Here is your pop quiz challenge for the day… What have the following people got in common: Nat King Cole, his daughter Natalie, Rod Stewart, Barbara Streisand, Petula Clark, the late great Michael Jackson and cast of Glee? They all recorded a song that had its melody written as film sound track material by Charlie Chaplin. The heart-rendingly mawkish, bitter sweet ‘Smile’ gradually became an American songbook classic after Nat King Cole added his vocal to its 1954. Chaplin’s feature film Modern Times had first appeared nearly two decades earlier, but it was not until the fifties that John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added their lyrics.
Modern Times itself is a classic of the modern era that found Chaplin in an ebullient mood, reprizing his role as the tragi-comic tramp for one last time and suffering at the hands of production line industry in the Great Depression. In some ways the film is a lacerating critique of modernity, with its breakneck pace, urban stress, poor working conditions and potential for accident and mental illness. Modernity, in Chaplin’s day, evidently treated humanity with inhuman disrespect. The tramp waltzes through an industrial landscape and continually rejects its demands for responsibility and caution, only to fall victim to its soul-destroying consequences.
With his great and graceful slapstick art honed to its peak, Chaplin could remain in character as a mischievous child, a figure of anarchy in the midst of absurd automation (exemplified by the time-saving machine that finally goes beserk trying to feed him) and extreme poverty (the collapsing shack where he dines with his equally insane street urchin sweetheart). The couple are even punished for their dreams of conspicuous consumption. It’s here that we can see the connection to Michael Jackson’s image as a Peter Pan character whose tender heart highlights the injustices of modern, adult society.
In satirizing the worst of modern industrial capitalism from within, it is hardly surprizing that Chaplin was also a contested figure, a pop culture icon dismissed by the likes of Thedor Adorno for exemplifying how the culture industry had perverted the possibility of social critique. When Chaplin came to Paris in 1952 to promote his film Limelight, an angry Lettrist International leaflet announced:
“Because you’ve identified yourself with the weak… and the oppressed, to attack you has been to attack the weak and the oppressed – but in the shadow of your rattan cane some could already see the nightstick of a cop… but for us, the young and beautiful, the only answer to suffering is revolution… Go to sleep, you fascist insect… Go home Mister Chaplin.”
Of course Chaplin’s emotive spectacle did not start any mass revolution any more than the Lettrist’s fulminating leaflet. Each form of critique was at the mercy of wider social currents that decided the fate of history. From a perspective that puts both in the past, I love the Lettrist’s belligerent rhetoric almost as much as the tramp’s graceful on-screen performance… I’m looking hard to see a night stick that history has slipped back behind the shadow of his rattan cane.