Charlie Chaplin: Film As Information Essay, Research Paper
by Nicole T. Simonian
(Business Economics with Accounting major)
When a critic examines the silent films of Charles Chaplin a question that arises is whether the comedy he portrayed is a mockery of political and current issues, or a means to bring laughter to viewers. Silent films generated different emotions and thoughts since a spectator was simply watching actions rather than hearing an explanation through words. Information was cleverly construed this way and however the critic analyzed the information presented was an individual responsibility. In fact, Charles Chaplin once said, “..it is not the reality that matters in a film but what the imagination can make of if,” to a young critic.
Media, such as television, film, magazines, newspapers, and the Internet have all been influential mediums of information in the Twentieth century. Rarely was silent film thought of as a strong medium, but Charles Chaplin used silent film as a medium to present political and life issues through a comedic fashion. In Chaplin’s later films, he used sound effects, such as whistle blowing and music, to assist him in relaying a message thoroughly. In fact, when films included speech Chaplin felt that this would distort his messages and eventually his success would crumble. Chaplin’s beliefs regarding silence in films was expressed earlier by the theorist, Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard once said, “Speech exchanged dissolves the idea and function of the medium, and of the intermediary, as does symbolic land reciprocal exchange.” Though, Chaplin disagreed with Baudrillard’s belief that “[the particular media] can involve a technical apparatus as well as a corporeal one, but in this case, it no longer acts as a medium, as an autonomous system administered by the code.” Therefore, critics allowed themselves to believe that silent film was a medium of information. Though, the message embedded in the films may have often been misinterpreted.
When viewers critiqued his films, such as Modern Times and The Great Dictator, many emotions, apart from simple pleasure, arose. In fact, the public ridiculed and blamed Charles Chaplin for bringing matters to the surface that contained tension and fear. For example, Modern Times was successful because it allowed people to make light of the hardships felt during the Great Depression and of the industrial worker lifestyle. However, the film also became extremely controversial. For example, during Modern Times Chaplin introduced an electronic feeder that allowed the industrial worker to eat lunch while continuing production. Many people, felt that this was an important issue to raise, yet it somewhat exaggerated how the industrial workers were treated while working for such minimal wages. Also, The Great Dictator brought many controversial issues to the surface, which caused critics to believe that Chaplin sided with a particular political party. Chaplin denied these allegations and claimed to be unbiased and mentioned that he was simply an artist delivering comedy. During this time, films were a novelty to society, which brought forth resistance to change and some ignorance. Many people were skeptical of what films presented because they were a new medium of information and controversial issues.
In 1936, the year Modern Times was released, many Americans still felt the residual emotions of anguish and aftermath from the First World War. In the meantime, Americans also began anticipating, with fright, the effects of the upcoming Second World War. Though, some viewers laughed and applauded, government officials and leaders did not agree with Chaplin’s lighthearted intentions and felt threatened. Charles Chaplin once explained:
[Columnists] had heard rumors that [Modern Times] was Communistic in tone. [Chaplin supposes] this was because of a summary of the story that had appeared in the press. However, the liberal reviewers wrote that is was neither for, nor against Communism and that metaphorically I had sat on the fence. These were the rumblings of a misunderstanding of [Chaplin's] motives which grew in volume over the next decade and finally led to [Chaplin's] departure from the United States in 1952.
When Chaplin spoke in San Francisco, at the meeting place of the American Ambassador to Russia, Joseph Davie, he exclaimed that he was not a Communist and was not claiming through his films to be. Chaplin said that his intentions were to create comedy films and that he considered himself a “peace-monger.” Charles Chaplin became frustrated because the meanings he attempted to portray became misconstrued and misunderstood. Silent films, I believe, presented this problem because without speech many visual effects and actions are examined and understood oppositely from what the artist originally had hoped. Specifically, leaders held biased opinions of his films in a sense that they thought it was a mockery rather than a comedy. For example, when he was asked to halt making his film, The Great Dictator, he stated in a press release (3/21/39):
Owing to erroneous reports in the press that I have abandoned my production concerning dictators, I wish to state that I have never wavered from my original determination to produce this picture. Any report, past, present or future to the effect that I have given up the idea, is deliberately false. I am not worried about intimidation, censorship or anything else. I am making a comedy picture on the lives of dictators which I hope will create much laughter throughout the world.
Proving that instead of using the silent films as a means of angering and depressing society, he wanted to use the media as a medium of relaying information through comedy. Though Charles Chaplin also wanted to clarify that comedy was not to be equivalent to mockery and sarcasm. For instance, Chaplin once said that if he would have known “the actual horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, [he] could not have made The Great Dictator; [he] could not have made light of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”
In conclusion, while analyzing silent films as a medium of information it is important to remember that this information is not organized or explained in traditional techniques. Therefore, meanings and actions can mislead the viewer to understand an issue entirely differently than what the artist, in this case Charles Chaplin, intended. I do not believe that Charles Chaplin attempted to defy and sneer the government or modern times; but I do understand how some may have taken the issues too seriously being that the films were released so close to the actual events they portrayed.
1. Chaplin. My Autobiography. PAC Holdings: London,1966
2. Jean Baudrillard, “Requiem for the Media,” in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign Telos, 1981
4. Chaplin, Charles. My Life in Pictures. Grosset & Dunlap Publishers: New York, 1975
7. Chaplin. My Autobiography. PAC Holdings: London, 1966