Why actors still talk about Charlie Chaplin, and what he teaches them about not acting funny

Gene Wilder in The Producers. ()
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All you feel while you’re acting is ebullience. You intellectualize when you go into the projection room and say, 'Now, why isn’t that funny?' When you get older, you know how to approach humor. The best definition of humor I ever heard is that it’s getting people in and out of trouble. That’s what I try to do. I’m emotional about most things but objective about my work. I don’t get satisfaction out of it, I get relief.
—Charlie Chaplin,
New Yorker interview, 1950

Charlie Chaplin controlled every aspect of his pictures, and it is that mix of "ebullience" as well as the ability to "intellectualize" his own movies that is one of the hallmarks of his extraordinary success.  When he states that he does not feel "satisfaction" from his work, but that he gets "relief", audience members who have enjoyed him for decades will recognize that quality in his performances.  It is not just that he is so funny or so specific (although he is both of those things); it is that he seems to be experiencing some kind of personal release through the whole enterprise.  One only has to watch the hair-raising roller skating sequence in Modern Times to feel it.  

Chaplin's a great artist—there can't be any argument about that. It's just that he seldom makes the corners of my mouth move up. I find him easy to admire and hard to laugh at.
—Orson Welles to Peter Bogdanovich

Chaplin has often been accused of sentimentality, especially in his love stories, which can feature a cloyingly Victorian view of women.  Some of his films are downright serious, almost.  The Kid certainly isn't a laugh a minute, and the dynamic between Charlie Chaplin and young Jackie Coogan is, to this day, a high-water mark in the now-familiar comedian-and-child-actor combo.  Going for the heartstrings of the audience is the whole purpose of The Kid, but Chaplin keeps it specific, showing the Tramp and the Boy working together, eating together, protecting one another, getting out of various scrapes together.  The little boy is not sentimentalized.  He seems like a real little kid.  When the Boy is taken from the Tramp and we get a shot of the young Coogan screaming and crying in the back of the paddy wagon, the sentiment achieved is certainly earned, and earned honestly. 

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No dialogue was used in our act and each day, on a bare stage, we learned not only dancing, tumbling, and stilt-walking under the expert tuition of Bob Pender, but also how to convey a mood or meaning without words. How to establish communication silently with an audience, using the minimum of movement and expression; how best immediately and precisely to effect an emotional response—a laugh or, sometimes, a tear. The greatest pantomimists of our day have been able to induce both at once. Charles Chaplin, Cantinflas, Marcel Marceau, Jacques Tati, Fernandel, and England’s Richard Herne.
—Cary Grant on his early days in a traveling troupe

Mel Brooks has said that Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were his mentors: "I really felt a closeness to Chaplin and to Keaton. How do you tell a story without talking or overacting? How do you simply indicate?"

»Read Simon Abrams on The Gold Rush, which screens this week at Film Forum.

There's a reason that John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper, upon receiving new scripts, would sit down and cut out the majority of their own lines.  If you can say it with your facial expression or with a gesture, so much the better.  Cinema is a visual medium, and pantomime is the way to get information across, including deep emotion.

Sanford Meisner, well-known acting teacher in the 20th century and creator of the "Meisner Technique," said that acting was the ability "to live truthfully under given imaginary circumstances." One of the ways in which an actor can achieve that is by using something Meisner called "the reality of the doing."  What that means is that if you have an "action" onstage (whether it be pouring a cup of coffee, or begging your wife not to leave you), you really have to do it. Your focus cannot be so much on yourself and your own performance that you lose sight of the "reality of the doing."  Watching Charlie Chaplin do anything is an object lesson in the reality of the doing.  He commits fully to the reality of each moment, whether it be forcing himself to eat his own shoe in The Gold Rush, longing for the Boy's presence again (The Kid), or desperately trying to keep up with the assembly line in Modern Times. It is the seriousness with which he attacks the task at hand that ends up being either so side-splittingly funny or poignant.  

Comedians like Michael Richards have been open about the influence Chaplin has had on how they thought about comedy and comedic action, but perhaps the most eloquent explanation of what a famous funny-man got out of Chaplin comes from Gene Wilder's memoir Kiss Me Like a Stranger.

Wilder said that from a very young age he had learned that to make his mother happy he had to make her laugh.  His comedic sensibility, as is so often the case, came out of a deep neurotic need.  As he began his career in New York and started to get small parts in things, he started to think more seriously about comedy.  He realized that when he said something seriously, people would start to laugh involuntarily.  (I saw him speak at my graduate school and the same thing was going on.  He would say something seriously, but his intonation was so hilarious that people would burst out laughing.  He would say, "I actually was being serious there!"  It would take some time for young Gene Wilder to realize that it would be that very dichotomy that was money in the bank for him.)  

Wilder would be cast in something funny and he would turn himself inside out trying to be funny, often with disastrous results.  But then he saw Chaplin's The Circus (1928).  And one moment in particular gave Gene Wilder the long-awaited-for "A-ha!" sensation about what worked in comedy, and, more importantly, why it worked.

I saw Charlie Chaplin in The Circus at a Chaplin film festival in New York.

Charlie has just gotten out of prison (one assumes) and is starving. He wanders onto the circus grounds and sees a father carrying his baby over one shoulder. The baby is holding a huge hot dog. The father – whose back is to Charlie – is talking to the man selling the hot dogs. The father looks back at Charlie once or twice.

Charlie makes the sweetest faces at the little boy, and—just when the father isn’t looking—he takes a big bite out of the baby’s hot dog. The father turns quickly to Charlie, who immediately stops chewing and makes sweet faces at the baby. When the father turns back to the hot dog salesman, Charlie takes another bite of the hot dog. The father turns around again, suspecting something fishy. Charlie stops chewing and makes wonderful googley faces at the baby.

The acting lesson from this film seems so simple, yet it inspired me for the rest of my career. If the thing you’re doing is really funny, you don’t need to “act funny” while doing it.

The famous roll-dance from Gold Rush has been recreated by Johnny Depp (in Benny and Joon) as well as by Robert Downey Jr. in Richard Attenborough's Chaplin biopic, Chaplin.  It is interesting to watch the three sequences back-to-back.  

Depp has talked about what was so challenging for him in getting that scene right.  Depp is a formidable mimic, and a brilliant physical actor, but something is definitely lost in the transfer between Chaplin's version and Depp's version (one being not Depp's fault: Benny and Joon cuts away from the roll dance periodically, so the illusion that he is actually carrying it off is lost).

 The variety of emotion that Chaplin gets into his version is what is still so riveting about the sequence.  He is deadly serious, and yet the result is hilarious and also awe-inspiring. He is not deadpan during the dance, he goes through a world of experiences with each passing moment, and yet all along, those little rolls are dancing it up at his command.  It is an astonishing feat of both ebullience and intellect.

Chaplin was nothing if not competitive, with others and with himself.  He kept control because that was the only way he would be free as an artist.  The image of Chaplin as The Tramp is one of the universal symbols of that great chaotic mess known as "show business."  To watch him now is still to delight in him, and to realize, yet again, that what he had cannot be recreated.  It can inspire, it can push other actors forward in their own work, but what he created was his very own.

Before Chaplin came to pictures people were content with a couple of gags per comedy; he got some kind of laugh every second. The minute he began to work he set standards—and continually forced them higher. Anyone who saw Chaplin eating a boiled shoe like brook trout in The Gold Rush or embarrassed by a swallowed whistle in City Lights, has seen perfection.
—James Agee