Wednesday, December 24, 2014

37 Years Ago on Christmas Day

This Christmas, 2014, will mark the 37th anniversary of the death of this great film artist. Like his life and many of his films, the event held a surprise and, eventually, a happy ending.

Charlie died early in the morning on Christmas, at Manoir De Ban, which overlooks the town of Vevey, Switzerland. 
 

















He had been in declining health for awhile, though he never lost the urge to make one more movie. He was buried near the Manoir.




End of story? No. Three months later, in March of 1978, his body was unearthed and stolen. A ransom note demanded payment. The body-snatchers bungled the job, left a lot of clues.It sounds like one of his early shorts. The body was discovered in a farmer's field, the police caught the robbers, they stood trial, and Chaplin was buried in a more secure manner. This was in a cemetery in Vevey, in a concrete tomb, to eventually be joined by Oona in 1991. Oona's final years were quite sad as she withdrew from the public.


According to current plans, the Manoir is scheduled to open as a museum in Spring, 2016, an event long anticipated.










I visited their gravesite several years ago. It's in a small cemetery, surrounded by low walls, and open to the public. It was a hot day in July, I was alone there, and sat on the bench of front of their headstones for several minutes. I thanked him.


So, on Christmas day, amidst the presents and laughter and decorations and gathering of friends and family, perhaps you can pause for just a few seconds to say, "Thanks, Charlie. You brightened up my life, and the world."

Monday, December 22, 2014

Seth Puts Charlie in the News

The Riverfront Times is a weekly newspaper in St. Louis that is more contemporary and edgier than our daily St. Louis Post Dispatch. Which is why I pick it up whenever I can. It's a freebie. Seth Rogen's new movie, "The Interview," doesn't really interest me, but the uproar it has created... actually an international crisis, if you believe the media... I find fascinating.



What made this article even more fascinating, when i turned to page 13, was the photo of Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel in "The Great Dictator." Tales of courage and conviction in Hollywood are few and far between. Like finding melody in rap. 

I wanted to share with you that portion of the RFT article that talks about Chaplin. 

"Comedy is the greatest way to attack anything like a totalitarian regime," said Ray Bradbury. He was speaking of "The Great Dictator," Charlie Chaplin's bold lampoon of Adolf Hitler. The Little Tramp was furious when the Nazis called him a "disgusting Jewish acrobat." Chaplin wasn't Jewish. But that wasn't the point. He was upset that being Jewish was an insult - and worse, that more people weren't offended.

"Hitler must be laughed at," Chaplin insisted.


He and Hitler were born just one week apart in April 1889. Both were raised in troubled homes and pursued artistic careers — albeit, in Hitler's case, temporarily. "He's the madman, I'm the comic," Chaplin said. "But it could have been the other way around."
chaplinVERT.jpg
United Artists
Charlie Chaplin ridiculed Adolf Hitler in his 1940 film, The Great Dictator.
The Great Dictator was preemptively banned in Franco's Spain, Mussolini's Italy and all Nazi-occupied territory — no surprises there. The one time a projectionist snuck it into a military theater, German soldiers fired pistols at the screen. But thanks to the Hayes Production Code, which frowned upon breaking Hollywood's neutrality stance, screenings weren't even guaranteed in America or Chaplin's native England.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt learned that Hollywood was giving Chaplin a hard time, he urged the filmmaker to press on. Roosevelt even attended The Great Dictator's premiere in 1940 — by that time, hating Hitler was politically smart.
Rogen and Goldberg wanted to screen The Interview at the White House, but they were turned down, Rogen says. "We got back a funny email, like, 'Given the subject matter, we do not feel that this would be appropriate.'" And so far, The Interview will not be shown anywhere in Asia.
The genius of The Great Dictator is that it doesn't just attack Hitler's policies. As in The Interview, the film makes the dictator a buffoon. Chaplin's dictator falls down the stairs, gets soiled by a baby, frets about his social status and gets caught in his own cape. He doesn't rule with an iron fist — he's ruled by his emotions.
But Chaplin held back by dubbing his mustachioed, Jew-hating tyrant "Adenoid Hynkel."The Interview aggressively names names.
Plus, Chaplin ended The Great Dictator with a four-minute speech in which he addressed the camera and pleaded for utopian peace: "Let us fight to free the world — to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance." It's no spoiler to say that Rogen and Goldberg end their film with less sincerity.
Clearly, Hitler's own favorite film about himself, Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, can be defined as propaganda. Audiences have a harder time using the word to describe Chaplin's work, though both are unquestionably films designed to further a cause."

