Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Special Tribute to Charlie Chaplin on his Birthday

Last night we celebrated Charlie's 125th with a dinner, some Mutual shorts, and lively conversation around the table. "We" were Janet Riehl, Jerry Garrett, Joe and Sharon Delmore, Pam and Jack Beahan, and Mary Lee and I. 

Janet brought appetizers as served in the 1920's, with antique plates from that era (she's a multi-faceted artist)Riehl Life
I made chicken cacciatore from scratch; Jack brought an absolutely incredible salad; Joe brought shortbread cookies made in England; Jerry contributed his delightful observations and sense of humor; we had a special cake (with ice cream); and Jack even brought a blackened shoe ala one of Chaplin's iconic scenes. 

The highlight of the evening, however was a poem written by Pam Beahan especially for this occasion. 

Pam is an accomplished poet and, along with husband Jack, a devoted fan of Chaplin. This is the third year in which she has written something for Charlie's birthday.. and, in my opinion, was her most compelling effort yet. She reached deeply into the man and his creation. Here is her introduction, followed by the poem. 

Gold Rush
by Pam Beahan, April 2014 honor of Charlie Chaplin's original 1925 film The Gold Rush,
the film by which he said that he would most like to be remembered.
And to remember his films is to remember him, for he also said that
if we want to know him, we are to watch his films.

* * *

The Gold Rush

Yes, in Charlie's film, gold does abound,
But not just in the frozen Alaskan ground.
No, instead, the most priceless golden treasures here to be found
Are mined from deep within the richest veins
of Charlie's golden heart, soul, and mind.

A battered old shoe from the Tramp's only pair
Breathes life a-new as Thanksgiving fare to thwart starvation,
despite plunging his now-freezing foot into deprivation
But, for him, no gift's too great, no time's too late
From a heart that shines gold, as it warms the cold,
by softly smiling its sacrifice.

At times, a speck of hope touches the Tramp's heart,
and bubbles up and erupts into uncontainable shimmers
that transform his eyes and body into dancing bursts of golden joy.

Other times, as befalls us all, at times,
his hopes, his innocence, and his joy
are swiftly ravaged, plundered, demeaned, degraded and shattered into
sharply lethal shards that catch and tear within his throat, his eyes, his heart, his soul...
And the only speck of gold dust left for him is to somehow struggle to go on...
...with a throat shredded wordless,
...with eyes ripped gleamless,
...with a heart drained nearly bloodless,
...and with a soul slashed soul less.

And yet, the richest gold, the strongest rush, after all, is that, at last,
his worth is seen, his treasure known, his hope replanted, his joy regrown.

At film's end, as we mine what we have seen,
Charlie's golden gifts can warm our own brightening souls
where we can search today, tomorrow, and yesterday for golden treasures of our own...
For, Charlie once more has shown that we need not rush 
to search for some cold and distant gold,
For it's been inside us all, all along.

* * *

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Birth, Rebirth, Celebration

Spring officially began about two weeks ago, at least according to the calendar, so this seems to be an appropriate time to talk about birth, rebirth, and celebration. 

Birth: Charles Spencer Chaplin was born on April 16, 1889. His father was Charles Chaplin Senior; his mother, Hannah Harriett Hill. They were music hall entertainers, they moved around quite a lot, they kept incomplete records. The result is there is no official record of the birth of the man who would eventually conquer the world with laughter.

Birth: The character of The Little Tramp was born one hundred years ago, in February, 1914. The film was "Mabel's Strange Predicament" with Mabel Normand, one of Charlie's earliest films for Mack Sennett at Keystone. It would take several more films, however, before The Tramp character would be fully realized. And that's the character that captured the hearts of people around the world. 

