Over the years, Ahmed Best and George Lucas have pointed to the films of Charlie Chaplin as an inspiration for the way Jar Jar Binks acted and moved, and one of my favorites exemplifies Chaplin’s influence on the character.
The Kid was Charlie Chaplin’s first feature length film (though it clocks in at just under an hour), and stars him as the lovable Tramp. The movie opens with a poverty-stricken woman trying to abandon her baby with a rich family, and leaves the infant in their parked car with a note asking for whoever finds him to love and care for him. Little does she know that thieves would steal the car just after she left. When the hoodlums discover the baby in their stolen vehicle, they decide to leave the infant in a random alley-way. Although the mother regrets her decision, the thieves have ensured that she can’t go back on her choice.
And that’s where the Tramp enters the picture. Centered in the frame, the poor Tramp who no one wants anything to do with walks down an alleyway minding his own business while people are throwing all manner of trash and debris at him. Almost by total happenstance, he finds the baby.
This is almost identical to the structure of the opening of The Phantom Menace. The Jedi and the Trade Federation have their differences and the Jedi stow away onto the planet, showing us the beginnings of the story before introducing us to the clown character with the heart of gold. As Jar Jar explains to Padme, he was minding his own business when things started going wrong and he found Qui-Gon Jinn, who saved his life in the forest. In this case, Lucas beautifully blends the physical characteristics of Chaplin into the story elements of the discarded child. Qui-Gon, like the Tramp, is forced to care for the lifeform that literally no one else will accept.
Much like Qui-Gon considering leaving Jar Jar to Boss Nass’s punishment, the Tramp considers leaving the abandoned Kid, but realizes that would be the wrong thing to do.
Jar Jar himself is a perfect synthesis of the Kid and the Tramp. With the Kid, he embodies the emotional story: what’s more saddening than a discarded person that no one wants, whether it’s Jackie Coogan as the Kid or Jar Jar Binks? And what’s more heartwarming than the moment when a good person comes to their aid?
The Tramp embodies Jar Jar’s physical characteristics. He’s clumsy and over the top. In The Kid, there are moments he is chased away by police because of his poverty and the nature of his character, just like Jar Jar’s exile from Otoh Gunga. His physical clumsiness and complete lack of bodily awareness get him into trouble and other times it gets him through the story. There are many scenes in The Kid where you could easily imagine Jar Jar replacing Chaplin, battling with an overly physical and almost accidental effectiveness.
Eventually, social services threaten to separate the Tramp from the Kid, and he goes into overdrive to protect the boy he’s adopted for his own. This is the same tenacity and clumsy fighting that Jar Jar displays when battling the Trade Federation on Naboo.
In The Phantom Menace, Jar Jar’s most important role is to unite the Gungans and the Naboo for the benefit of their world. In The Kid, the Tramp unites the lost mother and her son by the end of the film.
Ahmed Best’s motion-capture performance of Jar Jar perfectly captured the exaggerated physicality of Charlie Chaplin and other silent film stars. Where the droids in the classic trilogy brought us Abbot and Costello or Laurel and Hardy-style humor, Jar Jar brings us the stylings of the great humorists from a generation prior.
Taking Lucas’ inspiration for Jar Jar’s character one step further, Charlie Chaplin claimed that the walking style of his Little Tramp character was based on an old drunk he knew in London named “Rummy” Binks. Coincidence? I doubt it.
The Kid, which was released in 1927, has no objectionable content in it and is appropriate for audiences of all ages. I would recommend — or even insist — that you watch it with your kids. Rewatching it for this column with my 13-year-old son, he was belly laughing the whole way through. So was I.
More than anything, Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid brought me a new appreciation for the clown prince of Star Wars, Jar Jar Binks.
Availability: The Kid is in the public domain, so it’s easily seen on Youtube. It’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD (which I would recommend), and can be streamed at most online video services.
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