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Charlie Chaplin

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 audience.

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.

  1.   How is Chaplin like Cinderella ?
  2.   Many of those who saw his films recognized something of their own experience in them. Describe four features of their experience which were reflected in Chaplin's films. Remember to use your own words as far as possible.
  3.   What does the writer imply was wrong with (a) the plays of Shakespeare and (b) the novels of Dostoevsky ?
  4. (a) Explain the meanings of the following words as they are used in the passage. Write your answer in one word or a short phrase.
      unique; immortality; symbolized; intimidated; endurance
    (b) Use each of the words as it is used in the passage in a sentence of your own, clearly showing this meaning. Your five sentences should not deal with the subject matter of the passage.
  5.   Chaplin "made both a name and a fortune". Use your own words as far as possible in answering the following.
    (a) What does this mean ?
    (b) What was there about Chaplin himself and his art which made him so successful ?
  6.   What were the factors that contributed to the worldwide and lasting success of Chaplin's films : Use material from paragraph 4 to the end. Write about 150 words. Use your own words as far as possible.
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  1.   Cinderella is the star of the pantemime named after her. Forbidden to attend the ball by her ugly sisters, she is sent there in finery and state by her fairy godmother, meets the handsome prince, and eventually marries him. Chaplin's career was a similar story of rags to riches.
  2.   The average man of Chaplin's day had little money, but made the best of what he had by opportunism. The harsh realities of the real world drove him into fantasy. He had a dream-love, but his circumstances made the dream unattainable. He also wanted his own home, but his poverty usually prevented this, so he cheerfully moved on.
  3.   Both, he says, were too long. Shakespeare's plays would have to be cut and altered had he lived in the age of the cinema. Dostoevsky's novels would have to be abridged.
  4. (a)

unique - incomparable

immortality - never to be forgotten

symbolized - embodied in himself

intimidated - frightened

endurance - toughness, ability to rise above bad luck


She is unique, in that she is the first ever prime minister.

The music of JS Bach has achieved immortality.

The Christian religion is symbolized by the Cross of Christ.

Faced by the robber's gun, the bank clerk was not intimidated.

To complete a marathon requires exceptional endurance

  5. (a) He would become a star and very rich.
    (b) People responded to Chaplin because in his day and age they could identify with him. He was the underdog; so was the average man. Yet he could always get back at authority, as his contemporaries would have liked to. Technically, his acting was superb; mime and action were all-important in the world of the silent film. He could express the whole range of emotion, thereby stirring the deepest of emotions in his audience. He expressed the sad side of comedy and the funny side of tragedy. He epitomized the essence of that traditional figure, the clown. Hi comedy underlined the social problems of his day.
  6. Chaplin represented the underpriviledged immigrant; there were very many in the USA in the decades spanning the turn of this century. They were refugees from South and East Europe, and they were afraid of the future. Ill-educated, they could mostly speak only their own language, so they were at the mercy of bullying officials and of a strange legal system. Thus they joined the American poor, who faced many of their own problems. New factories and city housing developments made them feel alien, bemused and helpless.

The art of Chaplin reflected these feelings. So did his street-wisdom and ability to survive against the odds. His mastery of mime made language unnecessary, so the silent film was peculiarly relevant. His kind of cheap and cheerful entertainment was a godsend during the depression. His art therefore fitted both the situation and his audience. Later, people and films became more sophisticated.

( 136 words )


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Comprehension 1


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