Arts: Comic genius? Well, maybe: Richard Attenborough's film about Chaplin opens this week, at last. It may take his greatness for granted. So we asked a few people: is he funny?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture


He is a very funny comedian and a lot of his stuff is misjudged nowadays because the films are shown at the wrong speed and on TV. They need to be seen in their proper context. His best stuff was made around 1916-1917 and included films like Easy Street and The Cure. They were well-rounded stories with plots, when everyone else was just letting off fire extinguishers. Chaplin introduced depth of character. He was one of the first comedians I really liked - at the age of four or five. Stan Laurel always reckoned Chaplin was the supreme comedian. Now Chaplin is seen as a very unpopular man who convinced everyone he was hilarious. I think if people saw the films in the cinema as they were designed to be shown, they'd see them differently. Within his context he's brilliant. He was able to use the Hollywood machinery to make the films he wanted to. He was a superb performer, a comedian who was enormously influential on the comedians of his day. I'll be very interested to see how the Attenborough film turns out. It's an amazing story of someone who left Britain penniless and returned as the most famous comedian in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people turned up to meet him at the station - which is a lot more than Jason Donovan gets.


Playwright and novelist

I saw my first Chaplin film in a church hall on my uncle's knee. Charlie sank in a rowing boat and we thought he really drowned. I never found him funny. He frightened me. He had a cold smile, and I couldn't understand why he was so jerky. Laurel and Hardy were my generation's heroes, but my aunts and uncles found him mesmeric.


Playwright and novelist

I certainly found a lot of the early shorts extremely funny. I'm less keen on the pathos. I particularly admire Laurel and Hardy, who steered clear of pathos. They never released their grip on comedy. Chaplin had other aspirations. His humour is very well worked out. It's slightly the same comedy as Schreck's where the character smiles at everything. Chaplin's character appears to obey - unsmilingly - but actually undermines the world around him with this deadpan acceptance.



Film archivists

When we staged City Lights in London in 1989 with a live orchestra for the Chaplin centenary, several critics said that no one under 40 would find him funny. As a result, it was not well attended. But the reaction of those who were there was electric. Word of mouth built, and a few performances later the houses were packed. The laughter was so strong that we recorded it and sent the tapes to the critics. During the boxing match the laughter drowned the orchestra completely.



I have no feeling about Charlie Chaplin, and he has no feeling about me. People say he was a genius. I don't know why he was a genius, but he was. He made a lot of money, that's why he was a genius. No, I'll come out of the closet - I don't like Charlie Chaplin. I don't like cute comedy.


Actor and comedian

He was absolutely wonderful and proved it by being famous worldwide. He was a good actor and had a wonderful sense of comedy. It might seem a little bit old-fashioned in these days of alternative comedy, or sophisticated filth as I call it, but if anybody thinks he's not funny they must be bloody mental or have no sense of humour. He was a bit childish, but anybody who hasn't a childish sense of humour isn't a very happy person. Chaplin didn't influence me directly, except that he made me want to be funny.



I'm not a Chaplinist. Unlike practically everyone I know, though, I can say that what I have seen genuinely makes me laugh. His technical skill is prodigious. Debussy was right to tell him - in Paris, even before he had invented the Little Tramp - 'Monsieur Chaplin, vous etes un artiste'. The delicacy and precision of his business is unrivalled by any comedian; Monsieur Verdoux counting banknotes, a sort of finger ballet, is funny and superhuman at the same time. His German gibberish in The Great Dictator as Hynkel/

Hitler is a glorious distillation of the essence of the language into nonsensical sound. As a performer he's like a possessed sprite; comic, but always exquisitely graceful, even in humiliation or misfortune. Everything is phrased to the last detail. Maybe that's what people resist. There's no anarchy. What it is, rather, is a sort of poetry of calamity.


MP and film buff

Recently I saw a brief extract from Richard Attenborough's film. I found it much more moving than any film I have ever seen by Chaplin himself, or indeed all Chaplin's own films put together. I would not walk round the corner to see a Chaplin film. And I don't just mean his ghastly final movies: the banal A King in New York, the disastrous A Countess from Hong Kong, which abused the talents of Brando and Loren. I mean the silent shorts which made his reputation. I first saw these in 16mm, projected at the speed of sound films, and the scurrying manikins did have the advantage of quaintness. Once I saw them projected at the more appropriate silent speed, even that advantage was lost.

