Charlie Chaplin: iconography and the immigrant

I’ve just started reading Confabulations by John Berger, who died earlier in January this year.  Recently I’ve been reading almost exclusively on my Kindle (in a space-saving Marie Kondo-like spirit) but I decided to buy a hard copy of the book – it’s small, portable with a good-sized font, and illustrated with colour photographs and some lovely artwork by Berger himself. I find it inspiring and for the first time in a while have been motivated to make margin notes in pencil in addition to underlining numerous striking phrases.  In the chapter Some Notes about the Art of Falling he writes about Charlie Chaplin and the lasting relevance of his films. He says their relevance seems closer, more urgent than ever before.

Confabulations by John Berger, Penguin Books, 2016, pp. 42-43

Berger’s book was published in 2016 and he died before witnessing Donald Trump’s inauguration as US President and subsequent immediate implementation of  immigration curbs including immigration bans on 7 majority Muslim countries, the entire suspension of refugee admissions for 120 days and the indefinite suspension of the Syrian refugee programme.

Charlie Chaplin’s film The Immigrant celebrates its centenary this year. Chaplin was very much the auteur in that he wrote, directed, composed the music and starred in the film. Incredibly, a film made 100 years ago has never seemed more pertinent. The Chaplin website  states that in devising The Immigrant, Chaplin drew on his own experiences immigrating to the United States and attempted to find the humor in otherwise traumatic aspects of coming to a new land. In James Vance’s essay for the Library of Congress Program for National Film Preservation he writes that undertones of social criticism are suggested in “The Immigrant,” the first of many Chaplin films to contain such themes, which were seldom found in comedy films of this period. For instance, when the immigrants first see the Statue of Liberty the immigration officials rope all the foreigners together like cattle, causing Charlie to cast a quizzical second look at the land of the free. When an immigration officer turns away from Charlie, Charlie kicks him in the backside.

I am the daughter of two immigrants; my father, a Persian Jew, was born in Jerusalem. His parents had recently arrived in Jerusalem from Meshhed, Iran. When he was little the family emigrated to Britain.

My late father actually had a US passport until his death, even though he lived most of his life in Britain. He had enlisted to fight in the Korean War:

Chaplin’s most memorable  persona was that of the tramp. I was thinking about that iconic image when I recalled a photograph I’d taken in Havana, Cuba late in 2008.  I’d been walking around and found a random door ajar. Curiosity got the better of me and when I peered in I discovered Chaplin’s image painted twice – a mural on a whitewashed wall – his hat, moustache, suit and cane immediately and globally recognisable:

On finding the picture of Chaplin I tried to remember whether I’d taken any other photographs that contained his image. I thought I had taken one in a Paris; when I examined it I realised it was Chaplinesque rather than Chaplin – it had the cane and a moustache, but very much the wrong moustache:

Chaplin’s moustache is also known as a toothbrush moustache and apparently predates Hitler’s toothbrush moustache. I have taken a couple of photos of  this type of moustache in graffiti. The first is of a mannequin in Camden Market, the second is graffiti on a film poster. I oscillate between reading them as Hitler moustaches and Chaplin moustaches.

Back to Chaplin’s other iconic accessory – the cane – I found a picture of my late father as a youth with a cane which I like. I think he was trying to be funny in this picture; the picture is also funny to me because of his very British socks and sandals and very Persian hairy legs, the perfect hybridity of the immigrant.

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