GRAVELY BOILING and eating his shoe, wistfully absorbing a fickle girl's rebuff, whirring to keep up with an accelerating assembly line, Charlie Chaplin made of his movies 40 and 50 years ago what remain among the century's most memorable and enduring images. He was the "little tramp": a small and pathetic figure in baggy pants and battered derby, coping with one humiliation and disaster after another, surviving.
Film critics found him an incomparable mime, able by the flick (or non-flick) of an eyelid to project drama and understanding and, of course, the humor that arises from baring human frailties. Social commentators found him a profound student of the post-World War I era. In fact, the little tramp represented an uncanny fusion of art and life. Charlie Chaplin, with his toothbrush mustache, made it so.
Mr. Chaplin's work was essentially conservative. Not defiance but acceptance marked the little tramp's response to personal challenge and social disorder. The tramp always gave the impression of applying logic and goodwill to the circumstances that continually did him in. all of Mr. Chaplin's greatest pictures - "Gold Rush," "City Lights," "Modern Times," "The Great Dictator" - conveyed a sense that what finally mattered was an individual, not a collective or a social or a historical abstraction.
His own noncomformist politics and lifestyle brought him into grating conflict with his public. Or, one should say, with his American public, for he was an international man, and he was treated better elsewhere than here. Fortunately, time and sentiment healed the wound. By the time he died, at his Swiss home on Christmas Day at age 88, he was respected everywhere as an authentic genius. It could be said of him what he said of his favorite role: "This fellow was many sided: a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure."