Photoplays, personality, passion, purpose, and politics


The Great Artist, the Little Fellow: Reading Charlie Chaplin and James Agee
Volume 10, Issue 6 (June 30, 2006)
12360 words

By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Printer Friendly versions (w/ images +, w/o images +)


Charlie Chaplin: Interviews
Edited by Kevin J. Hayes
University Press of Mississippi, 2005
150 pages
ISBN 1-57806-701-4

James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism
Selection and notes by Michael Sragow
Library of America, 2005
748 pages
ISBN 1-931082-82-0

Chaplin and Agee:
The Untold Story of The Tramp,
The Writer, and The Lost Screenplay
By John Wranovics
Palgrave/Macmillan, 2005
256 pages
ISBN 1-4039-6866-7

em>Charlie Chaplin: Interviews
“I’m an individualist”
“I am an internationalist, a peacemonger”

There are days when it seems as if life can only be understood through the eyes of a Greek tragedian or Shakespeare, when the habits, thoughts, and feelings of men seem so lavishly loving and cruel as to be nearly unbelievable: and the human condition inspires awe, terror. Reading the interviews of Charlie Chaplin, the actor, writer, director, and musician, a phenomenon in film and world culture, is to see a poor boy, of talent, ambition, intelligence, and spirit go from impoverishment and humility to public acclaim and affection and increasing self-confidence and then on to international respect (worship, really) and self-conscious mastery of work, self, and ideas, only to be sabotaged by controversies involving his own personal life, the narrowing of political tolerance, resentment and time. Charlie Chaplin’s filmography is made up of many works, including Making A Living, His New Job, The Tramp, The Vagabond, Easy Street, A Dog’s Life, A Woman of Paris, The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight, A King in New York, and A Countess from Hong Kong. The English-born, Hollywood king of comedy Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin (1889-1977) spent his last years in Switzerland with his family, a sometimes neglected, sometimes revered, still-legendary master of film art.

In his introduction to Charlie Chaplin: Interviews, published by the University of Mississippi in 2005, Kevin J. Hayes writes of how Chaplin’s expressive physical gestures were often found more articulate than words, but what is impressive about Chaplin’s interviews are his honesty, how well he spoke for himself, how fresh his observations still seem. It is wounding—and not for the first time, nor the last—to read how often the talent that brings success is soon overwhelmed by that very success: so that the talent seems to be not for developing creative ability or conveying insight but for success itself, and people begin to think of a successful man in terms of his wealth and social status. Audiences and fellow citizens also resent as a burden the love and authority that talent and success have brought; and begin to look for reasons and ways to relieve themselves of that burden, I think. Kevin Hayes salutes the writers, such as Mary E. Porter, Walter Vogdes, and Benjamin De Casseres, who spoke to Charlie Chaplin about his work and life in ways that went beyond the common, the obvious. The better reporters discuss with Chaplin film intentions, technique, also life experience, and philosophy. Charlie Chaplin: Interviews is an anthology that both pleases and saddens—one is made happy by Chaplin and sad by his circumstances. The book contains a four-page chronology of the important events in Chaplin’s life, a filmography of eighteen pages, and an index, along with the interviews and articles by Victor Eubank, Mary E. Porter, Miriam Teichner, Grace Kingsley, Mabel Condon, Walter Vogdes, Julian Johnson, Ray W. Frohman, Benjamin De Casseres, Frank Vreeland, Ted Le Berthon, Mordaunt Hall, Robert Nichols, Harry Carr, Robert Van Gelder, Philip K. Scheuer, George Wallach, Ella Winter, Bosley Crowther, Richard Meryman, Francis Wyndham, and a few anonymous contributors. Charlie Chaplin: Interviews is a portrait of an artist, and an outline of twentieth-century film history. The book is, of course, worth reading: and one is grateful for it.

