“More pathos!” That is what Harry Langdon demanded for his future films in 1927, according to director Frank Capra, who had helped establish Langdon’s popular überbaby character. Despite the success of his movies, Langdon felt he was not being perceived as an artist on the level of Charlie Chaplin, so he wanted to add the ingredient that, he thought, had made Chaplin’s reputation. But the film Langdon then made, Three’s a Crowd, wrecked his career. What went wrong?
Chaplin himself would describe that special element, in his introduction to his first feature, 1921’s The Kid, as “a smile and, perhaps, a tear.” It was something he’d been building up to; the raucous version of his Tramp character that audiences had fallen in love with when he began appearing in Keystone short comedies almost a decade earlier didn’t bear a trace of it. The public made Chaplin a star because he made them laugh. What he was doing back then wasn’t all that different from what the other knockabout Keystone clowns were doing. He was just doing it much better.
If Chaplin had continued to make Keystone-style films, his public would likely have remained quite happy. But one mark of the visionary artist is that he doesn’t just give the audience what they want; he gives them something they don’t even know that they want yet. As Chaplin gained greater creative control over his work, he began to add unexpected levels to his character. Beginning with shorts like The Tramp, The Bank (both 1914), and The Vagabond (1915), he dared to temper the slapstick with moments of sadness, asking audiences to feel for the Tramp, who might lose the girl, the job, or even the future. These emotional grace notes were something wholly original in silent comedy, and they were noticed and admired by both audiences and critics. Chaplin was no longer simply being referred to as a great comic; he was being called a great artist.
The word pathos, meaning “a quality that evokes pity or compassion,” became synonymous with Chaplin’s art early in his career. Perhaps because some artists who followed him (Langdon among them) misused or abused pathos in their own work, this element in comedy has acquired something of a bad reputation. We associate it with cloying sentimentality and special pleading. But Chaplin was a subtler artist than that. The Tramp is not, in total, a pathetic character. His losses are temporary and his successes always possible. The man who walks alone down the road at the end of his films does so with more hope than sorrow. What Chaplin was really after was not just pity but empathy—a bond between the audience and the Tramp that would carry them through all his ups and downs. His strategic deployment of pathos tightens that bond, giving us reasons to cry for his losses and cheer for his successes.
In The Bank, for example, Charlie is a janitor infatuated with a bank teller (Edna Purviance). He leaves her a love note and a flower. He watches from a distance as she reacts angrily to his appeal (we can read her lips as she calls him a fool). Chaplin uses an extended close-up to show us the rejection sinking in (a similar close-up would be crucial years later in City Lights). Later, the janitor dreams that he foils a bank robbery and wins Edna’s heart. When he awakes and remembers the truth, he pretends not to care, but we know better. Chaplin had discovered that a careful knitting together of laughter and tears would make us love him even more.
Chaplin’s enrichment and deepening of the Tramp character would prove invaluable to him as he made the move into feature films. The problem of how to extend slapstick over more than one or two reels of film had not as yet been clearly faced. When Chaplin’s old boss at Keystone, Mack Sennett, made features, he simply added more of the frantically paced gags he’d packed his shorts with, letting them run ad infinitum (some would say ad nauseum). Chaplin found that giving the audience a sustained emotional connection with his characters could bind his comedy into a coherent whole. Weaving pathos into the comedy helped to create an affecting series of peaks and valleys well suited to the longer form.
Chaplin begins The Kid with a slice of tragedy. The film’s opening sequence could have come from a Victorian melodrama. A woman “whose sin,” a title card informs us “was motherhood” leaves a charity hospital with her baby, and ultimately leaves the baby in a car. Although Chaplin would create subtler scenes than these in the future, he was taking care to let the audience know that this mother and this baby actually matter—they are not disposable caricatures. The Tramp discovers the baby and takes him in, and Chaplin builds the relationship between Charlie and the kid (played by Jackie Coogan) through purely comic sequences. Tragedy has introduced us to the kid, but comedy makes us fall in love with him, as the Tramp raises the kid to become his partner in petty scams. Because Chaplin has muted the emotion we initially felt for this abandoned child, when it does break through again, as the two are separated and then reunited at the film’s conclusion, it is all the more overwhelming. We can no more bear to see this pair we’ve laughed at and with parted than Charlie can.
The theme of unrequited love animates Chaplin’s next two films: The Gold Rush (1925) and The Circus (1928). In both, the Tramp mistakenly believes the girl is in love with him. The plot elements that establish this—a misdirected love letter in The Gold Rush, a fortuneteller’s prediction in The Circus—are slim, but the force of Chaplin’s performances gives them weight. We believe that he believes that these girls love him, and the pathos lies in the distance between what he believes to be true and what we know to be true. The comic sequences in these films don’t always have a direct impact on their plots, but the feeling we have for the Tramp’s situation creates an emotional through line that unifies the disparate elements.
