City Lights

Sigmund Freud theorized that two forms of joking existed: innocent jokes and tendentious jokes. Each form has its own focus and a set of rules governing its construction. While tendentious jokes express some form of aggression, innocent jokes revel in a pure sense of the comic. That is to say, innocent jokes captivate the viewers’ mind by gently expressing the delightful and the absurd. It is the technique of the innocent joke, and not its focus on an aggressive outlet, that fuels our delight. In his work, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud explains the power of the innocent joke: “On the basis of suitable specimens of innocent jokes, in which there was no fear of our judgment being disturbed by their content or purpose, we were driven to conclude that the techniques of jokes are themselves sources of pleasure” (1).

Freud points out several important connections here. First, innocent jokes do not threaten the viewers’ psychic investment in the source of pleasure. In other words, they entice a listener by their sense of pure playfulness and wit. The listener delights in the innocent joke’s sense of play; at no time is the listener threatened by the joke. Second, it is precisely the lack of a sense of aggression and threat that underscores the pleasure that the innocent joke gives. The listener can relish the mental arabesques expressed without having to confront uncomfortable images. As Freud further asserts, “this enjoyment is no doubt correctly to be attributed to economy in psychical expenditure” (2). To some degree, then, innocent jokes are psychologically safe. Since the psychological “expenditure” involved does not intimidate the listener, he or she can enter into enjoyment of the moment. As we shall see, Charlie Chaplin creates a cinematic world where the innocent joke serves to focus of the tendentious comic intent.

However, before entering into Chaplin’s cinematic world, it is first important to understand Freud’s interpretation of the tendentious joke, since this type of joke might mistakenly be seen to be the sole source of Chaplin’s humour. While Freud focuses more on the telling of jokes than on the nature of comic film, his work does underscore several important comic elements which find their fulfilment in Chaplin’s work. For instance, Freud defines the tendentious joke as a joke that displaces some form of aggression. His definition includes three categories of tendentious jokes: “exposing or obscene jokes, aggressive (hostile) jokes, cynical (critical, blasphemous) jokes” (3). Each category underscores specific aspects of tendentious jokes. For our purposes, however, it is important that we understand that tendentious jokes seek to satisfy an unfulfilled urge; that is to say, tendentious jokes address those issues that people find necessary to repress. Therefore, tendentious jokes safely give voice to what cannot be spoken directly out loud. Since they operate as displacement mechanisms, tendentious jokes function as a safety valve for aggression. Freud clearly points out the relationship between tendentious jokes and displacement of repressed emotions:

The prevention of invective or insulting rejoinders by external circumstances is such a common case that tendentious jokes are especially favoured in order to make aggression or critique possible against persons in exalted positions who claim to exercise authority. The joke then represents a rebellion against that authority, a liberation from its pressure. (4)

Thus, tendentious jokes have as their essence the need to defy authority and the need to relieve pent-up aggression that results from repressing emotions and thoughts. Tendentious jokes act as social stabilizers. Unlike innocent jokes, which derive their success from their technique of construction, tendentious jokes succeed best when they help displace repressed aggression.

Tendentious jokes bring about a sense of overcoming the internal “obstacles to aggressiveness” (5) and this sense of psychic liberation brings about laughter. On the other hand, innocent jokes provoke laughter because their technique amuses the audience. The interrelationship between tendentious and innocent humour in Chaplin’s cinematic world helps to structure his comedy. In other words, Chaplin’s skilful blending of innocent and tendentious humour creates a cinematic world that has human appeal while also asserting social criticism. If comedy succeeds the closer it approaches tragedy, then Chaplin’s comedic form succeeds because it allows innocence to approach quite near to tendentiousness.

Two films – The Idle Class (1920) and City Lights (1931) – most clearly demonstrate the relationship between tendentiousness and innocence in Chaplin’s cinematic works. The principal comic technique employed in both films – the use of the mistaken identity – fuels the action and the laughter. In the two films, Chaplin’s Tramp character is repeatedly misidentified as a millionaire. While the use of misidentification is an ancient comic motif, it works because it calls to mind the innocence of childhood. Freud points out that children often do not understand that objects (and words) can have multitudinous meanings. As adults, we laugh at the mistakes concerning identity that children make. However, this laughter is innocent since it focuses on what the child says and not on the child in particular:

We notice, too, that children, who as we know, are in the habit of treating words as things, tend to expect words that are the same or similar to have the same meaning behind them – which is a source of many mistakes that are laughed at by grown-up people. (6)

City Lights

Freud further discusses the technique behind these mistakes that children make. However, for our purposes, it is important to focus on the fact that similar things are treated as if they were exactly the same things. The nuances that compose the differing meanings of objects are misidentified and, therefore, lead us to laughter. In the same way, the misidentification of Chaplin – in the character of the Tramp as millionaire – drives the humour of the films, since the audience understands what has taken place while the other characters do not.

