The Rhetoric of Charlie Chaplin

* A writing assignment from the MFA program at the National University.


Everybody knows about silent film star Charlie Chaplin, many don’t know that his transition to talking pictures was mired in controversy. He was deemed a socialist/communist by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC); meaning he was blacklisted in Hollywood and his movies banned in the United States. Christian Conservatives led nationwide boycotts and the US Government refused to allow Chaplin re-entry when his family traveled to Europe. In this paper I am going to explore the messaging of his satirical silent films and the rhetoric of his controversial talkies to get a better understanding of what Chaplin did or did not stand for.


Chaplin’s satirical films were autobiographical. Most of his films were inspired by the tribulations of his own troubled life. The Immigrant (1917) mirrors the story he tells about his first trip to America with the Karno Comedy Company. His New Job (1915) is about making silent films for “Lockstone.” This was a very obvious jab at Keystone; the creators of the famous Keystone Cops and Chaplin’s first employer in Hollywood. Chaplin was never clear about his conscious socio-political views. Many suggest that Chaplin never formulated a rigorous political philosophy while others accuse him of being an unsystematic contrarian who was against anything that may resemble regimentation (McCann & Ellis 2). Satire is “assumed to be a kind of doctrinaire writing, dedicated to teaching moral lessons, a form of rhetoric, a means of persuasion which, unlike comedy, was not designed merely to entertain” (Deer & Deer 713). Chaplin, on the other hand, was very open about his desire to entertain. Republicans and christian conservatives led boycotts, calling his movies Marxist propaganda. Despite their claims, there was no persuasion in his narratives. His movies weren’t anti-poverty allegories. Nobody needed to be told that it’s not fun to be poor. In this paper I will take a closer look at some of his films to see what it was Chaplin was saying.

American audiences were unable to separate the artist from the art. Many Americans may be surprised to learn Chaplin himself did not have a little mustache. The Tramp was a persona created for dramatic/comedic effect. Shoulder Arms (1918) was about The Tramp going off to war and bumbling his way through it, it wasn’t a pro/anti-war film. It was a comedic slice of life, in the life of a bumbling doofus. Nobody accused him of being anti-circus when he made The Circus. What was it about Modern Times (1936) and the movies that followed that made Americans turn on Chaplin? In 1932, at the beginning of his political controversies, he was interviewed by Max Eastman and he opined “many of us take a stand on principles and make resolutions, but they are colored by moods and desires. Time and circumstances change them” (Eastman 176). By his own admission it was Upton Sinclair who got Chaplin to see politics as an economics problem (Chaplin 222). To Chaplin, a man who grew up in abject poverty, the “cold, hunger and shame” of it were devastating to one’s psychology (Chaplin 380). According to a 1933 travel memoir he saw a world “suffering from too much government and at the expense of it” (Haven & Chaplin 88). Wanting smaller governments that don’t meddle in people’s lives certainly doesn’t sound like the words of a communist. He sounds more libertarian.


After years of unfavorable contracts, Chaplin’s first film with creative freedom was A Dog’s Life (1918). The hero of the movie is “Scraps” the dog. After a series of two and three reel short films he set out to make an ambitious six reel feature length movie (his longest yet) at his newly founded Chaplin Studios. Following its success he made The Kid (1921), based on Chaplin’s own troubled childhood (Pashad). With The Kid, Chaplin established the pathos he’d become known for. Chaplin biographer Jeffery Vance asserts “The Kid remains an important contribution to the art of film, not only because of Chaplin’s innovative use of dramatic sequences within a feature-length comedy, but also because of the revelations The Kid provides about its creator. Undoubtedly, when Chaplin penned the preface to The Kid, “A picture with a smile--and perhaps, a tear,” he had his own artistic credo—and life—in mind” (Vance 117). The Kid opens with the phrase “a picture with a smile - and perhaps, a tear.” Chaplin’s goal was empathy, his art reflected a life full of laughter and sadness.

