As a child growing up in England, Charlie Chaplin spent years in dire poverty, particularly after his mother was committed to an asylum. In his early teens, forced to work to live, he landed a job in vaudeville, eventually gaining some success as a comedian. But Chaplin was wildly ambitious, and so, in 1910, when he was only nineteen, he emigrated to the United States, hoping to break into the film business. Making his way to Hollywood, he found occasional bit parts, but success seemed elusive: the competition was fierce, and although Chaplin had a repertoire of gags that he had learned in vaudeville, he did not particularly excel at physical humor, a critical part of silent comedy. He was not a gymnast like Buster Keaton.
In 1914, Chaplin managed to get the lead in a film short called Making a Living. His role was that of a con artist. In playing around with the costume for the part, he put on a pair of pants several sizes too large, then added a derby hat, enormous boots that he wore on the wrong feet, a walking cane, and a pasted-on mustache. With the clothes, a whole new character seemed to come to life—first the silly walk, then the twirling of the cane, then all sorts of gags. Mack Sennett, the head of the studio, did not find Making a Living very funny, and doubted whether Chaplin had a future in the movies, but a few critics felt otherwise. A review in a trade magazine read, “The clever player who takes the role of a nervy and very nifty sharper in this picture is a comedian of the first water, who acts like one of Nature’s own naturals.” And audiences also responded—the film made money.
What seemed to touch a nerve in Making a Living, setting Chaplin apart from the horde of other comedians working in silent film, was the almost pathetic naiveté of the character he played. Sensing he was onto something, Chaplin shaped the role further in subsequent movies, rendering him more and more naive. The key was to make the character seem to see the world through the eyes of a child. In The Bank, he is the bank janitor who daydreams of great deeds while robbers are at work in the building; in The Pawnbroker, he is an unprepared shop assistant who wreaks havoc on a grandfather clock; in Shoulder Arms, he is a soldier in the bloody trenches of World War I, reacting to the horrors of war like an innocent child. Chaplin made sure to cast actors in his films who were physically larger than he was, subliminally positioning them as adult bullies and himself as the helpless infant. And as he went deeper into his character, something strange happened: the character and the real-life man began to merge. Although he had had a troubled childhood, he was obsessed with it. (For his film Easy Street he built a set in Hollywood that duplicated the London streets he had known as a boy.) He mistrusted the adult world, preferring the company of the young, or the young at heart: three of his four wives were teenagers when he married them.
More than any other comedian, Chaplin aroused a mix of laughter and sentiment. He made you empathize with him as the victim, feel sorry for him the way you would for a lost dog. You both laughed and cried. And audiences sensed that the role Chaplin played came from somewhere deep inside—that he was sincere, that he was actually playing himself. Within a few years after Making a Living, Chaplin was the most famous actor in the world. There were Chaplin dolls, comic books, toys; popular songs and short stories were written about him; he became a universal icon. In 1921, when he returned to London for the first time since he had left it, he was greeted by enormous crowds, as if at the triumphant return of a great general.
The greatest seducers, those who seduce mass audiences, nations, the world, have a way of playing on people’s unconscious, making them react in a way they can neither understand nor control. Chaplin inadvertently hit on this power when he discovered the effect he could have on audiences by playing up his weakness, by suggesting that he had a child’s mind in an adult body. In the early twentieth century, the world was radically and rapidly changing. People were working longer and longer hours at increasingly mechanical jobs; life was becoming steadily more inhuman and heartless, as the ravages of World War I made clear. Caught in the midst of revolutionary change, people yearned for a lost childhood that they imagined as a golden paradise.
An adult child like Chaplin has immense seductive power, for he offers the illusion that life was once simpler and easier, and that for a moment, or for as long as the movie lasts, you can win that life back. In a cruel, amoral world, naivete has enormous appeal. The key is to bring it off with an air of total seriousness, as the straight man does in stand-up comedy. More important, however, is the creation of sympathy. Overt strength and power is rarely seductive—it makes us afraid, or envious. The royal road to seduction is to play up your vulnerability and helplessness. You cannot make this obvious; to seem to be begging for sympathy is to seem needy, which is entirely anti-seductive. Do not proclaim yourself a victim or underdog, but reveal it in your manner, in your confusion. A display of “natural” weakness will make you instantly lovable, both lowering people’s defenses and making them feel delightfully superior to you. Put yourself in situations that make you seem weak, in which someone else has the advantage; they are the bully, you are the innocent lamb. Without any effort on your part, people will feel sympathy for you. Once people’s eyes cloud over with sentimental mist, they will not see how you are manipulating them.