The misidentification also allows Chaplin, the director, a method of creating social criticism while also maintaining the Tramp’s dignity and essentially lovable character. It is a balance that Chaplin came to over time. Early versions of the Tramp character express extreme tendentiousness. The air of decaying gentility that the Tramp exudes evolves out the fact Chaplin initially aimed his comic impulse against the powerful and the wealthy. While the facts behind this focus may be obvious – comedy does function to express the power of the life force regardless of life situation – these facts tolerate some discussion in order to understand exactly how Chaplin views comedy and the comic impulse. In “A Declaration of the Principles of Comedy”, Chaplin writes:

One of the things most quickly learned in the theatrical world is that people as a whole get satisfaction from seeing the rich get the worst of things. The reason for this, of course, lies in the fact that nine tenths of the people in the world are poor, and secretly resent the wealth of the other tenth. (7)

Chaplin keys in on the essential truth of tendentious comedy as Freud defined it; tendentiousness functions as a vehicle of the secret resentment of the powerless or of the silent. As Chaplin realizes, “nine tenths” of the world’s population falls into one of these categories. However, one problem for Chaplin, as a comedian, was a successful career that hurtled him from poverty into wealth. How could Chaplin keep his comedy honest? The creation of the Tramp allowed Chaplin to combine the social criticism of tendentious comedy with the gentle irony of innocent comedy.

Brian Gallagher’s study, “Chaplin, ‘Charlie,’ and (Dis)Pleasure”, points out the importance of the Tramp character as a method for Chaplin’s combination of tendentiousness and innocence. Gallagher argues that the Tramp incorporates the totality of Chaplin’s humour:

Chaplin’s cinema occupies, at once, a typical and an extreme position in the range of silent film comedy. Like that of other silent film comedians, Chaplin’s is very much a physically based comedy, dependent on gags, chases, broad clumsiness, and surprising graces that make this comedy an atypical and outsized reflection of the pleasures and discontents of everyday physical and social reality. Chaplin’s cinema is extreme, however, in its nearly total concentration on and construction via a single character: Charlie as the ‘Tramp.’ (8)

By focusing on one character, the Tramp, Chaplin is able to comment on the vagaries of human existence. The Tramp moves through a cinematic world that reflects “everyday” life, with all its triumphs and injustices. At the same time, audiences can come to identify with the Tramp, since his character remains, for the most part, consistent. Chaplin creates an ingenious form of doubling with the Tramp; emotionally, the Tramp doubles for the audience, while also doubling for other characters in the films. Claudia Claudius underscores the interrelationship between the audience and the Tramp and Chaplin:

Through Charlie the surrogate we vicariously experience feelings of liberation and exultation. In the medium of film we are ‘supermenchen’ capable of almost anything – especially laughing at that over which the world still frets. (9)

Thus, it is the audience’s intense relationship with the “surrogate” character of the Tramp, and his experiences with and victory over the ordinary “physical and social reality”, that allows the audience to engage in a form of emotional identification. Henri Bergsen perhaps best underscores this relationship: “The comic character is often one with whom, to begin with, our mind, or rather, our body sympathizes.” (10)

This “sympathy” evolves out of the audience’s identification with the comic world that Chaplin creates. While the roots of this comic world may be open to debate, it seems apparent that Chaplin drew on the harsh circumstances, whether real or perceived, of his early life. Morris Dickstein argues:

Today it is hard to separate the tramp character from Chaplin’s own unforgettable account of how drink, destitution, insanity, death, and the workhouse plagued his luckless parents during his early years. (11)

By drawing on the painful foundation of his life, Chaplin is able to fulfil the comic impulse toward survival and the life force. Additionally, in her study of Chaplin’s life and its influence on his art, Constance Brown Kuriyama points out a significant factor motivating the development of his comic vision, and thereby, the character of the Tramp:

The personal crises Chaplin experienced as an adult reactivated and reinforced his earlier, producing major shifts both in the Charlie persona and in the tone and psychological function of his films. (12)

Kuriyama further asserts that “art gave Chaplin control, not only of others’ feelings but also his own” (13). Both ideas, here – “crises” and “control” – serve to underscore the manner in which Chaplin conjoined innocent comedy with that of tendentious comedy. By allowing the character of the Tramp to mature from being tendentious, as in The Idle Class, to innocent, as in City Lights, Chaplin is able to produce a stronger social statement. That is to say, the more innocent characterization of City Lights serves to draw the audience into the cinematic world where they acclaim loudly the efforts of the Tramp on behalf of the blind flower girl – indeed, who is left dried-eyed at the film’s end? However, in their reaction to City Lights, audiences usually miss the fact that, essentially, they are viewing the same characterization of the Tramp that Chaplin created for The Idle Class – albeit a Tramp figure that has been ingeniously doubled with innocence.

