Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A living connection to Chaplin's 1921 "The Kid"

An 8 x 10 manila envelope arrived in the mail last week. It was from an internet acquaintance named Steve Cox, who lives in Burbank, California. Steve and I have been in contact for a couple of years now, on matters that include Charlie, The Wizard of Oz and Margaret Hamilton, the Three Stooges, and other important issues of yesteryear. Here's a link to his "Oz" book. Munchkins of Oz

He had told me he was sending me "something pertaining to Chaplin," but gave no hint.

I opened the envelope. This is what was enclosed. A photo collage Steve put together. A signature, in blue ink, was by someone I had never heard of. Silas Hathaway. But I had seen Silas, in Charlie's "The Kid." Silas was the little baby that Charlie finds in an alley, thus beginning one of the most touching and entertaining movies Chaplin ever made, and his first feature-length film. 

Silas Hathaway, as of this writing, is still alive, living in the Los Angeles area. He is 97 years old but in failing health. Steve met him last year and had him sign this for me. 

Silas was born in 1919, the year Charlie began shooting "The Kid." Steve says he obviously has no recollection of the filming. But he did have his original work release card issued by the Chaplin studio for his one month work in 1919. Chaplin released the film in 1921 to great acclaim. And what happened to Silas? I have no idea. He may have been a one-hit wonder. But the wonder of it all is the connection that exists to this day between "The Kid" and the little baby in Chaplin's lap.

Thanks, Steve.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Charlie, Mickey and Walt

The idea of putting Charlie Chaplin, Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney in the same sentence never seemed like a possibility. Then I picked up my copy of Neal Gabler's impressive biography of Disney last week (signed, no less... by Neal, not Walt). That's where I discovered the connection between these three icons.  



The following is lifted directly from Gabler's 2006 book. 

“…Maurice Sendak found an ‘anarchy’ and ‘greediness’ in Mickey’s grin, the ‘gleeful beam of a sexual freedom,’ and said that when he designed his own Wild Things for the book Where the Wild Things Are, he based his drawings on this lascivious Mickey.

“That lasciviousness tied Mickey Mouse to another motion picture icon: Charlie Chaplin. Nearly every analysis of the early Mickey invoked Chaplin and cited the correspondences between the two - their leering aggressiveness, their impertinence, their sense of abandon, and especially what film historian Terry Ramsay at the time called ‘the cosmic victory of the underdog, the might of the meek’ that they
shared. Walt himself was certainly aware of the similarities because he had consciously used Chaplin, whom he once called ‘the greatest of them all,’ as a model. In devising Mickey Mouse, he said, ‘We wanted something appealing, and we thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin - a little fellow trying to do the best he could.’ Ben Sharpsteen said that Walt was constantly screening Chaplin films trying to pinpoint Chaplin’s basic appeal, and another animator, Ward Kimball, recalled that Walt was ‘always showing us how Chaplin did a certain thing.’ ‘He just could’t get him out of his system,’ Dick Hummer said of Walt’s obsession with Chaplin. ‘Walt kept the feeling of this little droll kind of pathetic little character who was always being picked on. But cleverly coming out on top anyway.’ When Edward Steichen photographed Walt for Vanity Fair, Walt sent him a sketch of Mickey impersonating Chaplin.


“But if Walt Disney had thought of Mickey Mouse as an animated surrogate for Charlie Chaplin, Mickey’s other father, Ub Iwerks, had thought of him in very different terms - as Douglas Fairbanks. ‘He was the superhero of his day,’ Iwerks said of Fairbanks, ‘always winning, gallant and swashbuckling.’ As for Mickey, ‘He was never intended to be a sissy. He was always an adventurous character… I had him do naturally the sort of thing Doug Fairbanks would do.’ Thus Mickey Mouse was born between two conceptions - between Chaplin and Fairbanks, between the scamp and the adventurer, between sympathy and vicariousness, between self-power itself. From the first he was an unstable creation, often veering from one pole to another, on one cartoon to the next.

“…..Mickey Mouse is in thrall to his own abilities of imaginative transformation. Whether he is turning an auto into an airplane or a cow into a xylophone, Mickey, like Chaplin and like Walt Disney himself, is always in the process of reimagining reality, and this is his primal, vicarious connection to the audience - the source of his power. He sees and hears things others don’t. He make the world his.”

Chaplin returned the admiration in the years ahead. In 1933, when Disney’s “Three Little Pigs” was released to great admiration, the Hollywood Writers Club honored Walt. “Chaplin, who rarely performed in public, climbed onto a small stage and did a pantomime in Walt’s honor.”


In 1936, Disney was negotiating a new distribution deal with United Artists, of which Chaplin was a founding partner. Chaplin said, “I don’t want to make any money on Walt, and anything I can ever do for him I will gladly perform.” However the deal fell through and the Disneys departed for RKO. 