In a 1921 interview with the Toronto Star Weekly Chaplin stated, “I am trying to express a beauty that embraces not only physical characteristics and scenes, but the true fundamental emotions of humanity. Beauty. Beauty is what I am after.” (Chaplin Quotations) Chaplin would go on to form United Artists with D.W Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. At United Artists Chaplin found total creative freedom, so much so that his first movie at UA was a drama he only made a cameo in. A Woman of Paris (1923) was a total flop. Recovering from the failure of A Woman in Paris, Chaplin chose to return to The Tramp and found a way to push the tragicomedy envelope with The Gold Rush (1925). Based on the true story of The Donner Party, written after Charlie read a book about prospectors getting snowed in and resorting to cannibalism. His goal was to make those horrors into a comedy. He saw the prospectors as eternal optimists, like the Tramp. (Robinson) He put himself in their shoes.

Chaplin challenged himself to make light of dark real-life events. His next film, The Circus (1928) wrapped production the same week the first talkie was widely released; The Jazz Singer (1927), starring Al Jolson. In the closing scene of The Circus, as Charlie and the circus go in their separate directions, a somber rendition of Al Jolson’s usually upbeat Blue Skies plays Chaplin off (Weddle). Again, Chaplin told the audience how he felt. The circus was moving on without him because he felt cinema was going to move forward without him. He felt talking pictures would kill his art form, this was his sad lonely protest. He didn’t make noise, he didn’t rally people against talkies. He accepted that his love (the girl/the crowd) chose someone else and he walked off quietly. In an interview with Gladys Hall for Motion Picture Magazine, Chaplin said; “[talkies] are spoiling the oldest art in the world — the art of pantomime. They are ruining the great beauty of silence” (Chaplin Quotations). A special category was created by The Academy, an out-of-competition Oscar was presented for “versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing The Circus” (Deluca). It seems the Acdemy didn’t want Chaplin to sweep the big categories with a protest picture.


In what Richard Vatz refers to as the “qualities of the situation,” (Vatz 155) The Circus is the only film with rhetorical exigence. If rhetorical exigence is “an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be (Blitzer 6) [and] in any rhetorical situation there will be at least one controlling exigence which functions as the organizing principle: it specifies the audience to be addressed and the change to be effect” (Blitzer 7). The guiding principle in the majority of Charlie Chaplin’s silent movies are that it’s not easy to be poor and/or in love. The Tramp offers no solutions or suggestions that can help change the outcome of his misadventures or society’s problems. I also don’t think anyone is supposed to identify with the Tramp. He’s a lazy, uneducated, poverty stricken rascal. He offers no cure to the human condition. He has no ability to effect change, not even in his own life. If anything, the overall message can be summed up by the lyrics added to Smile (from Modern Times). Charlie was telling people that no matter how bad things get, try to smile and laugh through your troubles. Someday, your luck may change. Granted, the lyrics were from Chaplin’s 1936 score; lyrics were added by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons in 1954. There’s little doubt Turner and Parsons were inspired by Chaplin’s work.


Reading the exegesis, I think Charlie’s comedy is satirizing things he admits he doesn’t necessarily understand. He’s pointing out an obviously flickering lightbulb but he isn’t telling us to replace it. The Tramp wouldn’t know what to replace said bulb with or how to do it. Any political or social messaging in his films were an eisegesis, inferred by the audience.


His last silent film was released 9 years after the first talky. Modern Times (1936) was maligned as leftist propaganda in the US while finding box office success in Europe. Modern Times is about The Tramp being over worked at his factory job, having a nervous breakdown and putting his life back together. When a passerby drops a flag he picks it up and waves the found flag a few times to get their attention. A protest marching for liberty forms behind him and he’s swept up in the arrests that follow. After accidentally doing cocaine in prison he thwarts a violent uprising and is released early due to his heroics. When we see the inside of his cell Abraham Lincoln’s portrait hangs beside a “Home Sweet Home” sign. It’s also important to note that the protesters who formed behind Chaplin were holding signs calling for liberty, not a Marxist revolution. There’s no “Eat the Rich” signs, Chaplin was the rich. They stood for liberty, just like Abe Lincoln. For the record, Abe Lincoln was not a communist.


