Charlie Chaplin Illustrates Social Distancing

Charlie Chaplin was the consummate artist of his time. His ability to communicate emotion through pure gesture was timeless, as are the films he made, and indeed the people in them (now long dead). Projected on the screen of post-modernity, they seem more wonderful than ever!

Our attention span and recognition of memes has changed over the past hundred years. Timeless is a re-editing of Chaplin silent footage from 1921 or earlier, with new royalty-free music which complements the comic scenes, but also adds a sense of poignancy to the more tender ones. (Credits/captions are also new.) Plot elements have been obscured, leaving the characters and actions to speak for themselves (which they do admirably). When Chaplin and Edna Purviance meet, something magical happens — something timeless. It requires no explanation. The expressions and gestures of the characters say all that is needed.

I began this project not knowing where it would lead. I was genuinely surprised at how moving some scenes could be. This re-edit is not “originalist” in nature, but rather a transformative view of Chaplin through the lens of modernity. I say to purists that this is not meant to replace the original films, but to invite the viewer to discover them.

The question of how music should be chosen for silent films is a delicate one. In my experience, the choices are often careless — even downright bad. If you’re a film studies person, I hope you would find that my choices reflect care, and show a measure of ironic distance.

The film also sports a veritable cornucopia of advice for dealing with a pandemic (or at least it can be read that way). The 1918 pandemic was the deadliest in human history, so it’s not surprising that films of the period would include mini tutorials on social distancing do’s and don’ts.

– First of all, you should avoid travel; but if forced to travel by train, choose a small compartment rather than a crowded dining car.

– If social distancing fails and you find yourself in quarantine or self-isolation, it is nevertheless important that you keep up your appearance. To feel your best, look your best.

– Still, do not call undue attention to yourself. Here, Charlie does his Toulouse-Lautrec impression, which lands him in the proverbial hot seat.

– Do not give in to despondency over separation from a loved one. A good hobby, such as cocktail shaking, will see you through hard times.

– Exercising out-of-doors is fine as long as you maintain social distancing. A solo variant on the game of golf is highly recommended. Keep moving at a brisk pace, and DO NOT go to sleep on the grass!

– It is perhaps inevitable that some food shortages will arise during a pandemic. Making do with what you have is admirable, but do not swallow golf balls, as these may prove indigestible, having a tendency to repeat.

– Conventional means of transport may be severely curtailed during a pandemic. When necessary, use alternate means of transportation.

– Sharing a garden seat with a stranger can only lead to trouble! Police are there to be of service, enforcing social distancing rules with politeness and consideration.

– Personal Protective Equipment comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. Choose carefully, making sure it’s easy to both don and doff. You may feel a little clumsy at first, but with practice you’ll hardly notice you’re wearing it.

– Beware of Georgians bearing gifts! Some rustic folk insist on opening tattoo parlors during a pandemic, or holding costume balls. We would remind Brian Kemp, the Governor of Georgia, that “One man’s balls are another man’s poison.” It’s nearly impossible to keep six feet apart at a fancy dress ball, and unusual costumes may lead to unexpected complications. During happier times, Gov. Kemp may have come away unscathed from French-kissing livestock, but the novel coronavirus is an organism from which one should ideally maintain a respectful distance.

– A seemingly innocent social invite may soon lead to chase scenes and fisticuffs without rhyme or reason. Do yourself a favor: Trade in that love seat for an armchair built for one! Avoid plaintive sidelong glances for the duration. Leave heavy lifting to the emergency services.

– If protective gear is difficult to remove, shun the use of sharp or heavy tools such as can openers or ball peen hammers.

– Tempers can easily become frayed during a pandemic, so remember to treat loved ones with all the kindness and courtesy they deserve. Do not under any circumstances apply foot to derrière.


Charlie Chaplin illustrates social distancing

– No handshakes. The Little Tramp gives great offense by trying to elicit a hearty handclasp, and is rightly shown the door. Out of pity, and shamed into it by his daughter (Edna Purviance), the burly Scotsman (Mack Swain) seeks out poor Charlie and offers him his hand — with disastrous results! In the closing frames, we learn that good fleeing technique is an essential component of social distancing.

A transformative work

The editing of a 99-year-old short into a much shorter format (less than half the original length), adding new music, titles, and captions, comprises a transformative act. This results in a transformative work which is substantially different in character from the original, with different expressive qualities. The absence of plot elements makes the action slightly surreal, while the characters, being defined only by what we see of them, become more like archetypes. Because Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance have no pre-defined relationship in this new plotless version, they stand for Everyman and Everywoman.

The original 1921 release was, of course, silent; and subsequent retreads may be criticized for using music which trapped the characters in an archaic mode, robbing them of their full expressive capacity, making it more difficult for modern audiences to identify with them. In Timeless (and especially in the first scene between Chaplin and Purviance) there is a conscious effort to use music in a way which respects the emotions of the actors, while also imparting a slightly futuristic and ironic quality. These factors contribute to the transformative nature of the work.

The original film is, by genre definition, a comedy; but I think not every scene is meant to be laughed at. This new version with new music brings out new emotional content that was previously eclipsed by music which did not allow the characters to breathe.

Copyright notes and music credits

This video uses raw footage from The Idle Class, a silent film made in the U.S.A., released there in 1921. Numerous authorities cite the original film as being in the public domain in the United States (where the uploader resides):

The Idle Class was later re-released by various companies who added new music, credits, and captions. However, this video does not use any of that later material. It uses only the raw footage released in 1921, and now in the public domain in the U.S.A. The uploader has added new royalty-free music (listed below), as well as new credits and captions created by the uploader.

Music Credits

Mister Exposition by Kevin MacLeod (
License: Creative Commons By Attribution 3.0

Amazing Plan by Kevin MacLeod (
License: Creative Commons By Attribution 3.0

Merry Go by Kevin MacLeod (
License: Creative Commons By Attribution 3.0

Blankets of Snow by TeknoAXE (
License: Creative Commons By Attribution 4.0

Magical Socks by TeknoAXE (
License: Creative Commons By Attribution 4.0

Doctor Fraud by TeknoAXE (
License: Creative Commons By Attribution 4.0

Under the Moonrise by TeknoAXE (
License: Creative Commons By Attribution 4.0

Jolly Tracks in the Snow by TeknoAXE (
License: Creative Commons By Attribution 4.0

Silent Screen Shenanigans by TeknoAXE (
License: Creative Commons By Attribution 4.0

New credits/captions by Michael Howard
Captions template by Farrin N. Abbott

Of Further Interest

The Immigrant with Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance
The Great Storm
Salvation – a short film exploring NYC snowscapes
Trump, French Elections, and the Film “Z” (1969)
Teaching children about death – Brave New World
Manchester: Hive of Industry
Walking on Eggshells, and Music Appreciation
John McLaughlin & Carlos Santana: 1975 Parade & Concert

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One comment on “Charlie Chaplin Illustrates Social Distancing

  1. Pingback: The Immigrant with Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance | Ethics and Spirituality

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