One note of irony here about animator Ub Iwerks comparing Mickey to Doug Fairbanks: Charlie and Doug were close friends. In fact, Charlie often said that Doug Fairbanks was his only true friend in Hollywood. It took Ub and Walt and Mickey to keep these two friends together forever.











Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Right, the Left, and Charlie

If you're the least bit interested in the history of the U.S. and the ramp up to WWII, you might pick up a copy of "The Sphinx," by Nicholas Wapshott. Complete title: "The Sphinx: Franklin Roosevelt, the Isolationists, and The Road to World War II." Yes, a lengthy title, but a fascinating read. The cast of characters includes FDR, Churchill, Lindbergh, Joe Kennedy, Father Coughlin, William Randolph Hearst, and even a mention of Charlie Chaplin.

I was curious about the manner in which the news media described Chaplin during that era. Among the many magazines and papers in my collection is Time Magazine of January 2, 1978. Under "Cinema," and the article titled, "Exit the Tramp, Smiling," there are a couple of paragraphs that connected to "The Sphinx." They were written by 
Stefan Kanfer. Here it is.

"Let a man rise in show business, even to so stratospheric a level as The Tramp's, and there comes an evening of the Long Knives. For Chaplin, night came early and stayed late. He became embroiled in a series of affairs. He married and divorced two teen-agers and earned a reputation as Hollywood's outstanding satyr. His dalliances shocked the nation and nearly ruined his career. But Chaplin always managed to rescue himself with new apologies and fresh performances.

"In 1940 he was attacked by right-wingers for his satire of Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini in The Great Dictator. Again he was rescued, this time by history. But after the war he could no longer be saved from his enemies. In the palmy days, a Hollywood story made the rounds. Actor: 'How should I play this scene, Mr. Chaplin?' The reply: 'Behind me and to the left.' It was more than a critique of the star's egomania; it was also a comment on his politics. Chaplin had, in fact, become a backer of Soviet-American friendship meetings - provided, of course, that he could fellow-travel in first class. That, plus his continual womanizing, was enough to earn him ad hominem attacks in the Congress. In 1952 Chaplin and his fourth wife, Oona - the daughter of Eugene O'Neill - whom he had married in 1943 when he was 54 and she was 18, learned that he would be detained if they reentered the U.S. His new film, Limelight,  was boycotted on the West Coast; the Saturday evening Post announced that Charlie was a 'pink Pierrot.'"









How complex celebrity and genius can become. How conflict can add or detract from the creations and the legacy. What would Chaplin had accomplished if he had distanced himself from politics, if he had spent the rest of his days in the U.S. Of course we'll never know. Still, it makes me wonder.

Here are final words of that article:
"The classic fadeout of the great Chaplin films still stays longest in the mind's screen: the crumpled harlequin, twitching his little shoulders, setting his head forward and skipping hopefully off on the unimproved road to Better Times. Chaplin may have thought a great deal about death, but he will be remembered longest for his jaunty, indomitable celebration of life."


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

HE LEFT US LAUGHING, 38 YEARS AGO

On Christmas day of 1977, I was sitting on our living room floor, playing with my daughter and son, newly unwrapped presents strewn about the carpet, when Mary Lee said there was a phone call for me. My mom was on the line. Probably just wants to wish us a Merry Christmas, I thought.

That's how I learned that Charlie Chaplin had died that day. He was at his mansion in Vevey, Switzerland, with most of his children and grandchildren and, of course, his wife Oona. That night he passed away in his sleep. I felt a sense of loss, having been a Chaplin fan for several years, even to the point of bestowing the middle name "Chaplin" on my son Gregg. (My daughter's middle name is "Michelle," named for a favorite Beatles song. So much for family tradition.)


This past week, while going through some "stuff," I came across a storage container stuffed with lots of Chaplin items: magazines, newspapers, photos, videotapes, press kits, etc etc. What I want to share with you today are two items from the New York Times, dated Dec. 28, 1977. The first is a news item about Charlie's funeral. Dateline is Corsier-Sur-Vevey, Switzerland. It begins: "Charlie Chaplin, the silver screen's impecunious tramp with a heart of gold, was buried today in the small cemetery of this village overlooking the Lake of Geneva.

     "Rain fell throughout the brief, simple graveside service as the British comedian's wife, Oona, daughter of the late American playwright Eugene O'Neill, faced the coffin surrounded by seven of their children."
      The article goes on to describe the events of the ceremony.

Across from this article was an editorial. Which is what I really want you to read.