Art imitates life, The Tramp was assumed to be a communist. He was persecuted without evidence. He fell in love with a girl who was trouble, he struggled to keep a job and became an entertainer out of necessity. This is basically Charlie Chaplin’s life story. Modern Times may be seen as anti-capitalist because it pokes fun at the industrial age but the real life Charlie Chaplin struggled to keep jobs he couldn’t keep up with and stumbled into show-business. In some instances the Tramp makes friends, finds fleeting love and comes out on top; but the Tramp never attempts to change minds in the fictional world. Neither does Chaplin in the real world. The social commentary in Modern Times feels more personal, it feels like The Tramp learning how little he needs to be happy. It seems like he’s saying that the stresses of success in the modern world aren’t worth the hassle; because all we need in life is love. He and his love don’t have it easy, but they do have each other. They seemed happy in their little shanty. Is Chaplin telling us to shun the luxuries of the modern world? That would be hypocritical for a man who openly enjoyed every modern luxury in real life.

“Traditionally, the key term for rhetoric is not “identification” but “persuasion”” (Burke). The Tramp, like Chaplin, never joins a social group or leads a protest on purpose. Chaplin movies had heart and humanist undertones. He wasn’t persuading people to be better humans, not yet. The “shared substance” (Blakelsy 15) in each of his films, up to this point, is our want for love. Who does he identify with? The Tramp is struggling with the socioeconomic hardships of the era he lives in. He doesn’t know how to solve any of these problems, neither do we. Chaplin may have been walking a fine line between comedy and criticism but he was yet to cross it. He didn’t ask people to think, he asked them to feel. Transitioning to talkies meant Chaplin would transition away from The Tramp character he loved. Something he avoided because Chaplin thought rhetoric would kill the Tramp’s appeal. The Great Dictator (1940) would be the first time Chaplin spoke and he would do so as a Jewish Barber / WW1 Veteran with amnesia. He also happened to be the spitting image of his fictional country’s Hitler-like dictator, Adenoid Hynkel.


It’s important to look at the state of things in the 1930s and 40s. Most Americans wanted no involvement in WW2, the KKK and Nazis were very active. Even in places like New York City; America was still more than a decade away from Civil Rights and Nazis were a powerful political organization. In 1941 Marvel Comics debuted Captain America, by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. The iconic cover art featured Steve Rogers punching Hitler in the face. The creators received so many death threats that NYC’s Mayor Laguardia personally offered them protection (Cavna). Like their creation, Kirby and Simon would not back down from fascists. At the time Chaplin began production on The Great Dictator it was seriously frowned upon and borderline illegal to mock a head of state. Nobody in Hollywood was willing to challenge the Hays Code, yet. It was The Three Stooges who beat Chaplin to the punch(line), releasing the comedy short You Nazty Spy (1940). Chaplin entered production first, Moe Howard’s “Moe Hailstone” became the world’s first middle finger to Hitler (Epstein). Chaplin told the Detroit Michigan Free Press “[m]y reason for producing this film [The Great Dictator] is that I believe the persecution of any minority is inhuman and unnatural. That belief is timeless and beyond change. The tone of the picture is, of course, anti-militaristic. Our ammunition is laughs, and our target the vanities of men who set themselves above other men” (Chaplin Quotations). There it is, in plain English. Now Chaplin wanted us to think something, up until this point he was toying with our heartstrings. Chaplin’s partners at United Artists became allies of US Government and Hitler in trying to stop Chaplin from finishing the movie (Citron). It may not have been Chaplin Vs. The World, but it probably felt like it. Americans and Nazis were allied against him and Chaplin’s contentious relationship with the press did not help.


