Wednesday, December 12, 2012

    This is how it might have happened, 35 years ago.

Charlie's Christmas Carol
     The Manoir de Ban sits on a gently sloping hill above the town of Vevey, Switzerland, overlooking Lake Geneva. The home of Sir Charles Chaplin since 1953, the 150-year-old structure is frequently lit by laughter and friends and 16mm silent movies shown on a large silver screen to an appreciative gathering.
     But not tonight.
     For on this night, Christmas Eve of 1977, Sir Charles is put to bed for the final time. His wife, Oona, kisses him lightly on his forehead, touches his cheek, holds his hand, and says, "Good night, my love." Charlie smiles but is unable to say anything. His right hand briefly flutters towards her, but drops to his chest too soon. He is asleep.
     All is still and quiet within the house as the hands on the grandfather clock in the hall crawl past midnight. Outside, the frozen grip of a Swiss winter searches but finds no opening. The sweet scent of peppermint and pine, cinnamon and cloves hangs in the air. Wisps of smoke curl slowly from the blackened logs and up the chimney. The Christmas tree is dark. Scattered throughout the 24 rooms of Manoir de Ban, Oona and seven of the eight Chaplin children are asleep. Only Geraldine is not there. She is working on a film in Spain.
     At 3:45 in the morning, Charlie’s eyes snap open. Something or someone is in the room. He’s sure of it. Or maybe it’s just another one of his imaginings. He’s had so many of them during the past few months. He can’t be sure.
     "Hello?" he says, more of a question. "Hello? Doug? Is that you?" Doug Fairbanks, his best friend, his only true friend, died much too young and left Chaplin adrift among people he didn't trust. He cherishes the memory, decades later, of their friendship. An anchor in a turbulent world.
     He sits up in bed, a difficult maneuver but somehow a little easier this time. The only sound he hears is the clicking of the clock on his night stand. He waits. Nothing. "Must've been a dream," he says aloud and starts to lie back down.
     "It ain't no dream, Charlie." A man's voice, hoarse and gruff, but familiar. "You ain't ever had a dream like this."
     Now Charlie is wide awake and sits up. He pulls off his night cap, never did like that silly thing. He squints at the foot of the bed, thinks he sees... something ...a shape perhaps. "Michael, is that you? This isn't funny, you know."
     "Your son is sound asleep in his own room," says the voice.
     Charlie forces a large laugh, "Now I know. You're the Ghost of Christmas Past, right? Or Christmas Present." He feels better than he's felt in days, the pains in his back and legs receding.
     The figure gains definition. "Oh, hell, Charlie, give me more credit than that. Dickens has already done that ghost thing. As much as you like Dickens, even you wouldn't stoop to that."
     Charlie looks harder. Slowly the face matches the voice as the figure fully resolves. "Buster! It's you!" Charlie claps his hands. "What are you doing here?"
     "I was just in the neighborhood."
     "Come now, Keaton. You don't go anywhere without a reason."
     Buster steps around to the side of the bed and leans over. "Tonight's a special night. For both of us." He opens the closet and pulls out a hanger which holds a familiar outfit. "Here you go, pal. Get dressed and let's get out of here while we still have time."
     Charlie dismisses him with a wave of his hands. "I haven't worn that in years. They won't even - "
     "Oh, they'll fit just fine," says Buster. He sniffs the jacket. "At least you could've washed it once in awhile." The Great Stone Face warms for an instant.
     Charlie pushes back his cover and swings his thin legs over the edge of the bed. "My shoes. I'll need my shoes. The big pair."
     "I know, I know. My God, everybody expects you to wear those oversize brogans. On the wrong feet yet. Where are they?"
     Charlie points to another closet. "In there." He pulls the pants off the hanger. "Ah, it was an inspired day when I put this wardrobe together. Especially these baggy pants."