Rebirth: There have been many Chaplin impersonators over the years. There are many today. I want to tell you about one young man I've met through the internet. His name is Jason Allin. Jason Allin's website
He lives in Innisfil, Ontario, near Toronto, and he first contacted me after reading about my novel. Here's the short version of what's going on with him. He's made short films as Chaplin, performed in a one-man show on stage about him, and is currently planning a trip to Adipur, India, for Chaplin's 125th birthday celebration. He will be making a documentary about the festivities there.  He was interviewed - via Skype - by the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury and Manhattan. Their film and television program is paying tribute to Charles on his birthday. (They also Skyped me the other day) He is booked for a showing of his movie in Ontario for the 2nd Annual International Comedy Festival.He has other Chaplin-based projects in the works. Yes, a busy and talented young man.

What's going on in India? Celebration. The entire town celebrates Chaplin's birthday, as they have for the past 40 years. I wouldn't have believed it either, until I saw pictures of it. Here's a link to a CBS item about it. 
Chaplin celebration in India

Jason is trying to raise funds to help pay for the trip to India for the documentary. If you have a few extra quid lying about, consider helping him on his questKickstarter for Jason Allin to India

The Celebration of Chaplin will continue throughout the year, around the world. One of the highlights will be a gathering in Bologna, Italy, in June to celebrate the 100th anniversary of The Little Tramp. Almost anybody who's connected to Chaplin and his legacy will be there. They include two of my personal favorites: David Robinson and Kevin Brownlow, two of the most respected Chaplin experts in the world. If you want to put in a few hundred quid or lira for me, I'll go too. I accept personal checks. Chaplin in Bologna

If you're a Chaplin fan, 2014 will be a marvelous year. Proof that his star shines as brightly as ever.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Different Kind of Christmas Memory

The world bid farewell to one of its great artists 
on Christmas day of 1977. 
1971 at the Manoir
I was a copywriter at Gardner Advertising at the time, having just finished two years of freelancing and enjoying the new security, or whatever passes for security in the ad business. Mary Lee was working as a rep for a food brokerage firm. My daughter Holly was nine, my son Gregg would be five on the following day. Their familiarity with Chaplin came from watching an occasional short of his on videotape, or walking into my home office. One wall was covered with framed images of Chaplin - posters, photos, a couple of paintings - but I had not yet been hit with the idea to write a novel about him.

1966 filming "Countess"

On that Christmas morning,  I sat on the floor in the living room with my kids. Mary Lee was upstairs. We had opened the presents and I was probably in the middle of trying to assemble something or playing a game with the kids. The phone rang. My wife answered it upstairs. After a few seconds I heard her say, “I’ll tell him. Thanks, mom.”

She came downstairs and said, “That was your mother. She just heard that Charlie Chaplin died.” I’m ashamed to say that I don’t remember what all my feelings were. Loss, certainly. Sadness at the passing of a great film maker  and comic. I don’t remember if either one of the kids said or asked anything. But there was something else deep inside me. Something like “missed opportunity.” The proverbial road not taken.

Here’s what I mean. I had been in Europe in 1960, had hitchhiked close to Vevey, Switzerland, where Chaplin lived. I considered trying to “stop by and meet the man.” Like walk up to the front door of the Manoir and say, “Is Charlie here?” But I didn’t. Turns out he was working on his autobiography at the time. Thinking back, I know I could have helped him write it, or just typed it for him (I'm a speedy typist), or taken out the trash or catalogued his films or whatever he needed done. The possibilities were endless.
1972, without Geraldine and Michael

Years later I thought about writing to him, before his return to America in 1972, to tell him he wasn't forgotten, he was still loved by many. I wrote the letter in my mind, but never committed it to paper. 

For some reason, his passing fanned the low-burning fire in me, ignited a renewed interest in his life and art. It’s a passion that remains as strong as ever these 36 years later. Ebay has been a big help with that, as well as meeting many wonderful people along the way, people with a shared love of Chaplin.

The point of this rambling is really to say this Christmas, as every Christmas, is special for me in more than just the ordinary holiday aspect of it. Which is why I’ve scattered some photos of Chaplin throughout this article, Chaplin in his later years, and how various newspapers announced his death. I put the newspapers into a large envelope 36 years ago, in the days before you could access every bit of history on-line. Old newspaper is more real than clean digital reproduction.