Whereas Victor Eubank describes Chaplin as serious, and notes Chaplin’s desire to one day work in drama, as well as how Chaplin studies for his comic portrayal of characters, Mary Porter describes Chaplin’s many smiles. Porter’s response to Chaplin is relaxed and smartly bantering, as she admits her fondness for his work and treats him like a creative man who is also a human being. “I lay out my plot and study my character thoroughly. I even follow the character I am to represent for miles or sit and watch him at his work before I attempt to portray him. For instance, I recently took the part of a barber. I even went and got my hair cut, which is my pet aversion. In fact, I never get it cut until the boys along the street yell at me. Then I know it must be done, and I submit to the slaughter,” Chaplin said in his 1915 interview with Eubank for Motion Picture Magazine (Charlie Chaplin: Interviews; page 5). “I watched all the barber’s ways. I studied out exactly what he did, and what he might be expected to do in my photoplay. Then I followed him home that night. He was some walker, and it was three miles to his home, but I wanted to know all his little idiosyncrasies” (5). Chaplin then talked with Eubank about his improvisations before the camera, his ability to lose himself there. Picture-Play Weekly’s Mary Porter, who saw an unknown Chaplin perform in a vaudeville house, when he was known not by name but as his principal character, a funny drunk, and then saw him in his films for Keystone, is aware of many expectations—such as, the question of whether Chaplin is as funny in person as onscreen, and also the matter of how journalists and subjects are expected to interact—and she turns in an intelligent, charming report. (She notes how Chaplin responds to the cold from a just-opened window in the Essenay film studio in Chicago, and his sneaking away one of someone else’s cigarettes.) Porter describes Chaplin’s performative range, his improvisations, and his careful and thorough direction of other actors. Chaplin, who said that when first invited to be in pictures he thought he would be the usual star rather than a comic, remarked that, “It only took about two weeks’ work at the Keystone plant to make me very enthusiastic about pictures, especially farces. I study the screen closely now, and I am firmly convinced that every one in the industry should do likewise. There are many things we can learn from it, even though we think we have perfected ourselves in our own line of the great industry. I endeavor to put nothing in my farces which is not a burlesque on something in real life” (10).

Miriam Teichner, of The Globe and Commercial Advertiser, also describes Chaplin’s smiles: she goes even further by saying, “His smile is the thing about him which commands attention. If there could be such a thing as a smile with a man instead of a man with a smile, Charlie Chaplin’s smile is it” (13). She mentions Chaplin’s violin-playing, the observations that lead to his performances, and his admiration for David Warfield (1866-1951), an actor who could make people laugh and cry but who is not now known by many. (Warfield, according to the online Encyclopedia Britannica, performed on the stage as Simon Levi in The Auctioneer, Anton von Barwig in The Music Master, Wes Bigelow in A Grand Army Man, and as Peter Grimm in The Return of Peter Grimm. Warfield’s investments with Marcus Loew led to the entertainment company.) Teichner’s 1916 interview reveals the origin of Chaplin’s (or that of his well-known character, the little tramp’s) unique walk and moustache: “I haven’t a comedy face,” Chaplin told her. “I had the feet and the walk. That walk came all the way from England. My old uncle used to keep a public house, and there was one of those old habitual drunkards that used to lean up against the wall for hours at a time waiting for a chance to beg or earn a few cents. When a rig drove up to the door he’d hobble out to hold the horses, and he’d be in such a hurry with his poor old sore feet, in their broken old shoes, that he walked just about the way I walk in the movies” (15). Then Chaplin explained, “I had to study for a long time to find out what I could do with my face. Painting wouldn’t fix it, so I tried the mustache. Then I found that if it were a big mustache it hid the lines of my face on which I depend for a good deal of the expression so I kept cutting it down, smaller and smaller until it became the funny little thing that it is today” (15). (In the interview that is the spelling given to the word for the hair above Chaplin’s lips, and in a later interview it is spelled moustache. I imagine that may be one of the idiosyncrasies of language or time.)

