The Chaplin-itis

The power of mass suggestion and the undying passion for the Tramp
by Saul Austerlitz  posted September 18, 2009
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I can pinpoint the precise moment when the idea of a novel about the life of Charlie Chaplin likely first stirred in the mind of novelist Glen David Gold. It's on page 213 of David Robinson's magisterial Chaplin: His Life and Art and fairly leaps off the page, even in this remarkable account of perhaps the most remarkable man ever to grace American film. "About the same time [February 1917, that is] the Boston Society for Psychical Research was investigating 'certain phenomena connected with the simultaneous paging of Mr. Charles Chaplin, motion picture comedian, in more than 800 large hotels of the United States.' This surprising psycho-pathological phenomenon was supposed to have been observed on 12 November 1916 across the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts, and from the Canadian boundary to the Gulf." Not merely mass adulation, but mass suggestion; such was the stardom of Charlie Chaplin, the likes of which had never been seen before—or since. "HAD YOU THE CHAPLIN-ITIS?," the next day's Kansas City Star wondered, and the neologism was apt. The passion for the Tramp was akin to a disease, albeit a mostly benign one, and its symptoms were almost entirely unfamiliar.

That passion never fully abated. Chaplin was more than a movie star—he was an infinitely malleable global icon, with a boundlessly varied array of interpretations pegged to his persona. After a fallow period, interest in Chaplin has revived in the past two decades, with impressions and reinterpretations following each other in close order and the private life, not the work, snatching center stage.

"I AM HERE TODAY," the signboards outside the theaters read, their display a life-size cutout of Chaplin in his Tramp costume. The advertisements were intended as a reminder that The Immigrant or The Pilgrim would be playing before that evening's feature, but could they not also be read as a promise of proximity that could never be kept? The cinema's legendary moment of innocence—legendary because it seems never to have taken place—had the patrons at a Paris theater scrambling out of their seats, adrenalized by fear at the Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, courtesy of the Lumière brothers' short film. Perhaps, though, this odd instance of Chaplin's imminent presence everywhere at once, tantalizingly ambiguous and imperfectly documented, is better proof of film's remarkable powers of suggestion.

Gold's new novel, Sunnyside, begins with a variant of this mysterious occurrence, an absence turned into a mystical presence. Leland Wheeler, son of a lighthouse keeper in northern California, is summoned to action by a report of a craft adrift in the water. The rickety boat's lone passenger is recognizable—so recognizable, in fact, that it takes some time for Leland to admit just who it might be. "We were thinking," he shamefully tells his mother, "it looks like Charlie Chaplin." Leland heads out to rescue Chaplin from the stormy ocean, but his efforts are doomed: "With acrobatic momentum, the tumble carried him upright, and he stood, arms in fists at his sides, looking as if he had just triumphed over the sea. He did not see what loomed behind. With the weight of a mudslide, a wave crashed down upon the boat, and Charlie Chaplin was blown below the surface."

This is not the last we see of Chaplin in Sunnyside—it is only the beginning, in fact—but it is a telling image for Gold's Charlie, who is not waving but drowning beneath a sea of private miseries and misfortunes: an unhappy marriage, his guilt over his mentally unstable mother, Hannah, whom he has conspired to keep from joining him in Los Angeles, and the nagging worry that his best work is already behind him. Chaplin is only one of the novel's protagonists, but his presence hangs over the entire book, even when the action moves as far from Los Angeles as the forests of northwest Russia. He is its reminder of the human capability for genius, its representative of artistic frailty, and the symbol of the burgeoning postwar Red Scare, whose McCarthyite sequel, culminating in U.S. attorney general James McGranery's expulsion of the star from the country in 1952, would have so tragic an impact on Chaplin's own life. For readers, this Chaplin is a reminder of the long, eventful history of Charlie Chaplin—not merely as a filmmaker or actor but as a symbol, artistic subject, and character in others' fictions.

So much time has passed, and popular culture has changed so much, that it is easy to forget just how famous Charlie Chaplin once was. At the height of his fame, Chaplin was the best-known, and best-loved, man in the world. To put this in proper perspective: in 1940, when Chaplin made The Great Dictator, the actor would have been recognized by far more Americans than the man he was mocking: Adolf Hitler. In 1915, the year of "the great Chaplin explosion," as Robinson tells us, there were dolls, toys, and books honoring the comedian. There was a comic-strip character patterned after Chaplin's Tramp and a series of animated cartoons by Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer that transformed the Tramp into a child-friendly caricature.

