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Charles Chaplin's Film and the Politics of Silence

ENGL 392.401
also offered as: CIMS 392
Friday 5:15-8:15pm

Course Online: Synchronous and Asynchronous Components


Course Description:

A BFS seminar, cross-listed in English and Cinema Studies, designed for advanced students pursuing any major. No background in performance or cinema studies is required. Prerequisites include excellent communication and observation skills, the ability to do productive collaborative work, a desire to learn how to appreciate silent film, a willingness to try new things, and a sense of humor.


This seminar focuses on the variety pantomime inherited by twentieth-century film from the Commedia dell’Arte and European Music Hall stages. Emphasis will be placed on how pantomime was used by filmmaker Charles Chaplin between the years 1914-1940. We shall consider important moments in the history of European pantomime that preceded and influenced Chaplin, then concentrate on how the tradition coalesced in his silent films.


Pantomime is a communication system that empowers popular resistance to authority and to cultural hierarchies, including the hierarchies built into language. As an art form, pantomime is capable of operating outside the system of one-to-one metaphorical representation (this word stands for that thing) that dominates Western language structures. Pantomime is also capable of satirizing that system’s operating assumptions. It values play, repetition-with-difference, destabilization, and mockery. Pantomime seeks to evoke feeling and create effects in its audience. It values recognition over the transference of a fixed meaning or a so-called original story. It prizes open-endedness over linear narrative sequence and closure. Historically, pantomime often has been used to foreground the absurdity of human pretensions, particularly pretensions that create social hierarchies. Not least among the pretensions it laughs at are those built into any claim to represent the world reliably using metaphorical language.


After considering the historical functions of some varieties of pantomime that influenced Chaplin, we shall look closely at what pantomime could achieve – affectively, aesthetically, philosophically, and ideologically – in the hands of its most virtuosic 20th-century practitioner. Students will have opportunities to experience what it feels like to perform pantomime in front of an audience, and interact in real time with experts on pantomime, Commedia dell’Arte, silent film, and Chaplin’s films. Students will have the opportunity to create and perform brief, original pantomimes and to curate a film exhibition for the wider Philadelphia community.


Charles Chaplin (1889-1977) created silent and sound films treasured for their unpretentiousness, human empathy, artistic excellence, virtuosic performances, and comic invention. The first global film superstar, beloved by the world and supremely influential on film history and practice, Chaplin was also at odds throughout his life with both dominant trends in filmmaking and the disciplinary assumptions of bourgeois morality. His work evinced a delightfully playful, comically unmoored view of the world, but also a cynical, suspicious, sometimes even savagely angry point-of-view. The combination puzzled many observers in his own time.  Chaplin deliberately defied his contemporaries’ values (and those of many later critics) by continuing to make silent features long after the rest of the industry had embraced talkies. As we shall see, this defiance was not a refusal of sound itself or a refusal for refusal’s sake – he eagerly incorporated sound effects, music, sonic experiments, and new technologies -- but the result of a fundamental distrust of language.


Chaplin believed that film must be a representation of gestures in time -- movements, facial expressions, glances, pauses, failures to register, hesitations. When he performed, gesture communicated differently than language does, in ways at once markedly anarchic, highly disciplined, and laden with (often disturbing, sometimes contradictory) suggestion.  Chaplin placed primary signifying value on producing feeling in his viewers – his was a “pathic” art -- rather than in teaching them to decode or transferring paraphrasable meaning. He placed his faith, and staked his legacy, on gestures rather than on words. As we shall see, he was refusing not sound itself – he loved sound effects, music, sonic experiments -- but language. “Cinema,” Chaplin famously said, “is pantomime.”


Chaplin was recognized in his own time, as he still is today, as one of history’s greatest pantomimists. What has only begun to be appreciated is how his mastery of pantomime was also a celebration of resistant possibilities on many levels – aesthetic, socioeconomic, philosophical, political, and interpersonal. Film scholars have begun to recognize the degree to which Chaplin’s silent films foreground a wholistic view of the world as an uncertain and multiply signifying place, a place not capturable via a single point-of-view or structural order, a world of signs that are only reliable when direct and bodily. The films, and especially Chaplin’s insistence on silence, enact this resistant ideology.  Consideration of how Chaplin conceived and deployed gesture as a cacophonous location of resistance is the largest goal of this course, and is what I mean by “the politics of silence.”


