That Time Sigmund Freud Analyzed Charlie Chaplin

iStock/Chloe Effron
iStock/Chloe Effron / iStock/Chloe Effron

In 1931, both Sigmund Freud and Charlie Chaplin were at the height of their fame. Chaplin’s worldwide box office luster had given way to all sorts of merchandising: dolls, comic books. There was even a hit song, “The Moon Shines Bright on Charlie Chaplin.” Meanwhile, Freud had achieved a level of notoriety unparalleled in the generally unglamorous world of academia. If Chaplin had the world’s most recognizable face, Freud was its most recognizable mind. But there was little reason for their paths to cross. Chaplin rarely stopped working long enough to leave Los Angeles, and Freud was publicly disdainful of the motion picture industry. The psychoanalyst summarized his feelings in a letter to a friend, saying, “Filming seems to be as unavoidable as page-boy haircuts, but I won’t have myself trimmed that way and do not wish to be brought into personal contact with any film.”

But the feeling wasn’t mutual: while Freud despised Hollywood, Hollywood couldn’t get enough of him. In 1925, MGM head Samuel Goldwyn called Freud “the greatest love specialist in the world,” and offered him $100,000 to advise on “Anthony and Cleopatra.” Goldwyn wanted Freud to help MGM express psychoanalytic theory through cinema. When Freud telegrammed a curt response, it made the New York Times:

As a rule, Freud only wrote about so-called “great” artists. He analyzed parricide in the works of Dostoevsky, wrote about the childhood of Leonardo da Vinci, and contemplated the emotional effects of Michelangelo’s works. But in 1931, in a letter to a friend, Freud went on a little tangent about Charlie Chaplin.

Not only is it surprising that this film-hater had actually watched Chaplin’s films, he also chose to heap praise on him. Instead of dismissing Chaplin, he referred to him as “a great genius,” and wistfully remarked that he would have liked to meet Chaplin, who had recently visited Vienna but cut his trip short. (Freud speculated that Chaplin left early because couldn’t handle the cold weather.)

In the letter, Freud turned his psychoanalytic eye on Chaplin’s movies. The works of all artists, claimed Freud, are “intimately bound up with their childhood memories,” and Chaplin was no exception. As the Tramp, Freud claimed, Chaplin “plays only himself as he was in his early dismal youth.”  

Growing up in nineteenth century London, with a sick mother and absent father, Chaplin’s early years were marked by extreme poverty. With his mother, Hannah, in and out of mental institutions, Chaplin grew up in a workhouse and an institute for destitute children. Through it all, the young Charlie observed the people around him. In later years, he began to weave autobiographical details and childhood memories into his films. In his short film Easy Street, for instance, he played a bumbling cop sent to reform a bad neighborhood, recreating “East Street,” the South London street where he was born. Even The Tramp’s famous bowlegged shuffle was based on a childhood memory of “Rummy Binks,” a local drunk who would stagger around his neighborhood. Knowing all that, it's unsurprising that Freud saw Chaplin as “so-to-speak, an exceptionally simple and transparent case.”

Read Freud’s full analysis of Charlie Chaplin below:

Dear Doctor: It is such a fascinating experience to have to justify my theories towards Mme. Yvette and Uncle Max. I only wish it were possible otherwise than in writing, in spite of my bad speech and my declining hearing. And I really have not the intention at all to give in to you beyond the confession that we know so little. You know for instance, in the last few days Charlie Chaplin has been in Vienna. Almost I, too, would have seen him, but it was too cold for him here and he left again quickly. He is undoubtedly, a great artist; certainly he always portrays one and the same figure; only the weakly, poor, helpless, clumsy youngster for whom, however, things turn out well in the end. Now do you think that for this role he has to forget his own ego? On the contrary, he always plays only himself as he was in his early dismal youth. He cannot get away from those impressions and to this day he obtains for himself the compensation for the frustrations and humiliations of that past period of his life. He is, so-to-speak, an exceptionally simple and transparent case. The idea that the achievements of artists are intimately bound up with their childhood memories, impressions, repressions and disappointments, has already brought us much enlightenment and has, for that reason, become very precious to us. I once dared to approach analytically one of the greatest of whom we unfortunately know very little: Leonardo da Vinci. I was at least able to make it probable that St. Anne, the Virgin and the Child, which you can visit in the Louvre, cannot be fully understood (comprehensible) without the remarkable childhood history of Leonardo. Nor could, possibly, much else. But, you will say, Mme. Yvette has not only one role which she repeats. She plays with equal mastery all possible roles: saints and sinners, the coquette, the virtuous, criminals and naives. That is true and it is proof of an immensely rich and adaptable mental life. But I would not despair of tracing back to her experiences and conflicts of her young years the whole repertoire of her art. It would be tempting to continue here, but something holds me back. I know that unwished for analyses arouse misgivings and I do not wish to do anything which might disturb the cordial sympathy which makes up our relationship. With friendship and greetings for you and Mme. Yvette, Your Freud