In the fictional world of The Great Dictator, a mix-up in the labor camp confuses the happy-go-lucky Jewish Barber for the evil dictator and the evil dictator is then sent to prison in the Jewish Barber’s place. Chaplin’s Jewish Barber takes the world stage dressed as the cartoonish Hitler-like dictator. The fictional audience is expecting a rousing declaration of continued war as the ruler of the fictional “Tomania” announces victory over another fictional country. In this world Chaplin’s barber character identifies with the persecuted, he was the persecuted. In the real world Chaplin identifies with those of us who are sick and tired of seeing people being downtrodden, even when we’re not among them; that’s empathy. For almost 3 full minutes Chaplin speaks directly to the camera, it never shows the large audience that he has gathered to hear him or the soldiers standing guard around him. This is a departure from earlier scenes in the movie depicting the evil dictator’s speeches. Hynkel was always surrounded by men who would cheer his hateful gibberish and sycophants who’d applaud his thirst for world domination. The Jewish Barber dressed as the dictator delivers a message of compassion and love; as Chaplin looks the real world audience in the eye. The fictional audience shocked into silence as he challenges soldiers of the world to no longer do the bidding of the powerful brutes who send them into harm’s way. He quotes the Bible in challenging people to rise above these things that divide us. He challenged the people to do away with national barriers, to create “a world of science and progress.” This is something Americans who identify as conservative didn’t like. Seeing the world as one big beautiful community of imperfect people is not communism, just an FYI.

In his essay, Rhetoric and Poetic Drama, TS Elliot said; “when a character in a play makes a direct appeal to us, we are either the victims of our own sentiment, or we are in the presence of a vicious rhetoric.” Chaplin’s rhetoric was officially vicious. He looked directly at the camera and told the world “NOW, I want you to listen.” He admonished the powers that be and pleaded with each of us who sat in the cinemas around the world. The FBI had an open investigation on Chaplin that dated back to a dinner party he attended in 1922 (Molotsky). That file grew to 1,900 pages in length (Prashad). At the request of J. Edgar Hoover, FBI agents exhausted resources trying to find evidence that Chaplin was a communist. They found no evidence. A note in his file reads; “No witnesses available to testify affirmatively that Chaplin has been member CP in past, that he is now a member or that he has contributed funds to CP” (Prashad). The rhetorical exigence of this speech points at the unkindness in a world with greedy leaders, for both the fictional reality and the real world. Chaplin wants the audience, especially America’s Christian Conservatives, to see their hypocrisies and to come together as one people.


In his next movie Chaplin would continue his anti-war rhetoric, Monsieur Verdoux (1947) was based on French serial killer Henri Désiré Landru, aka Bluebeard of Gambais. Chaplin shares credit for the story’s idea with Orson Welles. As one could imagine, neither of them agreed on who deserves the most credit. Welles wanted Chaplin to star in a docudrama about Landru but Chaplin had other, funnier, ideas. Monsieur Verdoux stars Chaplin as the titular Verdoux, an unemployed traveling salesmen who seduces and murders rich widows to support his family’s lavish lifestyle. When he’s eventually caught and committed for a series of murders his last words to the judge were an implication that he’d see them all in H*ll. He compares his serial murders to the industrialized war efforts that kill in numbers he could never dream. The speech was butchered by the censors, they claimed it was ridiculous to compare his “comedy of murders” to the “legalized mass murder of war.” They also didn’t like lines of dialogue emphasizing “the outlandish curves, both in the front and the behind,” of his co-stars (Chaplin 436). Chaplin’s Verdoux has sharp criticism in his dialogue. In a scene awaiting execution for his crimes; Verdoux says to a journalist, “One murder makes a villain…millions a hero. Numbers sanctify my good friend.” He would go on to add, “I am at peace with God. My conflict is with man.” In another scene he says, “[t]his is a ruthless world and one must be ruthless to cope with it, ” and that, “[d]espair is a narcotic. It lulls the mind into indifference.”


