chapter  4
31 Pages

The Reality Effect in the Film Machine: The Authentic Performances of the Silent Comedies

IN 1912, THE YEAR BEFORE CAHAN’S “AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF AN AMERICAN JEW” appeared in McClure’s Magazine, a young English actor named Charlie Chaplin arrived in New York to embark on a tour of North America as part of a troupe of musichall comedians. It was his second trip to the United States, and this time he would stay for forty years, never becoming an American citizen but embracing the American mythology of class mobility and Levinsky-style “marvelous transformations.” 1 At home within the strict class system of England he had “reached the limits of [his] prospects,” he writes in his autobiography: “I loved England, but it was impossible for me to live there; because of my [low-born] background I had a disquieting feeling of sinking back into a depressing commonplaceness” (118, 133-34). In America, by comparison, despite feeling “alien to [its] slick tempo” on his first arrival in New York, he soon leapt headlong into what he saw as its celebration of confident self-reinvention. It was a revelation that he says came not from immediate success but rather from failure. After his imported show failed to rouse American audiences he realized, with a sort of liberating vertigo, that there was no reason he had to stay in the particular business he had set out in. “The American,” he writes,

is an optimist preoccupied with hustling dreams, an indefatigable tryer. He hopes to make a quick ‘killing.’ Hit the jackpot! Get out from under! Sell out! Make the dough and run! Get into another racket! Yet this immoderate attitude began to brighten my spirit. Paradoxically enough, as a result of our failure I began to feel light and unhampered. There were many other opportunities in America. Why should I stick to show business? I was not dedicated to art. Get into another racket! I began to regain confidence. Whatever happened I was determined to stay in America. (123)

It was an idea of self-remaking that he took to the point of seriously contemplating dropping out of show business when the going got particularly tough out in the American provinces and becoming a hog farmer in Arkansas. In this atmosphere of transformation, he came to believe that his status as a newly arrived immigrant made him more typical an American rather than less. When he returned to America to stay in 1912, he “felt at home in the States-a foreigner among foreigners, allied with the rest” (134). And having transformed himself once already in his journey across the Atlantic, he was a ready consumer of perhaps the basic text of American self-making: “Then I discovered Emerson. After reading his essay on ‘Self-Reliance’ I felt I had been handed a golden birthright” (134). This American “birthright,” as he reads it, is granted to anyone who chooses to call themselves American, whether they were American by birth or not.