Quite simply, the best cultural review in the world
by Vernon Young
A review of Chaplin: His Life & Art by David Robinson.
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To the increasing number of corrective personal histories which has been a conspicuous feature of publishing in the last decade, David Robinson’s Chaplin: His Lift and Art is an imposing addition. I can’t offhand recall another biography of a performer that reconstructs the artist’s life and professional achievement in such satisfying detail. In addition to the biographical text itself, there are appendices (of over a hundred pages) including the Chaplin genealogy, a chronological list of every play and film which Chaplin directed or in which he appeared, a selective example of his film shooting schedules and ratios, a Who’s Who identifying everyone of any note mentioned in passing, three Keystone period scenarios, and a record of the FBI-versus-Chaplin activity.
My problem as a reviewer who feels that he should emphasize the essentials without crowding the view is that I haven’t the faintest idea how informed on the Chaplin subject anyone is, outside those long-suffering film-society folk for whom there was a Golden Age of the Silents. I’ll freely confess that although I have a proper respect for isolated moments of Chaplin’s unarguable genius in pantomime, that respect is impatiently qualified by subjective associations with the dreary period of filmmaking in which I came of age. The period and the place. I remember vividly that the East End of London, seen through the slumming eyes of a West Ender in the Twenties had me wondering how much more depressing it must have been when Charles Chaplin grew up there at the turn of the century. Perhaps it was no worse. It’s conceivable that Lime-house and its environs remained pretty much the same place for a hundred years and was visibly improved only after the Blitz of 1941 demanded its rebuilding. From our vantage point today, the setting of Chaplin’s early years (he was born in 1889) will seem bleaker than it actually was if we overlook the fact that grinding poverty was a commonplace of English lower-class life as late as the Twenties and Thirties, when the international depression gave it another turn of the screw. To those who inhabited Lon don at that level, however, centuries of accepted class suppression and the universal addiction to sentimentality which is best called Dickensian mitigated experiences we prefer to think of as wholly unbearable.
Chaplin’s grandparents and great-grandparents, back to the eighteenth century, were in the service trades—publicans, butchers, bootmakers. A single gypsy among them was the only exotic ancestor besides Chaplin’s father and mother, who were “music-hall artists,” unstably mated and unevenly matched in the theater. Charles Senior was successful in a small way; Hannah Hill was not, she was too mercurial for steady survival. When in 1891 her husband left for an American tour their impending breakup became an actuality. As a consequence of this, or perhaps before, Hannah had an affair with an actor named Leo Dryden, by whom she had a child. Dryden abandoned her shortly after, taking with him the then six-month-old child Wheeler. (Charles and Sydney, his half-brother from an earlier alliance, did not meet Wheeler until thirty years later.)
Unsupported by a husband and increasingly intimidated by audiences, Hannah reached the limit of her professional endurance. The loud abuse of drunken soldiers during a performance at Aldershot drove her from the stage. In desperation the manager pushed the five-year-old Charlie into her place. He sang a coster song, “’E Dunno Where ’E Are” and the audience, as if mindful of his dazzling future, showered him with coins. Hannah, deteriorating, took to sewing blouses for a living, at home, piecework at the sewing machine. Chaplin always insisted that despite her disabilities she had immense talent and that it was from watching her as she sat in the window and imitated people on the street that he acquired the art of pantomime.
At the age of seven and eleven, Charles and Sydney, owing to the absence of a father and the intermittent illness of their mother, were admitted to a workhouse for the destitute called Hanwell. (Note the habitual resemblance to the life of Charles Dickens.) We might suppose that Chaplin would never cease to deplore the humiliation of such an ordeal, yet by the standards of 1895, and in Chaplin’s compensatory imagination, it was not entirely negative. (For one thing, this workhouse was in the countryside; it had undergone recent reforms of discipline and diet, and it had a swimming pool!) Years later, on his second return to England, he went to visit Hanwell, motivated by a spirit of nostalgia. In an astonishing letter to Thomas Burke (a noted authority on London), he expressed the fever pitch of his longing and his revisit.
I wouldn’t have missed it for all I possess .... God, you feel like the dead returning to earth. To smell the smell of the dining hall, and to remember that was where you sat, and that scratch on the pillar was made by you. Only it wasn’t you. It was you in another life—your soul-mate—something you were and something you aren’t now .... It’s one of the skins you’ve shed, but it’s still got your odour about it. O-o-oh it was wonderful. When I got there, I knew it was what I’d been wanting for years .... Being among those buildings and connecting with everything—with the misery and something that wasn’t misery . . .