There were copious imitators. Harold Lloyd got his start playing a character named Lonesome Luke who was essentially the Tramp in too-tight pants. Lloyd merely inverted Chaplin's Tramp costume. His pants were tight, his eyebrows a pair of arched triangles, and his mustache twin dollops of greasepaint on either side of his mouth. Chaplin could not be said to have been an influence quite so much as a ghostwriter on pictures like Fireman, Save My Child and Lonesome Luke in Tin Can Alley, which made no effort to mask their borrowings from the Tramp. Comedian Lupino Lane's hit song, "That Charlie Chaplin Walk," was hardly the only ditty about the Tramp; there was also "Charlie Chaplin Glide," "Charlie Chaplin—March Grotesque," "Those Charlie Chaplin Feet," "Charlie Chaplin, the Funniest of Them All," and in France, "Charlot One-Step."

With his 1916 Mutual contract that would pay him $670,000 per year—more than any other person in the world—Chaplin had graduated to an entirely new level of stardom, one only exacerbated by the First World War. The Tramp had been intended as a universal representative of the little man, and the outbreak of war gave editorialists and editorial cartoonists an easy symbol—and an easy target. "In a word," Gold quotes Chaplin as saying, "the whole of humanity seen from the angles of the cosmic imagination are Charlie Chaplins." For some, the Tramp was a suitably ironic contrast to the amoral machinations of statesmen. A Spanish cartoon featured the German Kaiser with his arm around the Tramp's shoulders, its caption reading "the world's two great comedians."

Other newspaper depictions were more ambiguous. A 1917 French cartoon showed Chaplin, in his familiar Tramp garb, wearing a German helmet. Did Chaplin simply transcend the conflict? Or was his failure to don a British uniform and fight for the country of his birth a rebuke of the Allied powers? In a 1917 Weekly Dispatch editorial, British newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe argued that the skills Chaplin had demonstrated as the Tramp were proof of his suitability for battle:"The way he is able to mount stairs suggests the alacrity with which he would go over the top when the whistle blew." Chaplin was also a comfort for those personally involved in the conflict; the 1917 comic-strip book Charlie in the Army, depicting the Tramp enduring the small miseries of military life, was an unexpected success. Perhaps the conceit of Chaplin's beloved everyman suffering the indignities of service provided a momentary balm for the anguish of war.

With Chaplin the artist being simply impossible to replicate, or even adequately imitate, recent depictions have concentrated on Chaplin the man. Richard Attenborough's 1992 film Chaplin allows star Robert Downey Jr. a handful of opportunities to try his hand at the Tramp, and he does surprisingly well. The two-and-a-half-hour biopic dutifully hits most of the high notes, culminating in Swiss exile and climaxing with Chaplin's American return to collect, at long last, his Academy Award in 1972. The moment is touching and entirely self-defeating. Attenborough shows clips of the real Chaplin's work from The Kid and The Circus, and these moments, which have lost little of their power to amuse and move, overwhelm the movie's frail efforts at duplication.

Attenborough, a director of no discernible comic gifts, signals humorous moments with blasts of brassy silent-film music, but turning the bobbies who took young Charlie to the workhouse into Keystone Kops seems both diminishing and misguided. Chaplin's genius was not born of circumstances, as the film argues; it survived in spite of them. And rather than showing Chaplin as a victim of misguided anti-leftist sentiment, which would flare during the First World War and burn after the Second, Chaplin offers FBI director J. Edgar Hoover as the actor's personal nemesis, turning up at regular intervals to lurk malevolently and plot Chaplin's downfall. For Attenborough's film, Chaplin is a genius and a naïf, brought down less by his political allegiances (which remain murky) than by his dalliances with a series of underage starlets. A great man brought down by his peccadilloes, its protagonist might as well be Bill Clinton, elected to the presidency a month before Chaplin's release.

Peter Bogdanovich's The Cat's Meow, from 2001, takes a darker view of Chaplin's proclivities. This historical fiction, inspired by the mysterious death of producer Thomas Ince aboard the yacht of William Randolph Hearst in 1924, speculates that Chaplin was having an affair with Hearst's mistress Marion Davies and was the intended victim when Hearst accidentally shot Ince. Eddie Izzard's Chaplin is a cad and a card, deflecting criticism of his odious behavior with a steady stream of impressions and absurdist comic routines. In Bogdanovich and screenwriter Steven Peros's conception, Chaplin is a jaded aesthete and an egotist whose only genuine passion burns for himself. Watching him at work, a catty observer concludes that "Charles is only capable of a monogamous relationship with his own movies." Later, she decides that "Charles would copulate with a particularly attractive pallbearer" at his own lover's funeral.

