When Charlie Chaplin, now 75, talks thoughtfully about himself, the part of him that became famous, he sometimes uses the phrase, “I’m just a clown!’
We visited him—my parents and my wife, Ella, and I with our baby daughter —at his villa in Switzerland for three days in September of 1964.
I had never met him before, and came away stimulated, fascinated, baffled.
And it wasn’t until the student protest movement at the Berkeley campus of the University of California reached its climax in December — as incongruous as that might seem — that many of the elements that had puzzled me about Chaplin suddenly fell into place.
When 800 students marched into the Administration Building on December 2, they had prepared to spend several hours in the halls, and came equipped: warm clothes for the night, books for studying, guitars for music, and four films, including a fine old comedy with a skating waiter: Charlie Chaplin.
When I first heard this, I chuckled, as I suppose most people did at the apparent ridiculousness of it, and dismissed it. The students, many of whom I knew to be the most serious about ideas, and about their education, had also prepared to hear lectures on the Constitution — and civil rights. They could not hope to win on the level of force; but they could defy “authority!’ and even ridicule aspects of administered education, by substituting lectures of their own.
It struck me as amusing,
but nothing important.
Their choice of a Chaplin film came back, however, with a force that jarred me, when I sat down to write this account of our visit, and to try to set down what kind of a person Chaplin is, and what kind of an experience meeting him was.
The students’ action reminded me of something this great comedy film-maker had said in his autobiography:
“In the creation of comedy, it is paradoxical that tragedy stimulates the spirit of ridicule; because ridicule, I suppose, is an attitude of defiance…”
From: The Victorian Tramp, by Peter Steffens, in Ramparts Magazine, March, 1965.