     "Bollox!" A new voice burst from the darkness. "Those were my pants, Chaplin."
     A glow as big and bright as the morning sun fills Chaplin's face, shedding years from it. "Roscoe!"
     Roscoe Arbuckle walks quickly to the bed, his boyish expression as open and lovable as ever. "Not just the pants but the dance of the rolls, too. He knows how to get Charlie's goat and enjoys watching him squirm.
     "Did not," says Charlie.
     "Did too," says Roscoe.
     "Did not."
     "Did too."
     Buster tosses the clothes and shoes onto the bed. "Girls, girls, break it up." He hands the shirt to Charlie. "Show's about to begin."
     Roscoe points at Chaplin's bare legs. "I gotta say, Charlie, you always did have sticks for legs. How the hell did you walk on those?"
     "These sticks," says Charlie as he begins dressing, "didn't have to support 300 pounds, Roscoe."
     Keaton laughs. "Very funny, Sir Charles."
     "Don't encourage him, Buster. And that's another thing. The 'Sir Charles' crap. How come we never got in on that?"
     Charlie has put on his shirt and small vest. He slips into the oversized pants and pulls them tight with the rope belt. "Because you guys weren't British citizens," he says and strikes a dignified pose.
     Buster bows. "Well, excuse me, your grace."
     Downstairs in the hall the old clock strikes once.
     Roscoe hands Charlie his shoes. "You were funnier in these than I could ever have been."
     "Thank you." He slips them onto the wrong feet and stands fully dressed, his hands on his hips 'How do I look?"
     Buster and Roscoe applaud, very slowly.
     "Stow the sarcasm, boys. It's a low form of humor."
     "But it works," says Roscoe.
     "Sometimes," says Buster.
     The clock strikes the second time.
     "C'mon," says Buster. "It's almost four."
     Charlie touches his upper lip. "My mustache."
     "In your pocket," says Buster.
     "Where's my derby?" says Charlie.
     "Forget the derby," the two respond in unison.
     Charlie looks frantically around the room, his moves quick and easy. "I go nowhere without my derby, gentlemen."
     "Here it is." Another voice approaches out of the darkness. The derby sails through the air and Charlie catches it. "Doug!"
     Doug Fairbanks jumps onto the bed, bounces high into the air, and lands silently on his feet next to Charlie. "C'mon, pal. We got big plans tonight." Doug's dazzling smile moves Charlie; he throws his arms around him.
     "I've missed you," he says.
     Doug puts his hands on Charlie's shoulders. "And you've kept me waiting a long time. How'd you ever make it to 88? That's too old, Chaplin."
     The clock strikes the third time.
     "C'mon, let's move, let's move," says Buster.
     "Imagine that," says Roscoe. "The four of us all in our next production."
     "Not if we don't get out of here," says Buster.
     The four men turn to walk into what had been, just a few seconds ago, a deep shadow, but is now beginning to lighten, to shimmer with a silver glow.
     "Wait a minute," says Charlie. "My cane."
     "C'mon, Chaplin," shouts Doug.
     "I must have my cane." He looks in both closets, in the corner by the bed. "Where's my cane?" He's becoming frantic now. He pulls back the quilt, feels under the mattress. "Ta-Da." He proudly holds up his bamboo cane.
     "Do you believe this?" says Buster.
     "He keeps his cane - " begins Roscoe.
     " - in bed with him," finishes Doug.
     Charlie swings his cane around, shuffles to the three men. "Now here's my idea. We open up with you, Roscoe, sitting at a sidewalk cafe."
     "With a beautiful young woman," adds Arbuckle.
     "And then I ride by on a unicycle," says Keaton.
     "And I swing onto the table from a nearby tree," says Fairbanks.
     They all laugh.
     Charlie turns around and points to the old man in the bed. "What about him?"
     Doug puts his arm around Charlie's shoulders. "You don't need him anymore, my friend."
     The clock strikes four.
     They walk into the light.
     Outside, down the hill, the village slumbers on. It is Christmas morning. A new day is about to begin.