Monsieur Verdoux is the first film Chaplin referred to as “social criticism” (Chaplin 430) In all other instances I can find, he called his previous films “social commentary.” The sharp anti-war rhetoric emboldened his critics and accusers. Hoover’s FBI conspired with MI5 to spy on Chaplin internationally. The British security agency concluded that Chaplin was not a security risk and labeled him a left-leaning progressive (Pak). In the fictional world of Monsieur Verdoux Chaplin identifies with the old bourgeoisie who would do anything to maintain their lifestyle. In the real world Charlie Chaplin’s rhetoric was speaking truth to power. Who were they to judge him? In the opening monologue Verdoux says he went into business “liquidating members of the opposite sex” and he assures the audience it was an enterprise he endeavored to support his loving family. He sounds like a modern weapons manufacturer on an enterprising new venture. He’s shown to be a loving father who teaches nonviolence, his sickly wife bound to a wheelchair. The women he “liquidates” are unpleasant, their own families speak unkindly of them. But, they don’t deserve to be murdered. The rhetorical exigence here is clear. Must we murder soldiers and citizens from unpleasant countries? Are weapons dealers/manufacturers partly responsible for these killings? Like The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux was calling out the hypocrisy of the world. Chaplin, the optimist, hoped to effect change in the cultural attitudes that glorified violence. In the fictional world Verdoux defended the bourgeoisie but it in the real world Chaplin showed them his disdain.

“It's hard to understand today how controversial Chaplin had become in the early 1950s; old newspaper photos show American Legionnaires picketing theaters where his movies were playing” (Ebert). Charlie Chaplin was black listed by the United States of America (Pak). While promoting his next movie abroad he was not permitted to return to the U.S. Chaplin assured the world he’d not return, not even if Jesus Christ were to personal invite him.


An objective viewing of his next movie, Limelight (1952), could lead an audience to believe this was to be Chaplin’s farewell. Limelight is based on a novella Chaplin wrote called Footlights. A once world famous “Tramp comedian,” The Great Calvero, is now a friendly neighborhood drunk. Although Limelight was banned in the United States it was Chaplin’s highest grossing film. Calvero nurses a sickly ballerina back to health in his shabby studio apartment and finds the goodness of his life in the process. In the closing scene of the movie, Calvero’s dream of triumphantly returning to the stage comes to fruition and he dies peacefully backstage as the crowd cheers for an encore they will never get. The film is also significant because of a cameo appearance from Buster Keaton who, like Calvero, fell from public favor and was struggling in the twilight of his life (Keaton 203).

There are dozens of wonderful lines of dialogue, mostly of Chaplin’s Calvero giving good advice to the young ballerina he’s nursing back to mental and physical health. He tells her “Life can be wonderful if you are not afraid of it.” He assures her, there was no secret to his success beyond loving what he did; “[t]hat’s all any of us are: amateurs. We don’t live long enough to be anything else.” When he tries to tell her to take a chance on the man she loves he concedes “love is the most beautiful of all frustrations.” He assures her that we give life meaning, it is not the other way around. Chaplin wanted to say goodbye. He was letting everyone know that he, like Calvero, saw a “greatness in everyone,” even communists. He assures her, “[l]ife is a desire, not a meaning…. The meaning of anything is merely other words for the same thing.” When Terry the ballerina presses him to why he doesn’t do comedy anymore, Calvero tells her “[l]ife isn’t a gag anymore, I can’t see the joke.” He wasn’t leaving much to interpretation, he was telling us.


In one scene Calvero laments his unemployability as an old comedian who has lost touch. He claims to be all washed up when Terry interrupts him to say, “… never, Not after hearing you talk.” He responds that old age has made him want to live deeply. His newfound dignity poorly effected his work. Terry comes to the realization,“it’s such a sad business, being funny.” Calvero compares the crowds to an unyielding monster before rushing off to see his agent as soon they send for him. It seems this time Chaplin is pointing out his own hypocrisy. He hates the crowd but he loves it too. He is ready to retire, unless we want more. If we (the public) call he’ll come running. American audiences saw Limelight when Chaplin’s ban was lifted decades later. It was awarded Best Screenplay and Best Music in 1973.