The Idle Class

In fact, it is Chaplin’s skill in doubling the character of the Tramp with that of the character of a millionaire in both films that demonstrates exactly how Chaplin combined innocent and tendentious humour. Chaplin plays both parts in The Idle Class, leading to hilarious situations with misidentification. In this film, the characterization of the Tramp borders on tendentious humour that is reinforced by the actions of the alcoholic millionaire. Chaplin, in the role of the millionaire, has been informed by his wife, played by Edna Purviance, that his drinking is breaking up the marriage. The note she leaves informs the millionaire that she is leaving unless he quits drinking. The scene that follows is delightful in its tendentious qualities. Chaplin is seen shaking heavily with deep emotion, which leads the audience to believe that the millionaire is crying, until he turns around and is seen vigorously shaking a cocktail mixer. The commentary on the state of marriage – with all its compromises, power struggles and identity issues – relates closely to tendentious humour, since most people in the audience would recognize marriage as a suitable subject for satire and irony, two strong components of tendentious comedy.

The power struggles that underscore marriage come into play again with the masked-ball scene. After being given one more chance to reform, the alcoholic millionaire prepares to attend the ball. However, his preparations are undercut by his imprisonment in a suit of armour and his frantic efforts to get at a drink. Charlie’s struggles with his costume reflect his struggles with drink and with his wife. However, the seemingly straightforward tendentiousness of the film is undermined by the arrival of the Tramp. Walter Kerr points out the film’s cryptic quality:

The title suggests that Chaplin’s social conscience is at work, and those who like to read tendentiousness into his film suppose that it is an attack, however light the source, on the rich. But the film is more ambiguous than that and all the more tantalizing for it. (14)

Idle Class is “ambiguous” because it doubles the characters and blends innocence and tendentiousness, thereby making a much stronger commentary on society; we, as the audience, are indicted by the social commentary, while also identifying with the comic actions of the Tramp. As Kerr further demonstrates, it is this sense of “doubleness” (15) that drives the film with its speculations on identity and desire. Identity also plays an important part in creating the innocence of the film. The character of the Tramp arrives in the under-compartment of a train, carrying the accoutrements of the idle rich: his golf clubs. Since Chaplin plays both characters, the Tramp borders on innocence and tendentiousness. This dichotomy is most apparent during the golf game. The Tramp continually tries to steal the others players’ golf balls and ends up being chased around the green. While the Tramp’s pilfering may waver on the brink of tendentiousness, particularly as he tries to evade his victims, the character also expresses a form of innocence. When the Tramp steps on the obese stomach of a fellow golfer, a golf ball pops up from the fat golfer’s mouth. The repeated action brings delight, but the audience laughs more at the Bergsonian mechanical quality of the action than at any sense of displaced or unfulfilled urges. We simply delight in the visual repetition of the gag.

The Idle Class

The ambiguous nature of the tendentious-innocent dichotomy of the Tramp character comes to fruition during the mask ball. After being misidentified by the wife, the Tramp embarks on a series of slapstick misadventures that end with Charlie (as both characters), the wife and the father-in-law back in the couples’ apartment. The wife rejects the Tramp, although he treated her with the courtliness that she desired, when she realizes that he is indeed truly a vagrant and not just wearing a costume. She has her father throw the Tramp out, but then she changes her mind and calls for his return. The tendentious character of the Tramp asserts itself at this point as the Tramp kicks the father in the seat of his pants. Chaplin’s tendentious comment on high society seems to be quite clear at this moment in the film. As the Tramp runs down the garden path, the audience feels satisfied with the outcome. A blow has been struck for the dignity of common people against the disruptive and oppressive forces of wealth and power. During the film, the character of the Tramp has teetered between tendentiousness and innocence with a final dalliance with tendentious humour.