Thursday, November 8, 2012

Charlie and Hetty: The Story Concludes

From A Comedian Sees the World in Woman’s Home Companion (Sept. 1933), this continues from my previous post. When we last saw the infatuated Chaplin, Hetty had left her troupe and gone to the Continent. Charlie said goodbye but left us with a cliff-hanger: “...the next time we met was in a curious way.”

As Charlie tells it,
“I was crossing Piccadilly when the screech of an automobile made me turn in the direction of a black limousine which had stopped abruptly. A small gloved hand waved from the window. There must some mistake, I thought, when a voice unmistakably called, ‘Charlie!’

Piccadilly Circus, London circa 1929
“As I approached, the door of the car opened and there was Hetty beckoning me to get in. She had left the troupe and had been living on the Continent with her sister. Oh, yes, her sister had married an American multimillionaire. All this as we drove along.”

They exchange some pleasantries about how they’ve spent the past two years, and Chaplin says, “I think I shall try my luck in America.”

Hetty responds with, “Then I shall see you there.” She adds, “You know I’ve thought of you a good deal since the old days.”

We’ll never know whether or not Hetty actually said this, but if that’s what Chaplin remembered, or wished had happened, then so be it. I hope it’s true. Hetty leaves the following day for Paris and Charlie leaves for America and, eventually, Hollywood. While there, he hears that Hetty is in New York. 

“I  had arrived in New York to sign million-dollar contracts. Now is my opportunity to meet her, I thought, but somehow I cannot do it normally. I couldn’t go to her house or send a letter. I am too shy. However, I stayed on in New York hoping to meet her accidentally.”

He finds out from her brother that she has married and is living in England. Charlie immediately returns to his work in Hollywood, trying to forget her. Months later he receives a letter from her. “If you ever come to London,” she wrote, “look me up.” Which is what Chaplin does a few months later, after he completes the picture he is working on. He arrives in Southampton to a tremendous reception. Hetty’s brother, Sonny, is there on the dock, waiting for him. They climb into a carriage and head for the hotel.

“Sonny and I were alone in the carriage. I hadn’t noticed until then. There was something strange about his appearance. As usual, he avoided any mention of Hetty. There was a pause in the conversation. I looked out of the window at the revolving panorama of green fields. At last I ventured to remark: ‘Is your sister Hetty in town?’

“‘Hetty?’ he said quietly. ‘I thought you knew. She died three weeks ago.’”

“I was prepared for every disappointment but this. I felt I had been cheated out of an experience and my holiday had suddenly become aimless...My success I had looked upon as a bouquet of flowers to be addressed to someone and now the address was unknown.

“So I have made up my mind not to be disappointed this time. It is dangerous to depend too much on people. They grow up and become other persons or pass out of our lives.”

He concludes this section of his story with,
“London, I feel, will remain the same. What little change has taken place will not affect my general impression and if I can capture some fragments of my youth I shall feel simply rewarded.”

Burying flu victims in St. Louis, 1918
Some fragments he would never capture. This meeting probably took place in 1918.  Hetty had died that year as the great flu epidemic swept Europe and much of the world. Estimates on the number of victims range from 20 million to over 50 million. To close the book on this chapter of Chaplin’s life, the original theater where Charlie and Hetty first met was destroyed by one of Germany’s “flying bombs” (a V-1 or V-2) in 1944.

But Charlie would never forget Hetty Kelly. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

September Song

September brings, along with the end of summer, a wistful sense of time passing; a desire, almost a need, to look back and remember other summers, comforting days of promise now tinged with a sweet sadness.

So I turn to a September issue of Woman's Home Companion from 1933. Charlie wrote an article called "A Comedian Sees the World." (This was part 1. I haven't been able to find the October issue for part 2.) I like the freshness of Chaplin's recollections here, which came 30 years before he would write his autobiography. Here he talks about the impact stardom and living in L.A. had on him, and of his need to return to London. He also recalls his first glimpse of a young woman who would become the idealized love he carried with him all his life.

As Charlie wrote it:
"In the past twenty years I have made seven trips from Los Angeles to New York and one memorable visit to Europe. These excursion were for business reasons only and were without the sword of Damocles above my head. No wonder, when living in Los Angeles for twenty years, that in the interim of work, I became an easy victim to sentimental lapses. Hence all my troubles.

"The disillusion of love, fame and fortune left me somewhat apathetic. There seemed nothing to turn to outside of my work, and that, after twenty years, was becoming irksome. I needed emotional stimulus."

Here he is, at the age of 44, one of the most famous and beloved men in the world, rich beyond dreams, and yet.....

"I am tired of love and people and like all egocentrics I turn to myself. I want to live in my youth again, to capture the moods and sensations of childhood, so remote from me now - so unreal - almost like a dream. I need to turn back time, to venture into the blurred past and bring it into focus.

"Thrilled with this adventure I buy maps of London and here in my California home I retrace road lines, bringing back memories of places that affected me as a boy."

He writes about scenes from his childhood - high factory walls, bridges, the orphan asylum, cold bleak days on the playground. "I want to stand in the midst of them before it's too late." Then he takes us back to his youth when he was "nineteen earning a sporadic living as a vaudeville sketch artist.... In those days life was lonely."

"We were playing a suburban theater. I was standing in the wings waiting my turn to go on. A troupe of girls was dancing. One of them slipped and the rest smiled. One especially, a brunette with big brown laughing eyes. She turned to the wings and caught my gaze. Never had I beheld such beauty. I was enthralled. She was conscious of my admiration for her smile became a look of embarrassment.

