Chaplin: History And Mystery

The Tramp. The Little Fellow. Naturally the obituaries were full of those terms, full of references to the bowler-hatted, cane-swinging, corner-skidding outsider who had become one of the perdurable icons in the collective mind of the world. All true; still it’s not quite enough. Yes, the Tramp is now a deathless image. Yes, he made us laugh and cry and presumably always will.

by Stanley Kauffmann


Charles Chaplin’s death and the events following it are almost continuations of Chaplin fiction. First, he died exactly on a Christmas Day. If it had happened to the Tramp in a film, we would all have smiled concessively. Second, on December 26, 1977, The New York Times published a front-page obituary of Chaplin illustrated with a doctored photograph. (They apologized the next day. It was the last shot of Modern Times with Paulette Goddard airbrushed out.) After Chaplin’s eighty-eight-year life, the effect was like the cannon in The Great Dictator which is gigantic and emits a tiny plop.

Third, on March 2, 1978, his coffin was stolen from its Swiss grave.* Again a surprise twist. After sober funeral and interment, grave-robbers.

This last madness, nauseating though it is, is still a kind of tribute. It’s a demented obeisance to a world figure whose like the world had not seen before and, in a sense, can never see again. No one in history before Chaplin—in the artistic sphere or any other sphere—had achieved world fame so quickly. His first film was released in February 1914. In January 1915 he was an international star who signed a contract with a second studio at ten times his previous salary. And, as I’ve noted before, he made his reputation during the First War. Down among the shells and guns and provisions, military convoys must have carried Chaplin films.

Huge reputations have been made quickly since then, but since then it has become much easier. The Beatles—for a time, anyway—were as famous as Chaplin, but they had recordings, radio, television, personal tours and film to help them. Chaplin had only film, and, with this comparatively limited means—a limitation that will not exist again—he surpassed them.

Incendiary success is always due to more than talent-plus-personality, it always has something to do with the historical moment. One could say, with just a mite of bias, that Marx had written, Lenin and Trotsky had struggled, Edison and Griffith had pioneered, to bring together just the right elements for Eisenstein’s genius. Chaplin came along at the end of a hundred years during which, as history proves, the popular theater had been aching toward increased flexibility of settings and opportunities for spectacle, even liberation from the laws of gravity; he also came at the end of a 2500-year tradition of comic performance that had, so to speak, prepared him; and those two elements joined up neatly with the arrival of the film form. Eisenstein without film might have become, as he promised to be, an outstanding scenic designer and theatrical director; film made him a genius. Chaplin might have been, as he promised to be, enormously successful in music-hall and revue; film made him a genius.

The Tramp. The Little Fellow. Naturally the obituaries were full of those terms, full of references to the bowler-hatted, cane-swinging, corner-skidding outsider who had become one of the perdurable icons in the collective mind of the world. All true; still it’s not quite enough. Yes, the Tramp is now a deathless image. Yes, he made us laugh and cry and presumably always will. But, out of the thousands of Chaplin moments, put just two together and think of them, really think of them, and you understand why talking about The Little Fellow is not enough. Think of the moment in The Rink when, with his torso almost motionless, his roller-skated feet move so quickly under him as he tries to keep his balance that his legs almost become a solid blur like the spinning spokes of a wheel. Then think of the last scene in City Lights when the formerly blind girl realizes that this little hobo was her savior and the camera goes to his face. The first moment is physical virtuosity past the reach of most who devote their lives to absolutely nothing else. The second moment is, to speak quietly, great acting. How many great actors could do the former? How many physical virtuosos could do the latter? No, the Tramp, image of genius though he is, is only a kind of middle ground, a medium, for even greater genius.


And then there is Chaplin the director. Early in his film career he realized that he could not be directed by anyone else. In his theater work before then, he had worked from self to audience, no intervention. Now some technologies necessarily intervened and he had to control them, he couldn’t possibly let anyone else’s sensibility convey him to an audience. Two months after he began acting in films, he began directing himself.