The rest of the article talks about Rogen, the movie, and N. Korea. 
But here we are, just a couple of days away from the 37th anniversary of the passing of Chaplin, and he is as alive and relevant as ever. In this case, maybe more so, given the added weight of time and circumstance. The world in 1940 was headed towards complete chaos, already immersed in it in Europe. The studio heads in Hollywood backed off from implicating the Nazis and Germany's aggression for fears of losing foreign markets and stirring up anti-Semitism in the U.S. 
One man was unafraid. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Charlie and Jeff:The Good, the Bad, the Timely


A newsletter arrived in the mail today. Not email, but an old-fashioned, USPS delivered, 4-pager that you can hold in your hand, fold and put in your pocket, set a glass of iced coffee on it so the sweat won't leave a puddle. It's called Hightower LOWDOWN (all caps), and is written by Jim Hightower. No idea who he is. Didn't subscribe to it. Almost pitched it after reading the headline: "Like Walmart, only with supercomputers and drones: At Amazon.com, "cheap" comes at a very hefty price."

Not a subject I'm particularly interested in. Get depressed when I go to WalMart. Blame Amazon for running most of the independent bookstores out of business. The article fills the entire 4 pages. But then I read the opening sentence, some of it in bold type, and I reconsidered:

"IN HIS CLASSIC 1936 COMEDY, Modern Times, silent filmmaker Charlie Chaplin depicted the trials and tribulations of a harried factory worker trying to cope with the sprockets, cogs, conveyor belts, and managerial 'efficiencies' of the new industrial culture. The poor fellow continuously finds himself caught up (almost literally) in the grinding tyranny of the machine."














He goes on to call the movie "hilarious" while adding "it's also a powerful and damning portrayal of the dehumanizing consequences of mass industrialization...

" and elaborates on that aspect of the movie. "Ruthless bosses." "Faster output." "Monotonous assembly-line work." You've probably seen the movie, so you know what he's talking about. 

And you remember the contraption that force-fed workers as they worked. Charlie's hilarious scene with the bowl of soup, corn on the cob, and a piece of pie.
It's one of my favorite scenes in Modern Times. Especially considering how Chaplin accomplished the intricate timing on the contraption. 




Finally, Hightower gets to the point of the comparison between the movie and Amazon:
"Of course, worker-feeding machines were a comedic exaggeration by the filmmaker, not anything that actually existed in his day, and such an inhuman contrivance would not even be considered in our modern times. Right? Well....if you work for amazon.com,Inc., you'd swear that Chaplin's masterpiece is Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' idea of a properly run workplace."

The next 3 1/2 pages are basically an indictment of the way Bezos runs his company. I don't want to take up space on Time with Charlie Chaplin talking about how and why Amazon got to be the 10th largest retailer in the country. Much of it reads like a horror story, reminiscent of 19th century London or lower Manhattan garment factories in the 1920's. It's almost enough to make me throw away my Kindle. Almost. 

At the end of the article, we return to Chaplin: "Reducing workers to Chaplinesque automatons in a rigid time-motion nightmare, however, is not the end of Bezos' reprogramming of work and workers. Why not just replace those pesky humans altogether?"

All of which makes me wonder just what Chaplin would have done with this scenario. Drones and robots and artificial intelligence and whatever else Bezos has in store for America. The more I think about it, the more it sounds like Metropolis instead of Modern Times. If you'd like to read the entire article, you can find it on www.hightowerlowdown.org. 





Amazon, of course, is not alone in its corporate environment. They have plenty of company throughout the world. Today it's the documentary that attempts to expose and correct these situations. Back in 1936, Chaplin did it with comedy, with The Little Tramp, and with Paulette Goddard.


I'd just rather keep the two separate, continue to enjoy Chaplin and Paulette and the brilliant scenes and sequences, finally ending with an iris out as Charlie and Paulette walk away from camera into the distance and a promising future. 