When Burke questioned his insistence on trying to recapture the past—the more so since the past couldn’t have been edifying— Chaplin replied (in sentences that go far to explain, in his movies, the frequent combination of the winsome and the forlorn:
But one can pick it up and look at it. One can think that one was happy once, or intensely miserable—perhaps it’s the same thing as long as it’s intense—and one can get something by looking at the setting .... And anyway, I like being morbid. It does me good. I thrive on it.
Early in the 1900s Hannah’s window entertainments moved into the region of madness. In 1903, at age thirty-eight, she was committed to an asylum, and from then on she was in and out of her right mind at unexpected moments. (She died in Hollywood, twenty-five years later.) Charles Senior died, aged thirty-seven, from cirrhosis of the liver. Our Chaplin, confident of his place in the theater, registered with a theatrical agency. His first significant part was that of a newsboy in something called Jim: A Romance of Cockayne. The play itself was a streamer but one critic-journalist, while putting it down, gave high praise to the fourteen-year-old Charles, “a bright and vigorous child actor. I have never heard of the boy before but I hope to hear great things of him in the near future.” (Among the many illustrations provided by Robinson, there’s an expressive photo of Charles in this role.)
In view of the persistent and ungrounded conception of Chaplin as Jewish it is incidentally amusing to learn that he tried, in 1907, to work up a solo act as a Jewish comedian; it was a complete disaster! About this time, turning his back on the “live” theater, he was engaged by Fred Karno, who produced, with considerable expertise, knockabout farces and pantomimes featuring elaborate sets and broadly satirical intentions. By report Chaplin was unimpressive in the speaking parts but notably effective as a mime. With one Karno company he came to America, twice between 1910 and 1912. The second tour was decisive. Explanations differ of his encounter with Mack Sennett in 1913. It was of course fateful; he was hired by Sennett to appear in the new art of the movies. Sennett himself Robinson describes as “a rough, tough, intelligent, uneducated man . . . with an instinctive feeling for physical comedy.”
The essence of that comedy, as Sennett outlined it to Chaplin, was improvisation with a straitjacket. There was no scenario; they simply came up with an idea (i.e., a gimmick), then pursued the sequence that seemed to follow from it until it led to a chase. For a one-reel film between fifty and sixty shots were customary. “The ingenuity ... lay in making with as little waste as possible, a collection of shots ... to make a coherent narrative”—coherent and often as elemental as a comic strip. For example: Charlie falls asleep on a park bench and dreams he is a Piltdown caveman, flirting with the favorite in the king’s harem; when the king finally overtakes him and strikes him with a rock, he wakes up on the bench, a policeman roughly shaking him.
A limited number of categories defined the film as either studio shot, location shot, or a combination of both. Robinson writes: “The quintessential Keystone set, which Chaplin himself was to use and elaborate during the next few years, consisted of a hallway with a room on either side. This arrangement would variously represent a domestic setting, with parlour (always to the left) and kitchen (to the right); a hotel, with rooms facing each other across the corridor, ideally placed for nocturnal mix-ups; neighbouring offices; or perhaps a doctor’s or dentist’s surgery .... Special settings might represent a restaurant, bar, hotel lobby, cinema or boxing booth .... Whatever the plan of the film, the director would restrict himself to no more than ten camera set-ups.” (The moving camera was unknown and would remain so for another ten years.) Early, the director as such did not exist in these quickies. The photographer, or anyone in the film who was not involved otherwise at the moment, would supervise the shooting. What Sennett knew of film direction he had picked up when working for D.W. Griffith and from it he made this mindless formula. Mindless but not aimless. “The guiding principle was to keep things moving, to leave no pause for breath or critical reflection.”
That’s for sure and for that reason Waiter Kerr’s conception of Keystone seventy years later (in The Silent Comedians) seems accurate to me. “Normally it is possible to understand a joke that has faded, to recapture the principle that once provoked laughter while being unable to capture the laugh itself.... Not so with Sennett, for the most part. The jokes, as jokes, are rarely there . . . and all the activity is so headlong that there is scarcely time to pause for the ‘constructed’ quality of a jest.” These films may be, as he says, “successful agitations,” exploring “elaborate visual possibilities”; to my sense they are at the same time juvenile and sadomasochistic.