"When she came off to change, however, she asked me to mind her wrap. It had a perfume of lavender. I have liked this perfume ever since. When they had finished she came for it.

"'Thank you,' she said and we both stood smiling, but the moment was interrupted by the manager of the troupe. 

"'Come on, girls, we're late.' They were working in another theater. She turned to pick up her things. 'Let me help you,' I exclaimed taking her make-up box and opening the exit door. 'See you tomorrow night,' she said eagerly.

"I could only nod, not trusting myself to speak. As she was leaving through the outer door she looked back over her shoulder 'Don't forget,' she said shyly.

"'I won't forget,' I replied.

So ends that scene in the article. But it was the beginning of Charlie's lifelong infatuation with Hetty Kelly.

"I went through the youthful misery of unrequited love. Later she left with the troupe for the Continent and I lost sight of her for two years, but the next time we met it was in a curious way."

I'll save that "curious" meeting for another time. He goes on for several more paragraphs about Hetty, his feelings about her, and what eventually became of her. The attraction he felt for her was so pervasive, he still felt the need to revisit it in this article 25 years after their meeting. 

September takes us back, whoever we are, to revisit those friends and times we've never left behind. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Charlie & Rob: Two Weeks and Counting

One week ago, previews began for "Chaplin: The Musical." The show opens in two weeks, on Sept. 10. This is a big event - for fans of Chaplin and for new Broadway shows. So I think it's only fitting to turn this post into a "Time with Charlie Chaplin and Rob McClure."

McClure, as I'm sure you know, plays the lead. As he did when the show first appeared at the La Jolla Playhouse as "Limelight" two years ago. The show was a big hit there and, given the talent involved with the current production, will only be better. Some highly dedicated and talented people with impressive credentials are involved.

But back to Rob. To tell you the truth, I admire him but don't envy him. Chaplin's moves and expressions are so well known, I'm sure the audience will be comparing him to what they've seen of The Little Tramp on the screen. For instance, Rob spent countless hours perfecting one of Charlie's most famous bits: the dance of the bread rolls, from "The Gold Rush." Rob called it "extremely difficult in its simplicity." He's right. And I believe that's what made so many of Chaplin's scenes works of art. Here's a link to McClure and director Warren Carlyle talking about that dance and what it took to bring it to the stage.  Rob talks about the famous Bread Roll Ballet

There have been shows on Broadway before based on famous people. But I doubt if there has been anyone more famous than Chaplin represented. Not only famous, but so familiar for his screen performances. Capturing that "essence" of Chaplin was more than just impersonation. It had to be true. I like what the director said about Rob: "He knows how to embody Chaplin."

Recently McClure talked about his three favorite Chaplin films. Two of them were somewhat expected: "City Lights" and "The Great Dictator." But the third one surprised me. It's one of my favorite shorts. Chaplin made it in 1916 for The Mutual Film Co. The title is "One AM" and it's a tour de force in a solo performance by Charlie (except for a short bit at the open with a cab driver played by Albert Austin). Here's a link to the three films. You'll get to see the complete "One AM" and the complete "City Lights." I'm not sure where the print of "City Lights" originated but, according to a logo and translations on the title cards, it looks as though it might be Russian.

I think the fact that Rob picked "One AM" says a lot about how he admires Chaplin's sense of movement, invention, and timing. If you've never seen this one, check it out.

Besides my interest in Chaplin the man and The Little Tramp, I am fascinated with shows that combine movies and stage, Hollywood and Broadway. From the videos I've seen promoting the musical, it appears they have accomplished this in an imaginative and entertaining way. Of course I won't know for sure until I see the show, which happens in a couple of weeks. But if it's as good as everything else I've seen, I know it will be done as Chaplin would have done it: To perfection.

I'll end with Chaplin's own words, in a 1967 interview with Richard Merryman.
"I care about my work. It's the best thing I do. If I could do something else better, I would do it. But I can't. And so this thing that I've got, whatever it is, whether it's creativeness or whatever it is, I care, I really care."

He could also be talking about the people involved in "Chaplin: The Musical."

Here's a link to more videos and information about the show:

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The King Returns to New York

In 1957, Charlie Chaplin released "A King in New York," his first film since leaving the U.S. in 1953, and the last time he would take a starring role. I'm happy to say that Chaplin is back in New York, in more ways than one.

