October 1923, Poets Talk All Night

Chaplinesque

by David Thomson

There is no hint of surprise in his account of his own life. He knew what was going to happen. The “how” might be left to providence, but the fact of his prominence was not in doubt. He had a mother whose balance was disturbed, and he had fathers to sort through. In other words, we don’t quite know who his father was, though a man named Charles Chaplin took the part until he died in 1901. The uncertainty allowed Charlie to think he might be Latin, or Russian, or Jewish, or something much more than dowdy Kennington, the workhouse and grim south London. That was the Dickens version where Charlie was the Artful Dodger—and no one remembers what became of that imp (he ended up “the merriest young grazier in all Northamptonshire” it says). Charlie believed he was infinite, Chaplinesque. He knew it, and he simply waited for events to get organized around that principle. Anyone can tell you the Dodgers went to L.A.

Case in point: when Charles Chaplin Senior died, Charlie was twelve, a kid, or even The Kid. He was known to a few hundred people in south London, those who had seen him on the music-hall stage, or bumped into him on the drab streets. Twenty years later, at The Kid’s opening, he was the most famous man in the world, and by then it was clear to the ordinary filmgoers and to poets alike that he was the representative of the great, inspiring poor, the mass of unknowns, that—one way or another—would determine the future of the twentieth century and the fate of the world. The Tramp would look after the Kid.

So, the poets did notice, and one New York night in October 1923—just after the premiere of A Woman of Paris—the writer Waldo Frank took Chaplin to dinner in the Village. Afterward, Frank led Charlie to a one-room apartment on Grove Street. They knocked on the door and “in walked Waldo Frank and a most pleasant-looking, twinkling little man in a black derby.” That is Hart Crane, next day, writing to his mother, about how he met Charlie Chaplin.

They talked all night, and Chaplin saw in Crane one of his own characters (what else should we expect?): “Hart Crane was desperately poor. His father, a millionaire candy manufacturer, wanted him to enter his business and tried to discourage his poetry by cutting him off financially.” And so education and industry customarily proceed, trying to keep perversity on track. Charlie thought some of Crane’s poetry “shrill . . . Yet he had a gentle sweetness.” He noted that Crane went from “poverty and neglect” to “drink and dissipation” and then jumped into the sea from a ship on its way from Havana to New York. But before then Crane had sent him a copy of White Buildings, which includes the poem “Chaplinesque.” Don’t expect a masterpiece in that, or even an especially observant eye for Chaplin the comic. But in a last image, invented by Crane (there is no kitten in The Kid, the film Crane loved), the poet addresses the certain knowledge that tonight and tomorrow night on the street outside our coziness something is dying:

The game enforces smirks; but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.

The poem is not crucial, or not as much as its title. Today we may be very familiar with such terms as Kafkaesque, Pinteresque, and Faulknerian. The academic rapine of our culture has invented so much apparently tender jargon to make its narcotizing journey acceptable. But in the 1920s, that “-esque” suffix was more novel, and Crane was trying to voice the incoherent urgings a poet might feel, to say “amen” to the attempt by someone like Chaplin and this hectic new mechanism, the machine that cut people’s heads from their bodies, that told jagged stories in silence, that said, look, look at this beauty (does she know she’s being studied? and if she knows is she a slut, or can she be my goddess still?).

Wondering what the world was going to do with the great mass outside, this was a bristling moment for disaffiliated intellectuals like Crane (essentially people ready to plunge into the world, into life, missing Harvard et cetera on the way). And just because so many of them were so very wordy, nothing beckoned like those new immediate resources (sudden oceans) where the modernist advance into difficulty was being offset by media—movies, jazz, public sports events—where anyone could go and feel none of the kind of barrier that even advanced prosodists might face in the sentences of Joyce, Proust, Musil, and Faulkner. Popular culture, it would be called, and all at once the jig was up—for culture had never gone down better than medicine or been sexier than Margaret Dumont.

Not very far ahead, in Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, the hit-maker director John L. Sullivan yearns to make something earnest, obscure and gloomy, instead of his silly comedies that make everyone laugh. So he heads off into America like an idiot, and before you can shout “banana skin!” he’s in a Southern chain gang where life is hard (shall we guess much harder than the film dares show?), until relief and consolation come in the form of a movie show, with Charlie’s greatest American rival, Mickey Mouse. The point of it is not just be grateful for small mercies (and screw the bigger ones to the floor), but be aware of that kind of narrative fiction that can reach the illiterates, the subnormals, and the simply evil animal class such as may be found on a Southern chain gang (if you include the guards in the congregation).