                           The Little Tramp


     A year that has seen the passing of such entertainment phenomena as Elvis Presley, Groucho Marx, Bing Cosby and Guy Lombardo now comes to an end with the death of Charlie Chaplin. "Entertainer" is too weak, "star" too lightly used a word to do any of them justice, but Charlie was always in a class of his own. His was one of those precious talents that bridge the gap between popular and highbrow art. Three generations of audiences have joined in laughter at the Little Tramlp and recognized that in laughing at that jaunty figure, we laugh at our common predicament, the commotion we cause and the indignities we suffer trying to come to terms with the vagaries of the world.
     Born in England, Charlie Chaplin build his career in America, beginning in 1914 with his first movie, a one-reeler entitled "Making a Living." During the next half century, he made some 80 films, in which, generally as the legendary tramp, he performed popular slapstick with inimitable grace, combining music-hall sentiment with merciless mockery. The praise was almost unanimous, but in the 1940's, he attracted critics who were concerned not with his art but with his political associations and private peccadilloes. He had given offense by calling for a second front to aid the Russians, speaking on behalf of Henry Wallace's campaign for the Presidency, and becoming the defendant in a sensational paternity suit. In the early 1950's, he went to Europe and, to America's enduring discredit, Washington withheld permission for the return of its most famous alien.
     Whatever Charlie Chaplin's political or personal predilections, they did not matter much then and do not matter at all now. What does matter is the finesse with which he eats a boiled shoe in "the Gold Rush" and attempts to eat corn on the cob from the assembly-line food-feeder in "Modern Times"; his triumph over the bully, with the help of a gas lamp, in "Easy Street"; his ballot with a globe of the world in "The Great Dictator." What matters is the poignant ending of "City Lights," when the girl who has regained her eyesight first sees the funny looking little fellow to whom she owes so much. The feelings they continue to evoke in movie theaters around the world will be Charlie Chaplin's undying eulogy.

      

So here we are, almost four decades later, and Charlie still makes people laugh - and cry - on screens and walls and, yes, even iPads and laptops, around the world. His movies continue to be digitized, cleaned up, re-scored, and reissued continually. A newly restored edition of "The Kid," his first full-length feature, from 1921, will be released early next year.

This Christmas day, in between the presents and the parties, perhaps you might take just a moment to think about how important laughter is to the world, now more than ever, and to remember the man who made so many of us laugh, for so long.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Sculpting Charlie

Recently a friend sent me a photograph of a woman with Charlie Chaplin, and a sculpture of his head. 

This is on the back of the photo:

This made me curious about the sculptor. It was Katherine Stubergh. Turns out she has quite a resume, from sculptures to wax museum figures. I've attached a couple of links if you want to see more about her and her Chaplin work.

According to AskArt.com:

Born in San Francisco, CA on June 23, 1911.   Stubergh came from a long line of mannequin makers.  At age 21 she abandoned a budding dance career to concentrate on sculpting.   Most of her career was centered around Los Angeles where she did many busts of prominent people in the movie industry as well as bronze plaques. Her married name was Keller at the time of her death in Honolulu on May 14, 1996. 

There's even a YouTube video about her and some of her work. Video of Stubergh at work on Hollywood models.

Here are the other links to Katherine:
Charlie by Katherine       Charlie by Stubergh

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Found treasure in a Chicago used bookstore

While waiting for my son to finish his tacos in a Wicker Park area pub Saturday afternoon, I wandered down the street and came across the Myopic Used Bookstore. It's near Damen and Milwaukee Streets. I'm a sucker for these places. So I wandered in, was astounded at the sheer quantity of books and the incredibly organized arrangement. Also to my surprise, the store was crowded, mostly young people, lining up to buy books. It made me hopeful for the future of reading "real" books.


 I, of course, headed for the Films section to find something on Charlie Chaplin. There were only three books, and I had them all. I finished looking through the Film section, segued over to Military History, specifically the 3 big wars: Civil, Great, WWII. Dozens I'd like to read but knew I never would. Pass. A quick walk-by in the fiction department, then decided to get back to my son.

On the way towards the front door, I glanced into a glass case which held some "special" books... either rare or signed or hard to find. The price tags on them ranged from $50 up. And that's when I saw it. "The Films of Mary Pickford" by Raymond Lee. Signed by Mary.






And here was the clincher: It included a handwritten note from her personal secretary to someone in the Chicago area, fulfilling a request for Mary to sign the book. Mary's inscription in the book read, " To Bob, Cordially Yours, Mary Pickford." The secretary was Esther Helm. The note was written on notepaper with a picture of Pickfair. Her note read, in part, "Your letter and book arrived last Friday and I have today taken it to the post office -- it has been autographed by Mary, and she and Buddy both enjoyed looking at the photo you sent me." It's dated Dec. 11th. The book has "Christmas 1974" written on the inside cover. Also inside the book was an article on Mary from the Chicago Tribune, March 24, 1976.