For their time they served. And there was one significant aspect of their milieu which is perhaps not appreciated by the present-day filmgoer. However generic their particular settings were intended to be, they were somehow indubitably California. When I arrived here in my teens I was bitterly disappointed that the land- and cityscape of the northeastern United States bore no resemblance to the sunlit boulevards with palm trees which I had glimpsed in the Chaplin comedies and had construed as America all over!
Chaplin’s first film part was in Making A Living, released in February of 1914. He played an unscrupulous dude (he was billed as Slicker), wearing a top hat, a check waistcoat, stiff collar, a spotted cravat, and a monocle. It sounds like a parody of the gentility he would ape later on with a more refined treatment. Chaplin hated the film, because he had small respect for its nominal director, Henry Lehrman. According to Robin son, Walter Kerr has perceptively pointed out that Chaplin was nonetheless authoritative, for in this part he initiated “a permanent and productive pattern of [his] screen personality, of ‘adjusting the rest of the universe to his merely reflexive needs [italics added].’” Robinson recapitulates, “The Dude is explaining his own merits to the newspaper editor, emphasizing his argument by banging him on the knee. When the editor withdraws his knee, the Dude pulls it back again so that he can continue his pummelling.”
Robinson lists thirty-five Keystone films for 1914 in which Chaplin appeared. With the eleventh, Twenty Minutes of Love, he appears on the credits for the first time as Director/Scenario, as well as actor. He had introduced the now familiar Tramp, with costume, in the second film he made that year. In 1984, according to Robinson, a witness to the event still survived: Hans Koenekamp, the cameraman who filmed it. “Can’t think of the title. Tried to remember it. I can still see the scene he’s in, though. It was a hotel lobby, and he acted like a half drunk with that cockiness with his foot and the hat and the cane. I shot him.” The title he couldn’t remember was Mabel’s Strange Predicament. Not strange at all, the predicament was standard in the Keystone repertory: bedroom mix-ups in a small hotel. But Sennett himself was impressed by Chaplin in the lobby scene and ordered the cameraman to get a longer take than they normally permitted.
To what extent Chaplin’s influence “subtilized” the Keystone comedy, as has often been said, can only be asserted by someone more willing than I to study at least a half hundred such films. Robinson seems to have viewed most of them, and I think we can take his word for it that Chaplin’s whole conception of comic narration was superior to that of Sennett or of anyone in his vicinity. As Robinson nicely puts it: “Keystone comedy was created from without; anecdote and situations were explained in pantomime and gesture. Chaplin’s comedy was created from within .... The crucial point of Chaplin’s comedy was not the comic occurrence itself, but Charlie’s relationship and attitude to it. In the Keystone style, it was enough to bump into a tree to be funny. When Chaplin bumped into a tree, however, it was not the collision that was funny, but the fact that he raised his hat to the tree in a reflex gesture of apology.”
What lends pathos to the Chaplin persona in these emergent years of his fame was, I think, his peculiar interlacing of self-mockery and sober aspiration. I remember vividly (though I can’t place the film it was in) a vignette wherein the Tramp sits alone and eats a hard-boiled egg. With exquisite timing, and as if absentmindedly, he flavors the egg with a pinch of salt from one waistcoat pocket and a pinch of pepper from another. A toff, malgré lui. In the same category, of course, is his boot-eating ceremony in The Gold Rush, when he gnaws mincingly on a nail as if nibbling the meat from a bone. These are his basics: aspiration with a shrug and an untiring capacity for transforming everything he touches into a semblance of something else. The Pawnshop of 1916 was a concentrate of his flair for metamorphosis. Robinson has reminded me of that triumphant sequence in which Chaplin examines an ailing alarm clock brought back by a customer.
Charlie becomes a doctor and the clock his patient as he sounds it with a stethoscope and tests its reflexes. Suddenly it is a rare piece of porcelain as he deftly rings it with his fingertips. He drills it like a safe. He opens it up with a can-opener and then dubiously smells the contents with a look that declares them putrid. Momentarily the clock becomes a clock again as Charlie unscrews the mouthpiece of the telephone and transforms that into a jeweller’s eye-glass. Having oiled the springs, he produces a pair of forceps and becomes a dentist as he ferociously pulls out the contents.