Chaplin’s pantomime enacts fundamental doubt about the reliability, even the desirability, of what passes for communication in a language-centered world.  This minority perspective offers us a chance to understand two fundamental ways of making meaning, only one of which may be familiar to students in 392. In metaphorical representation, the structure of Western languages and the familiar way of ordering reality, one thing stands for another. Words work this way, government works this way; so does money.  In metonymical representation, the structure of Chaplin’s pantomime, one thing stands beside another, observing, alert to suggestion, permitting excess, and evoking resonances rather than defining meaning. In Chaplin’s silent films, communication is achieved (never absolutely) not through hierarchy (metaphor’s process of displacement, erasure, and standing-in) but through the horizontality, simultaneity, and messiness of metonym.


Many commentators have understood Chaplin’s artistic achievement as a life-long response to foundational personal trauma and outsider status.  Chaplin suffered a brutally deprived and insecure childhood and adolescence.  During that long period of suffering, he developed (among other traits) great confidence in his own body, an off-beat imagination, cunning survivalism, and considerable freedom from bourgeois morality. When at the age of 26 he (suddenly) became a world-famous artist, Chaplin retained the lessons of his youth.  “There is only one end,” Chaplin declared when asked about his artistic purposes; “to please one’s inner self.” The declaration described not only his artistic code but also his moral code for much of his adult life.


So it’s not surprising that increasingly during Chaplin’s lifetime, when both bourgeois morality/ideology and “talking films” came to shape “classical” Hollywood cinema, Chaplin fell afoul of many previously adoring viewers and critics.  His iconoclasm on both artistic and personal levels is a large part of the reason Chaplin’s work, always difficult to assimilate within the classical Hollywood tradition, was for decades denied popular audiences as well. Today, Chaplin’s work is being screened around the world again and recognized as presciently post-modern, especially when it comes to its attitude toward language.


While we celebrate Chaplin’s immense achievement – the joy viewers find in his films, his immense gifts as unrivaled film auteur, the way his pantomime can still make unexpected space for resistance -- it is important to remember that Chaplin’s work, like Chaplin himself, was part of his time. This course will consider not only the vast affordances of his art and world-view, but also their limitations. In that goal as in much else, though, we can only skim the surface of our complicated twin subject, pantomime and Chaplin’s silent films. My purpose this semester is not to define either of those phenomena fully, but only to offer students a set of rubrics for continuing to investigate an almost inexhaustibly rich and challenging body of work and set of issues.


Students’ major responsibilities this semester will be to participate fully in class and to complete all assignments on time. Chaplin’s films are funny and wise, and you should let yourself have fun watching them, even while you study them seriously as the works of art they are. In addition to class meetings and homework, you will be expected to participate in two out-of-class workshops with a professional mime and to help produce a public-facing screening of Modern Times on March 26th. See below for details.  


Essential Course Policies

·       The seminar will start out as an on-line, synchronous course, over Zoom. You will receive a Zoom link on Fridays via email. It is possible that the course will remain on-line; the University is making that decision now.

·       All requirements, including out-of-class events, can be fulfilled within the University’s guideline of 9 hours/week work, which includes homework and the 3-hour/week class meetings.

·       We meet Fridays 5:15-8:15pm. This block of time has been designed to allow us to hold screenings and events during class time. Attendance at every class session and at the three required events (described below) is required of everyone. We keep attendance records.

·       During virtual class, please keep your camera on and demonstrate active engagement, including active listening. Turn off social media, phone calls, and texts.