In summer of 2006, following a week-long bicycle journey in Denmark, we spent a few days in Zurich. On the second day we took a train to Vevey. A heat wave covered much of Europe during that week, the train was a local, and we arrived in Vevey early afternoon.
By the time I found out where to go and how to get around, it was too late to go to the Manoir. But I visited the cemetery.
Charlie and Oona rest side by side there in this small, open sanctuary. I was alone. I sat on the bench, my shirt soaked with perspiration, and thought about all that Charlie had brought into the world, and all that Oona had brought into his life. Silence enveloped me.
I thanked him, touched the headstones, thought about all the years that had passed since he had first entered my life, and walked back into town.

Charlie wasn’t the only bright star to go out that year. There was also Groucho and Bing and Elvis. But for me, the year 1977 has but one meaning: It was the year The Little Tramp kicked up his heels, faced the future optimistically, and walked down that road. Only he wasn't alone. He was with Oona. And the rest of the world was with him.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Novel, The Movie, The Writer

On a recent trip from St. Louis to Bentonville, Ark., I decided to bring some books on CD with me. I checked out several, not being sure which one would carry me for the 5-hour drive each way. The first one I slipped in was a book I had read many years ago when it was first published: "A Death in the Family."

At the time, I knew James Agee only from his landmark book on the Depression, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," accompanied by the stark black and white photographs of Walker Evans. Even now, decades later, the images and narrative are still with me.

Hollywood had taken a shot at "A Death..." which they called "All the Way Home." I remember two things about the film: Robert Preston as the boy's father,and the opening scenes which included a visit to the movie house for a Chaplin film. So the trip to a Chaplin event at Crystal Bridges seemed like a good reason to revisit his novel.

I listened to maybe an hour of the book, tired of the heavy subject, replaced it with CD's of an Elmore Leonard novel ("Tishomingo Blues" read by Frank Muller, one of the most compelling readers I've ever heard), and continued my journey.

I checked out Agee's novel when I returned home, a few days later, just to read the opening pages. Here they are.
Agee won the Pulitzer in 1958 for this, and the book was listed in 2005 in Time's Best 100 American novels written since 1928. "A Death in the Family" at Amazon

At supper that night, as many times before, his father said, "Well, s'pose we go to the picture show."
"Oh, Jay!" his mother said. "That horrid little man!"
"What's wrong with him," his father asked, not because he didn't know what she would say, but so she would say it.
"He's so nasty!" she said, as she always did. "So vulgar! With his nasty little cane; hooking up skirts and things, and that nasty little walk!"
His father laughed, as he always did, and Rufus felt that it had become rather an empty joke; but as always his laughter also cheered him; he felt that the laughter enclosed him with his father.

They walked downtown in the light of mother-of-pearl, to the Majestic, and found their way to seats by the light of the screen, in the exhilarating smell of stale tobacco, rank sweat, perfume and dirty drawers, while the piano played fast music and galloping horses raised a grandiose flag of dust. and there was William S. Hart with both guns blazing and his long, horse face and his long, hard lip, and the great country rode away behind him as wide as the world. Then he made a bashful face at a girl and his horse raised its upper lip and everybody laughed, and then the screen was filled with a city and with the sidewalk of a side street of a city, and a long line of palms and there was Charlie; everyone laughed the minute they saw him squattily walking with his toes out and his knees wide apart, as if he were chafed; Rufus' father laughed, and Rufus laughed too. This time Charlie stole a whole bag of eggs and when a cop came along he hid them in the seat of his pants. Then he caught sight of a pretty woman and he began to squat and twirl his cane and make silly faces. She tossed her head and walked away with her chin up high and her dark mouth as small as she could make it and he followed her very busily, doing all sorts of things with his cane that made everybody laugh, but she paid no attention."

