“The Great Charlie”

The delightful dancing dinner rolls scene from The Gold Rush (1925).

Frye published his article on Charlie Chaplin, “The Great Charlie,” in The Canadian Forum 21 (August 1941), when he was 29. It’s no surprise that the insight is not only keen but prescient. Frye, unlike most cultural critics, does not date.

He opens with the observation: “When the culture of the industrial age really hits its stride, the mainsprings of its creative power will be in its one culture industry,” the movies (Northrop Frye on Modern Culture, 98).  Even so, writing more than a decade after the “Age of Tinsel” which ended with the introduction of sound, Frye notes that the movies suffer from a sort of “decadence” that puts “the emphasis on the means, on beautiful actors and showy sets.” He nevertheless sees a great future for the art form because “the movie is capable of the greatest concentration of any form in human history”:

The possibilities of combining photographic, musical, and dramatic rhythms leave all preceding arts behind . . . . Music accompanying silent business can turn it into a scene de ballet: a camera travelling around a dialogue can give a weird fourth-dimensional symbolism: the crudest slapstick can use a repeating pattern of scene or gesture as essential to it as blood and sleeplessness to Macbeth or the Siegfried motif to The Ring. When a real genius controls the the production of a movie, things should happen. (99)

The first genius of commercial movie making, says Frye, is Chaplin, who, at a time when “the average commercial film had the artistic appeal of a streetcar ad,” was  “turning out grotesque little ballets, with every movement and gesture as eloquent as the lines of a sculptor’s drawing” (99).

Chaplin, in fact, is representative of a stream of “major American art” that “seems always to have been the product of an individualism which has no constructive theory of society and regards it as essentially a product of hypocrisy, tyranny, and cowardice. Its motto is Whitman’s ‘Resist much; obey little.’ Never mind why: just buck.”  Frye then includes a thumbnail characterization of American culture which, if he doesn’t already know about it, should thrill Joe Adamson:

This idea of the original sin of the state, this reckless and instinctive anarchism, is in Jefferson’s theory of decentralized democracy, in Thoreau’s program of civil disobedience, in Emerson’s idea of self-reliance as trust in God, in Whitman’s myselfishness, in Hawthorne’s and Melville’s pagan and diabolic allegories, in Mark Twain’s intellectual nihilism. (100)

I’ve already posted a complete version of City Lights, and Frye says of it that “just before the Age of Tinsel dropped dead, Chaplin planted a terrific kick in its posterior” with this remarkable little film “in which the rags-to-riches philosophy of that period, its fawning on athletes and tycoons and its callous disregard of subtler heroes, got its definitive takeoff.”  Given how much this sounds like our own turn of the century gilded age, it’s no wonder the film remains so powerful.  In fact,  “the hero of the Chaplin film, with his quixotic gallantry and courtesy, his pity for the weak, his apologetic and ridiculous isolation from society, and the amount of damage he does against his own very good will to that society,” makes the “Yankee cussedness” he represents “an ideal worthy of respect” (100).

Over the next couple of Saturday nights I’ll post the movies that Frye spends the rest of article examining, along with his observations about them: The Great Dictator (then just released) and Modern Times, the last of Chaplin’s “little Tramp” films.

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