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July 3, 2014

Alfred and I had been discussing Chaplin a lot recently. When someone sent me the information (above) that the Vatican had honored Chaplin, I was amused. First, we know where and how this idea was heralded. The Vatican is not likely aware of this, but to recognize Chaplin as having Spiritual Artistic Sense is saying “something.” This is a spark of hope, but we shall see where things go from here.

Now, as Alf is the Chaplin connoisseur, I will turn this essay over to him.


Alfred: In the 1990s, I was assisting in an RCIA class at a parish and when the subject of cultural Catholics came up. I opted that since I paid little attention to dogma and even less attention to the hierarchy, I considered myself an “Aesthetic Catholic,” as opposed to the labeled “Cultural Catholic.” I then opted that my religion was more Charlie Chaplin. By the way, that was not met with either humor or approval. I was being somewhat sincere there. While I am not a Chaplin fan, and am the first to point out his aesthetic and personal flaws, those are, in the end, secondary and merely incidental. There is a pronounced area of identification that I have always felt with Chaplin.

I agree that the Vatican’s honoring Chaplin appears to be a step in the right direction. In an essay I wrote some time ago I said, and fully believe, that Chaplin’s Tramp is the most religious figure in all of cinema, this despite his being a non-believer per se. Chaplin always pooh-poohed questions of belief and, to be frank, I do not imagine he really thought about it one way or another. Yet, a profound spirituality exists in Chaplin’s films, especially in his ambitious features.

In The Kid (1921) Edna Purviance is a victim of the Victorian Scarlet Letter syndrome and has a child out of wedlock. Chaplin uses a sacred image of Christ on his way to the cross to give a comparative symbol of  the downtrodden and suffering. It is as subtle as a pair of brass knuckles and aesthetically I find it too much, too obvious. Still, we see Chaplin’s point, which was gutsy at the time. Even better is the artist’s surreal dream of heaven, near the end of the film. His approach to the afterlife is a sharp, winning satire on bourgeoisie mores, which many critics of the period felt narratively misplaced, but often Chaplin’s most out of place vignettes are his most memorable.

Anyone who has watched a number of Chaplin’s film with purpose will find a prevailing humanist spirit. He is quite contrary to today’s edification of the rich. Rather, it was the poor, the societal outcast and rejects that Chaplin edified.  All these sit contrary to today’s worshipping of The Kardashins, the Hiltons, or the Trumps. Lest we forget as well that Chaplin also had the moral courage to tackle fascism, before we entered the second world war,which is more than a lot of church members and theologians did. Worse, Chaplin’s criticism of Adolf Hitler was much condemned by us at the time.

Chaplin is often compared to that other silent giant; Buster Keaton. Usually, that comparison is to Chaplin’s disadvantage. Chaplin’s sentimentality and mawkishness is used against him, sometimes rightly so. Certainly, Chaplin did not have the aesthetic sensibilities of Buster Keaton. However, Chaplin was far more morally and socially advanced. Keaton often did black face and not only lampooned African Americans, but Jews as well in numerous films. Chaplin was repelled by racism at a time when that was the accepted norm. For Keaton, women were mere props. For Chaplin, they were fully human and his equal. Perhaps the most perfect example of that is Paulette Goddard’s Gamin in Modern Times (1936), which is a film that Thomas Merton wrote about in his journals after having seen it (several years after it was released). Merton lamented that inherent spirit within Modern Times was something we had since lost and he prayed to Our Lady for restoration. Merton here responded spiritually to art which stirred him, much in the same way he did at exhibits of El Greco and Picasso, the music of Mozart, and Pasolini’s film Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964).

Chaplin, like Tod Browning, would certainly be unfashionable today. His advocacy of the poor would prompt labels of communist and /or socialist. Indeed, he was accused of both during the McCarthy era.  Yet, when we open Luke’s gospel, we find that author painting a portrayal of Christ that Chaplin’s Tramp often seems to be imitating.  The Tramp was not a man of dogma or creeds. Rather, there is a gospel-like spirit in his films..

I would like to mantle Chaplin’s optimism. That is easier said than done. When news of this hit the forums, several hyper traditionalists objected. One self-imagined wit wrote: ” Chaplin was not a man noted for any religious observance – so may we expect E John next Mr Phillips ? He is very popular with a lot of people.” That is typical of uninformed, patriarchal cheerleading lay people. Clearly, the writer of that comment has seen little, if any, Chaplin. If he had, he would know that Chaplin’s art transcends populism. That is why his art , some of it nearly a hundred years old, still speaks to us today, while a lot of contemporary films are far more dated. Worse, the commentator betrays his POV through skepticism that one who does not engage in religious observance can be of spiritual substance. 

I find this a lucid example of nothing new under the sun. Years ago, in a performance piece I did, I showed Christ with children. A group of communion wafers were on the floor. Christ pushed the wafers aside and gives the kids peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Like clockwork, I was accused of blasphemy. It was not a statement about  or against communion. Rather, it was a statement like unto “One must be like a child to enter the kingdom.” A peanut butter and jelly sandwich is going to mean more to a hungry boy or girl than a dry wafer, and it should.

Andrew Greeley once said that film is a powerful medium to express the sacraments, perhaps the most powerful of mediums. Chaplin is a priest of cinema and a far more effective priest than we find in our churches. Obviously, a few in the Vatican have seen and responded to the art of the Little Tramp. I applaud them. Now, if they would only put that into practice.


Peace and Love

  1. opheliart permalink

    Tis often that the “universal” see only a forest, but not the trees that make up this forest. It is seldom the religious mindset who Understand the how and the why in who God uses for His messaging. It is called a poverty of Love. When the mirror reveals the backstory and the Purpose therein … maybe these will begin the ascent of mind to heart … that Soul might find its Offspring.

    1 Corinthians 13. 11 … When I was a child I spoke like a child …

    A small mind finds room for his own intellect, but a wise one builds a house for many.

    Peace and Love

  2. opheliart permalink

    BTW, Alf, I read your response to the article/comments (Catholic Herald). It seems you rendered them … SILENT ;~)

    Peace and Love

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