We did a little test at my office recently and showed several pictures of famous people of the past to those age 40 and younger. The only person recognizable to all was Charlie Chaplin as The Little Tramp, although all admitted they had never seen one of his films. When asked why they knew him, they all said something to the effect of "I don't know why, but I just know who he is."
And so the question of "why?" persists. Why this actor? Why this character? Why does The Little Tramp transcend any one film made by his creator? Why, after almost 100 years after his first film, is he still a recognizable character around the world? Some may say the reason is that this character has been used in advertisements throughout the years, but why is it used? Why does it speak to people who have never seen a Chaplin film?
I'm not sure why, and it might be either an unanswerable question or a question with many answers, but I think it is for the same reasons we ask:
Why does the human heart fall in love?
What is beauty?
Why do we feel the need to protect the innocent and the defenseless?
Chaplin has often been criticized as being too maudlin, too sentimental and too seeking of our sympathies. But, those criticisms come from the hearts of adults. As we age, our biological hearts and arteries become slowed and sometimes blocked by plaque (or whatever slows the flow of blood. I never was good at biology). Our emotional hearts also become hardened and shielded for self-protection as we age. We suppress emotion because it is not cool to cry, not manly to be vulnerable and not grown-up to show a heart overflowing with affection. We carefully construct the roadblocks that cut us off from the shortest path to human understanding. Have you ever seen a child watch Charlie Chaplin? They understand the purity of the emotion because their emotional roadmap has not been corrupted with detours and dead ends. It is Chaplin's genius that The Little Tramp expresses joy, pain, love, loss, hope and despair in its purist form. If you give in, if you let him, he can magically, in the dark, peel away the layers of defenses we have built up over the years of life and take us to our uncorrupted heart.
The silent cinema is a deeply personal experience. It presents a canvas that allows us to emotionally participate in the art form, encouraging us add our own emotional colors and shading to the action on the screen. It was a medium in its infancy, and it is fitting and amazing that this icon of that era still speaks so eloquently to us, we who are all children at heart when the lights go down.