Of his full-length 'classics', The Great Dictator was supposed to be a satirical dissection of Hitler and Mussolini, but its alleged profundity was mainly cliche-ridden bombast. Limelight was goo. Modern Times copied Clair's A Nous La Liberte. Monsieur Verdoux, purporting to be another comedy masterwork arguing that murder of individuals was as nothing compared to the carnage of war, wasted the adorable Martha Raye, who was far funnier in Hellzapoppin. And I cannot bear Chaplin's categorisation of women as waifs. City Lights was disfigured by an ending featuring one of the most exploitative of these waifs, which made me cringe. Chaplin became a millionaire by fooling many people much of the time. Give me the Marx Brothers or W C Fields any day.



I was afraid of trendy opinion when I was younger so I pretended to like him, but I don't. He just wasn't funny.


Film director

I am an absolutely devoted devotee of Buster Keaton and his kind of comedy. The trouble is that people say who do you like, Keaton or Chaplin. There's a streak of sentimentality I find difficult in Chaplin. I admire his skill enormously, but if you're saying would I find him funny, I'd say no. Impressive, yes. I feel he was less interested in technical invention than his contemporaries. With Charlie Chaplin, the camera was put there and he performed in front of it over and over again. It was more like theatre or music hall than cinema. It was as if the camera was the proscenium arch.


Director, Theatre de Complicite

I remember Le Coq always saying that Charlie Chaplin had done more for mime than Marcel Marceau ever had. What he achieved physically hasn't been matched since. The time he took to make jokes was extraordinary. People don't realise the time it takes. The scene when he gets in and out of the car and is dumped next to the girl with the roses apparently took two weeks. It's right to think of all the people who came before him, but it was Chaplin who took the genre to the physical extreme. When he changes his body, opening his feet and his pelvis and opening his legs, he makes a shape which is not possible unless you design it. Then the upper half of the body has the fear of the world pressed against it. There is the comic contradiction.

In the case of Keaton his body remained neutral to the world, with a more poetic quality, a quality of resignation. Chaplin kept a certain reserve of hope. He had a much wider appeal because of his way of mixing sentimentality with the comic. But people like to say he was tragi-comic, all that stuff about the sad clown. But what he did was encapsulate the little guy who was trying to face the world.


Don and cinema writer

Stan Laurel is much funnier. Chaplin is hard to laugh at these days. Easy to admire but hard to laugh at. Laurel you feel you are spying on; Chaplin wants to grab you. Laurel was very subtle, and there was nothing cold about him. He was engaging. David Thomson calls Chaplin the demon tramp, and I think that's right. Keaton was just as distant. Things Chaplin wanted to do were done better later on. I think Robin Williams would play Chaplin well, as the comedy generates from inside. This is why the comparison between Woody Allen and Chaplin doesn't work.

Chaplin always considers how you

will see him. Keaton and Allen look at the comic situation.



Have you talked to any women who find him funny? 'Cause I just don't. I understand objectively why people find him funny, but I just can't fathom it myself. Along with Tom & Jerry, Chaplin gets on my nerves. I'm a fan of comedians who do fairly complex verbal humour, as opposed to visual comedy. I don't find it particularly funny to see a house falling on someone's head. The saddest thing is those people who are still doing his act, imitating him. No, I won't be going to the film.


Composer of film scores

I love Charlie Chaplin, always have. I've seen nearly all his films. My favourite is The Great Dictator: this was heartfelt political satire, a great piss- take that was way ahead of its time. He certainly understood how music and comedy play on each other. And he was a master of timing. People don't find some of his films funny because the slapstick idiom - which made people roll in the aisles in the Thirties - has gone out of fashion. What interests me is that Chaplin's score doesn't draw on the whizz, bang, clap clap music of the music-hall: it's much more subtle. I think his comedy was more about pathos and tragedy and his music for films underlines it, making the little twinkly bits more interesting. Chaplin was an innately musical man, a very fine amateur. Without question, there are many visual gags that wouldn't work without the music. He might put a big fight on the screen and the score would be a poignant little ditty.



