Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Conclusion of Chapter 1

"Shadow and Substance: My Time with Charlie Chaplin" - 

Chapter 1 - Concluded

One night in late 1995 I was producing a music recording session at A&M Records in Hollywood. During a break, I wandered down the hall, through a heavy metal door, and stepped onto The Chaplin Stage. The stage was dark. I was alone. I began to wonder, to imagine... what if Charlie's spirit was still here. What if he talked to me. What if he appeared.

And so was born the idea for my novel. Several years later, after many stops and starts, I completed the novel and it was published in 2010. Beginning with this post on my blog, you will be able to read much of my novel over the next several weeks.

If you would like to purchase a signed copy of the novel, send a check for $17 to me, at 503 Taylor Young Drive, Kirkwood MO 63122. A limited number of copies are still available. Thanks, and I hope you enjoy the journey with Charlie.


              CHAPTER 1 - CONTINUED


FlashBack Productions occupies a large house in a residential neighborhood, just north of Sunset Boulevard where Hollywood meets Beverly Hills and the rent begins to escalate. I walked up the stone-lined path to the front door, through a yard deep in shadows amidst a tangled variety of tropical trees, the yard accented with splashes of yellow and pink and red flowers. If it hadn’t been for the hum of traffic on Sunset, I might have thought I was in the Brazilian jungle. Back in Ohio, they might have been shoveling snow.
     “Hi. You must be Cooper. I’m Heather.” The receptionist spoke with a warm, husky timbre. “Can I get you anything? Water? Juice? Herbal tea?” Pause. “Coffee?” 
      “Juice sounds fine. Thanks.”
     “Guava? Papaya? Pomegranate?” Pause. “Orange?”
     “Surprise me.”
     She headed down the hall. “I’ll tell Kevin you’re here.”
     I sank down into a long, plush sofa set against a large, bubbling aquarium in the wall. I knew Kevin McDaniels, the head of FlashBack, only from several phone conversations. His enthusiasm about the project was contagious. I hoped he was as likable in person. And I hoped he liked me. I was the outsider from the Midwest with the credentials he had been looking for. 
     Kevin had said he was looking for a “nontraditional” viewpoint, even though I wasn’t quite sure what it meant. This was an incredibly significant opportunity for me: a writing assignment in Hollywood with the potential to establish myself on my favorite subject, Charlie Chaplin. my all-time favorite, close to obsession status. 
     Heather brought my juice over. Orange. I expected her to take me into Kevin’s office. I was wrong. Two minutes later, Kevin walked up. From his voice on the phone, I had pictured short, chunky and bald. He  was over six feet tall with the smooth, powerful lines of a natural athlete, topped off with a head full of pure white hair. The hair just didn’t match up, an anomaly that looked like a bad make-up job. He appeared to be in his mid-forties, about ten years older than me. 
     “Cooper. Hi. Kevin McDaniels.” He extended his hand, which I both shook and used as a rope to pull myself out of the couch. He backed up his grip with a wide, contagious smile. I liked him immediately and relaxed. “Come on back. How was your flight?”
     “Smooth. The way I like them.”
     “Hotel okay?”
     “Very nice.” 
     We entered his office, a spacious room that looked out onto the back yard and the pool, some orange trees, and a golden retriever stretched out by the sliding glass doors. A living, breathing real estate brochure. 
     We sat in director’s chairs on opposite sides of a low, teak coffee table. He cut to the chase. “Why should I hire you, Cooper?”
     A fair question, but one I hadn’t expected as a starting point. “Because you want to give highly talented writers from mid-America a chance to participate in the dynamics of Hollywood.” Sometimes I speak before thinking.
     He laughed. “Of course.” He shifted forward, elbows on knees, hands clasped, staring intently at me. “Frankly, I’m not sure why you’re here. Let me explain. You made the short list, but I pretty well had it narrowed down to another writer. Then I got this in the mail.”
     He handed me a single sheet of folded paper, undated, no letterhead, with a short, handwritten message. “Mr. McDaniels, it has come to my attention that you are embarking upon an important new series dedicated to early Hollywood personalities, including Sir Charles Chaplin. Forgive my impetuousness, but I would suggest you  consider a young man named Cooper Thiery of Columbus, Ohio, as one of your creative resources. Through my duties here at Oxford University, I have become aware of his insight into the subject and believe it would be in your interest to, at the minimum, contact him. Please excuse the abruptness of this intrusion and lack of follow-through on my part, but I shall be on sabbatical for the next six months. Best of luck on your project.” The signature read “Ian Picking, Professor of Cultural Heritage, Oxford University.”
     The handwriting matched that in the Robinson book.
     I handed the letter back to Kevin, held my hand as steady as possible, and said nothing.
     “I called Oxford,” he said. “Picking is indeed on sabbatical. Out of touch for another four months.” 
     Kevin continued filling in the background on our meeting, but my mind was working over the similarity in handwriting, the appearance of the book at the hotel and the Oxford letter. I just wanted Kevin to say I had the job, so I could start to work and not deal with the puzzle.
     “Any thoughts about that?” 
     He was waiting for my answer, and I hadn’t even heard the question. 
     “About what?”
     “About where you might start. Are you with me, Cooper?”
     I apologized for my drifting, then recalled some of the comments from the book. Maybe that would take the interview in the right direction. “Two areas,” I said. “First, Chaplin’s relationship with Edna Purviance. I think there’s more there than has been uncovered so far.” In a paragraph about her and Charlie, her name had been circled with the comment, “Half the story.” It could be accurate. “The other area is what he did with some of his films, where he stored them, especially one that theoretically no longer exists. Chaplin didn’t destroy much of his work, even if he didn’t like it. It’s worth a look.” I stopped. Other areas seemed workable, according to the notes in the Robinson book, but I didn’t want to start a laundry list of possibilities. Less is more, as someone once said. An architect, maybe.
     Kevin moved into an overview of the project, much of which we had discussed on the phone a couple of weeks ago. Then he stood up and the meeting was over. A four hour flight, each way, for a half hour meeting. 
      Back in Columbus, a message was waiting on my answering machine. Also, a new e-mail was sitting in my inbox. They both said the same thing. “Good news. You start on Monday. Welcome to the dynamics of Hollywood.” I treated myself to a couple of double-cut pork chops for dinner and four draft Guinness's at a neighborhood hangout. I would have gone dancing if I liked to dance.