His direction has often been criticized adversely, often justly. His productions frequently look cheap, his choices of actors were sometimes shockingly poor (Carl Miller in the picture discussed below, Marilyn Nash in Monsieur Verdoux), he sometimes seems to be scanting scenes in which he himself does not appear. But twice in his life he directed films in which he plays only tiny bits and could concentrate on directing, A Woman of Paris and A Countess from Hong Kong. The latter is a work of his dotage. The former, just re-released after long absence, proves how good a director he could be.

The story behind and after A Woman of Paris is interesting in itself. Chaplin had long wanted to do a serious film and had been toying with The Trojan Women. Then in 1922 he met Peggy Hopkins Joyce, one of the age’s leading gold-diggers—a good ’20s term—a beautiful woman who used her looks to get millions from rich men by marriages and other means. He and Joyce were intimate for a time, and he was fascinated by her stories of her adventures, particularly (he says in his autobiography) the story of a young Parisian who had committed suicide on her account. These stories, he writes, “inspired me to write the story of A Woman of Paris for Edna Purviance to star in.” The subject of sexual heterodoxy fascinated Chaplin in the ’20s. The Kid begins with Purviance’s abandonment of her illegitimate baby. In The Gold Rush the girl, so well played by Georgia Hale, is obviously, if implicitly, a prostitute. Now Chaplin felt the urge to concentrate on unconventional sexual behavior, keeping the Tramp off screen.

A Woman of Paris, released in 1923, was a critical but not a popular success, and Chaplin eventually withdrew it from circulation. For fifty years it was very difficult to see the film outside of a few film libraries. Then in 1976 Chaplin for some reason decided to add a music score to it, and in 1977 Leonard Maltin of the Museum of Modern Art in New York arranged for a few showings there. Now it is available in 16-mm. form from rbc films of Hollywood and is being released theatrically by Kino International of New York.

The mystery of the fifty-year withdrawal is compounded by Chaplin’s next effort to make a serious film, also without himself and with Edna Purviance. In 1925, after much travail, he released The Gold Rush. Purviance wasn’t in it. Then he wrote a story called A Woman of the Sea—also known as The Sea Gull though it had nothing to do with Chekhov—and engaged the young Josef von Sternberg to write the screenplay and direct it. (Chaplin also did a little of the directing.) John Grierson, who saw some of it being shot, said it was set in a Monterey village and was a “strangely beautiful and empty affair.” Sternberg says in his autobiography:

When the filming had ended I showed it exactly once at one theater . . . and that was the end of that. The film was promptly returned to Mr. Chaplin’s vaults, and no one has ever seen it again. We spent many idle hours with each other, before, during, and after the making of this film but not once was this work of mine discussed, nor have I ever broached the subject of its fate to him.

It’s eerie. Two serious films, both with Purviance. One inexplicably buried for fifty years, the other inexplicably buried forever. (Some say it was burned.) It couldn’t have been because of animus toward Purviance. She didn’t become the star that Chaplin thought she might be, but he permitted her to go abroad to make a film, which, too, was unsuccessful, and when she returned he reportedly kept her on salary until her death in 1958. (Neither Sternberg nor the Sternberg film is mentioned in Chap­lin’s autobiography.)

Note that Chaplin set his story based on material by the American woman Joyce, for the American actress Purviance, in France. Partly this might have been because of Joyce’s recent experience there, and partly no doubt because this story, of a demi-mondaine, was more comfortable in Paris than in, say, Minneapolis—with a décor of gigolos, luxe restaurants, extras with turbans and monocles, etc. But partly, I think, it was because Chaplin was always a bit more at ease with a European milieu. Much of his work, even when supposedly American or relatively place­less, has a European feeling. The cops often look like bobbies. The settings—in The Kid, for instance—suggest European cities. The clown acts in The Circus are much more in the European circus tradition than the American. The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight are all set abroad. A King in New York is, first of all, about a king, and, further, its location sequences, supposedly New York, were patently shot in London.