His final starring role, A King in New York (1957), was written, produced and directed in exile. The messaging and rhetoric have the subtlety of a jackhammer. The film satirizes life in New York during the 1950s. The movie pokes fun at life in America before becoming a scathing rebuke of the anti-communist hysteria that we still see today. It also takes very special aim at Joseph McCarthy’s HUAC. The story is about Chaplin’s fictional King Shahdov, exiled from his country because he wanted to use their newly acquired nuclear power as an energy source instead of making weapons. Stranded in New York City, he doesn’t fit in at all. The music venues are too loud and the new Hollywood movies are stupid. The city is too busy and he’s totally out of place in these even more modern times. He inadvertently becomes famous in what today’s audiences would call “reality TV.”

The movie opens with the king escaping the revolution to New York City where a reporter asks him about America. He says he’s moved by “hospitality from this big hearted nation that has already demonstrated its noble generosity to the world.” He refers to America as a bastion to those who “seek refuge from tyranny.” At one point he boasts to his assistant of “this wonderful, wonderful America… its youth, its genius, its vitality.” In a pivotal scene King Shahdov tours a progressive school for boys and meets a young communist, played by Chaplin’s son Michael. This young boy takes a break from reading Karl Marx to rant about his beliefs incessantly throughout the movie. The petulant little communist won’t let anyone get a word in, not even the king who speaks highly of imperfect democracy. When the ten year old boy, an admitted communist, is brought before Congress he’s pressured to name the names of his communist conspirators. In fear and panic he names King Shahdov as his communist leader. At one point someone accuses the king of communist leanings and he responds as if he’s appalled by the stupidity of the suggestion; “too silly for words, royal communists… (chuckle) the expression is a reductio ad absurdum.” Reductio ad absurdum; it is Latin for “reduction to absurdity;” I had to look it up. In the fictional world and in the real world, Shahdov/Chaplin got in trouble because of a refusal to denounce communists. Chaplin was not a communist, to suggest so is a reductio ad absurdum. He was notoriously budget conscious, Marlon Brando called him a “penny pincher” (Staff).

When King Shahdov is brought before the HUAC Chaplin borrows a gag from The Three Stooges’ Disorder in the Court and turns a firehose on his congressional accusers. In the end King Shahdov consoles the apologetic young communist turned government informant by telling him not to worry. "This madness won't go on forever. There's no reason for despair.” Just before it fades to black, the government agent chimes in with “we hope.” Chaplin pulled his punches, the finale against the HUAC could have been full of sharp speeches and off hand comments; like Monsieur Verdoux. He fought their firehose of falsehoods with a literal firehose of his own. King in New York premiered in New York City in 1972, fifteen years after release throughout the rest of the world. Ebert’s review mentions the inevitability of Chaplin taking on the HUAC in film but refers to the monologues of King in New York and The Great Dictator as “overlong oration.” After the ban was lifted Chaplin returned to the United States to receive an honorary Oscar in 1977, officially proving that The Academy outranks Jesus Christ in Hollywood.


The ideological messaging of Chaplin’s silent films were implicit, he explored the human condition and tried to make us smile along the way. American audiences let their own biases shape what they saw. His humanist ideology became more explicit when his rhetoric became vicious. Not only was Chaplin no communist, M15 explicitly said so. The FBI found zero evidence to support Hoover’s suspicions. At no point did Chaplin suggest the state redistribute wealth according to need and ability (socialism). He certainly never suggested class warfare leading to an even redistribution of goods (communism). If humanism is inherently socialist and unwelcome in America, that says a lot more about American “conservatives” than it does Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin retired to Switzerland and died wealthy, like any good capitalist. If caring about others makes you an evil socialist/communist to American Christians, I’d like to tell them a few stories about their lord and savior Jesus Christ.

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