“Let me introduce the gang to you, Cooper.” Three people were seated at the round, slate-topped table. Kevin pointed to one of the empty chairs and I sat. 
     He began with the slim, perfectly tanned man on my right who was focused on a file folder in his hands. “This is Jamie Cormell. Jamie’s my second in command at FlashBack, and executive producer on the Chaplin show. He has other projects in the works, so you won’t see much of him on a daily basis.” We shook hands and Jamie returned to his folder. It was as sincere as shaking hands with a politician.
     “Next is Therese Margolies. She’ll handle any production services you require. Transfer time for video, audio. Screening of archival material. Access to libraries, schools, even dinner reservations. Therese can get you into most restaurants, just in case you need to impress someone during your research.” Therese, a redhead with a thin, freckled face, threw me a warm smile. “Welcome,” she said and raised her coffee cup in a toast. She seemed genuine.
     “Finally,” said Kevin, “is our man Squid Pessenha.” A short, wiry young man with coffee-and-cream colored skin stood and shook my hand. I noticed it was damp, probably from nerves, I thought. I hoped. “Squid,” Kevin continued, “gets things done. He knows the city like a cabbie, which he used to be.” Squid forced a smile. “Call him to find out how to get anywhere, how to get releases, check out locations. If you don’t know who else to ask, ask him. Just don’t ask him where to get a haircut.” Therese and Jamie laughed. Squid’s shaved head glistened like a ripe coconut.
     Kevin slipped into the chair across from me and kicked the meeting into gear. He scooted his chair away from the table, folded his hands under his chin, and made eye contact with each of us. I had the feeling that the curtain had just gone up on Act One with the stage bare except for an accomplished actor.
     Kevin talked about the great names of Hollywood past, the people who had shaped the present. Garbo, Fairbanks, Keaton, Valentino. The list went on. It was these legends he wanted to redefine. Starting with Chaplin. A series of documentaries would challenge the established notion of who these people were. We knew we weren’t embarking on another Biography concept. “Those are too reverential,” he said. “Our mission is to strip away the hypocrisy, the phony glitter of Hollywood.” He had told me all this over the phone, but the harshness of his concept hadn’t really hit me until now. He really wanted to rip the old-timers.
     Jamie casually jotted some notes on his pad, as though this were just another weekly meeting. Therese looked at Kevin with no expression. Squid fidgeted in his seat and threw a nervous smile at me. 
     Heather called from the next room. “Kevin, it’s Desmond at HBO. She says it’s important.”
     Everyone remained silent while he was out. For the first time I could study the black-and-white framed photographs that ran around the walls. Individuals and small groups of people posed on stage sets, on location, near large Panavision cameras. I couldn’t make out any of the faces, but I would have bet most of them were Kevin with celebrities. The Hollywood equivalent of a doctor’s diploma. 
     Kevin returned with no indication of what the call was about. “Sorry for the interruption. I have nothing further to add. Any questions?” The way he asked it, he wasn’t really interested in answering questions. “That wraps it up then. Thank you.” I started to leave with the others. “Cooper, stick around, please.” Kevin closed the door. I figured this was where he would give me the “Emmy’s are within our reach” speech. In fact, I could swear the lighting in the room changed as he gathered his thoughts.
     He walked over to a stack of file folders, opened the top one, pulled out a photograph, and placed it gently in front of me. It was Chaplin in a scene from City Lights. Charlie holds a rose, his hand at his mouth, a look in his eyes that is a poignant expression of realization and sadness and love lost. That scene had been filmed over sixty years ago and still reaches deep into the heart.
     To me, that is part of the power and wonder of film. The ability of a single scene, a few frames, a scant slice of time on the screen, to stay in your mind forever. The opening shot of Citizen Kane, where a glass ball with a snow scene falls to the floor, distilling the mystery of a great man into a single image. Bogey in a white dinner jacket, seated at the piano bar in Casablanca, the uncommon hero hopelessly in love during dangerous times. George C. Scott dwarfed by the huge American flag in Patton, a simple statement of patriotism, valor and commitment. Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta, dancing and weaving in the ring, slow motion, black and white, where Scorcese brought grace and beauty to a violent sport in Raging Bull. And, of course, Charlie Chaplin with the dance of the bread rolls in The Gold Rush, the dream of a lonely man searching for love.
