Chaplin, Carlin, and the Hilarity of Human Extinction
It’s no surprise in these war-shaken, pox-riddled, Musk-infested times we’re enjoying that Charlie Chaplin’s climactic speech from his film, The Great Dictator, continues to make the rounds online. (Have a gander at it here if you haven’t seen it.) This performance, and indeed the whole movie, was heady if controversial stuff in its day, given that America was still playing hard-to-get with World War II, and audiences were still unaccustomed to The Little Tramp saying anything at all, much less staring straight into the camera and denouncing Hitler.
But what does surprise me, each time I watch Chaplin’s speech, is how mawkish and low-calorie the whole affair is. (The stirring music some helpful YouTubers have added to the clip to boost its inspirational value has the opposite effect on me.) As a general ode to humanity’s goodness, the monologue skims across the surface of nobility without submerging itself in a deeper condemnation or cause. Ironically, Charlie’s pleas for soldiers to resist their brutal commanders garnered even more attention to his activities by the FBI, seeing as anyone who hates the machines of war surely hates America. But apart from arguing, in the strongest possible terms, that kindness is preferable to killing, the rant strikes me as a tad fluffy. Sorry, Charlie.
Which is why I’m amused by the thought, as Chaplin gets into the “think too much and feel too little” list of tepid ironies in his speech, that this is exactly the sort of cornpone, Sunday-school, cross-stitched, affirmational drivel that is so often passed around online as having been written by, of all people, George Carlin.
Why Carlin so often gets accused via meme and viral email of having spouted such baby-safe, Mister Rogers pleasantries as The Paradox of Our Time is beyond me, considering that anyone remotely familiar with his work would understand that George would never stop throwing up at the misattribution. Carlin was, after all, the author of such feel-good manifestos as The Planet is Fine, the People are Fucked. This is about as far from Chaplin’s optimism for the flowering of human kindness as one can imagine.
I’m curious as to whether or not these extremes represented a generational divide. George Carlin could never have had any career momentum in 1940 with his routines about atheism and the entertainment value of natural disasters, and no one short of Red Skelton could have convincingly delivered Chaplinesque peons to universal brotherhood in a 1992 HBO special. (And by that time, Skelton’s peons to universal brotherhood had taken the form of his Goodwill-ready clown paintings.) One might say George’s late-career success with prayers for humanity’s downfall represented precisely the sort of cynicism Chaplin had been warning us about.
And one might further argue that George Carlin’s “fuck hope” philosophy was all that was left to a post-war, post-Hiroshima, post-Daley Plaza, post-Vietnam, post-He-Man generation of Americans, who had to find humor in the downfall of society because all else has literally failed. After all, Howard Beale yelled at everyone to shake off the numbness of poisonous consumerism and demand that human life was worthwhile, and look what happened to him!
In the final analysis, of course I am wrong and Charlie Chaplin was right. His cornball speechifyin’ was a hit, and the success of The Great Dictator was, it is widely believed, instrumental in stirring isolationist America’s motivation to defeat the axis powers. Perhaps my dour viewpoint today is inspired by our all-screed-all-the-time media landscape, in which every Youtubin’ goober delivering pulpit-pounding tirades from the front seat of his Volvo can build an audience as big as Chaplin once had. My propaganda could beat up your propaganda, 24 hours a day, sponsored by BetterHelp. It's not an environment conducive to hopeful philosophies.
“The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men - cries out for universal brotherhood - for the unity of us all.”
Never fear, you sweet Little Tramp. Our modern era of Twitter and drones will have us all singing Kumbaya by the campfire before you can say “Toledo Window Box.”
(And let’s not forget Ashley’s website, jam-packed with portraits and other drawings, his illustrated essay column, The Symptoms, his highly-affordable prints and books currently available, his eagerness for your portrait commission, and his contact email, email@example.com, where he longs to hear from you.)
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