·       About required books and films:

o   We have ordered two required textbooks at the University’s bookstore. Students may also obtain these titles elsewhere at their convenience.

o   No title should cost more than $30.00. I can use my research funds to help students who may find book-buying economically difficult. Contact me privately at

o   How to watch the films:

§  Every required film will be made available to students in currently authorized, remastered editions, by free link via Canvas. This provision has been made possible for our course by the generosity of the international Chaplin Office in Paris.

§  Do not circulate any films or clips beyond our Canvas page. Our class has obtained special permission to use them.

§  Be sure to watch all the films in the optimal formats we have provided. Please do not watch the films on YouTube, where they can be hard to see, poorly edited, or bootlegged, and where inappropriate soundtracks are often dubbed in. We have arranged to have the authorized versions available here on Canvas to ensure that you see the best (most complete, most watchable, carefully restored, with Chaplin’s own music after 1918) version of each film.


·       Weekly Discussion Posts: Each student will be required to post weekly on Canvas’s Discussion page, addressing questions posed by the instructor and teaching assistant. Students’ posted thoughts will form bases for synchronous discussion in the next class session. Please post by midnight on Friday in advance of each class meeting at 5:15 pm.

·       Final Project: Each student will prepare an individual final performance project. You will offer an original pantomimic sketch about 10 minutes long, performed by yourself. Your goal: without using words, tell a brief story or stage an event (e.g., preparing and serving a meal, helping someone cross a busy street, giving someone a haircut, changing a diaper, etc.). Try to produce specific FEELING EFFECTS in your audience. Then lead your peers in a question-and-answer discussion of your work.

--Assignment Goals

·       To give students a chance to demonstrate what he/she/they have learned about pantomime.

·       To encourage students to take a chance and try something new.

·       To permit students to create an original performance piece.

--Assignment Logistics:

-- Final Project presentations will be synchronous events taking place during our regularly scheduled, 3-hour class session on April 22.

-- If extra time is needed to accommodate all the performances, or if students in distant time zones find it easier, we will also use the afternoon of April 23. We may not need this extra date, but students should commit to it for the present.

-- Presentations may be performed live over Zoom in real-time, or recorded in advance and uploaded for screen-sharing via Zoom. (For technical help, consult with Jacob Myers.)

-- Instructor Toni Bowers and TA Jacob Myers are ready to help at any time. Please use email to contact us.

·       In addition to regularly scheduled seminar meetings, weekly homework, and the final project, three events are required:

-- Two free performance workshops on pantomime performance, generously underwritten for members of our class by a grant from the Sachs Program for Innovation in the Arts. These workshops will help you enormously as you prepare your final projects. In order to make them happen, we must accommodate ourselves to the schedule of the professional mime with whom we’ll be working.  The workshops will be held on two Saturday afternoons, and will last about 90 minutes each. The first workshop is scheduled for Saturday, February 5th, and the second workshop is scheduled for Saturday, April 9th. We will announce the hours for these events soon.

-- A public, Center-City screening of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) on Saturday, March 26th at 5:00pm at the Lightbox Film Center on Broad Street. Pandemic conditions permitting, we’ll produce this as an in-person event. This is our chance to experience Chaplin’s pantomime on a large screen, and to fulfill one of the course’s main aims: to engage with the Philadelphia community. Working in committees, in collaboration with theater professionals at the Lightbox Center and with selected students from the University of the Arts, students in 392 will learn to organize and produce a film event in a public space. All students and both instructors will be present on March 26th, when the movie is screened. (The date has been selected around our class schedule.)  Professor Bowers will deliver a short introductory lecture on how pantomime works in Modern Times, and Jacob Myers will give concluding remarks and launch a discussion with the audience, which we expect will include not only students but also a small number of people from Philadelphia’s film community. 


Equal weight will be given to: 1) regular, constructive, visible, and engaged attendance; 2) consistent, thoughtful Canvas Discussion posts; 3) quality of participation in workshops and the screening event at the Lightbox; and 3) presentation of Final Project.


fulfills requirements
Elective of the Standard Major
Elective Seminar of the Standard Major
Sector 1: Theory and Poetics of the Standard Major
Sector 6: 20th Century Literature of the Standard Major