     It is moments like this that make me realize how film can transcend our everyday experience, can lift us even as we are changed. Where do the solar winds of imagination originate and who are these holy filmmakers who sanctify us with their visions? I was certain my writing would never come close to them, but I was content to linger in their shadows.
     I picked up the photo as though it were a relic. “I think I’ve seen this shot before, Kevin.”
     He laughed. “Chaplin at his best, capturing the essence of The Little Tramp. Touching audiences, moving them to laughter and tears.” 
     The way he said it, I knew a “but” was coming.
     Kevin continued. “Ask someone to name three Chaplin films, and City Lights will be one of the three. Probably along with The Gold Rush and The Kid.”
     “Or Modern Times or The Great Dictator.”
     “Whatever.” He wasn’t interested in our agreement on the best films. “Here’s the point. He’s one of the most familiar figures in history. Around the world. In fact, he’s probably as close to a symbol as anyone can get. Except for Jesus. Agree?”
     I agreed.
     “Cooper, I don’t want this show to cover old ground. You’ve got to dig deep. Somewhere, a letter, a contract, a film, a relationship has been overlooked or misinterpreted. You find them.”
     Charlie’s eyes comforted me, yet moved me to a deep feeling of sadness. “Kevin, you know I’ll do my best. I told you that when you first called.”
     “Then there’s no problem, right?”
     “Not a problem, but Chaplin’s life and work have been documented more than any other movie star. Over a hundred books, who knows how many thousands of articles, a long list of documentaries. They were writing him up in the 30’s, and they’re still doing it today. There’s not a —”
     “Don’t tell me the bin is empty.”
     “Maybe not empty, but pretty thin,” I said. What a lousy way to start off. That ticket back to Ohio began to take shape. Kevin had every right to send me back. He surprised me by speaking gently, even as his eyes turned hard.
     “Look. Cooper. I know you have high regard for Chaplin. Nobody spends as much time on a passion as you have without strong feelings. I brought you out here because you know how to rummage through his life, uncover shit that others passed by. I saw it in your articles, your book, your web site. If I want something polite, I can get it from a dozen hacks within three blocks of this office.” He began putting the photos back into the folder.  
     “I can give you a great script,” I said. “I’ve told you that. I’m just not sure this direction —”
     Kevin slapped the folder down. It sounded like a gunshot. “And I told you I was expecting a lot. You were aware of exactly the direction I was taking the series in. And you said you could handle it. Did something happen between then and today? Is this too big for you? Are you more comfortable back in Ohio? Let me know right now, Cooper. I’ve got a show to deliver.”
     I heard my heart pounding. I didn’t know how to respond. My first thought was, I don’t really want to throw mud on Chaplin’s name. Kevin hadn’t been that blunt when we initially discussed my involvement. There’s always something that hasn’t been uncovered, but I really didn’t want to get into scandalizing Chaplin. Did he want me to dig into Chaplin’s marriages, affairs, child-brides and trials? 
     “Kevin, are we talking about Chaplin with his pants down? You know, affairs, paternity suits, legal problems...like that?”
     He moved closer to me and became the warm, sincere boss. “No one’s asking you to do a hatchet job. I don’t want schlock. There’s enough dirty underwear being flown in the world today. I’m after truth, Cooper. Start to finish. On Chaplin, and all the others. This isn’t a one-trick pony. This is my attempt to restore some balance to an industry built on myths.” He moved away and added with a grin, “If it turns out, however, that Chaplin slept with Eleanor Roosevelt, then we use it.” 
     I forced a laugh. “Fair enough.” I wondered about his definition of “truth.” He would go for schlock if it were packaged nicely, but I wasn’t about to confront him. I was in LA, getting paid for writing a script about an artist I worshipped, a comfortable apartment, expenses paid. Kevin had arranged for living quarters in a small apartment-hotel off Sunset — clean, bright, quiet, just what I would need for my three-month stay. Even more pivotal was the opportunity to establish myself out here as a writer. No need to fight for principles if the enemy hadn’t made a move yet.
     Kevin put a firm hand on my shoulder. “I’m not worried. I know you can do it. I suggest you get to work, think about what I’ve said. If you have any questions, we’ll kick ‘em around. Fair enough?”
     “Fair enough.” What’s fair is, unfortunately, defined by those who make the rules.