First, and most significantly, is the opening of "Chaplin: The Musical," at the Barrymore Theatre on W. 47th Street. The show begins previews on Tuesday, August 21st (3 days after my birthday). Opening Night is set for Wednesday, Sept. 12th. There's been a lot of enthusiasm generated by this show, and a lot of information and behind-the-scenes videos on the internet. You can start here for info on The Musical

Rob McClure
The director, production crew, and cast have gone to great lengths to faithfully recreate the life and genius of Chaplin, his iconic scenes, all surrounded by a marvelous musical score and production numbers. Among the main players in Chaplin's life who are represented: Alf Reeves, Hedda Hopper, Oona O'Neill, Mack Sennett, Hannah Chaplin (Charlie's mum), Jackie Coogan (The Kid), and Sydney Chaplin. You can check out the Musical website to fully appreciate the credentials of the actors in these roles. The incredibly talented Rob McClure stars as Charlie. Rob is no stranger to Broadway, with an impressive resume.

Here's what I find so appropriate about this New York location. Chaplin was discovered by Mack Sennett in 1912. Chaplin, who was traveling the U.S. with Fred Karno's company, "A Night in an English Music Hall" was playing at the American Theatre on 42nd Street and 8th Avenue. Mack Sennett was there with his girlfriend, Mabel Normand. Mack was so taken by Chaplin's comic ability and potential for his Keystone Film Company, that he wired Alf Reeves, the manager: "Is there a man named Chaffin in your company or something like that. If so will he communicate with....." So Charlie heads for L.A., starts making movies for Mack for $150 a week, and turns out 35 shorts for him in 1914, before moving on to Essanay Films.

That's one version of the "discovery" story. There are others, but I like this one best. It includes Mack, it takes place in New York, and it's a dramatic telling of the beginning of the legend. 

So here we are, one hundred years later and 5 blocks away, for "Chaplin: The Musical." 

But we aren't finished yet. Today (Wednesday 8/15), just 3 days before my birthday (did I already mention this?), The Today Show on NBC presented a beautifully constructed piece on "The Kid" and re-creating a famous scene with Natalie Morales and her son, Luke. The segment shows where Chaplin worked, insight into his character, and includes interviews with daughter Geraldine, author Jeffrey Vance, and even Jackie Coogan's grandson. The Today Show salutes Chaplin & "The Kid"

One final note: "A King in New York" was released on Sept. 12, 1957. The same day that "Chaplin: The Musical" opens. Who says there aren't forces beyond our understanding at work in the universe. Especially when it comes to Charlie Chaplin.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Chaplin Exhibit in St. Louis

My road to the Chaplin exhibit at the St. Louis County Library began in New Orleans in 1960. I had been living in San Francisco for about a year, hovering somewhere between Beatniks and a regular 9-to-5. Neither had worked out for me. So I stopped in New Orleans on the way home, not the most direct route but a fortuitous detour. I watched a Kennedy/Nixon debate on a little TV set in a French Quarter bar one night. The following day I wandered along the streets, not really looking for anything in particular, when I stopped at an artist's gallery on one of the narrow side streets. Inside I saw a work of art, framed, hanging on the brick wall. It was a charcoal drawing of Charlie Chaplin. 

I told the artist I liked it, wanted to buy it, but didn't have the money. I left...without the drawing. Four months later, back home in St. Louis with a job, I had the money, wrote the artist, heard back that he had put the artwork away for me, knowing I'd buy it someday. And that's how it started. 

Now, 50 years later, after numerous visits to book stores, eBay, garage sales, antique stores, and even the Montecito Inn, I figured it was time to put some of the items on display. The most difficult part was deciding on the items. 

Joe Delmore at work
With the help of friend and fellow Chaplin aficionado Joe Delmore, the exhibit went up for public enjoyment on Wednesday, August 1, and will remain there for the entire month. Joe missed his calling. He could have been one of retail's great window designers. Besides having a sharp eye for details in movie scenes, his sense of balance, flow and focus elevated the display from "nice" to "superb."

A rewarding side note: while we were arranging the items, I was surprised by how many people stopped, smiled, and talked about Chaplin and silent movies. The exhibit contains over 50 items, including posters from the Museum of the Moving Image in London (now closed) when they were celebrating Chaplin's 100th birthday. Books from Sweden, France, Ukraine, Germany, Japan and India. 

A match book cover from the legendary Hollywood restaurant, Chasen's, signed by Charlie. The restaurant opened in 1936, was famous for it's chili, and celebrities, and shuttered in 1995. True to Hollywood habits of ignoring its past, the building was demolished to make room for a grocery store.