I do not know whether it’s noteworthy that many of Chaplin’s early interviewers seemed to have been women. Was that because films or personality profiles were considered soft news, the province of women, or because they had a particularly enthusiastic response to the handsome young comedian? (Mary Porter wryly notes Chaplin’s status as a single man.) The women’s reports—chatty, observant, and still warm after decades—are commendable. Grace Kingsley (Los Angeles Sunday Times, 1916) notes that Chaplin plays golf, is funny about cars—“I don’t own a car. I rent one when I need it. When I was over at the Keystone I bought a car. The first day I ran it it went on a gasoline jag. First it playfully climbed a telephone pole, then it bit me when I tried to fix the speedometer, and lastly, when I got out and tried to pry the darn thing loose from a house it had run into, it jammed me up against a wall and wouldn’t let me go” (19)—and Kingsley also notes that Chaplin has begun to have imitators. Mabel Condon (Picture-Play Magazine, 1916) quotes Chaplin as saying he feels himself becoming temperamental, and that he has begun to enjoy having valets and being served. Walter Vogdes—yes, a man—focuses on Chaplin’s seriousness, his great fame, his shyness, the flawed continuity in Chaplin’s films, his work schedule, and Chaplin’s critique of excess of emotion or technique in cinema. Vogdes, of the New York Tribune Sunday (1917), has a more distant, flatter, and practical response to Chaplin than Porter, Teichner, Kingsley, or Condon; and Vogdes, who met Chaplin in Los Angeles during a time when Chaplin wasn’t working on a film, writes about Vogdes’s sharing conclusions about his visit with Chaplin: “Afterward, when I told several people that he was timid and nervous, they were astonished. They seemed to think that because he is so much in the public eye he must be self-contained and talkative to the point of fulsomeness. To me it seemed most natural to find him as he is, for in his work there is a reflection of that self-same spirit” (28). I guess there’s nothing like perspective, but I wonder how much Chaplin’s manner was a response to a particular reporter’s style. Vogdes describes behavior and events as facts, as surfaces, but his account is not without genuine appreciation: “Chaplin’s ‘picture sense’ is unerring, and he gauges his work, the light and shade of it, the value of a raised eyebrow, the significance of the faint tremor of a lip, in a way unsurpassed by any other man in the moving pictures. He has the artist’s passionate desire to express himself with the utmost economy of means” (31). Chaplin seems to have inspired respect rather than love in Vogdes.

In Julian Johnson’s short 1918 Photoplay article, Chaplin has begun to complain about fame and how it changes other people’s response to him and affects his ability to observe human nature, something he needs for his work. Chaplin, in this article that has a bluntness that is at once assuming, friendly, and oh so manly, is compelled to respond to public accusations that he has been a draft-dodger. Somehow, Charlie Chaplin is expected to be an idol and an ordinary citizen: an ideal human being to all people at all times. Ray Frohman’s 1919 Los Angeles Herald article profiles Chaplin in the company of a peer who teases him, Douglas Fairbanks, and it is a wonderful angle from which to see the comedian: respected, loved, successful; and talking about whatever comes to mind—art, women, nature, clothes, work, with Chaplin affirming the beauty within people. Benjamin De Casseres resumes the emphasis on Chaplin’s seriousness, but here—in a New York Times Book Review and Magazine piece of 1920—it seems warranted, as Chaplin’s own references are philosophical and ponderous (I like them): Chaplin remarks on the world-weariness he sometimes feels, and says, “Solitude is the only relief. The dream-world is then the great reality; the real world an illusion. I go to my library and live with the great abstract thinkers—Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Walter Pater” (47). Chaplin remarks on how his well-known film costume—worn derby, cane, broken shoes, dirty collar and shirt—had taken on a haunting reality for him, even repelling him to want to retire to Italy, where he would read Shelley and Keats and play violin. Chaplin, who will mention Freud before the end of his conversation with the reporter, talks about a time when he was a boy and in an orphanage and for Christmas saw and wanted a large apple but he was denied it—and how he sees being forbidden what he wants of signal importance. Reading the piece, reading of Chaplin’s serious concerns, I wondered if Chaplin was being confident or humble or practicing a form of image control; and yet, as with the piece in which he’s interviewed with Douglas Fairbanks, it seems a classic display of the artist at the height of his public recognition.

“Yes, I’m an egotist,” is one of the first things Chaplin says in Frank Vreeland’s New York Herald (1921) article, another in which the comedian’s seriousness is accented (51). Vreeland states, “It is simply that he is confident in himself, that he has arrived at his viewpoint deliberately as a result of his career” (51). It’s fascinating how a man can be so at one with the public that most of us—and he too—seem to think of him at the same time and in the same ways (first as an entertainer, then as an eminence). The Herald article notes Chaplin’s age, and that he is beginning to get gray hair (we begin to count time by the changes in a famous figure; and time’s power is one of the few the great must respect). The article also notes that Chaplin hasn’t played violin in years (has he begun to give up what doesn’t pay in dollars or image?). Chaplin describes his work habits, with his rehearsals and improvisations, and the futility of art compared to life, and his wanting to go to England to meet Herbert George Wells and Bernard Shaw and his admiration for dancer Anna Pavlowa and David Wark Griffith. Chaplin also describes a project he wants to do—one that that will portray a clown and the clown’s work as only a means to earn the man’s bread and cheese and the clown’s “utter contempt for his audiences” (59). Is that self-revelation? Chaplin, who acknowledges his own appreciation for the independence of thought and habit that comes with success, does make the rare admission that, “I’m not satisfied with the world as I find it. There are many things in it I’d like to change. Do I mean political and economic conditions? Well, yes, I suppose I do” (53). Chaplin, mentioning poverty, does not name the precise changes he would make.