One reason why this volume has essays on the movies is that from about the end of the First World War the ghastly realization dawns that literature may not be enough. That while the masturbatory delights of reading alone with a book in your lap may still be available (a room of one’s own), watch out—because some frantic kind of public orgy or séance is being talked about, which is sitting crammed together in the fearsome dark and keeping silent for the awe that descends with the switching of this unscrupulous dago-Jew- faggot- bastard, who is somewhere between the wealthiest tramp in the world and a screaming-queen ballet-dancer murderer (never forget the violence in Charlie). So let’s not claim that Charlie Chaplin doesn’t present some aesthetic problems (it’s OK by me if you still prefer Keaton, Groucho, or Fields), but simply consider the purple-plained majesty of its happening, this crazed mixture of cruelty and sentimentality, and the sinister Puckish posing, the curve of cane, back, and Derby brim, the savage stamp of mustache. Jean-Paul Sartre (I’m pulling rank here) called it all “the frenzy on the wall,” and poor Hart Crane, gasping for breath, rehearsing drowning, bubbles, “Chaplinesque! Champagne Charlie!” Nothing is ever going to be the same again.

Chaplin is challenged quite often in critical circles. But the fact is that from 1914 until as late as City Lights, in 1931, he was the movies for the key generation in their history. No one had foreseen the bittersweet marriage of comedy and sentiment, violence and pathos. Nobody was more inventive, or more in love with the ambiguity of his own screen personality. Audiences had never felt so close to someone who wasn’t there—from the one-reelers through The Gold Rush, The Circus, and City Lights, Chaplin defined the ghostly intimacy of film. Now that no one is hardly ever “there” in our culture, we see what a pioneer of delight and alienation he was.

Chaplin was never a tramp in his adult life. And in the fiercely competitive Hollywood that he knew, he was alone among filmmakers in that he generally worked on a picture in the way Hart Crane might have approached a poem. Take as long as it needs. Although Chaplin was one of the founder members of United Artists (with his friends Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, and with D. W. Griffith), Chaplin never really played according to the one-for- all- and- all- for- one rules of the new setup. Chaplin preferred to be the source of money and the destiny of profit for his films, and in his heyday he thought nothing of keeping cast and crew waiting, on salary, while he thought of what to film. The industry that surrounded him had disproved and abandoned his method long ago—they said it was un-American!

How was this possible? Because the appetite for Chaplin films was so vast. In 1916, when he crossed over to Mutual from Keystone (in the days of his one-and two-reel films), the new studio agreed to pay Charlie $10,000 a week, with a signing bonus of $150,000. His 1997 biographer reckoned those amounts worked out in millennium spending money as $140,000 a week and a bonus of $3.1 million. And here’s the real wow: those numbers were pretty cheesy by 2000, when a far smaller portion of the population went to the movies than had done so in 1916.

But by the late 1930s, Chaplin was no longer himself “Chaplinesque.” He was one more film industry plutocrat behaving badly. I think it’s clear now that Charlie kept the “-esque” on his name while silent pictures lasted, and of course in his own private world he persisted with silence longer than anyone else. City Lights, made as late as 1931, was entirely silent, except for his very sweet music, and it is a parable about the millionaire, the tramp, and the blind girl that depends on the archaic enclosure of silence—that’s what lets you smell the blind girl’s flowers. In due course, even Chaplin had to yield to sound, and then all of a sudden his dance became elephantine, because all his characters could utter was speechifying. In the same way, the man who had had a natural rapport with millions of strangers through a single gesture or glance was a terrible writer. My Autobiography, from 1964, is always awkward and stilted and often flat-out obnoxious. It omits entire wives, to say nothing of dalliances. Charlie came to America and to California with every intention of playing the game. He was prepared to go through every mass of huddled souls to find the pretty girls and give them a Chaplinesque turn thereafter—seldom done with feeling, they said, but full of pantomime gesture and sexual slapstick. Just like Hitler (they were on course to meet), he ate up strangers.