Even a beach towel (not vintage, never used) and a tee-shirt with a caricature by David Levine. I have a lithograph signed by Hirschfeld, but kept it at home. Too large for the display case. I also excluded two large boxes of clippings, photos, cards, etc. that would have made the exhibit look like an attic. 

I have seen two great Chaplin exhibits in my life. The first was at the aforementioned Museum of the Moving Image, in London. Located on the South Bank of the Thames, it was literally just blocks from where Charlie was born and spent an impoverished youth. The items on display put me back into the late 19th century, gaining insight into the world of the young Chaplin.

The other exhibit appeared in October, 2010, at the Zanesville Museum of Art. Organized by Lisa Stein, who was responsible for the 
First Charlie Chaplin International Conference, 
the exhibit featured a remarkable array of 
Chaplin material - letters, photographs, artwork, books   and magazines, personal items. What made it a singular experience for me was to be wandering around the museum in the company of people like David Robinson, Chuck Maland, David Shepard, and other Chaplin experts and writers from around the world. My only regret was not staying in Zanesville an extra day at the museum.

If you're in St. Louis, or driving through, stop by the Library, across from the swanky Plaza Frontenac collection of up-scale stores, most of which Charlie would not have patronized. 

If you're in New York - caution: plug alert - check out the new show on Broadway, "Chaplin: The Musical," which begins previews on Aug. 21 and opens on Sept. 10.
The Three Stags Pub, courtesy of Carl Sturmer
A pint of bitter. To your health.

If you're in London, stop by the Three Stags Pub for a pint. That's the last place Charlie ever saw his father. I have a glass from there, thanks to another Chaplin friend and fan, Carl Sturmer of New York. Carl has documented a lot of buildings and locations in London connected to Chaplin, which I'll be referring to in future posts. My "to do" list now includes sharing a few pints with Carl at the Three Stags.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Charlie and Doug Jr.

For many years during the first half of the 20th century, Charlie was the most famous man in the world. The most beloved. The most popular. He was also an extremely lonesome man. Out of all the people he knew and worked with, one man emerged as his closest friend: Douglas Fairbanks. From the time they met until Doug's death in 1939, they were inseparable. Hollywood history is filled with stories of their pranks and adventures together. And with Doug's wife, Mary Pickford, they formed a bond that was unshakable.

I was looking through some of my Chaplin books recently, and came across a slim volume published in 1931. Several years have passed since I last read it When I opened the cover, the first thing I noticed was a drawing of Charlie by Doug Fairbanks, Jr. The forward was written by Doug Jr. 

So here is a perspective on Charlie from the son of his best friend.

"He is the easiest man in the world to know but nobody knows him - perhaps because of that fact. He has many eccentricities - a reaction from the days when, as an ambitious artist, he yearned for something he couldn't have and then found, overnight, the world in his grasp. He is a man who has dreamed, and because his dreams came true they embittered him. He is a very vain man and an extremely jealous one. He is selfish beyond all tolerance and yet with all his faults there stands predominantly the frail, majestic figure of a man who might have made history had he not thought too much about doing so."

Doug continues with observations about his charm, his love of children, his embarrassment at showing affection. He speaks of his intellect, and his quickness to laugh at his own deficiencies. He also talks about his physical attributes and one of his great fears.

"He has tiny feet and his hands are almost effeminate; he uses them beautifully. He has an inherent grace about everything he does. He loves to monopolize a conversation. He is, at heart, a faithful but an erratic and not always reliable friend. He is an indomitable worker but cannot work under adverse mental conditions. He is highly sensitive and is easily offended. He dreads getting old and looks with terror at the gray hairs that are already plentiful in his early forties. He likes to brood alone. He takes long walks and runs every morning before breakfast. He is an incurable flirt and likes nothing better than to be referred to as a Don Juan. He has a slight English accent but considers himself an American. He is the champion of the oppressed even when he is on the side of the oppressors." 

Doug was only 22 years old when he wrote this introduction, but he obviously had formed some well-defined opinions of Charlie, with a great deal of accuracy.  One line jumps out at me which defines Charlie's greatness as a filmmaker. 
"He is never satisfied with his work and is persevering to a fault."

He concludes with a glance into the future.