When Chaplin gets to London, where he is given a great public reception, curious, respectful, affectionate, something that is recounted in an anonymous 1921 Manchester Guardian piece, Chaplin notes a sadder spiritual atmosphere in London, something he supposes is a response to war, and Chaplin again assails his character’s—the little tramp’s—costume, but he also now draws that costume as part of the autograph he signs. It is one of the contradictions of fame: the attraction to and repulsion of one’s own iconicity. (If the icon feels it, why wouldn’t the public?) By 1923, Chaplin has found a way of blending his sense of the difference between inner life and public appearance in his work, in the film Public Opinion, which he discusses (along with Freud’s Wit and the Unconscious) in Ted Le Berthon’s 1923 Motion Picture Classic article: “Most photoplays emphasize the apparently important, the outward actions of a human being. Of course, you know that people ever hide their real motives. Of course—their actions are paradoxical. In Public Opinion, I stress the really important thing, the mental processes that brought about the action!” (68). The film is about a young woman who brings about the deaths of those she loves. “Every photoplay I have ever seen has divided the world into good people and bad people, has depicted a cosmos where humans were held responsible for their actions or the results of their actions. All such notions are absurd, antiquated, and unfair to humanity” (69), Chaplin told his interlocutor, who observes that Chaplin’s film does not have the usual action sequences—chases, fights, fires, storms—and few subtitles regarding motives. Chaplin also says, “The picture will mean all things to all people, always depending on the individual’s perspective and imagination—both founded on his past experiences, environment, and heredity” (70).

At the time of a serious film which Chaplin directed and made a brief appearance in but in which he did not star, A Woman of Paris, there is much discussion of Chaplin’s future direction, and Chaplin—despite his obvious engagement with current ideas and facts in the world, what can easily be called realism and modernism (though what will people a hundred years from now call their civilization?)—reassures, in an anonymous 1923 New York Times article, that he will return to the kind of comedy he has been known for.

It’s easy to think that an artist can begin work that is an entertainment for, and a conversation with, self, family, friends, living peers, and the general public, but that a time comes when he begins to converse with the tradition of culture itself—with the ideas in the forms and works of the past, and with the figures who produced those works. That seems to have been what happened in Chaplin’s life. That can sometimes help to explain both what is old and also what is new in an artist’s (or a thinker’s) work. Reading Chaplin’s interviews, I thought about a range of artists, performers, and thinkers. I thought of John Stuart Mill’s concern for individual liberty and his warnings against the tyranny of both government and popular opinion. I thought of Nietzsche’s idea that moral values are not absolute, but are rather reflections of society, and the strong and weak wills in any society. Charlie Chaplin was a distinctive individual, and enjoyed liberties, but also felt the threat of social tyranny, despite his prominence. Reading the interviews, I thought of Carl Dreyer, Woody Allen, Carol Burnett, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Tom Cruise. I thought of how Dreyer’s concern with genuine experience, especially with honest emotion, is similar to that of Chaplin, but I wondered if Dreyer’s emphasis on emotion, his desire to avoid the usual in film—in eliminating everything from décor to establishing shots—meant not only that the emotion in his work, specifically in Joan of Arc, was given greater visibility and impact, but that it may have been distorted by his stark presentation, by the lack of context. I thought of the imaginative Woody Allen’s admiration for Bergman and other artistically inventive and philosophical directors, his yearning for seriousness, and the change in his public reputation as a result of a personal scandal. I recalled Carol Burnett’s character the charwoman (cleaning lady), who seems an echo of Chaplin’s little fellow. I thought of Diana Ross’s impersonation of Chaplin in a television special and of her performance of Chaplin’s “Smile” on a subsequent album and in concert, and of Michael Jackson’s performance of the song as well. I thought of how Tom Cruise’s significant public attention has drawn resentment and rumor, so that people seem to look for things in his private or offscreen life to use against him in public, including using perceptions of his personality to negatively interpret his work. (One critic accused Tom Cruise of vanity and of being afraid to age onscreen, but among Cruise’s recent roles are a gray-haired killer, in Collateral, and a negligent father of a teenage son, in War of the Worlds.) I thought also of how the use of improvisation in Charlie Chaplin’s work could be compared to improvisation in jazz music and also in twentieth-century painting, such as that of Jackson Pollock. Improvisation opens the present moment to both the past and the future, allows experimentation and freedom, quick intelligence and deep impulse, and reconciles art with life. Charlie Chaplin himself is compared to James Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, in more than one article collected in Charlie Chaplin: Interviews.

