glass of the car. I cannot hope to set down the quality of it, how it becomes a moment of unbearable intensity, and how one is breathless with suspense-and with adoration. 

For, make no mistake, it is adoration, not less, that he deserves and has from us. He corresponds to our secret desires because he alone has passed beyond our categories, at one bound placing himself outside space and time. His escape from the world is complete and extraordinarily rapid, and what makes 


him more than a figure of romance is his immediate creation of another world. He has the vital energy, the composing and the functioning brain. This is what makes him aesthetically interesting, what will make him for ever a school not only of acting, but of the whole creative process. The flow of his line always corresponds to the character and tempo; there is a definite relation between the melody and the orchestration he gives it. Beyond his technique-the style of his pieces-he has composition, because he creates anything but chaos in his separate world. "You might," wrote Mr Stark Young, wise in everything but the choice of the person addressed, "you might really create in terms of the moving picture as you have already created in terms of character." As I have said, the surest way to be wrong about Charlie is to forget the Keystone. 

This is precisely what Mr Stark Young would like him to do-and what Charlie may do if the intellectual nonsense about him is capable of corrupting his natural wisdom and his creative gift. Mr Young has addressed an open letter to "Dear Mr Chaplin" ' in which he suggests that Charlie play Liliom and He Who Gets Slapped and Peer Gynt. (Offended as I am by these ideas, I must be fair. Mr Young does say that better than all of these, "you could do new things written by or for you, things in which 

[1] It appeared in The New Republic and will probably be found in The Flower in Drama (Scribners). 

you would use your full endowment, comic and otherwise . . . develop things calculated strictly for it [the screen] and for no other art, made up out of its essential quality, which is visual motion and not mere stage drama photographed. . . . ") This is, of course, corruption. It means that Mr Young has either not seen the Charlie of before The Kid (as I suspect, from the phrase about creating in terms of character) or not liked him (which I am sure about) ; he has failed to recognize in The Pawnbroker " his full endowment, comic and otherwise." It implies to me that Mr Young would prefer a "serious film" and that suggests the complete absence of a critical sense, of taste and gusto, of wisdom and gaiety, of piety and wit. "The larger field" . . . "seriou s efforts" . . . "a more cultured audience" . . . "the judicious" -- O Lord! these are the phrases which are offered as bribes to the one man who has destroyed the world and created it in his own image! 

There is a future for him as for others, and it is quite possible that the future may not be as rich and as dear as the past. I write this without having seen The Pilgrim, which ought to be a test case, for the two films which followed The Kid (Pay Day and The Idle Class) determined nothing. If the literary side conquers we shall have a great character actor and not a creator; we shall certainly not have again the image of riot and fun, the created personage, the annihilation of actuality; we may go 


so far as to accomplish Mr Stark Young's ideal and have a serious work of art. I hope this will not happen, because I do not believe that it is the necessary curve of Charlie's genius-it is the direction of worldly success, not in money, but in fame; it i s not the curve of life at all. For the slowing-up of Charlie's physical energies and the deepening of his understanding may well restore to him his appreciation of those early monuments to laughter which are his greatest achievement. He stood then shod i n absurdity, but with his feet on the earth. And he danced on the earth, an eternal figure of lightness and of the wisdom which knows that the earth was made to dance on. It was a green earth, excited with its own abundance and fruitfulness, and he posses sed it entirely. For me he remains established in possession. As it spins under his feet he dances silently and with infinite grace upon it. It is as if in his whole life he had spoken only one word: "I am here today"-the beginning before time and the end without end of his wisdom and of his loveliness. 

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