Now that's a happy ending, and I don't need a drone to deliver my next re-issue of Chaplin films.







Monday, July 14, 2014

Time for a Chaplin Statue

Two situations came together for me recently which tell me "it's about time."

The subject is a sculpture of Charlie Chaplin. In the United States.
Now you'd think there would be an appropriate statue of him in bronze somewhere in this country, but you'd be wrong. At least as far as I can tell. Certainly, there would be one in Hollywood, a town he helped create. They do have a bas relief of him on Hollywood Boulevard in front of the Hollywood Entertainment Museum.

There's another one of him across the street, in the lobby of the Hollywood-Roosevelt Hotel. It's a life-size Tramp sitting on a bench. And that's it.

About those two motivating events I mentioned:
I was talking to a friend of mine, Harry Weber, an accomplished sculptor with installations throughout the U.S., Europe, even Africa. He's currently working on a bronze statue of Elvis, to be placed in Springfield, Missouri. Don't ask me why Springfield. I didn't ask. Harry has created sculptures of Chuck Berry, Bobby Orr, 8 or 9 St. Louis Cardinal Hall of Famers, Doug Flutie, Tennessee Williams... the list is long and varied. You can see what I mean at Harry Weber sculptures

Harry and me with Chuck Berry sculpture.
Harry working on the Lewis & Clark sculpture.




















I'm not trying to drum up business for Harry, though I'd love to see what he could do with Chaplin. I'm just trying to figure out why there is no significant sculpture of Chaplin, when so many other celebrities and non-celebrities have been immortalized in bronze. Harry says it is usually an individual that steps forward to initiate a project. So it seems no one has done that on Chaplin's behalf.


Which brings me to event #2.
The scene is London. Today. Thanks to my friend Carl Sturmer, I've learned that the British honored Chaplin with a sculpture by John Doubleday in 1981. Originally it was in a place of honor: across from William Shakespeare in Leicester Square. Quite a duo, Will and Charlie. Covers a wide range of creative excellence that originated in London. Even though Chaplin's career grew and flourished in Hollywood, his roots were deep in London.








Due to a major renovation, Charlie was moved to a side street, about two blocks from Will. Carl tracked it down and took these photos. He says, "I was really sad when I saw it standing there. Despite it all as I loitered for a few minutes people still stopped to take their picture with him. Nothing can kill his legacy."


Here's the World View on Chaplin sculptures. It's probably more comprehensive than you imagined. There are sculptures of Charlie in Alassio, Italy; Merida, Venezuela; Shanghai; Vevey, Switzerland; Waterville, Ireland; the Czech Republic; Hyderabad, India, and a couple of more.


So I say, "It's about time." For the United States to honor one of its greatest film artists with a magnificent sculpture in a place of honor. In Hollywood. That's where it should go, I believe. In a significant location. There are lots of folks in Hollywood (and Beverly Hills and Malibu and Bel Air) who could write a check tomorrow for this and not even notice the cost. There are lots of folks who probably owe at least some part of their success to Chaplin's accomplishments and ideas. Maybe I'm biased but I can't think of any other individual who so much represents what the legacy of movies and Hollywood is all about.


I'm not experienced at starting grass roots movements. But I'll try. You can send an email to Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles. Just tell him about this timely idea for a Chaplin sculpture. You can mention that 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of The Little Tramp, and it happened in Venice, California. There's no better time to initiate this project.
Also, you can drop a note to the LA Times. 
http://touch.latimes.com/#section/-1/article/p2p-79793461/

If this works, I've got a terrific idea. We'll all meet in L.A. for the dedication ceremony, followed by dinner at Musso & Frank Grill, a landmark on Hollywood Boulevard dating back to 1919. It was one of Charlie's favorite restaurants. I'll pick up the check...for the food...not the airfare. See you there. And thanks.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Arrivederci, Bologna


At this time, one month after my previous post, I had planned to give you an exhilerating report on my trip to Bologna for the big Chaplin celebration there. In fact I had all kinds of plans to upload photos of me with David Robinson, Kevin Brownlow, Lisa Stein Haven, Claire Bloom, Michael and Victoria Chaplin... the list is long and impressive. 

