Wednesday, December 12, 2012
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.
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.