Life is a Tragedy when Seen in Closeup, But a Comedy in Longshot

Charlie Chaplin? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The cinema icon Charlie Chaplin depicted comic and tragic situations in his films, and he also experienced both in his personal life. One of his memorable quotations metaphorically employed the film director terms closeup and longshot to contrast tragedy and comedy. Would you help me to find a citation for his statement?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a 1972 “Chicago Tribune” article about a gala attended by honoree Charlie Chaplin that was held at the Philharmonic Hall in New York City. The program notes for the event were written by the influential film critic Richard Roud. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“Life is a tragedy when seen in closeup, but a comedy in long-shot,” is a Chaplin quote that Richard Roud, director of the New York Film Festival, borrowed to introduce the program notes for the gala.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




In 1916 the funnyman published an autobiography titled “Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story”. In the first chapter he remarked on the close relationship of tragedy and comedy, but he did not employ the film metaphor: 2

Life itself is a comedy—a slap-stick comedy at that. It is always hitting you over the head with the unexpected. You reach to get the thing you want—slap! bang! It’s gone! You strike at your enemy and hit a friend. You walk confidently, and fall. Whether it is tragedy or comedy depends on how you look at it. There is not a hair’s breadth between them.

In 1972 the quotation was linked to Chaplin in the pages of the “Chicago Tribune” as mentioned previously. In 1977 a few days after the death of Chaplin “The Guardian” newspaper published an appreciation of the luminary’s career by Richard Roud, and he ascribed the quotation to Chaplin. 3

“Life,” wrote Charles Spencer Chaplin, “is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” The first intimations of this aesthetic philosophy which was to dominate his work came at the beginning of his career in Carmen, his last Essanay short.

In 1985 Chaplin’s autobiography was republished by Indiana University Press with a new introduction and commentary by Harry M. Geduld who added a footnote to the sentence presented previously in this article: “Whether it is tragedy or comedy depends on how you look at it.” The footnote cited “The Guardian” appreciation and reprinted the quotation under examination. 4

An exploration of the related saying “Tragedy plus time equals comedy” appears in the Quote Investigator article located here.

In conclusion, there is substantive evidence that Charlie Chaplin made this remark although the crucial citations were indirect. Richard Roud acquired the quotation from Chaplin and ascribed the words to him.

Image Notes: Picture of Charlie Chaplin behind a camera circa 1921; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Special thanks to Dan J. Bye who accessed the 1977 citation in “The Guardian”.)

Notes:

  1. 1972 April 6, Chicago Tribune, ‘Little Tramp’ Triumphs: Chaplin Savors His ‘Renaissance’ by Carol Kramer (Chicago Tribune News Service), Section 2, Quote Page 2, Column 7, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1916 Copyright, Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story by Charlie Chaplin, Chapter 1, Quote Page 11, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Internet Archive archive.org) link
  3. 1977 December 28, The Guardian, Appreciation: The baggy-trousered philanthropist by Richard Roud, Quote Page 8, Column 5 and 6, London, England. (ProQuest)
  4. 1985 Copyright, Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story by Charlie Chaplin, Editing and Introduction by Harry M. Geduld, (Footnote 1 of Chapter 1), Quote Page 156, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana. (Verified with hardcopy)