If The Idle Class leaves the tendentious/innocent dichotomy unresolved, then City Lights can be seen as the film in which Chaplin works out the relationship between the two forms of comedy and approaches most closely the concept set forth in this paper: tendentious comedy works best when it most nearly mimics innocence. City Lights repeats some of the same motifs that make their appearance in Idle Class. However, Chaplin redefines the Tramp-millionaire misidentification issue and reiterates the topics of theft and love.

In the character of the Tramp in City Lights, Chaplin most clearly delineates the boundaries of the tendentious/innocent dichotomy as a vehicle of social satire. By making the Tramp a completely innocent character, as opposed to the mixture of tendentiousness and innocence seen in Idle Class, Chaplin makes his strongest exposition against the injustices of everyday life. Virginia Cherrill, as the blind flowergirl, mistakes the Tramp for a millionaire when she hears the door to a limousine shut. She assumes that Chaplin, who has left his change, drives off. This one mistake drives the action of the film, since the Tramp enjoys impersonating the millionaire. Whereas Chaplin plays both characters in Idle Class, the separation of the millionaire/tramp character in City Lights allows Chaplin to indulge in total innocence. It is the characterization of the manic-depressive and drunken millionaire that drives the tendentiousness of the comedy, and the separation of tendentiousness in one character and innocence in another permits the audience to completely identify with the noble actions of the Tramp, as he struggles to gain money to help the blind flowergirl.

City Lights

While Chaplin demonstrates that the Tramp enjoys the fantasy of appearing to be rich, Chaplin also takes pains to show that the Tramp has nobler aspirations. This fact is most clearly seen when the Tramp steals the money that the millionaire initially offered while drunk. Since the millionaire cannot remember offering the money, the Tramp is accused of theft and sent to gaol. His suffering for the girl highlights the innocent nature of the Tramp and most clearly demonstrates how effective innocence can be as a vehicle of tendentious social commentary. Since the Tramp has been removed from any connection to true theft, unlike the more ambiguous version of the Tramp in Idle Class, Chaplin can draw on the audience’s sympathy for his travails.

That is to say, while the audience can laugh at the mechanical quality of such scenes as the Tramp trying to win a boxing match, they can also be moved to pity at the end of the film when they see the Tramp standing in his rags before the woman that he loves. The tendentious/innocent quality of the film works because the audience is forced to realize the part it plays in perpetuating petty daily injustices, as demonstrated by the black screen at the end of the film. At the same time, in the character of the Tramp, Chaplin provides the audience with a hero who also mirrors the more noble aspirations of the viewers.

The tendentious/innocent dichotomy demonstrated in such Chaplin comedies as The Idle Class and City Lights reveals the nature of Chaplin’s filmic genius. He creates a comic world that twists the audience’s expectations of reality in such a manner that viewers can incriminate themselves in the inequities of daily life while also finding a hero who personifies their highest ideals. By using the tendentious/innocent polarities, Chaplin fulfills the ancient rules of comedy that require it to remark on the vagaries of human existence while also portraying the life force that brings hope to the audience.

This article has been peer-reviewed.

Films Cited

City Lights (Charlie Chaplin, United Artists, 1931.) Performers: Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill.

The Idle Class (Charlie Chaplin, First National Films, 1921). Performers: Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance.


  1. Freud, Sigmund, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, translated and edited by James Strachey (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1960), p. 146.
  2. Ibid, p. 147.
  3. Ibid, p. 137.
  4. Ibid, p. 125.
  5. Ibid, p. 124.
  6. Ibid, p. 147.
  7. Quoted in David Robinson, Charlie Chaplin: Comic Genius (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1996), p. 115.
  8. Brian Gallagher, “Chaplin, ‘Charlie,’ and (Dis)pleasure”, North Dakota Quarterly, 56.1 (1988), p. 165.
  9. Claudia Clausius, The Gentleman is a Tramp: Charlie Chaplin’s Comedy (New York: Peter Lang, 1988), p. 34.
  10. Henri Bergson, “Laughter”, in Wylie Sypher (Ed.), Comedy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1956), p. 186.
  11. Morris Dickstein, “Urban Comedy and Modernity: From Chaplin to Allen”, Partisan Review, 52.3 (1985), p. 272.
  12. Constance Brown Kuriyama, “Chaplin’s Impure Comedy: The Art of Survival”, Film Quarterly, 45.3 (1992), p. 26.
  13. Ibid, p. 28.
  14. Walter Kerr, The Silent Clowns (New York: De Capo Press Inc., 1980), p. 186.
  15. Ibid, p. 186.

About The Author

Arthur Rankin teaches in the Department of Arts, English, and Humanities, Louisiana State University at Alexandria.

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