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Portrait in Film

Chaplin: Last of the Clowns, byParker Tyler. Illustrated with Photographs (Vanguard Press; $3).

Parker Tyler’s Chaplin, Last of the Clowns, has all the virtues and weaknesses of his earlier books. It is an inextricable blend of real depth and false glamor. Reading this book is like riding on a seesaw: at one moment you are fascinated by the author and at the next exceedingly irritated.

Tyler conceives Chaplin as a clown with an alter ego. To support this thesis, he draws heavily on biographical facts, which, in his opinion, indicate that the real Chaplin suffered from a flaw: he grew up in poverty, was small of stature and frustrated as a lover. This clown’s flaw, symbolized by the clumsy shoes of the Tramp, prevented him from living up to the dream image that possessed him since childhood—an aristocrat who expects of the world leisure, power and love.

Chaplin acquired both fame and wealth, thus realizing parts of the dream self that haunted him. The screen Tramp then became a “power comedian” in real life. And in the course of this career which, however amazing, still denied him the intrinsic fulfilments he longed for, Chaplin felt more and more impelled to examine the moral significance of his Tramp with aristocratic dreams. The “power comedian” developed into an observer of the evil ambiguity within him.

Tyler does not entirely disregard the social implications of Chaplin’s last full-length films, but rather views them as acts of self-scrutiny on the part of an artist who has come to realize the dangerous consequences of his dream life. In “The Great Dictator,” the Tramp turns out to be not only the “common man,” but also Hynkel, the tyrant with the insatiable lust for power. And Monsieur Verdoux would be exactly like Chaplin—the real one and the Tramp—if he were not so devoid of heart.

This over-all interpretation grows out of observations which include a number of true finds. I list some at random: Tyler’s comparison between “Monsieur Verdoux" and “A Woman of Paris”; his statements on the quality of silence and the function of speech in Chaplin’s films; his analysis of the fits of amnesia that befall several characters in them; and, not the least, his brilliant conjecture that the Tramp's garb is intended to represent the image of an adult from the perspective of a child.

And yet the whole is disturbingly fictitious. Throughout this study Chaplin’s alleged emotional conflicts serve to explain his films, which, in turn, serve to illuminate his psychological depths. There is a constant overplaying of the relationship between work and biography, while that between the individual and his environment is all but neglected. Tyler, that is, intertwines Chaplin’s art and Chaplin's life in a manner which would be justified only if they made up a universe immune to outer contingencies. But neither Chaplin nor any other artist can be isolated from the rest of the world.

Tyler starts from a wrong assumption. He then proceeds to explore what seems to him the complete and unique Chaplin universe with a confidence in his intuition that makes him disdain more pedestrian methods. At the outset, it is true, he promises to be cautious: “The past of Charlie’s life can be used for only one purpose: to fill out the patterns self-evident in the great epos which he has contributed to the history of the Clown….” But in his analysis he rarely confines himself to such a prudent use of esthetic and psychological data. Rather, he gives rein to an imagination which barely touches on facts before taking off to the realm of meanings.

This suggests that Tyler’s Chaplin-image is largely fantasy. A glance at Chaplin’s old comedies reveals it as such. These comedies are threaded with leitmotifs which, had Tyler noticed them at all, should have forced him to revise his conception of Chaplin. For instance, the ambiguous figure of the policeman emerges at a very early stage, as does the David-Goliath theme, which he mentions only when it asserts itself overtly in “The Pilgrim.” The Tramp is in effect less self-contained and more social-minded than he wants us to believe.

But in his eagerness to identify the artist as a narcissist, Tyler overlooks, or underrates, the many symptoms that plainly point to Chaplin’s original concern with society. The result is obvious distortion. “The Kid”—poor kid—is expounded in psychoanalytical terms; and the later films are made to appear as outward projections of inner problems. Are they primarily this? It should be obvious to all that they testify to Chaplin’s increasing awareness of the world around him. Contrary to what Tyler says, Chaplin outgrows his ego to face the world as it is. And inevitably his Tramp is bound to disappear in a world in which there is no longer a loophole for him to slip in and out as he pleases.

Tyler’s Chaplin-image has the consistency of a bubble, which is the more deplorable since he possesses a fine sense of values and an esthetic sensitivity that are extremely rare. What, then, leads him so hopelessly astray? Tyler himself, it seems, is something of a narcissist in his stubborn blindness to all those influences that shape an individual from without. And with the self-indulgence of a narcissist he also rejoices in a display of intellectual pyrotechnics in which the bits of unadulterated insight are outshone by dashing contentions and glittering allusions—allusions to contexts known to the author alone.

Tyler has the stuff of which interpreters are made. To be one, he must learn to listen to what his material may tell him.

This article originally ran in the July 26, 1948, issue of the magazine.