Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Through cinema, Chaplin espoused faith in God and humanity.

By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published February 20, 2020

I’m writing this on Valentine’s Day, a special event for me this year because it is the 20th Valentine’s Day that my wife and I have celebrated as a married couple.

My wife was moved to tears last night, though not because of our 20th year of being each other’s valentine. No, my wife wept because I showed her a film of Charlie Chaplin receiving his Lifetime Achievement Oscar at the 1972 Academy Awards.

In 1972, Chaplin had finally been allowed back to the United States after 20 years of wrongful exile. Like so many others who were victims of the hysteria wrought by the House Un-American Activities Congressional Hearings, Chaplin had been falsely accused of being a Communist sympathizer. He was black-listed and deported from the country. All over the world, people had pleaded for Chaplin to be pardoned and restored to freedom. Graham Greene even wrote from England to the American Catholic magazine Commonweal, urging the publication to incite American Catholics to rally for Chaplin.

The Vatican’s Philatelic and Numismatic Office celebrated the 125th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s birth in 2014 with the release of special stamps. CNS photo/courtesy Vatican Philatelic and Numismatic Office

Immediately after he was allowed back in the United States, the American Film Institute honored Chaplin. Yet this honor pales in comparison to what happened at the Academy Awards that followed. Academy President Daniel Taradash gave a beautiful speech before presenting Chaplin with his Oscar. When Chaplin tottered out on stage to receive his award, the audience rose to its feet.  For 12 full minutes, they gave Chaplin a rousing standing ovation. People would not stop applauding. Chaplin was overcome with emotion, and could only gesture for the audience to sit down. They would not. On they went, offering Chaplin what remains the longest tribute ever given at the Academy Awards. When they finally settled down, Chaplin said that “words are too feeble” to express the gratitude he felt to all “you beautiful people.” Jack Lemmon provided the perfect conclusion to the moment by presenting Chaplin with his trademark bowler hat and cane that he had made part of his iconic “Little Tramp” character, arguably the most recognized persona in motion picture history.

Of course, my wife was touched; how could anyone not be?  So, I showed her next a clip from one of Chaplin’s very few sound pictures, the speech from “The Great Dictator.” If you do not know this famous speech, look it up, for it is one of the greatest oratorical performances of the 20th century.  In the speech, Chaplin actually quotes from the Gospel of St. Luke, and he cautions us that “we think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness … the very nature of our inventions cries out for the goodness in men—cries out for universal brotherhood—for the unity of us all … to those who can hear me, I say—do not despair.”

‘To those who can hear me’

Most of you do not know that I am severely hearing impaired, about as close to legal deafness as one can be. I wear a powerful hearing aid, and I read lips. From day to day, I don’t know how much I will be able to understand. The nature of my work as a college professor and religious education instructor means that every class, every day, is a challenge. Yet for 20 years I have not only managed to get by; I have learned lessons I would never have learned had I not lost my hearing. I learned these lessons through the goodness in my faith, in art, and in the loving support of my wife.

My wife is the only person in the world who fully understands my suffering. There is no one else in the world who has assisted me, comforted me, and even challenged me in dealing with my hearing loss than she. It’s not easy living with a man who is essentially deaf, but her patience and kindness, as well as her love are precisely the qualities Chaplin reveals in his films.

Chaplin, too, had a hard life. Abandoned by his alcoholic father in London, he was left with his brother Sydney and his devoutly Anglican mother, and essentially learned to fend for himself as a busker and vaudeville performer on the streets of London. In 1910, Chaplin came to America with a vaudeville troupe and by 1912 he had signed on with Mack Sennett’s Keystone film studio. While working at Keystone, he created the character of the Little Tramp. In 1917, he signed with First National Films for the unheard-of amount of one million dollars. In 1921, he wrote and produced his first fully realized feature film of the Little Tramp, “The Kid,” which made Chaplin the biggest international film star of all time.  Working slowly and methodically, between 1923 and 1952, he only produced eight feature films, but most of them—including “The Gold Rush” (1925), “City Lights” (1931) and “Modern Times” (1936)—are still recognized as comedic masterpieces.

Chaplin was more interested in performance and theme than his peers, who were still pioneering advances in camera work and editing. He planned his elaborate comedy routines in solitude for months in advance, creating for the character of the Little Tramp a persona that transcends the screen and that continues to delight audiences. The Little Tramp is funny, but he also represents human dignity and ingenuity in the face of often cruel and unfair odds. In the character of the Little Tramp, audiences see the characteristics they wish to possess, and witness as well their own faults and vulnerabilities. Chaplin’s characterization allows the Little Tramp to become larger than life, even as he embodies life. And what he most embodies are decency, empathy and kindness. For Chaplin, cinema became the means by which he espoused his faith in both God and humanity.

Faith as precursor of all ideas

Consider his masterpiece “City Lights,” in which the Little Tramp befriends a blind girl who makes a living selling flowers on the streets.  In a case of mistaken identity, the girl believes that a wealthy businessman has provided her the money for an operation that restores her sight. Of course, the audience knows that it is the Little Tramp who—through a series of hilarious and difficult misadventures—earns the money she needs. It is he who arranges the operation. It is he who not only restores her literal vision but also allows her to understand sacrifice made in the name of love. The film remains not only a great movie, but a testament to redemptive suffering and belief.

Chaplin often thought about faith and religion, frequently about Catholicism, and he had many Catholic friends. Though he never converted, in spite of how much the faith appealed to him, he remained deeply committed to Christianity and the ideal that “We live by faith more than we think and achieve by it more than we realize. I believe that faith is the precursor of all our ideas … to deny faith is to refute oneself and the spirit that generates all our creative forces.”

In the Gospel reading for Valentine’s Day, Jesus heals a deaf man. “He put his finger into the man’s ears and, spitting, touched the man’s tongue; then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him ‘Be opened!’ And immediately the man’s ears were opened, his speech impediment was removed, and he spoke plainly.”

My hearing has been especially improved today. A coincidence? Maybe. A synchronicity? Perhaps. I prefer to take it—like my wife, like Chaplin’s silent cinema—as something like a miracle.

David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.