The Secret of the Success of Charlie Chaplin, by Wyndham Lewis


Source: Time and Western Man, London: Chatto and Windus, pp. 82-84.


The childish, puny stature of Chaplin—enabling him always to be the little David to the Goliath of some man chosen for his statuesque proportions—served him well. He was always little-fellow-put-upon—the naif, child-like individual, bullied by the massive brutes by whom he was surrounded, yet whom he invariably vanquished. The fact that the giants were always vanquished; that, like the heroes of Ossian, they rode forth to battle (against the Chaplins of this world), but that, like those distant celtic heroes, they always fell, never, of course, struck the Public as pathetic, too. For the pathos of the Public is of a sentimental and also a naively selfish order. It is its own pathos and triumphs that it wishes to hear about. It seldom rises to an understanding of other forms of pathos than that of the kind represented by Chaplin, and the indirect reference to ‘greatness’ in a more general sense, conveyed by physical size, repels it.


In this pathos of the small—so magnificently exploited by Charlie Chaplin—the ordinary ‘revolutionary’ motif for crowd-consumption is not far to seek. The Keystone giants by whom, in his early films, he was always confronted, who oppressed, misunderstood and hunted him, but whom he invariably overcame, were the symbols of authority and power. Chaplin is a great revolutionary propagandist. On the political side, the pity he awakens, and his peculiar appeal to the public, is that reserved for the small man.


But no one can have seen a Chaplin film without being conscious also of something else, quite different from mere smallness. There was something much more positive than scale alone, or absence of scale, being put across, you would feel. First, of course, was the feeling that you were in the presence of an unbounded optimism (for one so small, poor and lonely). The combination of light-heartedness and a sort of scurrilous cunning, that his irresponsible epileptic shuffle gives, is overpowering. It is Pippa that is passing. God is in His Heaven; all’s well with the world (of Chaplins at all events). And, secondly, you would experience the utmost confidence in your little hero’s winning all his battles. The happy-ending (for the militant child-man) was foreshadowed in the awkward and stupid, lurching bulk of the Keystone giants; in the flea-like adroitness of their terrible little antagonist. It was the little skiff of Drake against the Armada over again. In brief, your hero was not only small, but very capable and very confident. Throughout he bore a charmed life.


To the smallness, and to the charmed life, you have to add the child-factor. Chaplin, the greatest screen artist, is a child-man, rather than merely a small man. That was his charm and the nature of his aesthetic appeal, as it were. His little doll-like face, his stuck-on toy moustache, his tiny wrists, his small body, are those of a child as much as is the ‘four-foot-something’ body of Miss Loos. And without the public being conscious of it, no doubt, it was as a child that he went to its heart, which, as far as the popular audience is concerned, is maternal.


As to the sex-side of this psychology, it would be unscientific, if you like, to forget that the feminist revolution has been in progress all around the creative activities of this great clown, throughout his career. In Chaplin the simple woman would see clearly a symbol of her little Tommy—or little Charlie—giving that great, big, arrogant, troublesome bully, Dad (even if her particular ‘man’ was not a good specimen of the ruling-sex), a wallop. For the head of a crowd is like a pudding en surprise. Everything is put into it; it reacts to the spectacles that are presented to it partly under the direction of those spectacles, but mainly according to the directing synthesis of all that has fallen or been stuffed into it, coming from all that is going on around it.


That, I think, is the way in which Chaplin endeared himself to the great public of the mass-democracy. But he is certainly mistaken in supposing that that was also the secret of Napoleon’s success.


Perhaps in the success of Charlie Chaplin we have the heart of the secret of the child-fashion. It is at least strange how many people answer to the Chaplin-Loos (wide-eyed, naif) standard. Even in physical stature it is strange how many have sprung up—or have not sprung up. And very many more lend their best energies to approximating as far as possible to this popular child-type.


I think it an age to be small in, said an intelligent flea,

But I shall see!


And, on the other hand, the role of the giant, or a role involving any greatness, is deservedly unpopular. Men fly from suggestions of greatness as though such things were tainted, as indeed they are proscribed. In their won bosoms they carefully stamp out all tell-tale traces of a suspect ambition.


I do not wish to be personal, but the subject is such a very significant one that that objection must be overridden. Picasso, then, is very small as well; with, however, a slightly napoleonic austerity lacking in Chaplin; though he has the same bright, darting, knowing eyes, the same appearance of microscopic competence. He is built on strictly infantile lines. I could name many more less-known people who answer to this description. Nature is certainly busy somewhere, and has been busy for a long time, turning these eternal sucklings out in the flesh, and not only in the spirit. What is Nature about? Why is she specializing in this manner? That is a question for the professional physiologist and psychologist. Those are, however, the facts; which any one, with a few hours to spare, can observe for themselves. At that, for the present, I will leave the problem of the infant-cult.