Monday, March 21, 2011


Charlie Chaplin.

An icon of American arts and entertainment...

An exile of the very same America.

A comedic hero...

A tragic person.

The man known most commonly for his character, called simply the "Tramp," was born Charles Spencer Chaplin Jr. Chaplin came to America in 1910, and though his progress was slow, he gradually emerged a superstar with the creation of the Tramp. The character is immediately recognizable; baggy pants, derby hat, cane, pants too big, coat too small. Chaplin quickly became the star of American comedic silent films. Chaplin is recognized as one of the most influential people in film history, as well as an artistic genius, who wrote, directed, composed, and acted in many of his films.

I was first introduced to Charlie Chaplin through my grandfather. Originally from Lima, Peru, my grandfather had loved Chaplin’s films from a young age, and it seemed that his love transcended generations when my brothers and I discovered a set of Chaplin films in my Papa’s basement. I do not remember how young I was when I first saw them; regardless, I can say with reasonable certainty that I’ve seen them too many times since then. It’s gotten to the point that I have memorized his every moment and can pinpoint the exact movement to the precise musical note in any one of his many films. And, not to be superfluous, Chaplin remains my favorite all-time comedian, bar none.

“Why are you writing about Charlie Chaplin on a blog about being Above the Norm?”

Good question.

“Is it something he did?”

Chaplin is notorious for many events that took place in his lifetime, from having to send his mother to an asylum at age 12 to his notorious sexual promiscuity. The life of Chaplin is, ironically, a tragic one. Like a clown with a smile that was only painted, his life was filled with the loss of loved ones, many of which he never fully recovered. However, it is not his actions that I remember him for.

“Is it something he made?”

Chaplin’s films have, sadly, faded away with the passing of time, as have many silent fimls. The last film to feature the Tramp, “Modern Times,” is regarded to be the last great silent film. Chaplin was also a composer and songwriter, having written the music for what is know the common standard, “Smile,” performed by such artists as Josh Groban, Nat King Cole, and even Michael Jackson, who referred to it as his favorite song. However, though both the song and the film are close favorites of mine, it is not something he made.

“Is it something he said?”

Well, don’t be ridiculous now. He was a silent actor and a musician who composed music but rarely wrote lyrics. If he is known for any one thing he said, it might be one that I personally perceive as a motto for myself: “Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.”

But, in a way, it is something he said.

In a way.

In September, 1939, three years after his last film, “Modern Times,” Chaplin began filming his next film: “The Great Dictator.” Released six months later in 1940, it went on to become Chaplin’s most commercially acclaimed film and was, consequently, his first talking film. The film depicts Charlie Chaplin as both an unnamed Jewish barber and Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of Tomainia. The film is a direct farce and condemnation of Adolf Hitler (who was very similar to Chaplin in appearance as well as being only four days younger than him), Nazism, and anti-Semitism.

“So…what’s so significant about this film?”

Charlie Chaplin hadn’t spoken a word on film for thirty years. The silent era had been over for thirteen years by the time, “The Great Dictator” was released.

“So why had Charlie Chaplin remained silent for so long?”

Perhaps he knew the power of silence better than most of us.

See, silence is like that. It’s powerful. It’s strong. It’s loud. Silence can be heard above the noise. When the rest of the world is too busy shouting at each other to resolve something, often silence is the loudest voice of all.

Charlie Chaplin was not a comedic genius because he was witty. He was not a comedic genius because he could insult other characters in his films. He was not a comedic genius because he could cuss and swear and make it sound funny. No. Charlie Chaplin was a comedic genius because he could make us laugh without having to do all of that. (Where has all the real comic genius you might ask? Another good question. I don’t know.)

Charlie Chaplin used the silence to his advantage. Not because he had nothing to say. Chaplin was very much so a political activist, and had a great deal to say. It was because he didn’t need to say anything, and he recognized that his silence was just as powerful and important as his words.

But in 1940, at the brink of World War II, Chaplin recognized that now was his time to speak.

Here is the infamous ending speech from Chaplin’s legendary film, “The Great Dictator.” The Jewish barber has been confused for Emperor Hynkel, who is now confused with the Jewish barber and is sentenced to life in prison, and he is now called to give a speech.

Charlie Chaplin hadn’t spoken a word on film for thirty years. When he finally did decide to speak, this is what he had to say. And what powerful words they are.

At the release of this film, the United States was still in a neutral position in World War II, remaining at peaceful, nonbelligerent terms with Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime. Charlie Chaplin, a British man in America, came out and said what most other Americans couldn’t. Charlie Chaplin knew that he would be criticized but he endured and faced it anyway. Charlie Chaplin spoke up and surprised the world, who had expected a farce of Hitler’s legendary oratorical skills. Charlie Chaplin, after thirty of years of silence, called out one of the greatest evils of our time and perhaps all of history…while every one else remained silent.

And what really made Chaplin’s words so powerful were not his words alone.

“Is it something he said?”

It is his silence.

It is what he didn’t say; what he hadn’t said.

It was the realization that Chaplin had remained silent for thirty years. Now he had finally found something really worth talking about.

“How can we learn from Charlie Chaplin?”

How often do we really say anything worth saying?

How often do we fail to speak out when it is most necessary that we do?

Do we let fear of what others think about us get in the way of our actions?

Do we fear being criticized? Do we fear being laughed at? Do we fear silence?

Charlie Chaplin lived a tragic life. But he died a happy man. “A day without laughter is a day wasted.”

We can all learn a lot from Charlie Chaplin. We can learn that silence is not something to fear, it is something to embrace. It is powerful. It is a means to go above the norm, just as Chaplin want above the norm of American society to create, “The Great Dictator.” We can learn that there are many tragedies in life, but also that, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”

The final scene of “The Great Dictator,” immediately after giving his final speech, Chaplin looks up to the sky and calls upon a young, Jewish girl he met and assisted earlier in the film called Hannah. He says these words,

“Hannah? Can you hear me? Wherever you are, look up, Hannah. The clouds are lifting. The sun is breaking through. We are coming out of the darkness and into the light. We are coming into a new world. A kindlier world, where men will rise above their hate, their greed, and brutality. Look up, Hannah! The soul of man has been given wings! And at last he is beginning to fly. He is flying into the rainbow, into the light of hope, into the future, the glorious future, that belongs to you, to me, and to all of us. Look up, Hannah! Look up!”

So, wherever you are, when things seem dark and hopeless, when men seem full of nothing else but hate and greed and brutality, you must do nothing more than look up. Look up into the Heavens and remember that we are called to something more than this life! We are called to be something more! We are called to a future, our glorious future, a future above and beyond this world and this life! Look up into the light.

And smile.

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