Friday, March 16, 2012

Tramping Onward: My Exploration of Charlie Chaplin, The Sequel

Last month, I wrote this piece about Charlie Chaplin's 1936 film Modern Times after watching--and tremendously enjoying and admiring--it for the first time.

Excepting a possible high school or college film class screening I've long since forgotten, it was also my first serious exposure to Chaplin as an artist.

For while I've always known of Chaplin--or perhaps more specifically, his immortal Little Tramp character--as an icon from the early days of cinema and always found brief snippets of his slapstick humor amusing, until this year I was largely oblivious to his true expanse as an actor, comedian, writer, director, producer, editor, composer and, beyond knowing he was once considered "the most famous man in the world," as a person.

So since viewing Modern Times, I made Chaplin the subject of one of my "creativity benders" in which I vociferously ingest vast quantities of artistry and information by, or about, a given musician, band, composer, painter, sculptor, filmmaker, writer, actor, architect, photographer, comedian, genre, etc.

Few of these creativity benders have ever been as eye-opening and gratifying as the one that educated me about Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin, born April 16, 1889 in London. And not just due to his numerous exceptional movies.

Along with some basic internet research--Chaplin's Wikipedia bio and filmographies on IMDB, All Movie and Wikipedia--I read some articles (1, 2, 3) about the time he spent in Chicago in the winter of 1914-15 after signing with Essanay Studios, following his initial batch of films with Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios.

I watched the first movie he made with Essanay, aptly titled His New Job, which was the only one Chaplin created in Chicago, for he would soon decide he'd rather film in California than at the 1343-45 Argyle Street buildings that now house St. Augustine College.

On the same day that I would take a tour of the old Chess Records studio, where Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Etta James and many others recorded songs seminal to the rise of popular music, I also stopped by the old Essanay Studios to experience a bit of pioneering cinematic ether.

Although the original entrance remains intact (as seen at right), not surprisingly considering Essanay closed its doors in 1918, the studios have long since been re-purposed to serve the needs of various tenants, currently St. Augustine.

But one of Essanay's old sound stages--conceivably but not assuredly one where His New Job was filmed--is now dubbed the Charlie Chaplin Auditorium. Though various college and community events are held there, it wasn't open when I stopped by, but a building worker kindly unlocked it and let me take a peek and a few pictures.

As shown at left, an image from Chaplin's 1921 classic, The Kid, is prominently painted in the auditorium, although that film had nothing directly to do with Essanay (it was filmed in Los Angeles for Chaplin's own First National production company).

And out back of the old studio buildings,
Charlie can still be seen hanging around. 

I also walked around the corner from Essanay to see these houses Chaplin supposedly had built (according to this article, which is more about another film icon, Gloria Swanson, who Chaplin cast in a bit role in His New Job). But given that--from what I can gather--Chaplin spent little over a month in Chicago during his time with Essanay, I can't see how there was time for the mirrored homes to be constructed, let alone for the star to live in one.

Yet while his direct ties to Chicago were rather brief,
according to this article, His New Job--released on February 1, 1915--is the movie that catapulted Chaplin to true mega-stardom, so his Chicago connection is more than trivial.

I also watched another Essanay silent, called The Tramp, which though not the debut of Chaplin's trademark character, is largely seen as the de facto formation of the "the most universally recognized fictional human figure in history" (according to a featurette on the Modern Times DVD).

Chaplin moved from Essanay, for whom he made 15 films in less than 18 months, to Mutual and I enjoyed his 1917 classic from this studio, called The Immigrant.

Though the above films were two-reelers (about a half-hour long), the rest of Chaplin's films that I recently watched are what we would call "feature length," at least an hour or a good bit longer. These include:

- The Kid (1921)
- The Gold Rush (1925)
- City Lights (1931)
- Modern Times (1936)
- The Great Dictator (1940)
- Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
- Limelight (1952)

The first four films listed above are silent films, which means that Chaplin consciously made the decision to make City Lights and Modern Times against the tide of "talkies," which were otherwise standard by 1930. His reasoning was that The Tramp should never talk on film and given that both movies are pure genius and rather successful in their day, he clearly made the right--albeit gutsy--choice.

Even--or perhaps especially--in silence, The Tramp of The Kid, Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times and the earlier short films went far beyond the cheeky imp I used to perceive. He was an everyman (readily understood in every language), a philosopher, a romantic and a forever resilient champion for the underdog.

