From his first days at Keystone with Sennett, Chaplin fought to gain complete control of his art. He probably is the only filmmaker whose body of work permits valid psychoanalytic study. Usually, filmmaking is a collective process. Psychoanalysis explores individual psychology. How can we legitimately apply the methods of individual depth psychology to an art form created by groups of people?
Whose psyche does a film express? The actor’s, the screenwriter’s, the director’s, the editor’s, the producer’s? Not only do each of these highly trained professionals participate in a technical capacity; but more often than not—through the creative process—each weaves his emotions and intellect into the film he helps to create. As a result of this collective fusion, film critics are at a loss to specify or quantify each individual artist’s contribution if they attempt to study a film’s unconscious creative origins. For that reason, most movies defy systematic in-depth psycho-analysis.
But in the case of Charlie Chaplin, his entire body of work can be approached legitimately from an in-depth psychoanalytic point of view because there is no attribution problem. The films were exclusively his own expression. As his son, Charlie Chaplin Jr. once put it, marveling over the fact that his father wrote, produced, directed, acted, personally edited and even composed the music for his films—he had no doubt his father would have preferred to sew the costumes if he’d had the time. Chaplin was a workaholic perfectionist. His absolute control over every aspect of his filmmaking process is a Hollywood legend.
The only living actor-director-screenwriter whose oeuvre might some day be legitimately studied by this type of psychoanalytic approach is Woody Allen. But unlike Chaplin, Allen has not yet written an autobiography or otherwise made relevant personal data about his early childhood available—except presumably to his own analyst. In order to circumvent this problem of attribution in order to analyze the creative origins of a film as if it were the expression of one person’s psyche, academic film critics came up with the auteur theory. That theory makes the theoretical assumption--for rhetorical purposes--that films can be legitimately discussed as the creative expression of the director’s personal psychology. What co-contributors like Marlon Brando, Tennessee Williams and Bud Schulberg might have felt about Elia Kazan’s being credited as the auteur of films like Streetcar Named Desire or On The Waterfront is not known—and is certainly questionable.