Charlie Chaplin is compared to James Barrie, O. Henry, and Thomas Burke in the 1925 article that marked the making of his film The Gold Rush, a comedy featuring Chaplin’s little fellow as a lone gold prospector and set in Alaska and inspired by the Donner expedition (and a desperate hunger that led to cannibalism). Chaplin again discusses the freedom he has to do the work he wants to do, and his commitment to being true to his ideas, which he thinks about almost no matter what else he is doing. “I work while I play,” he told the New York Times’s Mordaunt Hall (77). Charlie Chaplin also recalls his early poverty, and his welcome by the wealthy, while Hall notes Chaplin’s courtesy to ordinary people. Another writer in the same year describes how expressive Chaplin is. Chaplin compares film to music, and speaks of suspending judgment of his characters. “It’s easy to judge. It’s not so easy to understand,” he tells Robert Nichols of the Times of London (81). Chaplin also discusses the advice of producers: “The producers assert the public wants this, that, or the other—say, battle, murder, and sudden death in evening dress and smoking jackets. That’s the ‘bunk.’ The public doesn’t know what it wants except that it wants an evening’s entertainment” (81). Chaplin, who discusses some of the limitations and resources of film—“Motion, two planes, and a suggestion of depth,” also said, “People complain that there isn’t more beauty on the screen. Well, first of all, do all of them know what beauty in this new medium is?” and concluded that, “Taste takes time to form” (82). It seems as if little has changed regarding many producers since his time and ours, though regarding the public’s taste, much of the public has seemed to come to want what they have been given so often, the battles, murders, and sudden well-clothed deaths. Chaplin describes a scene in The Gold Rush in which a pillow is torn to pieces and the feathers seem to dance in the darkness, something he perceived as an intense visual music, a new kind of beauty.

Charles Spencer Chaplin spoke for beauty and tragedy, but came to deny being sophisticated, and Chaplin’s work was seen in different ways by different people, a predictable phenomenon that we are often surprised by. Chaplin said that in Russia people saw his films and cried, in Germany they talked about his ideas, and in England they liked his comedy of gesture and movement. To Motion Picture Magazine’s Harry Carr, Charlie Chaplin, in 1925, said he thought his best photoplay or film was Easy Street, his single best scene something out of The Kid, and his favorite films The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and Hearts of the World (all directed by D.W. Griffith). Chaplin also acknowledged a desire to make a film about Christ as a charming and well-intentioned but misunderstood man. The reporter mentions bad publicity around Chaplin’s marriage. (According to the little I have read on the subject, Charlie Chaplin, born in 1889, liked young women, sometimes very young, and was married four times: to Mildred Harris, from 1918 to 1920; and to the sixteen year-old and pregnant Lita Grey, 1924 to 1927, and with whom he had two children; and then to Paulette Goddard, 1936 to 1942; and to the eighteen-year old Oona O’Neill from 1943 until his death, and with whom he had eight children.)

Chaplin spoke about the slow tempo of English films as one reason why they weren’t more popular in the United States, and spoke as well about talking versus silent pictures, fame, costuming, and change, when he conversed with an unnamed journalist from the Times of London several years later, in 1931. Chaplin, in the article, says that talking films have more vitality but less beauty than silent films. He speaks of how he saw his little fellow’s costume—the large pants as a rebellion of style, the moustache as vanity, the hat and cane as a reach for dignity, and the boots as constant impediments. Chaplin is observed as still appreciative of his public.