Agee goes on for another page about the Chaplin movie. He completes that scene like this:

"Then he whipped out his cane from under his armpit and took command of it again, and with a final look at everybody, still sickly but at the same time cheerful, shrugged his shoulders and turned his back and scraped backward with his big shoes at the broken shells and the slimy bag, just like a dog, and looked back at the mess (everybody laughed again at that) and started to walk away, bending his cane deep with every shuffle, and squatting deeper, with his knees wider apart, than ever before, constantly picking at the seat of his pants with his left hand, and shaking one foot, and then the other, and once gouging deep into his seat and then pausing and shaking his whole body, like a wet dog, and then walking on; while the screen shut over his small image a sudden circle of darkness: then the player-piano changed its tune, and the ads came in motionless color."

Agee was connected with Chaplin in other ways. He had written a piece for Life Magazine in 1949 on the silent film comedians which, of course, included Chaplin. I posted a blog about that in January of this year.

Two years before that Life article, he had come to the defense of Chaplin when the public and critics lambasted him for "Monsieur Verdoux," his black comedy released in 1947. Agee used three consecutive columns in The Nation for this. Agee, I believe, was the only literary figure of note to defend Chaplin. He also wrote a screenplay that he intended for Chaplin to star in. John Wranovics wrote a book about that relationship and screenplay. Agee, Chaplin, & the Screenplay

So somehow it feels appropriate that Agee would win the Pulitzer several years later with his novel that begins with a visit to the theater to see a Chaplin film. Poetic justice, on behalf of two great artists.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Charlie & Buster: What Might Have Been

Jazz musicians used to get together, usually after hours, for jam sessions.
It was a thrill to see and hear these jazz greats sitting in with each other.
Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson and Lester Young. Guys who played with their own groups, but still enjoyed the challenge and stimulation of interplay.

What does this have to do with Charlie Chaplin? A lot, I believe. Charlie retained control of his films for most of his life. His final film here, in 1952, was Limelight. It was then, at the age of 63, that he decided to work with Buster Keaton. And that's what I can't understand. Why did it take so long for these two giants of silent film to get together in a movie? Surely someone must have had such an idea.

During the last weekend of September (about a week from now), fans of Keaton will convene in Kansas for the annual Buster Keaton Celebration. Buster Keaton Celebration in Iola, KS    

This year the focus is on Keaton and Chaplin. I'll be there, as I was last year when I learned to appreciate Keaton even more than I had before. Relatives of Keaton, friends, academics (or is it academicians?), an actor who worked with him, the head of the Association Chaplin in Bologna, Italy... they'll be there. I look forward to what they have to say about Buster and Charlie.

In the meantime:
Life Magazine ran an 11-page spread on "Chaplin at Work" in its March 17, 1952 issue. It contained a lot of photographs of the Limelight production, but only a couple show Buster. Here's a short paragraph from that article.

     "Chaplin had carefully planned what to do in his dramatic scenes. But the comedy routines often had to be developed through trial and error and patient improvisation. The scene below with Buster Keaton, himself a star of the silent comedies, began with only the meager idea of a nearsighted pianist and an acrobatic violinist. The two, who had never appeared together before, spent a day of preparation in shirtsleeves organizing the piece of business which would form their act. With utter disregard of their ages (Keaton, 56, Chaplin, 63), they danced and tumbled, experimented, repeated. Over and over Chaplin twirled, tripped, rolled across the footlights into the orchestra pit where worried grips stood by to catch him. Time and time again Keaton staggered from the wings, crashed awkwardly into the piano and fell to the floor in a flutter of music sheets. Stagehands, dancers, musicians sat in bemused groups breaking into laughter, applauding as they watched a show no one else would ever see."

When I've watched Limelight, I'm struck by the number of single shots in what was essentially a duo performance. I prefer the shots where you see both of them on stage.  Instead of including both Buster and Charlie in the shot, Charlie frequently went to the single shots. I think that's a shame, considering that the appeal of this sequence is watching two of the greatest film artists working together.