The connection to Chaplin is certainly familiar to you. Mary, with Doug Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, and Charlie formed United Artists in 1919. It marked the first time movie stars took control of producing and distributing their own films. Some historians credit Mary with the initial idea to form the company. Chaplin, unfortunately, was still under contract to First National. It would be four years before he could contribute a film to United Artists. Chaplin eventually sold his interest in UA in 1955 after his move to Switzerland, but he maintained ownership of the films he made for them.

Fortune sometimes smiles on us at the most unexpected times. If my son had not stopped at the pub for tacos, if I had wanted to watch some baseball game on the TV sets there instead of taking a walk, if I hadn't turned to look into that glass case, I would not have been able to put a signed Mary Pickford book on the shelf next to my Chaplin books.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

When Marlon, Sophia and Charlie Got Together

Today I'm turning over my blog to a former writer for Life Magazine. 
Her name was Dora Jane Hamblin. She died in 1993, in a retirement home in Rome, at the age of 73. 

But on April 1, 1966, she wrote an article about the new movie being produced in London. Written and directed by Charlie Chaplin and starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, the film was generally panned by critics as being "out of date." During pre-production, Chaplin suffered a great personal loss when his brother, Sydney, died in Nice, France at the age of 80. 





Two esteemed visitors to the set during shooting were Gloria Swanson and the film historian Kevin Brownlow. Kevin wrote about his experience that day, which David Robinson included in his magnificent biography of Chaplin. 

Sadly, this was Chaplin's final film.

But, right now, let's listen to Dora Jane Hamblin. These are excerpts of her article. The "Sydney" she refers to here is Charlie's son.

"Walking onto Charlie Chaplin's set at England's Pinewood Studios feels quite a bit like trying to tip-toe into church after the service has started. There are, to be sure, a lot of slamming doors and exploding champagne bottles and actors leaping around like scalded cats, but between the bangs and the crashes there is a silence quite unlike the perfunctory quiet of the ordinary movie set. Everybody's watching Charlie teach some new tricks to a trio of old pros - Sophia, Marlon and Sydney Chaplin. The stars sit rapt, like well brought-up children, hanging on his every word. That is much easier than hanging onto him.


"Marlon is supposed to chase Sophia around the furniture? Charlie takes off in a frantic deadpan dash, to show Marlon how he wants him to do it. Sophia is supposed to flee? Charlie skitters around uttering little yelps of alarm and casting arch looks back over his tweedy shoulder. Sydney Chaplin is supposed to puff on a cigar and make himself sick? Charlie Chaplin wraps his small hand around an imaginary cigar, tilts his head, and everybody not he set can smell the nonexistent smoke.....


"The new picture, though it is the 81st of Chaplin's 52-year movie career, is a first in a couple of significant categories: it is Chaplin's first film in color; it is the first time he hasher directed established stars, let alone a pair of Oscar winners and staggering personalities like Loren and Brando; and it is the first time in years that he has worked for a company not his own. Universal is bankrolling this one at an estimated production cost of $4 million and will distribute it. But Chapin is clearly running it. .... Hardly a day passes that Charlie doesn't mutter 'We're using too much film.' Actually, Charlie's first feature-length film, the six-reeler Tillie's Punctured Romance in 1914, had almost exactly the same shooting time as this present film, 14 weeks.




"'That was very, very difficult, that scene,' Sophia says. 'It was a charlie Chapin scene, you see. Silent, and subtle. He has the timing exactly right when he does it. Charlie never does the obvious thing, like most actors. He turns it all upside down, thinks of the opposite from the obvious thing.' "...

"'In the next few days I thought I had gone raving mad, Charlie had gone raving mad, and it was impossible,' says Brando. 'I can't do fades and triple-takes and things like that, and I was wanting to go to Charlie to say, 'I'm afraid we've both made a horrible mistake. But then it all started to work out. With Charlie it's chess, it's chess at 90 mph.' ...


"He (Charlie) plays one scene in the film. The morning he did it, he hopped onto the set grinning from ear to ear. He slid into the white jacket of a ship's chief steward, and he combed his hair and muttered his lines under his breath and gave that old familiar half-apologetic look just over the left shoulder. His assistant director called 'Action!' and Chaplin opened the door. He put on the walk of an aging chief steward and then the look of a seasick chief steward He made straight for a porthole and tripped over something that wasn't in the script. Just before the assistant director could call 'Cut' he stopped, bent down, picked up an imaginary object and slipped it intones pocked, adjusted his shoulder, walked on. It was very funny.


"'Well, that's my contribution,' he said as he walked off the set. Kona gave him a big kiss and everybody told him the scene was wonderful. The only reason there wasn't a round of applause was that everyone in the place was afraid he might snap at them. 'Quiet, now let's all be adult!'"

And so ends the article. I've included photos from the magazine, which were shot by famed photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Also included is an ad from that same issue which features another very funny man.