And so forth. When, in 1972, Chaplin was finally given official recognition with a special Oscar, the wording of that presentation was unusually accurate, coming from Hollywood. He received the award for his “incalculable effect in making motion pictures the art form of the century.” Incalculable is just right. The reader may need to be reminded that before Chaplin ever made his renowned early masterpieces (The Immigrant, The Pilgrim, Shoulder Arms, The Kid), the entire vocabulary of moviemaking (except the travelling camera) had already been invented. The techniques of film production were available for anyone to amplify. Charlie’s art was inimitable and his directorial techniques restricted. Since his principal contribution to the medium was himself— that is to say, the Tramp and his exclusive transactions with the world—to keep that personality focused he was in fact obliged to limit his scope in order to maintain the coherence of his vision. To assert that the poetry of the medium is more important than its narrative craftsmanship would be gratuitous; poetry in the performing arts can’t be expressed without the craft, but range is not everywhere necessary. To make my meaning clearer: When we compare the comedies of Chaplin with those of Buster Keaton, Keaton will prove to have the greater latitude of witness point. If, in Keaton’s films, there is nothing to rival the dream sequence in The Kid, there is no episode in a Chaplin film comparable to that fabulous setup in The Navigator where Buster and his girl, lone passengers on an ocean liner adrift, keep missing one another in a tour de force of timing and camera perspective which, seen today, justifies our exclaiming: Kafka!
On the disparate space requirements of Chaplin and Keaton, Gilberto Perez has perhaps written the last illuminating word in his essay on Keaton, “The Bewildered Equilibrist,” which appeared in The Hudson Review in 1981.
It would be an exaggeration to say that Chaplin needs no space outside of himself to realize his character: something like a bare stage would not do for the Tramp, who exists in relation to a milieu which Chaplin’s sets pithily evoke. In Chaplin’s circumscribed space, however, the setting becomes strictly subordinate to the character, and that little fellow scraping through on the outskirts of society assumes on the screen his rightful place at the center of things ... in a space closed off from the world.... Unlike the Tramp, Keaton’s character wants a place in the world, not just in our hearts, and not a special place, but one like everybody else’s, so Buster accordingly inhabits a space which seems as large as the world and in which he enjoys no primacy over his surroundings.
I part company, critically, with Mr. Robinson (and many others) when he addresses himself to the later films of Chaplin and finds them only slightly inferior to those made before the mid-Thirties. The Great Dictator (1940)—excepting the dance with the globe, Chaplin’s pseudo-Hitler gibberish, and his shaving of Conklin to the rhythm of the Hungarian Rhapsody—is hopelessly unfunny. Robinson’s account of the script partially explains why: it was Chaplin’s first dialogue scenario and was almost three hundred pages long (the average feature script seldom exceeds a hundred pages). Heretofore Chaplin had not worked with an overall shooting plan; he depended, reliably most of the time, on improvisation. Increasingly he was now indulging his tendency to be didactic, especially when advancing his à-la-carte Liberalism. This is crushingly evident, I should think, in that concluding sermon, six minutes running time.
Given the premise—that a Jewish barber is mistaken for the dictator and is given an opportunity to address the world—there was only one possible conclusion: the film should have ended before he spoke one word. I am amazed that Robinson believes today that “the Utopian idealism and unashamed emotionalism” of that speech is still relevant. Relevant to what? Not to art, and that is what we are evaluating. Some years later, Chaplin confessed, “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.” Making fun he did not succeed in doing but his admission reveals a perplexing lack of imagination. Since 1933, most of us had had no illusions that Hitler was merely comical; by 1938, when Chaplin conceived this film, Munich had come and gone and we knew that the worst was only being postponed.
I feel no obligation in this review to detail my disagreement with Robinson’s temperate views of Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952). Let me say just this: when Chaplin gave up the Tramp he abandoned the region in which he most fully expressed his art—the region of the equivocal. And when he tried too hard to elicit emotions from us which he had often elicited with no effort he lost much of his authenticity. The reader may find diverting an opinion from Picasso, who was otherwise an admirer (the occasion was Limelight). “When he starts reaching for the heartstrings, maybe he impressed Chagall, but it doesn’t go down with me. It’s just bad literature.” (The Hollywood Foreign Press Association gave a scroll of merit to Limelight in 1952, chiefly because they saw Chaplin as the object of persecution by the U.S. government.)