David Robinson, in "Chaplin: His Life and Art," explains.
     "Keaton worked on the film for three weeks.... It was a sweet gesture of Chaplin's to employ him: Keaton had not worked in comedy for years and was all but forgotten. He arrived, Jerry Epstein recalls, with the little flat hat he had worn in his own films, and had to be gently told that Chaplin already had a costume and business worked out for him. The whole unit was enchanted to see, however, that once on stage, Chaplin and Keaton became two old comedy pros, each determined to upstage the other.... Claire Bloom felt that 'some of his gags may even have been a little too incandescent for Chaplin because, laugh as he did at the rushes in the screening room, Chaplin didn't see fit to allow them all into the final version of the film.'"

Of all the Chaplin out-takes and alternate scenes that have been uncovered and discovered, mainly by Kevin Brownlow, none - as far as I know - show all the magic and inventiveness that certainly occurred between Charlie and Buster during those three weeks. I wonder about Charlie's motives, especially since he did not see fit to mention Buster in his autobiography. But I shouldn't complain. At least he brought Buster in for these few glorious moments. Rather than wonder about what's been left unseen, better to fully appreciate the two greatest comic stars of the silent era.

The applause and laughter will ring forever.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Woody on Charlie

After reading an article about Woody Allen in a magazine recently, I decided to watch some of his old movies. I checked out three from the library: “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” and “Sweet and Lowdown.” I love the Django-style music in that last one - and Sean Penn’s performance -, but I think “Crimes...” is one of his best. 

What caught my attention in “Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989) was a quick shot of Woody in his apartment, talking to Mia Farrow. He walks into another room and on the wall behind him is a large poster of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid.” Not the usual studio produced poster but something that looked like an original work of art. I had the feeling it was Woody’s personal possession.

That started me wondering, “What is Woody’s opinion of Charlie? How does he view him as a filmmaker? What are his favorite Chaplin films?” And other questions. So I put on a documentary produced by Richard Schickel, “Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin” (2003) and made some notes.

Here, in order, are some of Woody’s comments.

About the Mutual short “Easy Street”:
It’s a wonderful, wonderful short. 
And because - it’ll always be funny.
It’ll be funny a thousand years from now.

“The Circus”:
“The Circus” is just a wonderful good time. The jokes and the execution of them are so brilliant and so uncluttered by anything that can date it. Social ideas and satire on the mores of the time date all the time. His stuff is so beautifully done, and it’s as fresh as can be.

“City Lights”:
I often said it’s harder being a talking comedian on the screen than a silent comedian. The example I gave was the difference between chess and checkers.
It’s like checkers, to do it silently, you can figure out the gags and painstakingly write them and then execute them, but as soon as you have to speak you’re plunged into a reality that’s much more complex and the demands become much different.

Then of course the guy with all the money who’s got all the possessions and
all the money in the world and is on the verge of suicide all the time because his feelings are unrequited in love... It’s such an interesting exploration of all those feelings, in a non-verbal way. It’s one step removed from music. For me, it’s his best picture. I again am impressed that he was such a good actor as well because the serious side of that movie he handled with legendary brilliance.

“Modern Times”:
It is brilliant in following the story, and it kind of peters out, it doesn’t go anywhere. It’s just a brilliant trip and each skit is very funny and brilliantly executed and it goes along on the momentum of his genius, the fact that he’s funny and the bits are funny.

And finally, about “The Great Dictator”:
(Referring to the scene of Hynkel with the world as a balloon) People just fall down dead over an alleged metaphor but I don’t find it funny or a brilliant metaphor.  90% of America opposed war... one-half was to some degree anti-semitic. The film was courageous.

I found Woody’s observations on silent comedy versus spoken quite interesting. Those are two different worlds of humor. Yet, Woody and Charlie are possibly America's greatest two filmmakers. So I didn’t stop with this documentary. I checked out a couple of books about Woody and his films. He has a lot to say about Chaplin. I’ll cover some of that off in a future blog. 

