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The Vatican is right to honour Charlie Chaplin, a ‘chosen man of God’

Although not a religious man, Chaplin captured something of the universal human heart

By on Friday, 27 June 2014

Chaplin in 'City Lights' (AP)

Chaplin in 'City Lights' (AP)

I was amused to read in Rome Reports that the Vatican has decided to celebrate 125 years since the birth of Charlie Chaplin with a collection of stamps dedicated to Chaplin’s most famous character, Charlot, the Little Tramp. This idea wasn’t dreamed up by a cardinal or other member of the hierarchy, obviously. The Vatican is a small, self-contained state with its own stamps and it seems the idea came from Mauro Olivieri, the director of the Vatican Philatelic and Numismatic Office. According to Olivieri, “We thought it a good moment to recognise the importance of this artist, of celebrating him as a genius who expressed his art using new media.”

The picture of the Little Tramp used for the stamps comes from the final scene in Chaplin’s favourite among his films, City Lights, which was released in January 1931. The film is the story of a blind flower girl who is befriended by a (sometimes drunken) millionaire in collusion with the Tramp, whom she mistakes for the wealthy stranger. At the end, when her sight has been restored after an operation, she suddenly recognises the true identity of her benefactor when she hands the Little Tramp a flower; in a scene of great power and pathos he watches her reaction with a mixture of apprehension, suspense and joy. It is this moment that Olivieri has captured, “when the girl sees him and understands it was him who helped her throughout the film with such humanity.”

Chaplin’s films can seem dated today (and I have always rather preferred Buster Keaton) but it can’t be denied that he was a genius of the silent film era.

Having just read Peter Ackroyd’s biography of him I can appreciate a little more the mystery of creativity that lies behind his endlessly inventive art, with its mesmerising mixture of comedy and pathos. As Christians we believe that all art ultimately flows from God, who is beauty as well as goodness and truth.

As Ackroyd describes, Chaplin had a relentlessly wretched childhood. His actual paternity was debated and his mother suffered from bouts of insanity. He grew up often homeless and hungry on the streets of south London and served a long apprenticeship in the art of mime during the music hall era. Not surprisingly, he became a deeply damaged adult, tyrannical and despotic with those who worked with him on his films and selfish and abusive towards the women who got caught up with him, notably his four wives. Yet from his traumatic childhood and his dictatorial, moody and passionate temperament he created an imaginative poetical world of great charm and a character, Charlot, who entranced millions of people.

Ackroyd quotes the Russian film producer, Sergei Eisenstein, who said of Chaplin that “the true, the humanly inspiring ‘chosen man of God’, of whom Wagner dreamed, is not Parsifal bowing down before the Grail in Bayreuth, but Charlie Chaplin among the trash-cans of the East Side.” Chaplin discovered something universal in his creation of the Little Tramp. In the last scene of City Lights he captures something of the eternally hungry human heart, desperate for love and acceptance yet fearful of rejection. I am delighted that the Vatican has chosen to honour him. It is an imaginative gesture that makes an institution, often associated with intrigues and corruption as well as an unwieldy bureaucracy, seem a little more humane. What Chaplin himself would have made of this particular brand of posthumous fame is not known. He was not a man noted for any religious observance – but that is hardly an impediment in the eyes of the universal Church.