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.

Monday, June 11, 2012

When Charlie Became a Water Rat

I never knew about the Water Rats until I read about it in a book published in London especially for Chaplin's 100th Birthday Celebration. I bought the book when I was at the Museum of the Moving Image in 1989 to see the special Chaplin exhibit. This story takes place in 1931, when Charlie returned to London to promote "City Lights." He was reunited with a friend from his old vaudeville days, Wee Georgie Wood, who told this story.

"The night Charlie Chaplin became a member of the Grand Order of Water Rats was solemn and hilarious, moving and magnificently mad. It all happened in 1931, but it might never have taken place but for a chance meeting in Bud Flanagan's dressing room at the Victoria Palace. Bud his partner, Chesney Allen, and Freddie and Charlie Austin, were playing cards when a famous head popped round the door and said to Charlie, 'Hello, Oats.'

"It was Chaplin, using the Cockney rhyming slang he had never forgotten. 'Oats' is short for 'Oats and barley.' Freddie and Charlie were the younger brothers of Albert Austin who had gone to America with the same Fred Karno company as Charlie and later worked with him on many of his pictures.

"Charlie Austin was wearing his gold Water Rat emblem in his lapel, and when Charlie saw it he sighed, 'I used to yearn to be famous, so that they would invite me to be a Rat.'

George goes on to tell how they invited Charlie to join them at an initiation ceremony the following Sunday night at 8. Everyone is there...except Charlie. The Rats grow impatient as the clock strikes 9, then 10. Many threaten to leave.

George continues: "By 11 o'clock the temperature was even higher. In fact, had it not been for the efforts of Bud Flanagan, Chesney Allen and Clarkson Ross there might have been a mass walk-out. But these three saved the night - by bouncing in and out of the room every few minutes wearing Chaplin moustaches.

"Midnight came - and even the clowning of the trio was falling flat. Suddenly, the doors open. And there, smiling uncertainly, stood a small, dapper figure. For a second there was silence. Then the entire audience rose and cheered. The image of that Chaplin smile had swept away their anger. And the victory was complete when he explained that he had spent four hours battling his way to us. Not even the police had been able to clear a passage for him through the throngs trying to see him.

"A new Rat usually makes a solemn initiation speech. But there was never anything usual about Charlie! He gave us a full hour of spontaneous humour, impersonating great Water Rats of the past, giving his own wonderful impression - his 'party piece' - of a girl undressing in a French hotel!" When it was all over, a crowd of us went on to Charlie Austin's flat for another hilarious party and finished up with Charlie at six in the morning somewhere in Kennington.

"Charlie said, 'I feel I'd like to go back and see some of my old haunts again.' So we joined him on this sentimental pilgrimage to the streets of his boyhood and early youth."

And that's the true story of how Charlie Chaplin became an official member of the Grand Order of Water Rats.