Unfortunately, the day before I was to leave, I decided to take my two Golden Retrievers for a hike in a nearby park. Not a big deal really. My wife, as I was about to leave, said "Better stay off the trails. We've had a lot of rain and they'll be muddy." 
"Sure," I said. "Good idea."
I got to the park, saw that the meadow was soaked, not a good place to let them run, so I decided to take them for a short hike on the trail. The rest is too painful to spell out, so I'll cut to the chase. I slipped going down the trail, bent my left leg at an impossible angle behind me, kind of like one of those NFL slo-mo injuries in process, and ruptured my quad tendon. Quick cut to the emergency room (this was on a Sunday), sent home for the night, back on Monday morning for surgery.

In fact, about the time I was being wheeled into the OR, my Delta flight was taking off from St. Louis, headed for NY, then onto London and Bologna via British Airways. For the rest of the week I spent a lot of time in bed, leg in an unbendable splint, trying to follow what was happening in Bologna through email and Facebook. 

Thanks to my good friend Mike Vogelle, I got some idea of just how special this gathering was. These photos are by, and of, Mike. He has many more on his Facebook page.

Mike with the beautiful Claire Bloom.


Mike between Michael Chaplin and Victoria Chaplin.


Thanks, Mike. And thanks to Lisa Stein Haven for additional updates, inputs and invaluable insights. 

Class, what lesson did we learn today?
First, life is what happens while you're making other plans.
Second, I'm not invincible. 
Third, I must listen to my wife more attentively.
And finally, when life hands you lemons, write a blog, a short story, a novel, a play.
So I've got this idea for a novel. About a guy, a devoted Chaplin fan, who has an accident and can't get to Europe for a big celebration for the Little Tramp. So Charlie visits the guy at his home in St. Louis and they spend some time together, here and in London and in Hollywood, present and past.

Wait a minute. That sounds familiar. Back to the keyboard.

Congratulations to all those who helped make The Little Tramp at 100 such a big success. Hopefully I'll make it to Vevey whenever the museum opens. No hiking with dogs to be scheduled then.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

From Venice to Bologna

Three points in my timeline are about to be joined. In Bologna, Italy.

The first point is February of 1914. That's when Charlie Chaplin stepped in front of a camera in Venice, California, not long after Mack Sennett called the young Englishman to Los Angeles to try out his talent in the new medium called "movies." The name of the film was "Kid Auto Races in Venice." In that short film, Charlie appears as a character that would soon, with modifications, become famous around the world as The Little Tramp. Or, as Chaplin preferred to call him, The Little Fellow.

The second point is June of 1960. Just out of the army (ours), I lived in San Francisco and began to frequent a bar/restaurant on the waterfront in Sausalito, just across the Golden Gate Bridge. I went there on Tuesday nights, when they showed Chaplin shorts on a worn screen. The prints were scratchy, jumpy, pieces missing, often faded. They were silent; no accompanying musical tracks. With all its faults, I was mesmerized by the unique character and his antics - and imagination. At the still impressionable age of 25 I had discovered The Little Tramp.


David Robinson
The third point focuses on Zanesville, Ohio, fifty years later, in October of 2010. Thanks to the efforts of Lisa Stein (now with a Haven at the end), an International Chaplin Conference revealed to me just how deep and widespread the allure of Chaplin was. This was the "Charlie in the Heartland" gathering. I met people whose books, articles and restorations sat on my shelves at home:  David Robinson, Chuck Maland, Hooman Mehran, Frank Scheide, David Shepard. Countries represented included England, France, Japan, Austria, Belgium. I  couldn't believe how vital the Chaplin culture was. 
With Joe Delmore and a
genuine Chaplin derby and cane.
Chuck Maland




Most of the group. That's Lisa Haven in the
front row, 5th from the right.





