Although the first three above are astonishingly inventive works of art, with much to say about life and society, I like Modern Times and The Great Dictator best as Chaplin put his globally-beloved persona on the line by bringing his social stridency to the fore. Having spotlighted Modern Times in my previous post, I wanted to touch a bit on what a daring and brilliant work The Great Dictator is.

In addition to writing, directing, producing, editing and composing the score--as he did for almost all his feature films--in his first non-Tramp feature Chaplin played both a Jewish barber (albeit resembling the Little Tramp) and Adenoid Hynkel, the buffoonish dictator of Tomania, who was quite openly and obviously intended to lampoon Hitler.

Keep in mind that as conveyed in the documentary, The Tramp and the Dictator, which accompanies the Chaplin Collection DVD of the film--all of these sets, which I got at the Skokie Public Library, contain excellent bonus material--when Chaplin began writing the story in 1938, the U.S. was still far from entering World War II and most of Europe was in a state of appeasement when it came to Hitler. Upon Chaplin's announcement about making the film, the British said that they would ban it.

Much of Hollywood, including Jewish producers who feared it would infuriate Hitler, tried to dissuade Chaplin from making the film. But through an intermediary, President Roosevelt encouraged Chaplin to go ahead, and he did, financing the entire project himself.

The film itself is wickedly funny--particularly scenes where Hynkel is joined by a character spoofing Mussolini--tremendous poignant and quite powerful. Though some have criticized Chaplin's closing speech, where he largely drops out of character as either the barber or Hynkel, as being out of tone with the rest of the film, I think what he does here is remarkably moving, with the message holding much resonance over 70 years later.

Certainly, even the tremendously well-read and worldly Chaplin--who was born the same week as Hitler and didn't miss the similarity of the F├╝hrer's mustache to the Tramp's--didn't grasp the true extent of Hitler's depravity or Nazi atrocities. In retrospect, Chaplin said he wouldn't have made The Great Dictator if he had. 

But according to Stanley Kauffmann, a film critic featured in the documentary along with luminaries like Sidney Lumet, Budd Schulberg and Ray Bradbury, upon the film's release "every one of my friends, many of whom were Jewish, like myself, felt that a David had arisen, a comic David, to fight Goliath, and we could only be happy.
"Here this man had come out against Hitler. It was as if the greatest angel in the calendar of saints and angels had suddenly taken a stand." 
According to The Tramp and the Dictator documentary, it is believed that Hitler watched The Great Dictator, at least twice. But while he may have been a fan of Chaplin's movies, and mustache, Hitler included Charlie in a book comprising a Nazi hit list of prominent Jews, even though Chaplin wasn't Jewish. Baptised in the Church of England, Chaplin was primarily agnostic, but always refused to challenge or refute claims that he was Jewish, saying that to do so would always "play directly into the hands of anti-Semites."

Per film historian Kevin Brownlow, who co-directed The Tramp and the Dictator, Chaplin made The Great Dictator in response to seeing himself on the Nazi hit list. "The Nazis mistakenly thought he was Jewish because Chaplin never denied it," Brownlow said. "He was sent a copy of this book and it is widely believed that this led to him to make the film The Great Dictator as an act of defiance."

No wonder David Robinson wrote in his 1985 biography, Chaplin: His Life and Art:

"Quite apart from any particular merits of the film, The Great Dictator remains an unparalled phenomenon, an epic incident in the history of mankind. The greatest clown and best-loved personality of his age directly challenged the man who had instigated more evil and human misery than any other in modern history."
Now, having read portions of Robinson's biography, watched the 1992 Chaplin biopic (not lousy but not great, though Robert Downey, Jr. is excellent) and seen Unknown Chaplin--a 3-part documentary focusing primarily on Chaplin directorial techniques--plus numerous extras on the various DVDs, it is clear that Chaplin was far from flawless.

As a director, he was at best a maddening perfectionist, at worst a capricious jerk. (Interestingly, his early silents were shot without scripts, resulting in numerous takes of each scene before Chaplin could "mold the clay.") Due partly to his deliberateness, from 1925 on--or the last 52 years of his 88-year life--his filmography consists of a relatively paltry nine works. And considerably more troubling was his lifelong penchant for much younger--e.g. teenage--women; I'm not sure what was considered "underage" at the time, but his first two wives were just 16 when he married them, after having impregnated them. He met his fourth and final wife--Oona O'Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene, who disowned her over the relationship--when she was 17 and married her at 18, when he was 54. Unlike his other short-lived marriages, he and Oona were together for 34 years until his death in 1977.

