Charlie Chaplin stars in the movie City Lights, a silent, black and white film, made in
the 1930’s. Chaplin, who portrays the character of a tramp, is the comic hero throughout
the movie. It is odd that the film casts a tramp as the comic hero. Usually, no one
laughs at a poor tramp; people tend to have pity and sympathy for a tramp or not even
associate with one. Many of Chaplin’s actions are common everyday routines for him, but
his actions and gestures provide humor and comic relief in the film making him the comic
hero. Henri Bergson discusses the comic in “Laughter”. Bergson writes about the comic by
breaking it down into different parts such as the comic in general, the comic in character
and the expansive force of the comic. The Webster’s Dictionary only goes as far as
defining the comic as “an amusing person.” Bergson, however, chooses to stay away from
giving the comic a distinct, dictionary-like definition; instead he describes it, gives
examples and dives deeper into the comic’s meaning and purpose (62). Through diverse
roles and Charlie Chaplin’s simpleness, many aspects of humor grow out of accidental
happenings and coincidence. Bergson provides reason and understanding to back up what
people think is funny.
The first part of the comic, which is the comic in general, kind of describes itself; this
information is general to all comics. Comedy can be expressed in many ways, but laughter
always accompanies it (71). Laughter always happens in a group or originates in a group
because it is easier to laugh in a group (62). Since laughter is a social event, it acts
as a form of social correction (71). While comedy can be demonstrated on purpose, comedy
can also occur at unexpected times or during normal times. Bergson suggests that comedy
is accidental (67). As in Chaplin’s case, his normal actions are funny to onlookers but
not for himself. For example, when he is in the restaurant with the rich man, he is
walking across the dance floor and he can’t manage to keep his feet under him. Laughter
comes from people watching the film, but Chaplin is not laughing he is just trying to
cross the dance floor to get to his table. The more normal the action, the more comic the
action is to others (68). Comedy “aims at the general” because it will be more humorous
if people can understand it with little or no thought involved (157).
The comic in character is another part of the comic that takes in a wide range of
elements. Mostly, the comic is always in character. Charlie Chaplin is the comic in the
film and the character is himself, which isn’t supposed to be funny. Only his actions are
funny. Bergson says, comedy “begins, in fact with what might be called a growing
callousness to social life” (147). This is true in Chaplin’s role because he is a tramp.
He does not have to worry about what people think of him. He can pretend to be blind to
the ways of the world. For example, Charlie Chaplin wakes up on a new city statue on the
day of its unveiling. He never thought to himself, “what effects will this have on my
social status?” Chaplin was not concerned with the impressions he would make. Chaplin
could be a gentleman though, even though he couldn’t afford it. He certainly was kind to
people he met, the rich man and the blind woman.
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born into a poor London family of music hall entertainers
called Hannah Chaplin and Charles Chaplin SR. Even as a child he found success as a
performer, making his stage debut in 1894. Biographer David Robinson has gone so far as to
say that Chaplin’s life was the ultimate rags to riches tale.
His early years were spent with his mother, who had no means of income, and brother in
Kennington. Their father provided no support for his children causing Chaplin to be sent
to the workhouse at the age of seven.
Chaplin spent his childhood going in and out of the workhouse as well as being educated by
a range of charitable schools. In 1898, his mother was committed to a mental asylum due to
a psychosis caused by syphilis and malnutrition. She remained in care until her death in
1928, leaving the young Charles and his brother Sydney to look after themselves.
He started his career in entertainment when he played a paperboy in ‘Sherlock Holmes’,
which ran from 1903-6 from the age of 14, after which he worked as a mime in vaudeville
theatres, until he left London for America. When Chaplin first arrived in the States he
joined the Karno pantomime troupe, and toured with them for six years.
He signed his first film deal at the end of 1913, with Keystone pictures. His film debut
was called ‘Making a Living’. It was in the 1915 film, ‘The Tramp’, that Chaplin first
appeared as the downtrodden, dreamy character for which he is most famous.