It all comes together in  Bologna, 
beginning June 25th and continuing until the 28th.
Bologna, strangely enough, is just 165 km south of Venice. No auto races there, however. This is a 4-day event featuring a Who's Who of the World of Chaplin, silent films, and movie history. Besides the above mentioned, the esteemed Kevin Brownlow will be there. I met him at a Buster Keaton celebration a couple of years ago, a big day for me, a man I had admired since I had read "The Parade's Gone By...," his remarkable 1968 volume on the early history of the film industry.
The line-up for this 100th anniversary of the first appearance of The Little Tramp is too lengthy for this blog. Here's a link to information for the event.  Birth of The Tramp Celebration

I'll tell you how I feel about this celebration. It's like going to an All-Star game and getting to meet Mantle, Dimaggio, Williams, Musial and Ruth. Sorry about the sports analogy, but it'll give you an idea of the stature of these people. 

Thanks to all the dedicated people involved in putting this event together, beginning with Kate Guyonvarch, director of Roy Export S.A.S (Archives) in Paris, and Cecilia Cenciarelli and the Cinetecca Bologna. 
The Little Tramp is bigger than ever.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Time to Write a New Book

I've got an idea for a new book about Chaplin. This isn't easy. It seems just about every aspect of his life has been covered, many times over. It's almost in the same category as Abe. Do we really need another book about Lincoln? Still, authors find new angles.

That's not true of a biography I bought a couple of weeks ago, released in the United Kingdom, and containing nothing new. The author, Peter Ackroyd, has excellent credentials, but foremost among them must be the ability to read everyone else's books and stitch together pieces gleaned from their efforts. Which makes me wonder: Are there any new books to be written about Sir Charles? (I know of one in the process, by a friend of mine. She is on to a terrific idea but still has much work to do.)

So.... What's new? First of all, I immediately rejected the notion of "Charlie Chaplin for Dummies" and "Chicken Soup for the Little Tramp's Soul." He doesn't belong in a franchise collection.

Here are the six book ideas under consideration:

1) "The Charlie Chaplin Cook Book." Recipes that reflect an aspect of Chaplin's life and films. All recipes kitchen-tested. Includes Tramp Goulash, Pasta ala City Lights, Stewed Tripe (one of his favorite dishes), Plum Pudding (a British tradition), Boiled Boot Meuniere with stir-fried laces, Bean Soup Immigrant Style, Calvero Bolognese, Key Limelight Pie, and a Derby Danish.



2) "The Lost Symphonies of Vevey." During his final 24 years in Vevey, Switzerland, Chaplin, it is rumored, wrote four symphonies.  The scores still exist. Because Chaplin wrote the music for many of his films, he still felt the need after 1966 to compose, so he attacked the longer form of symphonies. Each symphony is inspired by one of his wives. Particularly noteworthy is the "Lita in Hell" work. This book will contain a CD with performances of those lost symphonies.



3) "Smile, Smile, Smile." The most famous song he wrote, from "Modern Times." This book contains profiles of every artist who ever recorded "Smile." A total of over one hundred. Includes vocalists such as Petula Clark, Elvis Costello, Josh Groban, Trini Lopez, Johnny Mathis, and Michael Jackson. Includes a CD with a rare recording by Marlene Dietrich, in German.



4) "Waiting On Charlie." A revealing insight into the artist as told by waiters from a variety of restaurants that Chaplin used to frequent. The men and women in aprons with order pads who saw the famous man at his hungriest. What he ordered, what questions he asked, if he used a knife and fork like the Brits do, how and if he tipped. And much, much more. Includes photographs.



5) "Chaplin: The Tell-Tale Hand." For the first time, the somewhat dubious science of graphology will be applied to Chaplin. His handwriting will be examined, which will reveal the motivation behind his films. It will also define his character, disposition, and attitudes. I will apply all three graphology approaches: integrative, holistic, and symbolic. This book could end up on the bottom shelves next to Weissman's psychological analysis of Chaplin, where it belongs. Still, a fascinating exercise and a possible best-seller among graphologists and mystics.



6) "Thursdays With Charlie." Through close examination of his letters, journals, tennis matches, film production schedules, and reservations at Musso-Frank's restaurant, I will document Chaplin's activities for every Thursday between 1921 and 1953. Quick math: That's over 1600 Thursdays. This book is sure to be a doorstop. 


Let me know which book most interests you. I'll be sure to let you know who the winner is, and when the book will be published. I'm already preparing my query letters to agents.