It seems that Chaplin began to be less open to interviews as time went on, something that often happens with the very famous, who find themselves misunderstood or ill-treated by the press, and who begin to evade publicity except to promote work. There is a gap of almost ten years between that 1931 Times article and the next interview that appears in the book, a 1940 profile that notes something in passing that is also important about Chaplin’s smile: “He smiled his bright smile. When the smile is directed at you it doesn’t seem automatic. It seems friendly, slightly self-deprecatory, and utterly confidential. When you sit to one side and watch it bestowed upon someone else, the lips look mechanically creased, and the eyes seem absent, almost unseeing. The smile is a masterpiece made for one person at a time” (91), wrote Robert Van Gelder in the New York Times Magazine. That last line seems a bit of gloss, of recovery: who wants to know what a beloved artist does not feel? In Robert Van Gelder’s report, Chaplin discusses The Great Dictator’s expensive presentation of a Jewish barber and a Hitlerian figure, in which Chaplin talks on film for what seems the first time. The dictator is posed in the film with a large globe, something he thinks he possesses but which obviously cannot be possessed by him. (The film’s suggestion that international intervention should be marshalled against Hitler led to Chaplin being called to testify before a disapproving, then-isolationist United States Senate committee; and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the F.B.I., called Chaplin a premature anti-fascist.) The writer, Van Gelder, describes some of Chaplin’s spoken ideas as “unfresh” (92), and, while I don’t find Chaplin as full of philosophical references, or even enthusiasm, as in some of his earlier interviews, something that might have to do with his four-year absence from film that occurred between Modern Times and The Great Dictator, and the relative solitude of that absence, the limits on journalistic intrusion, a time in which his mind and manner had a chance to grow simpler, I still find him eloquent, honest, observant, possibly too honest. “I am protected by being a charlatan. I don’t think in terms of common sense and, to be honest, I don’t search for truth. I search for effectiveness. Do you know why most writers fail in the theatre? Because they try to write what is worthwhile rather than what is effective,” Chaplin is quoted as saying (95).

It’s no surprise that the next interview in the book would take place about seven years later, at the time of Monsieur Verdoux, a time in which Chaplin asserts the separation between the artist’s life and work, and a film about a depression-era, opportunistic murderer of his many wives. Chaplin, by then, was no longer the sensation he was once, and his image had been harmed by a controversial marriage to a younger woman, Oona O’Neill, and a paternity suit involving another, Joan Berry; and he, as well, noted many of the clichés that had begun to inundate the film world, such as the rampant publicity and swimsuit photos of young women. Chaplin, no longer skeptical of sound in film, said to Colliers’s Philip Scheuer that the ideal talking film would be made when the limits of sound are discovered. George Wallach recorded a press conference for New York’s WNEW radio station in 1947 following the premier of Monsieur Verdoux, a contentious press conference that was transcribed and presented in the Winter 1969 issue of the controversy-alert Film Comment, reprinted in Charlie Chaplin: Interviews. There were hostile questions about Orson Welles claiming origination of the film’s idea, whether Chaplin was a Communist, the nature of Chaplin’s patriotism, the atom bomb and so on. One journalist complained that Chaplin’s films are less entertaining since they’ve begun to include messages. Chaplin was pressed about politics and war; and said, “I have always loathed and abhorred violence. Now I think these weapons of destruction—I don’t think I’m alone in saying this, it’s a cliché by now—that the atomic bomb is the most horrible invention of mankind, and I think it is being proven so every moment. I think it’s creating so much horror and fear that we are going to grow up a bunch of neurotics” (111). The writer James Agee, who also shared a horror of atomic weaponry that had led him to create a story about Chaplin’s little tramp in a destroyed world, was in attendance at the press conference and voiced a question that incriminated the press. Agee said, “What are people who care a damn about freedom—who really care for it—think of a country and the people in it, who congratulate themselves upon this country as the finest on earth and as a ‘free country,’ when so many of the people in this country pry into what a man’s citizenship is, try to tell him his business from hour to hour and from day to day and exert a public moral blackmail against him for not becoming an American citizen—for his political views and for not entertaining troops in the manner—in the way that they think he should. What is to be thought of a general country where those people are thought well of?” (115).

