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The Cosmic 'kid' Post by :mickryan Category :Essays Author :Heywood Broun Date :November 2011 Read :2118

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The Cosmic "kid"

Every little while some critic or other begins to dance about with all the excitement of a lonely watcher on a peak in Darien and to shout, as he dances, that Charlie Chaplin is a great actor. The grass on that peak is now crushed under foot. Harvey O'Higgins has danced there and Mrs. Fiske and many another, but still the critics rush in. Of course, a critic is almost invariably gifted with the ability not to see or hear what any other commentator but himself writes about anything, but there is more than this to account for the fact that so many persons undertake to discover Chaplin. As in the case of all great artists, he is able to convey the impression, always, of doing a thing not only for the first time but of giving a special and private performance for each sensitive soul in the audience. It is possible to sit in the middle of a large and tumultuous crowd and still feel that Charlie is doing special little things for your own benefit which nobody else in the house can understand or enjoy.

Personally we never see him in a new picture without suddenly being struck with the thought, "How long has this been going on?" Each time we leave the theater we expect to see people dancing in the streets because of Chaplin and to meet delegations with olive wreaths hurrying toward Los Angeles. We don't. Unfortunately Americans have a perfect passion for flying into a great state of calm about things and, for all the organized cheering from the top of the peak in Darien, we take Chaplin much too calmly at all moments except when we are watching him. Phrases which are his by every right have been wasted on lesser people. Walter Pater, for instance, lived before his time and was obliged to spend that fine observation, "Here is the head upon which all the ends of the earth have come and the eyelids are a little weary" upon the Mona Lisa.

The same ends of the same earth have come upon the head of Charlie Chaplin. Still Mr. Pater, if he had lived, would have been obliged to amend his observation a little. The eyelids are not weary. Unlike the Mona Lisa, Chaplin is able to shake his head every now and then and break free from his burden. In these great moments he seems to stand clear of all things and to be alone in space with nothing but sky about him. To be sure the earth crashes down on him again, but he bears it without blinking. It is only his shoulders which sag a little.

Charlie seems to us to fulfil the demand made of the creative artist that he shall be both an individual and a symbol at the same time. He presents a definite personality and yet he is also Man who grins and whistles as he clings to his spinning earth because he is afraid to go home in the dark. To be much more explicit, there is one particular scene in The Kid in which Chaplin having recently picked up a stray baby finds the greatest difficulty in getting rid of it. Balked at every turn, he sits down wearily upon a curbstone and suddenly notices that just in front of him there is an open manhole. First he peers down; then he looks at the child. He hesitates and turns a project over in his mind and reluctantly decides that it won't do. Every father in the world has sat at some time or other by that manhole. Moreover, in the half suggested shake of his head Chaplin touches the paternal feeling more closely than any play ever written around a third act in a nursery on Christmas Eve. We can all watch him and choke down half a sob at the thought that after all the Life Force is supreme and you can't throw 'em down the manholes.

Many a good performance on the stage is purely accidental. Actors are praised for some trick of gesture or a particular note in the voice of which they are quite unconscious. We raved once over the remarkable fidelity of accent in an actress cast to play the rôle of a shop girl in a certain melodrama and it was not until we saw her the next season, when she was cast as a duchess, that we realized that there was no art about it. Chaplin does not play by ear. His method is definite, and it could not seem so easy if it were not carefully calculated. He does more with a gesture than almost anybody else can do by falling downstairs. He can turn from one mood to another with all the agility of a polo pony. And in addition to being one of the greatest artists of our day he is more fun than all the rest put together.

There must be a specially warm corner in Hell reserved for those parents who won't let their children see Charlie Chaplin on the ground that he is too vulgar. Of course, he is vulgar. Everybody who amounts to anything has to touch earth now and again to be revitalized. Chaplin has the right attitude toward vulgarity. He can take it or let it alone. Children who don't see Charlie Chaplin have, of course, been robbed of much of their childhood. However, they can make it up in later years when the old Chaplin films will be on view in the museums and carefully studied under the direction of learned professors in university extension courses.


(The end)
Heywood Broun's essay: Cosmic "Kid"

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