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235 8 Substituting Speech for Style Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight, and A King in New York F or an artist who made his reputation in a silent medium, Charlie Chaplin loved to talk. More specifically, he loved to hold forth on serious thinkers and serious ideas. Chaplin had little formal education, but he was remarkably (and somewhat ostentatiously) well read. Even from his Karno days, he was known to keep well-placed copies of Schopenhauer or Emerson in his dressing room, turning to them between shows. In an interview from 1920, he claimed that philosophy was for him a kind of relaxation from comedy: “Solitude is the only relief. . . . I go to my library and live with the great abstract thinkers—Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche.”1 How much time Chaplin actually spent with these volumes is unclear; his friend Thomas Burke claimed that he “appears a very well-read and cultivated man when, in fact, his acquaintance with books is slight.”2 But what is certain is that he loved to talk about books and ideas. As Burke describes, “His mind is extraordinarily quick and receptive; retentive, too. . . . With a few elementary facts on a highly technical subject, his mind can so work upon them that he can talk with an expert on that subject in such a way as to make the expert think.”3 Hence the catalog of intellectual luminaries whom he made a point of visiting on his triumphant 1931–32 promotional world tour for City Lights: John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, even Mahatma Gandhi. (He was also supposed to meet Sigmund Freud while he was in Vienna but had to leave the city early.) These were not social calls in any normal sense; they were more like friendly debates and private lectures. To Gandhi, he declared, “I would like to know why you’re opposed to machinery. After all, it’s the natural outcome of man’s genius and is part of his evolutionary progress.”4 To Einstein , he explained, “These two mediums of exchange—credit and gold—will never stabilize prices, for credit is more elastic than gold.”5 (Einstein’s some- 236 the sound era what bemused response was to tell Chaplin, “You’re not a comedian. You’re an economist.”)6 To Chaplin’s own mind, at least by the time of City Lights, he was as much thinker as filmmaker. In David Robinson’s words, summarizing Chaplin’s critics at the time, Chaplin “was getting above his station. The clown was setting himself up as a statesman and a philosopher. He had mingled so much with world leaders . . . that he had begun to think of himself as one.”7 Chaplin had long been aware of a kind of subtle philosophical purpose in his comedy. Hence his description, offered in an interview on the 1925 version of The Gold Rush, of how he tries in his films “to put across the philosophic doubt I feel about things and people.”8 Or, in a similar vein, his explication of the visual and storytelling techniques he developed in A Woman of Paris, which he describes as a kind of metaphysical exercise, an attempt to unmask as “absurd, antiquated, and unfair to humanity” the idea that there exists “a cosmos where humans were held responsible for their actions or the results of their actions.”9 But with the coming of sound, there was a temptation to turn philosophical overtone into a direct statement of principles, literalized in the culminating speech of The Great Dictator. Chaplin had resisted this temptation in City Lights; he had argued against it and demonstrated its dangers in Modern Times. And he had even still equivocated in The Great Dictator itself, crafting a film whose overall construction was as darkly cynical about the new world of speech as the content of that final address was hopeful about how it might be used. But no matter how much the film’s concluding sermon was compromised within the context of the story itself, believing in its content and putting stock in its power became for Chaplin a kind of moral necessity . A muted philosophy of “gentle skepticism,” as he called it—or even, more strongly and perhaps more accurately, a quasi-anarchistic philosophy of radical uncertainty—was hardly a counterweight to the unyielding absolutes of fascism.10 As much as the film was a comic exercise, it was also quite plainly, in his words, an expression of his “hate and contempt...


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