For a film historian, Bogdanovich has surprisingly little sympathy for Chaplin. In a strange inversion, the film contrasts Chaplin the all-powerful actor with Edward Herrmann's lovelorn, bereft media mogul. Izzard is no Chaplin; he is not even Robert Downey Jr. His Chaplin entertains guests with brief routines that we recognize as being from what will be his next film, The Gold Rush, but where Chaplin was light-fingered and limber, Izzard is heavy and lumbering. It is almost as if Bogdanovich, having judged Chaplin and found him guilty of crimes against womankind, saw fit to downgrade the very quality of Chaplin's work as well.

Sunnyside returns to Chaplin the artist, freezing him at an in-between moment in his career. (It takes place during the production and release of three Chaplin shorts: A Dog's Life, the war comedy Shoulder Arms, and the misguided flop that gives the book its title.) Having put the simple amusements of earlier years behind him, Gold's Chaplin can envision a new kind of film, in which emotion plays as large a role as slapstick. "You haven't made a film as good as you are," a screenwriter named Frances Marion tells him. "Your films are good. They're funny. You have little flashes of something else, moments of greatness, but you haven't managed to tap into it."

We still understand little of Chaplin's genius, but unlike in Attenborough's film, which maintains a worshipful distance, it is because we are too close to the man to properly see him. He is a bundle of contradictions, a sensitive loner and a sexual predator, a clown and an aesthete, and his judgment of his own work is usually profoundly mistaken. "I've lost my spark," he tells his brother Syd. "I don't know how stories are shaped anymore." He is describing his difficulties bringing Sunnyside to life, but his panic comes shortly after the narrator's brief description of the reception to Shoulder Arms: block-long lines in Los Angeles, a beefed-up police presence in Chicago, doors torn from their hinges at an Omaha theater. The film's routines—the gas mask for a block of Limburger cheese, Charlie surrounding a dozen German soldiers, the mail call that brings no packages for the Tramp—were instantly memorable, indelible even 90 years later. Hardly the political fiasco that Syd feared, it was an unprecedented success. Coming out at the height of the influenza pandemic, Shoulder Arms attracted record audiences—and elevated them. "Chaplin had by his own wit become a hero," notes Gold, "and made the country feel like a nation of heroes for appreciating him."

Chaplin's career suffers some distortion in this telling. The man who had already made The Immigrant, The Adventurer, and The Pawnshop could hardly be said to have failed to tap into his greatness. Nonetheless, the point is made; Sunnyside's Chaplin is a man whose greatest masterpieces lie in the future, still out of sight. Tweaking his formula, Chaplin had proved his infinite adaptability. "It's simple," he tells his brother of what will become Shoulder Arms. "It's the same as ever, except the cops are Germans. Yes?" For his next Tramp picture, Chaplin dreams of killing his alter ego—or possibly making him Jewish instead. Sunnyside, that most confusing and disappointing of his films, is an odd entrance into Chaplin's monumental career. Little seen, and little regarded, it is easily the weakest of his later shorts. The Tramp is neither killed nor given a new religion but dances awkwardly over the chasm between Keystone and The Kid, slapstick and melodrama. Still, for the book's purposes, it is a potent metaphor. Like the war it obliquely reflects, it is a difficult, maddening slog, disheartening and ultimately smaller than the sum of its parts.

Gold, a historical novelist who prefers large canvases and familiar figures, also takes an interest in those magicians who walk among us. His first novel, Carter Beats the Devil, counted Harry Houdini among its central figures, and Chaplin occupies a similar position in Sunnyside, straddling the gap between flesh-and-blood and myth. Gold's Chaplin is both an all-too-real performer, struggling with self-doubt and personal travail, and a figure out of contemporary mythology. Gold does justice to Chaplin the martyr and Chaplin the womanizer, but clearly prefers Chaplin the conjurer. Having endured his struggles and misfortunes, we leave Charlie on the brink of immortality. The man is about to make himself disappear, replaced by the legend. 


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Saul Austerlitz is at work on a book on the history of American film comedy.

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