The supposedly Victorian sentimentality of a Charlie Chaplin movie—maybe “sentimental” for pointing feeling where it doesn’t necessarily belong—usually turns out to be based on the Promethean idea that somehow not quite everything in the world is worth destroying, even though the comic heroes usually upended most of it by the end of the film. Even then, if a girl’s worth saving—Chaplin usually provides the concise image of the innocent waif like him entrenched in and alienated from capital, labor, ideology, and brimstone seriousness—it’s because she’s not really part of the world, and pathos, estranged from efficacy and institutions, doesn’t really have a motivating reason. The underwriting irony of Chaplin’s films is that if the rest of the world doesn’t deserve any feeling, it’s because it has no sense of it; if Chaplin merits affection, it’s because he doesn’t get any. Chaplin’s wish-fulfillment, the little nobody who asked for nothing and got it anyway, is revealed as a comic mistake.
It’s as much Dickens as Marx. “To yoke oneself to the world of the facts and to keep apace is of an altogether different order of decision than trying to swim in one’s poverty,” Louis Zukofsky wrote of Modern Times. “Finally and despite odds, Charlie and the girl decide to go off together in the film, and their arms bend up at the elbows, their fists are clenched, too powerfully fast for the spectator to speculate what Mr. Chaplin means. If the spectator is intent on the film and not on his own thought, what can the action of the shot mean but what it does—i.e. performs.”
The Little Tramp, with his benighted cuteness, his walrus hob-wobble and hand-me-down dinner suit, is designed as image of gentleman-clown, a traditional comic hero betraying at each pretentious step for class acceptance its belabored edicts, vainglorious rites, and his own rank instincts spurring the charade. The same could be said for Harold Lloyd’s blind, ingratiating optimist, Laurel and Hardy’s self-immolating bourgeoisie, Buster Keaton’s dutiful architect of his own world. Chaplin’s weird, endearing power is probably his kid-like mix of innocence and manipulation, his ease with exploiting the exploiters around him only because at the end of the day, unlike a Victorian striver and despite all probability, he doesn’t want to be anyone but himself with the people he loves—the theme runs through Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight.
Or: movies like The Pilgrim and Shoulder Arms pitch another theory of tragedy vs. comedy from Chaplin’s close-up (man the measure of his world) vs. wide shot (world the measure of man)—that where the tragic hero, avenging phoenix from fate’s crucible, will be himself like steel against the world, the comic hero, just as much a scourge to the world’s intentions, will inevitably be himself despite his own. Thus the inexpressible tragicomedy at the end of City Lights as Chaplin seeks recognition and is faced by it: the girl’s no longer an outcast, but he suddenly is.
That great American possibility of being an outcast that made Chaplin more iconic after the Depression than before—there beautifully in the final shot of The Pilgrim, as Chaplin, straddling the US-Mexican border, walks off into the flatlands on his own—runs neatly against American sanctity, pious rites and rituals, in The Pilgrim, as Chaplin’s con-man preacher treats the pulpit as a vaudeville stage and converts the interests of a single, unpretentious kid with good American entertainment, a pantomime of David and Goliath that roughly equates the preacher with a clown—Charlie Chaplin—and clown with preacher. Later, in the American home, sanctimonious fuss is made over a birthday cake that turns out to be a frosted hat.
Shoulder Arms likewise follows the Tramp movie prototype, mimicked in Rivette’s comedies, of a ritualistic station treated as a stage play, and the clown the guy who learns his role by flubbing it. In Chaplin’s rainy World War I, men sleep in underwater trenches, limburger cheese is used for grenades, and The Little Tramp’s masquerade starts as a soldier and climaxes as a tree—actual uniforms, seemingly the only way of distinguishing one side from the other, good from bad, become meaningless. The Pilgrim parodies civilization’s underlying anarchy and Shoulder Arms anarchy’s civil face. In its total pursuit of silliness, it’s a better critique of war than any words could say. War makes too much sense.