"Life, to him, is a great scientific experiment. There has been only one woman he has ever really loved in his life. Charlie Chaplin will live for years in the memories of many millions and be acknowledged one of the greatest men of our day. It may be bromidic to speak of his genius, but it is surely a greater and more profound gift than he himself realizes. Chaplin will always be 'Charlie' and 'Charlie' will always be 'Charlot,' and as such will be a great man to many who wish they they knew him, but cannot - because it is so easy to do so."

This was written in 1931, before "Modern Times" and "The Great Dictator" and "Monsieur Verdoux" and "Limelight." And possibly before "City Lights." Doug Junior was the one who called Charlie to tell him of his father's passing.

The final words here belong to Charlie.

"I have missed Douglas - I have missed the warmth of his enthusiasm and charm, I have missed his friendly voice over the telephone, that used to call me up on a bleak and lonely Sunday morning: 'Charlie, coming up for lunch - then for a swim - then for dinner - then afterwards, see a picture?' Yes, I have missed his delightful friendship."

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Music in His Life

The Barrymore Theater on W. 47th St. in NYC

The Chaplin name will brighten Broadway starting this August. That's when "Chaplin: The Musical" begins previews, with the opening set for Sept. 10, 2012. Rehearsals are scheduled to begin next week. 

Which leads me to the subject of Charlie and music, a connection that began when he was a young boy in London and which continued throughout his life. Charlie talks about seeing two street musicians in Kennington Cross:

"It was here that I first discovered music, or where I first learned its rare beauty, a beauty that has gladdened and haunted me from that moment. It all happened one night while I was there, about midnight. I recall the whole thing so distinctly.

"I was just a boy, and its beauty was like some sweet mystery. I did not understand. I only knew I loved it and I became reverent as the sounds carried themselves through my brain via my heart.

"I suddenly became aware of a harmonica and a clarinet playing a weird, harmonious message. I learned later that it was 'The Honeysuckle and the Bee.' It was played with such feeling that I became conscious for the first time of what melody really was. My first awakening to music."

That's the way Charlie remembered it in 1921, when he wrote "My Trip Abroad." In 1952 he talked about music during a BBC interview. Fred Karno was head of the music hall troupe that Charlie had joined before coming to the U.S.

"The Karno sketches had splendid music. For instance, if they had squalor surroundings with a lot of comedy tramps working in it, then, you see, they would have very beautiful boudoir music, something of the eighteenth century, very lush and very grandioso, just purely as satirical and as a counterpoint; and I copied a great deal from Mr. Fred Karno in that direction."

Charlie played the cello and the violin. Left-handed. He had the instruments restrung, reversing the sequence of the strings. To make this even more interesting, he was not classically trained in music and could not read or write music. Still, he heard it and realized its importance in his films. In 1926 he told a reporter:
"Music is extremely important....that is why I welcome the efforts being made to provide music by mechanical systems, such as the DeForest and the Vitaphone. Mechanical music which has the quality of a symphony orchestra is much better as an accompaniment than feeble vamping on a piano or the excruciating efforts of an incompetent or ill-led orchestra."

And as any Chaplin fan knows, he had zero tolerance for incompetence.

According to Eric James, Chaplin's music associate, "No one understood the power of musical accompaniment to film better than Charles Chaplin whose instinct for and exposure to music served him well as he began to construct his classic films." 

Chaplin's final film, his only one in color, was "A Countess from Hong Kong." As he did with many of his scores, he conducted, as in this shot from the recording session for that film. One final comment about Chaplin and his music: he wrote one of the most popular songs ever to come from a movie. The movie was "Modern Times," in 1936. The song was "Smile."

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

When Charlie Came Back

It was in 1952 that U.S. Attorney General James McGranery waited until the Chaplin's had sailed for England that he pulled their re-entry permit. McCarthyism, HUAC, and the powers in D.C. had declared that the man who had given so much to America was now a danger and no longer welcome. Hollywood remained silent.

Twenty years later, with the Red scare safely tucked away, Charlie was invited back for a special honor at the Oscars.  He had been living in Vevey, Switzerland.  He reluctantly agreed. First he stopped in New York for a screening of two of his films at Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall. Even Mayor John Lindsay presented him with a special award. Then he headed West to accept his honorary statuette in front of a cheering Hollywood audience. He looked frail, unsteady, but still tried to entertain the audience with a small bit with his hat. Afterwards he returned to Vevey where he lived out his final years.

Shortly after he left, SHOW magazine published an article about him, written by William Wolf. He talked about the shock of seeing Chaplin in old age. Even Chaplin remarked, "My pins aren't so good any more," referring to his legs. Wolf interviewed Charlie at Manoir de Ban shortly before he left for the U.S. Here are some of Chaplin's remarks which I've pulled from the interview.