I positively dislike the irritating, cane- twirling, moustache-twitching character he foisted on the public for decades. Great comedy usually has anarchy at its heart, but Chaplin portrayed a conventional little man who, while subversive in small ways, ultimately (and detestably) sided with authority. His name crops up whenever comedy is mentioned. Yet how many times can you get hooked to a tree by your umbrella and still be hailed as a comedic genius? There is altogether too much effort and physical eccentricity, but not enough genuine invention - Laurel and Hardy achieved more with a raised eyebrow than Chaplin's frenetic paroxysms ever could - and the shameless way he forced pathos down the throats of the audience leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.


Royal Ballet Principal

I find him charming rather than gut- splittingly funny. Most of the things I find funny are verbal. Chaplin's movement is comic because it's so awkward - there's nothing natural about it, with his turned-out feet. When he's walking he puts the weight on the side you wouldn't expect, so he looks odd, and that's comic. But you could train anybody to move like that.


TV presenter

I'm afraid I don't really find any silent comedians funny and Chaplin fits into that category. The earliest comedians I can find funny are the Marx Brothers, and that's with a pinch of salt. I was just never a great fan of that style of comedy. There's something about slapstick . . . it doesn't relate to my life. I only laugh at things I can relate to. Chaplin's humour is so distant - both in terms of style and historically - that I don't find I really identify with it. I've never had to wallpaper a room while delivering a piano upstairs. I'm more likely to laugh at someone trying to get money out of a cashpoint machine than someone carrying a sheet of glass across the high street.


Novelist and screenwriter

Charlie Chaplin is funny, especially when he is being ruthless, but much of his comedy has a sentimental core and sentimentality is a degraded emotion these days. Just as we no longer weep at the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, so our tear-ducts remain resolutely dry as Chaplin relentlessly piles on the pathos. Well almost . . . I defy anyone to have a lump- free throat at the end of The Kid, when the Tramp rescues Jackie Coogan, but there's no doubt that his huge success was built on emotional responses that have gone out of fashion. Chaplin's prodigious talent can still be discerned in the details of his movies, in the comic business, the choreography and timing. There are also marvellous touches of cinematographic inspiration - when to hold something in long shot, how to film a double take - that earn one's unconditional admiration.


Actor and humorist

Very, very funny. His timing is brilliant, he's just a great clown in the great tradition of clowns. There was a time when his sentiment went out of fashion, his rejected-lover routine . . . He's not in the same class as Buster Keaton as an athletic clown. He's got all the instincts, he's got the energy, he's in the orbit of immortality by making that original shape, that character, the costume, the walk. Occasionally there are times when his humour doesn't work, but Chaplin was very skilful: a naturally funny man. I last saw a big solid diet of minor Chaplin films 10 years ago on TV and still found him funny then. I wouldn't want to give the impression that I feed on him. My real preference is Laurel and Hardy. Chaplin is different, with a much more 19th-century music-hall background. He was an inspired clown with very clever responses. The way he deals with a dramatic scene - great imagination goes into it, it's not just automatic. I give him an alpha, though it's above me to judge.



I never found him particularly funny. I watch him to blub all over the place. I watch Chaplin in the same way as I would watch Dumbo: crying. Certainly there are funny moments. Monsieur Verdoux is the funniest (though it's not meant to be), The Gold Rush was hilarious, as was The Great Dictator. I find Laurel and Hardy funny; Buster Keaton I also find funnier. But it's the reality of being alive and losing people. People losing lovers or the blind girlfriend in City Lights - it's very moving. He's wonderful. I'm not knocking him. We've all changed since 1918 - humour's changed in the last three weeks. Imagine someone on TV now still being discussed in 80 years' time. His sex life was interesting too, but we won't go into that.

Interviews by Magnus Macintyre, Rosanna de Lisle and Jane Duncan.

'Chaplin' (12): Odeon Leicester Sq (0426 915683) from Fri, general release from 15 Jan.