The Countess of Hong Kong (1967) I have not seen and I’ve never read a review that persuaded me I should have. Like The King of New York (1957), it was made in England during Chaplin’s exile. The latter movie is a revenge product and the source of it we need to recall with a shudder: the nightmare of vilification and prosecution which began in 1943, when Joan Barry, a movie-struck neurotic from Brooklyn, who as female and as potential actress had temporarily impressed Chaplin, filed a paternity suit against him. In October of that year, Joan Barry’s child was born and in February of 1944 Chaplin was indicted by a federal grand jury for having violated the Mann Act, which made it illegal to transport a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. He was acquitted of this charge by unanimous vote. But a new trial was demanded by Barry on the paternity issue, which Chaplin was confident he would win because blood tests would declare his innocence. But the jury could not agree—even though the blood tests were indeed negative—and since Chaplin wanted complete exoneration a re-trial was ordered for April of 1945, at which time, goaded by the defamatory prosecution of Joseph C. Scott, the jury (of eleven women and one man) brought in an 11-1 verdict against Chaplin.
By this time, Chaplin was being hounded as much for his political views as for his personal libertinism. Previous to the Barry episode, he had spoken at rallies for Russian War Relief and in support of a Second Front. As he had never become an American citizen—and had freely and often, notably in press conferences, spoken his piece about the evils of capitalism and about how the Russian Communists had saved our lives in 1941—Chaplin was an upfront target for the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had actually been investigating him since 1939.
Unable to expose Chaplin as a member of the Communist Party, officialdom permitted him to sail on the Queen Elizabeth, in 1952, with a re-entry permit. After he had been at sea for two days, he received the news (via the ship’s radio) that his permit had been rescinded by the United States Attorney General, who ordered the Immigration and Naturalization Service to hold him if he attempted to re-enter the country. One can imagine the bitterness of his feelings. Even so, silence would have been preferable to The King of New York, a film so wildly and spitefully bad that I thought it not worth reviewing at the time. All I can remember, with help from Robinson’s somewhat vague synopsis, is that it concerned an exiled king, hoping to find a brave new world in the United States and finding instead paranoid political committees and advertising hokum. To augment his diminishing royal funds, the king is obliged to appear in television commercials. Whatever satire his subject seemed to justify, Chaplin resorted to the obvious, even to a slapstick sequence involving a fire hose—altogether retrogressive. (We learn from Robinson, by the way, that Joan Barry, after two more children and a divorce, wound up in a mental hospital.)
Unlike his most memorable creation, Chaplin did not vanish, lonely and unencumbered, toward a nebulous horizon. There is no pathos in the terminal years of his exile. After leaving America he lived happily ever after, with a Swiss bank account and a loving wife, Oona O’Neill, with whom he had eight children. In 1971, America (i.e., the Hollywood Motion Picture Academy in cooperation with the Lincoln Center Film Society) was prepared to make amends for the indignities previously heaped upon Chaplin. He returned, briefly, in April of 1972 and whatever reserve he had intended to muster was dispelled by the fashionable and laudatory champagne reception he was given in Manhattan. An actor’s favorite music is first and last applause. A week later he received in Hollywood that special Oscar I mentioned above for his “incalculable effect” on the movie as art. Reports of this ceremony reveal him in a seemingly trustful mood, inordinately grateful and overeager to please. But distance sometimes vitiates enchantment. Among the second thoughts he published in My Life in Pictures (1974) he confessed: “I was touched by the gesture but there was a certain irony about it somehow.” So there was in his investiture as Sir Charles Chaplin in 1975.
Art does not invariably haunt or embellish the death of artists but in Chaplin’s case art, close to kitsch, did so. With a final Dickensian touch, he contrived to die on Christmas Day, 1977. And two months later (less reminiscent of Dickens than of Grand Guignol) his body was stolen from the Vevey cemetery by culprits described by Robinson as “a pathetic pair of Keystone incompetents.” They were automobile mechanics, one Polish, the other a Bulgarian defector. Inspired by a similar theft (in Italy, of an industrialist), they hoped to raise enough hostage money (600,000 Swiss francs) to set themselves up in a garage. Their amateur handling of the body-snatching operation resulted instead in their swift apprehension. “The coffin was found buried in a cornfield ... on the eastern end of Lake Geneva . . . where Wardas [the Pole] was accustomed to go fishing. Oona was touched that they had chosen so peaceful a spot for Chaplin to rest in.” Wardas was sentenced to four and a half years’ imprisonment; Ganev, the Bulgarian, received a suspended sentence of eighteen months for “disturbing the peace of the dead and attempted extortion.” On the land in which they had buried Charlie, the farmer who owned that piece of it “erected a simple wooden cross, ornamented with a cane, in memory.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 4 June 1986, on page 62
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