In the meantime, I’m waiting for someone to return “Manhattan” and “Stardust Memories” to the library.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Chicago Chill Chases Charlie Chaplin

That might have been the headline almost one hundred years ago, especially if the writer was hung up on alliteration. Here’s the story behind the line.

A rather ordinary, residential street runs east and west on Chicago's north side. It's Argyle Street, just a couple blocks north of Lawrence Ave. I mention this because I was in Chicago over the July 4th weekend. My wife and I, along with our son Greg (who lives in Chicago) and our daughter Holly, who was in from NYC, spent about two hours one night at The Green Mill, Al Capone's storied speakeasy and now a jazz club at Broadway and Lawrence. The band was Alfonso Ponticelli and Swing Gitan. That’s a name to remember if you like Django Reinhardt and Paris jazz. I do.

Charlie between Francis X. Bushman and "Bronco Billy" Anderson
The following morning I started thinking about Charlie Chaplin's brief stay in Chicago, after he had signed with Essanay Pictures. By brief I mean a little over a month. Charlie had left Mack Sennett and Keystone in 1914 for a supposedly better deal from George Spoor and G. M. Anderson. Hence the "S" and "A."  They promised him a lot, but it took some time for them to deliver. In the meantime, Charlie moved to Chicago. Talk about bad timing. He arrived in December of 1914, just as winter was settling in. 

The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company had been in business for seven years before they signed Chaplin, for the unheard of amount of $1250 a week plus a signing bonus of $10,000. Charlie went to work on his first film, appropriately titled "His New Job." It would be his only film completed in Chicago.

Winter in Chicago, during January of 1915, would prove more than he could stand. In February, he packed up his few belongings and headed west to Niles, California, about 20 miles south of Oakland, where Essanay had another studio. Charlie didn't  care for the working environment at either place, but at least the temperatures didn't sink below freezing in Niles.

Ben Turpin & Charlie
In less than a year, Chaplin would leave Essanay and sign with Mutual Films, to begin one of his most productive and satisfying segments of his creative life. What he accomplished at Essanay, however, was significant. He continued developing his “Little Tramp” character, refining it, getting a clearer picture of who the character was. He also met one of the most gifted comics of that time, Ben Turpin, who he convinced to move from Chicago to California. And he met Edna Purviance in San Francisco. Edna became, professionally and personally, an integral part of Chaplin’s life. So Essanay and Chicago, while a brief stopping point in his career, had significant long-term benefits for him.

Now comes the part under the heading of "Small World." Many years ago, in 1973, when I was working at D'Arcy Advertising, we had to shoot some cat food commercials for Ralston-Purina. The product was a small tin of meat for cats called Purina 95. That meant it was 95% meat, although I didn’t know, nor did I want to know, where the meat came from. For budgetary reasons, we decided to shoot in Chicago instead of L.A. The winning bid was submitted by Wilding Studios. The shoot took place - you guessed it - at the old Essanay Studios. It was now a rental studio for commercial production houses. I even remember the director's name. Lutz Hopke. He spoke with a heavy German accent. I always wondered what Lutz was doing 25 years before our meeting.

I could find no trace of Chaplin on the stage or in any of the offices and storage spaces I wandered through. Chaplin had left the premises over 50 years before this. Still, I was on hallowed ground that was slightly desecrated by cat food.

I now read occasional articles that attempts were made, are being made, will be made, to establish some sort of tribute or memorial to Chaplin at the 1345 W. Argyle address. I’ve even seen something about a Chaplin Theater in one of
the buildings. The building today is owned by the St. Augustine College. The Chicago Tribune posted a fascinating video last year about Essanay. It runs only 5 minutes. Tour of Essanay Studios

So here I was last week, almost one hundred years after a young Charlie Chaplin got off the train in Chicago for a brief stint. I stood outside the gates of Essanay, beneath the terra-cotta Indian head logo. If it hadn't been a holiday weekend, and I could have entered the building, I know I would have picked up a trace of The Little Tramp. A shadow, a gesture, a twitch of the mustache, a flip of the derby, a twirl of the cane. Because, as we all know, some things never die.