"I don't think (today's movies) stack up to mine. I'm very frank in saying that. They have no merit. They are silly and foolish, and if performers strip off their clothes - well, that's all right, but I would say that's what I object to about the modern movie. Any pantry sweetie can come in and take her clothes off, and she's interesting to the average audience. But I worked damned hard on the set to make a film, and everything I did was con amore, with my heart and soul, and with a terrific enthusiasm. I don't consider I'm a genius. Things come hard to me. I think they must come easier to other people.

"The FBI people asked why I followed the party line. I said, 'If you tell me what the party line is, I'll tell you whether I follow it or not.' They couldn't believe I wasn't a Communist. Oh yes, I was sympathetic to anybody who was hard up and needed help. That's all my politics ever got into."

He talked about "A King in New York."

"I didn't do it with any bitterness. It has a very good performance by my son Michael, and there's a lot of good stuff in that picture. If a picture gives the opportunity for invention, I'll take it, and I don't care what the hell the consequences are. We made fun of a lot of things, like progressive education, and the story naturally veered tgoward this young chap whom the FBI was trying to pressure to inform on his parents. But I wouldn't accept any ideas unless there was great comedy in it. I'm not  a pamphleteer. I had great fun, and that's the only thing I'm interested in."

Shortly before the interview was interrupted by the news that his young daughter, Annie, had broken her ankle in a skiing accident, Charlie talked about Mack Sennett.

"Mack Sennett was a great influence. I learned all of my comedy from him. He would laugh at the things I did, and I'd think well, that's not so funny, but he would think it was funny, and he gave me a lot of confidence. I enjoyed the old days in California when Thomas Ince as around, and when Sennett was around."

The author finishes up with these thoughts:
"His reputation stands on his films, of course, and not one's judgement of him as a person. But he did make a likeable impression, because the sense of humor was strongly there, he was gracious and hospitable, and he had a kind of elder statesman of the arts air about him. One quickly observed the strong ego people have long talked about....Within him seems also to be the longing to make yet another film, since he fights against accepting that his work, as great as it is judged to be, should stand completed."

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Travels with Charlie in 1921

I have this very old book (published in 1922) called "My Trip Abroad" by Charlie Chaplin. He wrote it in conjunction with an extended journey he made to Europe, beginning in September of 1921. It was originally published as a series of articles in a magazine, then as the book. Besides wanting to escape from the pressures of Hollywood and making films ("The Kid" was released in 1921, followed by "The Idle Class" that same year), he had an urge to revisit his boyhood neighborhoods. This is how his story begins.

"A steak-and-kidney pie, influenza, and a cablegram. There is the triple alliance that is responsible for the whole thing. Though there might have been a bit of homesickness and a desire for applause mixed up in the cycle of circumstances that started me off to Europe for a vacation.

"For seven years I have been basking in California's perpetual sunlight, a sunlight artificially enhanced by the studio Cooper-Hewitts. For seven years I have been working and thinking along in a single channel and I wanted to get away. Away from Hollywood, the cinema colony, away from scenarios, away from the celluloid smell of the studios, away from contracts, press notices, cutting rooms, crowds, bathing beauties, custard pies, big shoes, and little mustaches. I was in the atmosphere of achievement, but an achievement which, to me, was rapidly verging on stagnation.

"I wanted an emotional holiday. Perhaps I am projecting at the start a difficult condition for conception, but I assure you that even the clown has his rational moments and I needed a few.

"The triple alliance listed above came about rather simultaneously. I had finished the picture of 'The Kid' and 'The Idle Class' and was about to embark on another. The company had been engaged. Script and settings were ready. We had worked on the picture one day.

"I was feeling very tired, weak, and depressed. I had just recovered from an attack of influenza. I was in one of those 'what's the use' moods. I wanted something and didn't know what it was."

He visits a friend's house in Pasadena. Then...
"I drove back to Los Angeles. I was restless. There was a cablegram waiting for me from London. It called attention to the fact that my latest picture, 'The Kid' was about to make its appearance in London and, as it had been acclaimed my best, this was the time for me to make the trip back to my native land. A trip that I had been promising myself for years.

"What would Europe look like after the war?"

The book continues for 155 pages. And throughout, I can hear Chaplin's voice - his excitement, his occasional sadness, his personal view on famous people and places he visited. Perhaps more of his travels will be told in future posts.