Hart Crane was spared this, but in the 1940s, especially, you could feel Chaplin turning harsher and less playful. He had lost a lot of his touch: The Great Dictator (1940) is of most interest as a trial of arms or routines between two sentimental mustaches who fear they are turning fake. It’s not a very good film, and Monsieur Verdoux (1947) only showed how much human ugliness and loathing there was in Chaplin. So it was never a surprise that by the late ’40s, though married to Oona O’Neill (his child-bride with literary class), he was hounded by reports of abusing younger women and embracing Marxists. It was nonsense, of course: he had tended to take any woman he laid his eyes on, not just the nymphs, and his airy out-loud ponderings about freedom were very much in line with libertarian fortune cookies.

He had never become an American citizen, but that was not anti-Americanism so much as a vague wish to belong to the world. He had been a taxpayer for forty years; he had generally pursued American girls; and he had done his bit to build Los Angeles. Taking vengeance on him was as stupid as anything else in the McCarthy show. But it’s notable that neither the Hart Cranes nor the huddled masses really rallied to his side. Hardly anyone thought to say—as Crane had tried to—Look, at a moment, and a perilous moment, he was America for the world, and he was the idea of a silly comic holding people together.

It’s still not clear that Chaplin had to go. Whatever the warnings, it was rather more that he elected to go himself, and as he left had his reentry visa annulled. More or less, Chaplin had coincided with the second half of the great wave of immigration into America. (Part One of that story was Christmas, Part Two Kafka.) Almost entirely, he had appealed to the hushed faces that found English a strange language. As if to show how lost he was, he went to Switzerland where he raised a mighty family, wrote his awful book and made The Countess from Hong Kong, his worst film, and a very American stand-off in that it came down to two bitter geniuses—Chaplin and Brando—staring at each other in mounting bewilderment.

There was a final moment. Depending on your point of view, it was very touching, or it was emotionally hideous: since this was 1972, it was likely both in riot. The Academy (which had only given Chaplin one award, for The Circus in 1927–28) determined to offer the white-haired man from Vevey an honorary award. You could rationalize it how you liked: it was an apology, a gesture of forgiveness, or a knock-out occasion for the sentimental television audience. Chaplin agreed to attend. He and Oona landed in New York and there was a party there—Charlie met Johnny Carson: he’d never heard of him or seen him.

In Los Angeles, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the Academy made a radical concession. As a rule, Best Picture is the climax of the evening. This year it was The French Connection, and if you looked hard perhaps there was a distant rhyme scheme between Popeye Doyle strutting in his porkpie hat and Charlie in his cane and bowler. If only The French Connection had had that charm.

There was a program of clips, the lights came up, and there was Chaplin in the greatest ovation the Academy has ever known. The president of the Academy, Daniel Taradash, gave him an Oscar “for the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of the century.” Well, that was going some, wasn’t it? Whoever said that motion pictures were as minor as an art form? If you had been alive for The Kid you’d know that they were a sensation, like electric light, and just as ambiguous.

There was a ball later—like a fairy-tale country, America has a taste for balls. Charlie met Jackie Coogan again, the kid from The Kid, that beautiful child who sits there at the table and watches Charlie like a wise child, the street urchin who has a rock to throw and tosses it in the air under a policeman’s nose. Coogan, fat and hairless at fifty-seven, was unrecognizable. And people noted that Charlie didn’t always remember people—not in the way they remembered him. He was interested in strangers, like performers and dictators. But he knew it was Groucho Marx loping across the room, like a wolf with a hernia, and he put his arm round Julius Henry Marx and whispered, “Stay warm, Groucho, you’re next.”

Groucho Marx died August 19, 1977.

Charles Chaplin died Christmas Day 1977.

There is a story told by atheists. Knowing he didn’t really have the power, and beginning to be persuaded that he didn’t really exist, God looked down on a troubled Earth and said, “I’ll deal them three cards, three wild cards, and they’ll never know where they came from.”

“That’s cheating,” said Gabriel.

“My game,” said God, “and it looks like it’s going to be a rough hundred years. I’m worried about the culture, so I’ll give them three bright souls, three angels, what shall we call them?”

“Saints?” suggested Gabriel.

“I like that,” said God, though he made it clear that they didn’t have to behave like saints. And they were Charlie, Groucho, and Satch. You don’t really believe they just did it themselves, do you?

“People,” said God, “they forget how good I could be when I was God-like.”

Bibliography:

Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography (New York, 1964). Hart Crane, White Buildings (New York, 1926). Kenneth S. Lynn, Charlie Chaplin and His Times (New York, 1997). John Unterecker, Voyager: A Life of Hart Crane (New York, 1969).