Charlie Chaplin is back. "Chaplin: the Musical," starring Rob McClure, opened on Broadway a few weeks ago with much fanfare. The reviews were scorching, lambasting everything about the show except Mr. McClure's performance. Nevertheless, the producers can count on drawing an audience, because Chaplin retains a unique hold on the public's imagination.
People who have never seen one of his films know what his iconic character looks like, and seeing just a few seconds of him in action confirms the undiminished power of his art. He is, quite literally, comedy incarnate. His was the first of the famous funny walks, and for nearly a century both ordinary people and professional impersonators have been doing it in living rooms, on the street and on movie screens.
When Robert Downey Jr. donned the derby and big shoes in Richard Attenborough's 1992 biopic, he was taking his place in a long line of Chaplin imitators that included, at one time or another, Lucille Ball, Walt Disney, Bob Hope, Gloria Swanson, Stan Laurel, Brigitte Bardot, Woody Allen, Cary Grant, Justin Timberlake and Michael Jackson.
But Chaplin has been more than just an excuse for the occasional celebrity cameo or photo-op. Like the trickster he plays in his films, he keeps popping up in the most unlikely places. In the 1980s IBM hired a Chaplin impersonator to put a friendly face on a newfangled gadget called the personal computer, helping to usher in the digital age. More recently, symphonies have been drawing large audiences by screening Chaplin films and playing the music he wrote to accompany them. A couple of years ago the discovery, at a flea market, of a previously unknown 1914 film in which he makes a three-minute cameo drew international news coverage.
I've helped stoke the flames by training both Mr. Downey and Mr. McClure for their performances.
Chaplin didn't figure in my career plans when I attended Carnegie Mellon in the 1960s. Like my fellow boomers, I'd grown up totally ignorant of the comedian, so I was unprepared for the impact that "The Gold Rush," an ancient silent from 1925, would have on my life when it was shown by the campus film society.
I soon abandoned the study of industrial design for the study of mime, the closest thing I could find to what Chaplin was doing on screen. Yes, I became one of those detested white-faced creatures who, after a brief vogue during the 1970s, wore out their welcome except as the butt of easy jokes: "If you shoot a mime, do you use a silencer?" "If a mime falls in the woods, does anybody care?"
Probably not, but many people still care about Chaplin, who is, by common agreement, the greatest mime of all. Among his most ardent admirers were fellow film mimes Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel, and the chorus of praise was later to be joined by such gifted physical comics as Harpo Marx, Red Skelton and Marcel Marceau.
To be sure, not everyone fell under his spell. Dick Van Dyke much preferred Laurel, whom he idolized and emulated. And many of my contemporaries found Buster Keaton, whose films were resurrected around the same time as Chaplin's, more compelling. Keaton's astringent, fatalistic art seemed to be cut from the same cynical cloth as "Waiting for Godot" or "Dr. Strangelove."
By contrast, Chaplin's films seemed slightly antiquated. Ironically the Tramp, a creature born of the quintessential technological art form of the 20th century, was seen as a throwback to the 19th, a Dickensian guttersnipe, impoverished and plucky.
Rather than being sardonic and detached in the current mode, his films were passionate cries of indignation against poverty and social injustice. Unabashedly romantic, they often ended on a melancholy note, as the Tramp takes to the road or stares into the face of a woman who cannot love him. But the same heart-on-the-sleeve emotion that had endeared him to millions seemed out of sync in the cool new world of James Bond and "Blow-Up."
I had no such qualms, but when I came home during a vacation break and excitedly shared my discovery with my parents, they were appalled. "Well, he's a fine hero for you to have," was all my stepfather would say. It was my first inkling that Chaplin had become a villain to many Americans during the postwar period.
There is an almost irresistible pull, when writing about Chaplin, to rehash how that happened. He remains a vibrant cultural icon partly because, more than any other artist of his time, both his life and his art were intertwined with the signal events and preoccupations of the 20th century, including the rise of the film industry, the cult of celebrity and growing obsession with the private lives of the stars, the two World Wars, the McCarthy era, and the uneasy relationship between art and politics.
That's a lot to chew on, and Chaplin's many Boswells have been chewing on it for close to a century. Here's a brief run-down:
The popularity of his work helped establish cinema as a legitimate art form, luring middle-class audiences who were leery of entering darkened movie theaters, but who were unwilling to deny themselves the pleasure of seeing his comedies.
In 1919 he became, along with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith, one of the founding members of United Artists, assuring himself of complete artistic independence and enabling him to reap the full financial rewards of his work as writer, director, producer and star. In addition to being popular, his films were among the first to be universally recognized as great art, and were being analyzed in prestigious magazines like Harper's Weekly by 1916.