Having Europeanized his Joyce material, having decided to confront sexual unconventionality, Chaplin then wrote an old-fashioned sentimental nineteenth-century melodrama. He calls it “a drama of fate.” Not remotely. It depends on coincidence (a heart attack at just the wrong moment) and overheard conversations (twice) and an accidental meeting. It ends with the penitent magdalen leaving Paris with the mother of her suicided artist-lover to care for wee orphans in the country. In the last shot she is happily riding in a farm cart on a dirt road when, without her or his knowledge, the rich man who used to keep her speeds by in his luxurious car. The moral in this morality tale isn’t clear. True, she has found peace of mind through service, but the rich hedonist lover hasn’t found discomfort or remorse. If there is a moral, it’s that conscience is a burden.

Purviance has a lushness of person that we are no longer used to in leading women, particularly when the role starts out as an innocent village maiden; and her face has the defect of not even being recognizable from sequence to sequence unless the lighting is maintained precisely. At her best she has a golden, buxom, beddy quality, not much more. The poor-but-honest lover, Carl Miller, is a complete liability to the film in every way. The star performance is by Adolphe Menjou as the rich man-of-the-world lover. Menjou was not a newcomer even then, and when you consider that his career went on until 1960, it’s amazing that he looked so mature as long ago as 1923. He’s delightful: courteous, cynical, cool, charming. Menjou’s subtle inflection of gesture and pantomime seems especially modern because all the others always present you with four-square blocks of this or that emotion while Menjou is slicing off delicate, ambiguous curlicues.

Chaplin, not having to consider himself as actor, directed with a purely visual imagination that is not a consistent hallmark of his camerawork in his own vehicles. For instance, early in the picture, there is a breathtaking use of deep focus, the lover in the foreground in the street with the girl at her window in the distance—a shot that unifies and separates them. When the girl waits for the midnight train at the station, we don’t see the train itself, we see the patterns of the lighted windows of the cars cross her body. (Yes, it’s a familiar device now.) When the artist-lover commits suicide in the huge foyer of a restaurant, his body falls into a fountain surmounted by the life-size statue of a smiling nude girl. When a crowd gathers around his body, the smiling, bare-breasted girl towers above the mob—a symbol of the elusive feminine that caused his death.

The worth of A Woman of Paris is now, predictably, in process of being exaggerated. But it certainly shows another aspect of Chaplin’s directorial imagination. And it deepens two mysteries: Why was it suppressed for so long? Why was the other serious picture with Purviance permanently suppressed?


Chaplin’s relations with women—Joyce and Purviance were a mere two of them—were public business because of how he behaved, who he was, and the marriages he made. To complete the astonishment of his life in this regard: at the age of fifty-four he married, for his happiest marriage, an eighteen-year-old girl—who was the daughter of America’s greatest dramatist.

My one (dare I call it) personal memory of Chaplin is related to Mrs. Chaplin—now, of course, Lady Chaplin. On April 4, 1972, he was given a tribute at the jam-packed Philharmonic Hall in New York. It was his first, and last, return to the United States since his self-imposed exile in 1952. After the showings of The Idle Class and The Kid, the white-haired Chaplin stood up in his box, his wife beside him, her own hair now touched with gray. You can imagine the tumult. (Zero Mostel, from the orchestra floor, shouted above the roar: “We love you, Charlie.”) Chaplin spoke, touchingly, youthfully. Then he thought he would give us all a bit of pantomime to remember, but as he started, Mrs. Chaplin put her hand on his arm in an affectionate cautionary way, implying, “Now, now. Let’s not overdo it.” And Mrs. C. took Mr. C. along home. It was lovely.

Later that month there was one last image, one of the most beautiful. He appeared at the Academy Awards ceremony to accept a special award, and, like millions, I watched it on television. Before he came out, we saw a collection of clips from his films, arranged, as I recall, by Peter Bogdanovich. The last clip was the last moment from The Circus, the Tramp left alone in the field after the circus has left, with only the marks of the circus rings left on the grass. The theater has once again become the world, the world his theater. And the director of the Academy telecast—may he thrive a thousand years—crossfaded from the very last frames of The Circus to a tight closeup on the television camera of the white-haired Chaplin coming out on stage to the shouting crowd. He was dignified and he was crying. It was the real ending of The Circus, it was the real ending of his life. The news from Vevey on Christmas Day five years later was superfluous.

* It was recovered nearby seventy-six days later.

The New Republic, May 6, 1978


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