     I jumped onto Sunset and caught the full brunt of evening rush. My conversation with Kevin replayed in my head. I examined each word, trying to determine if I had said the right things, where we had come out, and what lay ahead. I plodded my way east, past trendy little cafes along the wide boulevard, where the young and the hip sipped whatever it was they sip while breathing in exhaust fumes. I started to turn down Crescent Drive towards my apartment when an urge hit me to check out a Chaplin  landmark. I continued east on Sunset, along the boulevard of bold billboards, until I got to La Brea. There, set back south of the intersection, was the large A&M Studios complex, “A” for Herb Alpert, “M” for Jerry Moss, one of LA’s top recording studios.
     I took a left at De Longpre, which borders the studio, and found a parking spot halfway down the block. A minute later I was standing across the street from The Chaplin Studios, which Charlie had built in 1918. Designed in English Tudor style, to blend in with the rest of the neighborhood, it functioned as his studio until he left America amidst controversy in 1952. I had seen these buildings years ago, on a short trip to LA when I lived in San Francisco. Then, I had stood across the street and stared, my feet rooted in place, the rest of the world shut out. Not much different than a Little Leaguer’s first look at Yankee Stadium.
     Once again that feeling came over me. The glint of yellow sun off white stucco, the filtering haze, the constant clamor of traffic — all faded away. I stood there in 1918, in a quiet residential area, watching the cast and crew come and go as they filmed A Dog’s Life, the first movie to be shot at Chaplin’s new studios. The entire production unfolded within those walls. 
     Charlie and Rollie Totheroh, his trusted cameraman, huddle by the Pathe’ camera. The rest of the cast and crew, about thirty people, stand around or sit on folding chairs, boxes and crates, waiting. Conversation is subdued. No one dares disturb Charlie as he sets up his next shot on the dance hall set.
     The scene, after much rehearsal, evolves into a dance sequence. Edna Purviance dances so energetically she keeps bumping Charlie’s chin, which is on her shoulder, knocking off his hat. Prior to shooting, Charlie shows her the dance step which carries him comically across the dance floor. He then shows Edna how to hold him to get maximum effect from her shoulder movement. She has trouble making it work, so he pulls Henry Bergman onto the dance floor. Henry is a very large man and one of his favorite actors, this time dressed as a woman. Charlie and Henry hold each other and dance around the stage. The cast and crew explode with laughter, which Charlie seems to appreciate. He returns to Edna and continues working on the dance, while the rest of the cast take their places on the set. 
     “Hey, man, I don’t mean to bug you, but I haven’t eaten in three days. Think you could help me out?”
     The fantasy vanished into a blaze of harsh light, fumes, cacophony. In front of me stood a burnt-out remnant of what might have been a nice-looking young man. He was dirty, skinny, long shaggy hair, sandals that barely hung onto his feet. 
     “I’m really hungry, man. I’m not gonna use it for drugs. That’s what you’re thinking, right?”
     Actually I was thinking why doesn’t he just go away and let me get back to my fantasy. But it was too late for that. Across the street the  building was still there, but the cast and crew had long ago wrapped the scene. 
     “Yeah, sure.” I dug into my pocket and gave him one of the two ten’s I had in there. “Here, use it for whatever you need.”
     “God bless you, man.” He took the ten. “You wouldn’t have a little more, would you, so I could get some smokes?” A big smile showed gaps where teeth used to be. I gave him the other ten.
“You’re okay, man. You know that? You’re okay.” And he shambled away.
     I looked over at the studio. To have been there, eighty years ago, and watched Charlie direct his actors and crew, heard him talk camera angles, framing and placement with Rollie. To have spent time with Charlie before the camera rolled, to understand how he thought. 
     The Chaplin Stage still held an abundance of magic.

