Charlie Chaplin is a Cinderella of the twentieth century. He embodies the wish fulfillment
of our times as the boy who traveled from the slums of London to the boulevards of Hollywood.
Others have paralleled this phenomenal success, but Charlie is unique because he created a
universal image on the screen with which everyone who responded to his films could in some
measure identify: the little man, poor but resourceful, who found refuge in dreams; the poet of
love, though of a love which usually was unfulfilled. He aspired, like every man, to possess his
own little home, but more often than not he had to abandon his hopes and wander off toward
the horizon with a jaunty swing of his cane. Long-suffering and oppressed by the overbearing
authority of storekeepers, waiters, landlords and cops, he was always capable of delivering a
subtly timed back kick at his tormentors. A man of courage, he nevertheless knew when it was
wise to run away.
Of all the great figures of the cinema, Chaplin is the most certain of immortality. He had
the luck, as all great artists must have, to be in the heroic age of a new art. Would all
Shakespeare's plays be snapped up, unrevised, by a modern producer? Would any publisher
today accept uncut the novels of Dostoevsky? To be at the beginning of a new art, or to be
present in a sudden new direction of an old art, is an inestimable advantage for a gifted man.
Chaplin, doubtless, would have made both a name and a fortune in the theatre. He had
technical gifts -- timing, mime and physical control, all near perfection -- and an emotional range
which could infuse comedy with a tragic sense, and tragedy with a touch of farce. But film
increased the physical dimensions in which he could operate, giving the possibilities of
elaborate, perfectly rehearsed gags, and spectacular effects. It also gave him an audience of a
magnitude never before dreamed of by an actor. In the theatre an actor may, on occasion, act
to tens of thousands over a long run, but none could ever hope to reach tens of millions. This
Chaplin did. Such a triumph is epic -- and epic in its true sense. Epics last because they touch
the deep chords of human hope and fear, stir the mysteries of life: the capacity to suffer, to
endure, to accept. Chaplin, the tragi-comic victim of men and circumstance, the perpetual
outsider, was both deeply original and the heir to a long tradition of theatrical clowns, in theatre,
circus and music hall. His great originality lay in his capacity to focus his art on the social
stresses of his day, so that millions could identify with, laugh at and sometimes weep over their
own plight which the symbolized.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed an astonishing migration of
people. From the south and east of Europe, families moved west to the developing industrial
regions. America was flooded with immigrants; England absorbed in the cast end of London and
in northern manufacturing towns large contingents of Polish and Russian Jews; the French and
Belgian mining areas took in many workers. Rarely have so many families uprooted themselves
to settle in a new environment that both beckoned and menaced. At the best these immigrants
possessed only a scrappy knowledge of the language of their adopted countries; they were often
ignorant of the forces of authority with which they had to contend, or even their own legal rights.
They were all potentially silent victims, unable to communicate articulately when others bullied
and oppressed them.
The plight of the alien immigrants was, however, only the extreme form of the plight in
which the poor had always found themselves -- semi-literate, possessors of an impoverished
vocabulary, intimidated by rules and regulations of authority. And immigrants and poor alike had
been thrust into new and alarming environments by rapid urbanization and industrialization. Thus
Chaplin had a vast and natural audience who could identify with his acute helplessness, his
rubber-like endurance and his poverty-driven cunning. Of course, it was completely right that his
films should be silent. Language, to the classes that he touched, was often baffling and difficult
and -- even more important -- his art could sail across national barriers. The world was his
His early films coincided with the First World War and the prolonged period of depression
with followed. It was a melancholy age, in dire need of cheap and heart-warming entertainment.
But perhaps the most remarkable feature of his art is the way it grew in subtlety as his mass
audience became gradually more educated and sophisticated. Chaplin was a case of an incredible
talent coinciding with incredible luck and incredible timing. All this combined to make him the
single most famous man in the history of twentieth-century entertainment.