“I’m an individualist” (120), Chaplin said ten years later to The Observer’s Ella Winter, who describes Chaplin’s many moods during her visit with him in Switzerland, his concern for an audience’s response to his work, his love of serene nature, his confusion about the American response to him. “What are they so sore about? There was a time when they put out the red carpet, literally, on every platform when I went from Los Angeles to New York—the crowd adored me…Now all that nonsense…people who spend time disparaging me…Actually I’m a Puritan. I haven’t had the time to live the lives some of them attribute to me—or the energy. I’ve made eighty-five pictures—!” (120). The encounter occurs during the year, 1957, of Chaplin’s A King in New York. (It has been reported elsewhere that A King in New York was not shown in the United States until the early 1970s.) Ella Winter describes Chaplin one moment denying his film is political and in the next saying, “This is my most rebellious picture. I refuse to be part of that dying civilization they talk about” (121). Chaplin, in defining the political, may have made a distinction between social situations, or society, and the workings of government. Bosley Crowther, of the New York Times Magazine, also made the pilgrimage to Switzerland in 1960, despite Crowther’s negative sense of Chaplin’s later, more original and demanding work, a contrast to the esteem in which film critic James Agee held Chaplin’s last works. Crowther quotes Chaplin as saying, “I am an internationalist, a peacemonger. When the F.B.I. asked me if I followed the ‘party line,’ I told them I couldn’t say because I didn’t know what the ‘party line’ was. I asked them if they knew what it was. They didn’t. So we got nowhere with that” (127). Talk about governmental idiocy.

Chaplin’s commentary is provided entirely in the first person in Richard Meryman’s Life magazine piece in 1967, marking The Countess from Hong Kong, Chaplin’s film starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren. Chaplin recalls a decades-old comedy, noting that when his character washed his hands and wiped them on another man’s beard, “The audience feels it is in on something special, something the person on the movie screen isn’t. That’s the basic element that’s in comedy. What appears to be sane is really insane” (130). Chaplin notes that he had to keep Brando and Loren from acknowledging the comedy of their situations. Chaplin says, “Ideas are stale things, so stale. The intellect is not too great a thing” (130), before criticizing as too monotonal the film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “Life isn’t in one key and neither are people” (130). Chaplin also speaks about sympathy and cruelty, life and art; and the value of good acting and a good script over camera technique. He sees cruelty as a fundamental part of comedy. He seems to be talking about the principles he has discovered for and in his work rather than general principles, though it’s not always clear that he knows that. “Complexity isn’t truth,” he says (133). I wonder, again, if Chaplin’s withdrawal into a simple life—as much as a famous and rich man can have a simple life—made him simple, just as his early international social interactions made him aware of large realities and large ideas. Chaplin does acknowledge the desire for dignity and rest within a poor man, within the little fellow; and he remembers himself before he had money walking on Fifth Avenue and seeing the mansions of the rich, mansions to which he later would be invited. (He talks about how tearing down those mansions to establish tall buildings destroyed much of New York’s allure.) “I was always very modest. I was very charming. I was very innocent, terrifically innocent. Slightly afraid, I was just a little mascot, something they brought into a room,” he says of the wealthy’s embrace (137). He admits that he is not afraid of engaging cliché in his work, and says that avoiding clichés can lead to false endings (he cites Shaw’s Pygmalion, in which Liza doesn’t fall in love with the professor who has helped her). Chaplin, after citing The Countess from Hong King and City Lights as the best of his films, says, “I would never revive my tramp character” (139). Near the end of the article, Chaplin declares, “I’ve never been obsessed with friendship. In the first place I’m shy. In the next place I’m busy. People usually think I’m very sad, but I’m not sad. I am not a bit sad” (141). Not a bit? Charlie Chaplin, in the article, says his work is the best thing he does.

The same year, 1967, Charlie Chaplin, while discussing with Francis Wyndham of London’s Sunday Times the somewhat mixed critical and public response to The Countess from Hong King, which got reviews that Chaplin considered personal attacks in England, reviews that seemed to desire his failure, Chaplin made comments about various films by others—saying he was amused by Goldfinger, but found Doctor Zhivago banal (though his daughter appeared in the film), and thought Blow-Up slow and boring and a Beatles movie dully redundant. Charlie Chaplin was reassured that the audiences attending The Countess obviously enjoy it. He speaks about another film he wants to do—though The Countess was his last completed film—and Chaplin, wondering if aesthetics are being invested in science, such as in space ships, rather than in art, says, “The trouble is that as I get older I get more and more interested in beauty. I want things to be beautiful” (145).



Page 1 of 2 pages for this article.
 1 2 >





[ Articles in this issue ]

[ Related Articles ]

© Offscreen.com 1997-2008. All rights reserved.