Chaplin also took heat from the British press for not enlisting in their Army during World War I, while instead making a fortune in America. But according to Wikipedia, he had in fact presented himself for service, but was denied for being too small at 5'5" and underweight. In the U.S., he joined Liberty Bond drives that raised millions of dollars and his 1918 movie Shoulder Arms, per Robinson, "metamorphosed the real-life horrors of war into a cause for laughter" bringing huge appreciation from troops themselves. It was one of his greatest successes.

Chaplin films raised morale more than any other during WWI (per The Tramp and the Dictator), he made the wondrous The Gold Rush and City Lights, which like many of his films can be seen as testaments to human dignity and perseverance, he took on the industrial establishment with Modern Times and he took on Hitler--largely before anyone else did--with The Great Dictator.

And for his efforts, Charlie Chaplin got kicked out of America in 1952. 

Click image to see stories in full
I won't make this too much longer going into details largely beyond my familiarity, but somewhere relatively early, Chaplin put himself in the crosshairs of J. Edgar Hoover. In the mid-40's, he was embroiled in a paternity suit with a (clinically) crazy ex-lover, in which tests proved the baby wasn't his, yet he still somehow was ordered to pay to support it. He also was a target of Joseph McCarthy, who accused Chaplin (and much of Hollywood) of Communist activities.

After making Monsieur Verdoux in 1947, where he clearly left the Tramp behind and played a murderer, largely to make a statement about war--"One murder makes a villain, millions a hero. Numbers sanctify."--he then wrote (originally as a 100,000-word novel draft), directed, produced, composed and starred in the touchingly self-reflective Limelight in 1952. Here he played an old clown, once hugely famous but now down and out, but still maintaining heart and dignity. Chaplin even gave his old silent-era rival, Buster Keaton, a small part; this was the only time the two legends were on-screen together. (By the way, to give myself a point of comparison, I also watched Keaton's The General as well as F.W. Murnau's silent classic, Sunrise. Both of these are great, but in no way lessened my regard for what Chaplin was doing around the same time.)

Both Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight, though not quite on par with The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Lights and The Great Dictator--which may still reign as cinema's greatest Grand Slam--are quite interesting movies and very worthwhile.

Upon attending the world premiere of Limelight in London in 1952, Chaplin and his family were denied re-entry under a Justice Department code which permitted the barring of aliens on grounds of "morals, health or insanity, or for advocating Communism or associating with Communist or pro-Communist organizations." (Robinson, p572)

At least per what I was able to learn about Chaplin through this rather fulfilling, if expedient, exploration, this seemed like a disgraceful way to treat one the America's greatest entertainers & ambassadors who also served as one of the world's greatest proponents of peace & social justice.

In fact, though at the beginning of 2012 I had vague regard but little true knowledge of Chaplin's life and art, I now believe he deserves to be seen as one of the 20th Century's very greatest artistic forces, along with The Beatles and Picasso.

After being exiled in 1952, Charlie Chaplin wasn't allowed to return to the U.S. until 1972--when not incidentally Hoover was trying to get another genius and force for good, John Lennon, deported--as he came to Hollywood to accept an honorary Oscar. In doing so, he received a 12-minute standing ovation, the longest ever--still--in Academy Award history. (This video captures only part of it.)

As the great French film director Claude Chabrol explains in a brief documentary accompanying Monsieur Verdoux on DVD:
"Chaplin equals survival. The central question in all his films is 'How do you survive?'"
Given my new found enlightenment, when it comes to Chaplin I'd answer "With quite a lot of grace, humor and humanity."

35 years after his death, which came on Christmas Day 1977--I also went to the library and read the obituaries in Chicago Tribune and New York Times on microfilm, quite a revelatory exploration in itself--we can still learn a whole lot from a Little Tramp.


Brad said...

Hey Seth. Your writings on Chaplin have been some of my favorite from your blog. Hope to sometime hear your take on The Gold Rush and City Lights.

You may want to check out A King in New York, which is not one of his masterpieces, but a his take of the Red Scare exile he was going through at the time.

Also, watching him receive his Lifetime Achievement Oscar in the early seventies (on YouTube) is pretty damn emotional.

Seth Arkin said...

Brad, thanks for the kudos. I wasn't sure if A King in New York was one I needed to explore, but on your advice I'll certainly look for it.

I thought both The Gold Rush and City Lights were brilliant, but thought the overt messages of Modern Times and The Great Dictator made them that much stronger.

Fully agree about the Chaplin Oscar clip; it closes the Attenborough biopic and brought a tear to my eye.