Friday, May 22, 2015

"Shadow and Substance: My Time with Charlie Chaplin" - The Book

One night in late 1995 I was producing a music recording session at A&M Records in Hollywood. During a break, I wandered down the hall, through a heavy metal door, and stepped onto The Chaplin Stage. The stage was dark. I was alone. I began to wonder, to imagine... what if Charlie's spirit was still here. What if he talked to me. What if he appeared.

And so was born the idea for my novel. Several years later, after many stops and starts, I completed the novel and it was published in 2010. Beginning with this post on my blog, you will be able to read much of my novel over the next several weeks.

If you would like to purchase a signed copy of the novel, send a check for $17 to me, at 503 Taylor Young Drive, Kirkwood MO 63122. A limited number of copies are still available. Thanks, and I hope you enjoy the journey with Charlie.



An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, 
and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.  
- J. D. Salinger


Creativity takes courage.
- Henri Matisse



SHADOW AND SUBSTANCE: MY TIME WITH CHARLIE CHAPLIN
      by Gerry Mandel   ©2010


                                             CHAPTER 1


“You like Charlie Chaplin?”
     The guy in the next seat obviously had noticed the book I was reading. From the tone of his voice, I knew he wasn’t a Chaplin fan.
     “Yeah, I think he’s pretty funny.” I wasn’t really interested in getting into a conversation with him, not with a four-hour flight ahead of me.
     “You look like an intelligent guy. Let me ask you a question.” He rolled up his Sports Illustrated and jammed it into the magazine pocket. “How can you find running around in circles and poking people with a cane and throwing pies funny?”
     I kept my book open. “Chaplin did more than that. He wasn’t big with pies either. Other comics did pies.” I couldn’t believe we were discussing pies at thirty-thousand feet. I felt trapped in my seat, there wasn’t enough leg room, my sneakers looked dumb. 
     “Anything in that book about him being a Commie?” he said. 
     The captain’s voice interrupted with information about altitude, cruising 
speed, and the approximate time we’d be landing in LA Even though I didn’t want to go any further with this guy, the Commie remark bothered me. 
     “That actually was never a fair accusation,” I said. “He wasn’t a Communist. Maybe if you’d read a little about him, you’d know what that was all about.”
     “I know they kicked him out of this country. I don’t have to read more than that. And what about all those little girls he was messing around with? You saying that didn’t happen?” With each accusation, his voice grew louder. 
     I didn’t answer. Confrontation makes me uneasy. Given a different situation I might have launched into a stout defense of Chaplin and his personal life. Like when you stick up for a friend who’s not there. Not this time, though. I just wanted to be left alone, read my book, prepare for the opportunity ahead in Los Angeles.
     “I guess there’re some people who don’t like him,” I said. “I just think he’s funny, that’s all.” 
     I missed Lauren. I still felt the need to reach over and hold her hand on takeoffs and landings. That’s when I get nervous. Lauren was always there, reassuring me with her warmth and strength. But Costa Rica had ended that. I hadn’t flown since then, nor gone bike riding, our favorite sport. 
     “Now Bob Hope...he was funny,” he said and returned to his Sports Illustrated.
     I picked up my laptop, briefcase and book, and moved to an empty seat further back. I was still trying to get a handle on my interview tomorrow. Their consideration of hiring a freelancer from Columbus, Ohio, to write a documentary about Charlie Chaplin, still baffled me. Sure, I had good credentials on Chaplin, and writing for film had been my goal for the last several years. My shelves were stacked with scripts, treatments, and concepts, none of which had aroused much interest. Sometimes luck follows persistence. Still, why me?   
     The rest of the flight was smooth. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the last smooth period in my life for awhile.