Part of their claim to greatness was that they expanded the limits of what subject matter a film comedian could deal with. "Shoulder Arms," a comedy about World War I, came out in 1918, while the war was still raging. An enormous risk for Chaplin, it became an international blockbuster and a particular favorite with the troops. The film accurately depicted the horrors of trench warfare in a series of hilarious set pieces, and set a standard of social relevance that few comedy films have rivaled.
Chaplin himself surpassed it when he released "The Great Dictator" in October 1940. Capitalizing on Hitler's bizarre resemblance to the Tramp, the film featured Chaplin in a brilliant double act. He allowed his beloved character a swansong as a soft-spoken Jewish barber, while savagely portraying Hitler as a preening, gibberish-spouting buffoon.
Released more than a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, this film represented a far greater risk, both financially and artistically, than "Shoulder Arms." Chaplin's gamble paid off handsomely. The cinematic showdown between the most beloved man in the world and the most detested became his biggest moneymaker.
But it also had an unintended side effect on Chaplin's popularity. The film's overt political activism, along with Chaplin's espousal of left-wing causes, earned him powerful enemies in America, and after the war he became a target of McCarthy-era politicians and the FBI. He couldn't be blacklisted, since he owned his own studio, but a media campaign was orchestrated to turn public opinion against him.
Suddenly Chaplin, who had never become an American citizen, was asked why. No one seemed to care whether other prominent Hollywood British expatriates, such as Stan Laurel or Alfred Hitchcock, took out American citizenship (Laurel never did, and Hitchcock did so only in 1956). But at the dawn of the Cold War, Chaplin -- one of the most successful capitalists in the world -- was suddenly suspected of being a communist.
The inconvenient fact that he wasn't didn't deter his detractors. With the enthusiastic cooperation of gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper and a pre-television Ed Sullivan, as well as the American Legion and prominent women's clubs, the smear campaign was a spectacular success.
Not that Chaplin himself was blameless. The universal appeal and availability of the new medium made Chaplin an entirely new kind of celebrity. During his heyday he attracted crowds in the tens of thousands when he traveled, and his image was used to sell millions of magazines, toys, song sheets, and every imaginable kind of novelty item. However, as we now know all too well, the downside of celebrity is to have one's every move -- but most especially one's missteps -- scrutinized by an eager public.
And Chaplin, unfortunately for him, was a pioneer in attracting the public's prurient interest. Almost from the beginning he tested the limits of public tolerance with a busy love life that became fodder for the tabloid press. A 1943 paternity suit by the pitiable Joan Barry, which we now know was stage-managed by the FBI in collusion with Hedda Hopper and a variety of government officials, was particularly damaging to his reputation. That, along with his marriage, at age 54, to the 18-year-old daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill, contributed as much to the reversal of public opinion as his unpopular political opinions.
Chaplin, who became famous for playing one of society's outcasts, had become one himself.
Always a transparently autobiographical artist, Chaplin bravely tried striking back with his art. He ridiculed his reputation as a womanizer by playing a literal ladykiller in his 1947 black comedy "Monsieur Verdoux." When that failed at the box office, he responded with a comeback film about a failed comedian making a comeback, the elegiac "Limelight." But the film, released in 1952, failed to play out a week in any American theater. Most of the large theater chains bowed to the boycott demanded by the American Legion.
When Chaplin left the country to promote the film in Europe, his re-entry visa, which had been granted as a matter of course, was revoked after he was at sea. While Chaplin would have had little trouble re-entering, he had had enough. He left the country where he had earned fame and fortune for good.
But the pendulum swung again. Twenty years later, with the Vietnam War raging, Chaplin was invited back to receive an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar. The occasion allowed a film industry politicized by the war to laud Chaplin's filmic achievements, and, by implication, rebuke the policies of the current regime. Chaplin received the longest ovation in Oscar history. Three years later, in 1975, the child of the London slums was knighted. He died on Christmas Day 1977, bringing to a close a rags-to-riches saga that would be totally unbelievable, if it weren't true.
Yet, in the end, his films transcend even the amazing story of his life, not just because of what they say, but because of the way they say it.
Charlie Chaplin speaks the primal language of movement, and he speaks it better than anyone else in the history of motion pictures. He creates a swirling comic world and fills it with magical surprises and choreographic comedy that are a wonder to behold. He establishes an intimate rapport with his audience, and through his physical eloquence he demonstrates, with bracing clarity, how deeply we can understand what goes through another person's head, and his heart. That's why his films still retain the power to mesmerize an audience today, just as they mesmerized audiences the world over in 1914.
Dan Kamin (dankamin.com), a Mt. Lebanon resident, performs worldwide in theaters and with symphony orchestras. His most recent book is "The Comedy of Charlie Chaplin: Artistry in Motion." First Published October 7, 2012 4:00 AM