I do not like tragedy very much. I always have tried to avoid sad stories with tragic elements for I grow despondent with life and actually get a depression after the final credits roll for the movie. This feeling of despair and sadness I develop stays for a long long time. I can’t seem to forget the particular movie no matter how hard I try. I don’t necessarily hate the use of tragedy or the idea of tragedy itself. After all, it helps us grow.
But still, I would at least like to wash my socks without dropping my tears all over the place, thank you very much.
But the tragedy is not something even the hardcore fans would appreciate if it didn’t have some form of levity. Something to tell them it was still alright. Hence, there is the genre of tragic comedy or tragicomedy.
It can be said the people from old times would not appreciate their plays to only be able to depress them and lose their faith in humanity. Shakespeare, the heart-breaker, found about it. Thus comedy was integrated into tragedy for the betterment of it.
But good things come at a price. Tragic comedies are difficult to execute properly. Too much comedy and the tragic elements fall flat or may feel insulting. Too much tragedy, the comedic elements will not derive a laugh and may again, feel insulting. In short, tragic comedies were hard to make. Even for Shakespeare.
Even to this very day, the makers struggle this constant effort of making them. They fail a lot. How to make someone laugh and cry without one overpowering the another?
But then, there was already a master of this craft. He is not modern by any means. He was the very only Charlie Chaplin.
He was the master of the Art of Tragic Comedy and he did it with the iconic character of The Tramp.
Now, what makes the adventures of the Tramp which was commercialized as silent comedies appear so tragic in the first place? If you can’t see it in the previous line, let me tell you myself. The tragedy is being a tramp, a hobo, a poverty-stricken man, who roams around trying to make ends meet. Now, on initial viewings, it does not appear so.
The Tramp is a confident and rather charming fellow in a bowler hat, a suave mustache, and a suit. He walks as if he in wonder with the whole world. It becomes even more likely for the audience to find the tramp as a hero or a winner. More likely to find it in his short films.
The tragedy lies in his actions and so does the comedy. The Tramp is an active character, someone who drives the story of the film. He does it by getting a crush on a girl or by getting a job. He can also be a passive one. He reacts to the stuff happening around him.
One great way to see the low life of the Tramp is what he smokes. The tramp smokes a cigarette. In old times, the high class smoked cigars while the low class could afford only cigarettes. It was a statement with negative undertones for both of the people. Also cancer.
The soundtrack helps us understand the Tramp. When the Tramp is not in a chase scene or kicking the behind of a law enforcer, a somber music plays instead of the cartoony, fast music. The music gives a sad vibe, which the audience can feel and seeing the Tramp moving from places to places, all alone with no friends, can help us empathize with the character.In extreme cases, it can sadden our moods too. However, the Tramp on the screen is goofy. Spinning his laughably thin walking stick, slipping on banana peels, or stumbling on rocks, the Tramp is always doing something which lightens the mood.
And that is the genius of it. The audience can feel for the character but still laugh at him in sympathy and connection. This is one aspect Charlie Chaplin did right.
There is a scene in The Kid where the eponymous kid is tried to be taken from the Tramp by the orphanage cause the Tramp is not the father. As the two men enter the Tramp’s room, they and the tramp get into a slapstick fight. The other calls a cop and two men grab the Tramp while the third one picks up the struggling child who is screaming for the Tramp. While the tramp tries to get out, the kid is put in the automobile and we see his crying face as he begs to return back.
There is a cut to the Tramp being held between the two men, with his own face in fear and grief, maybe being able to hear the kid’s cries from down below. The sheer intensity and emotion in this scene with no dialogues except the incredible score which plays following it convey far greater than anything I have yet to see.
This is a sad scene. This is tug at our heartstrings. This is a tragic scene. But, Chaplin does not let it overpower all our senses. The Tramp is able to get loose and escapes to the roof through the window while the automobile goes off with the kid. The Tramp frantically tries to catch up to the car while the policeman follows and even punches the policeman in retaliation and into submission. This scene is meant to be comedic. But the comedy here also is accompanied by the heavy music.
The Tramp catches up to the car and jumps on it, throwing off the previous man with a short fight, kicking him out of the car (the Tramp really loves to kick people).
Reunited, the Tramp and the kid hug each other, crying and kissing. They are together again.
This heartwarming scene is amazing cause it does not interfere with the comedic scene before. It works in compliment with it. Sadness and happiness, always being balanced out by comedy. Here too the heartwarming scene does not overstay it’s welcome. When the car finally stops and the driver looks back to find the Tramp and the kid hugging, his astonishment brings out a laugh.
Furthermore, the deadpan look Charlie gives when he realizes that the driver is looking at him and jumping to give him a severe beating is just gold. The driver very wisely runs away.
Another great way of mixing tragedy and comedy is shown in Modern Times. In it, the industrial revolution is in full swing. The machines are getting faster and more efficient than the workers. Our hero works like mad in a factory, screwing bolts on a piece of machinery as hundreds and thousands pass by on a conveyor belt. It goes on and on and on. There is little time to rest. Not even a millisecond. Even then, the scene which seems soul-rending is shown in a comedic scene, where our hero’s wrench gets stuck on a bolt, leading to a fight between him and another worker beside him who hammers the pieces. Then, there is a break which is laughable cause the Tramp only gets to take a puff of a cigarette (again the class order) until he is called back to go at his job again. It starts again which is madness. And the character follows through. The Tramp has a nervous breakdown where he tries to screw everything in sight. Tries to destroy machines and acts like crazy.
All this is presented in a comedic way. The infernal work, the inhumane break time, and the nervous breakdown. But these things were happening all over the country. This would all seem very tragic for when we find the workers are fired from the factory a few scenes later. But the comedy handles it and lets us enough time to dwell on it but not drown in it.
There are works of Charlie Chaplin which dwell on more of the tragic elements than on the comedic ones. One is which I find is The Circus. The circus is a place where people go to laugh and enjoy. It has tightrope walkers, clowns, lions, cannons, jugglers, a huge assortment of people and acts of entertainment. But in The Circus, we get to see behind the curtain. Turns out the circus is not a place of charm and delight. It is controlled by a ringmaster who also happens to be the owner. He is not above refuse food for her daughter, just for missing a step during the act. If the clowns cannot make the people laugh, they are berated and threatened with firing. For all the pomp, Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus paints a depressing picture of the lives of the performers. But as usual, The Tramp does not let us stick to this thought, for he is constantly creating his own chaos throughout the film. There is innocence, humor, charm, all there in service to the art.
In the end, we see the Tramp leaving the Circus, having only stayed for the affection of the ringmaster’s daughter who had come to love the new tightrope walker. It is a tearjerker, seeing the Tramp sitting down as the circus rides away.
He throws away the circus cloth he’s been staring at, collects himself and then walks away from the camera in quite a funny style. Again, the tragedy is not dragged out long. A light of hope is presented at the end in the form of comedy. This small scene alleviates the whole show. It is not a climax, there is no tension but it a wrapping up like a goodbye.
Now there is anything more we can say about the pure genius of Chaplin. Yes, those are two words. City Lights. It is available on youtube. I consider it one of Chaplin’s magnum opus. A film that transcended it’s medium and told us that tragedy and comedy are not separate, not extreme ends of a spectrum but, in reality, maybe one and the same. All we need is to look deeper, to find both the laughs and the tears.
Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.
– Charlie Chaplin