Chaplin’s 1931 masterpiece City Lights is, perhaps, his greatest marriage of comedy and pathos. In the film’s opening scene. Charlie meets a poor blind flower girl on the street. He buys a flower from her, but as she reaches out to hand him his change, she hears a car door slam and the car drive away. She is sure what she hears is Charlie leaving. And the Tramp, afraid to let her know his true identity, slips away. In this one scene, Chaplin makes us feel both for the blind girl and for Charlie’s shame at his low status in life. But he also maintains the comedy—even playing a great joke, involving a flowerpot of water, off of the girl’s blindness.
The Tramp is determined to help the girl and her grandmother evade eviction and pay for an operation to restore her sight. His selflessness gives the character a new note of nobility. To help the pair, Charlie must find work. Sequences of the Tramp at work are constants in Chaplin’s films, from the short subjects through his final appearance as the character in Modern Times (1936). In City Lights, Charlie first gets a gig as a street sweeper. We laugh as he presents the frustrations of the job in a three-part gag masterfully executed in a single shot. In his next attempt to raise money, Charlie agrees to fight in a fixed boxing match, which, unbeknownst to him, becomes unfixed. In this hilarious sequence, the Tramp displays a technique that might be described as “Float like a butterfly, sting like a butterfly.”
These sequences are classic Chaplin comedy, but while we laugh at the gags, we also become emotionally invested in the Tramp’s need to succeed. When he fails, we feel his loss, not just because it affects him but because it also endangers the souls he longs to help. As the film plays out, Charlie is able to get the money for the girl but is jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. After he is released, a more bedraggled than ever Tramp returns to find the girl, who can now see, running her own flower shop. In an unforgettable conclusion, the flower girl finally recognizes her true benefactor.
The close-up of Charlie that ends the film leaves the audience in exquisite suspension. The mixture of hope, shyness, and fear on his face chimes with the audience’s own emotions. We don’t know what will happen after the image fades, but we leave with the Tramp’s dream in our hearts. A smile and a tear, indeed. In creating City Lights, Chaplin conceived the basic idea for this final scene first. With this high point always in his mind, he was able to meticulously build the film with comedy and pathos in perfect harmony.
For all the critical acclaim Chaplin received for the emotional currents of these films, the combination of pathos and comedy was rarely imitated by his contemporaries in silent comedy. Harold Lloyd was capable of creating delicate moments of pathos, but more often than not he effectively relied on the everyman qualities of his “Glasses Character” to connect with his audience. Buster Keaton never asked for sympathy. He just assumed we would share his understanding of what it was like to be at war with the cosmos.
But Chaplin envy would bring the gifted Harry Langdon to grief in Three’s a Crowd. The plot, in which Harry takes in a runaway girl and her baby, certainly sounds those Chaplin-esque notes. But where Chaplin kept comedy and pathos closely together, Langdon simply dropped the comedy for extended periods, hoping the audience would be entranced by the minute shifts in his dramatic performance. He was wrong. Without the laughter to tie us to Harry, we become bored and alienated. Langdon would return to comedy in subsequent films, but he never really recovered.
In the sound period, studios often tried to impose Chaplin-esque pathos on comedians who were ill suited for it. MGM was a particularly heavy-handed user of this strategy. Buster Keaton’s first MGM sound film, Free and Easy (1930), ends with a close-up of a devastated Buster in sad clown makeup—about as un-Keaton an image as one could conceive. Other comedians, like the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy, who had never needed sentiment got it anyway (to, it must be admitted, the Marx Brothers’ commercial, if not artistic, benefit). And MGM turned the rambunctious Our Gang kids into multiple Andy Hardys, learning life lessons in lugubrious ten-minute shorts that seemed to last for days.
In the fifties and sixties, Jerry Lewis, who idolized Chaplin, wrestled with the pathos problem. In The Ladies Man (1961) and The Disorderly Orderly (1964), Lewis picked up some threads from City Lights and had Jerry attempt to help girls who are emotionally rather than physically handicapped (well, it was the sixties). But unlike Chaplin, Lewis simply alternated funny scenes with sad ones, and even his most devoted fans tend to slip off to the restroom when the sad scenes start up. It was in his 1963 classic The Nutty Professor that Lewis finally achieved his own perfect synthesis, allowing pathos to evolve naturally from Professor Julius Kelp’s misguided desire to turn himself into something he’s not.
What Jerry Lewis discovered is what Chaplin knew: comedy and pathos must come from the same place: character. We cry for the Tramp not because we pity him but because laughter has made us love him. Comedy plus pathos becomes empathy. “A smile and, perhaps, a tear” bind together in perfect unity. This is the art of Charlie Chaplin.
Stephen Winer was one of the original writers for Late Night with David Letterman, which the Writers Guild of America has voted one of the 101 best-written TV series. He has also written for comedians Robert Klein and Dick Van Dyke and the Disney Channel’s New Mickey Mouse Club.