******
The following day in LA shaped up as relatively predictable. I’d grab breakfast in the coffee shop at nine, spend a couple of hours in my room reviewing notes, take a walk to put my thoughts in order, eat a light lunch, then be at the production house a little before one for the interview. By late afternoon I’d be on a plane headed back to Columbus, either to continue my gradual decay there or pack for the return trip to LA That was the only part I couldn’t predict. Or so I thought.
     The phone rang after breakfast.
     “Mr. Thiery, this is the front desk. We have a package for you.”
     “A package? For me?” 
     “Yes, sir. A large manila envelope. Shall I send it up, or would you prefer to fetch it?” The clerk with a British accent seemed to be the hotel’s attempt to add some class to a pleasant but otherwise undistinguished Hollywood establishment. 
     “I’ll come down.” I hadn’t expected a package, not even mail or messages. I was here for only the one day. Maybe it had something to do with my pending interview. I “fetched” the envelope, opened it on the elevator and a book slid out, one that was appropriate for the day’s events: David Robinson’s acclaimed biography, Chaplin: His Life and Art. I flipped through it and saw no note, no explanation for its presence, no name or address. I already owned the book, had read it more than once, referred to it dozens of times. This was, in my opinion, one of the best books ever written about Chaplin. My copy was sitting on a shelf back home, along with another hundred or so books about him. 
     I called the front desk. “Where did this package come from?”
     “A gentleman left it here, Mr. Thiery, just minutes before I called you.”
     “What did he look like?”
     “Rather short, looked to be in his fifties, white hair. Steel-rimmed glasses, I believe.”
     “Did he leave a name? Or a message?”
     “No, sir. All he said was, ‘I think Mr. Thiery needs this.’ Something like that. He was a cheerful sort, pleasant smile. Is there anything wrong, sir?”
     I told him no and hung up. The book was obviously used, the dust-jacket well worn, the black and white cover photo of Chaplin slightly faded, the edges of the pages stained. My sense of order began to unravel as I looked through the book. Notes had been written in the margins, words and phrases  underlined or circled, large “X’s” scrawled, seemingly at random, with comments such as “rubbish” and “not so” and “Yes.” Not an abundance of comments, but enough to hold my interest. The previous owner, it seemed, had either possessed a keen insight into Chaplin or a willingness to question the author. Why it had been passed on to me, and who had delivered it, puzzled me. I worked my way through the book, paying closer attention to the markings, balancing them with my knowledge of Chaplin’s life. I didn’t know if the comments were accurate. They were, however, within the realm of possibility, with some intriguing speculation about his life and art. 
     I forgot about my walk, about lunch, and spent the rest of the time engrossed in the book. If I got the job, I would spend my next three months focused on my favorite personality of all time, attempting to define the line between an artist’s work and his private life. One other line would become significant, a line that would test my sense of reality, a line that I had previously believed to be impossible to cross.

Friday, May 8, 2015

To commemorate this day

Today, May 8, is the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe, the end of the World War II in Europe. If you're a fan of Charlie Chaplin, you're quite familiar with this speech. It comes at the end of "The Great Dictator," released in 1940. Forget the thought that Chaplin stepped outside of his on-screen character of The Jewish Barber and spoke as Chaplin himself. The speech is one for the ages and deserves to be heard again. Idealistic, yes. But hopeful and maybe, someday....
Chaplin's final speech in "The Great Dictator," 1940

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.