A Countess From Hong Kong (5 January 1967)

11 Oscar

Release Date: 5 January 1967

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 107 minutes (revised cut)

With: Marlon Brando, Sophia Loren, Sydney Chaplin, Tippi Hedren, Patrick Cargill, Margaret Rutherford, Charlie Chaplin

Story: A beautiful Russian Countess stows away in the cabin of an American diplomat on a liner outbound from Hong Kong.

Production: There was a decade between A King in New York and Charlie Chaplin’s final film as writer and director (and his brief final onscreen appearance), A Countess From Hong Kong in 1967. Although it may be thought that Chaplin, now in his 70s, might have entered a period of contented retirement in his mansion house in Switzerland, nothing could be further from the truth. He was as busy and vital as ever during this time by all accounts.

The Chaplin family—growing with the addition of new children (six sons, five daughters, spanning his four marriages, eight with Oona—four of his children arrived after he turned 64) for a total of 11 in all—toured the world en masse on several occasions. Chaplin continued to revisit his older work, re-issuing revised versions of A Dog’s Life, Shoulder Arms, and The Pilgrim as a feature dubbed The Chaplin Revue (1959). His main occupation immediately following A King in New York was the process of compiling his autobiography, a work that grew from periods of reminiscence sparked by visits from his half-brother, Sydney.

00 KongAlthough offered the services of a co-writer or even a ghostwriter, Chaplin insisted he must tell his own story in his own words. It was a process that soon got away from him. Rather than type his own work, Chaplin dictated his life story to his secretary, Eileen Burnier, relying on her to edit, clean up, and re-order his stream-of-consciousness anecdotes from all across his life and career. The book was promised for 1958, but it didn’t see publication, under the title My Autobiography, until 1964. Full of oversights and omissions, Chaplin’s autobiography was self aggrandising and indulgent. Lita Grey Chaplin—dismissed in a mere three lines despite being the mother of two of Chaplin’s surviving children—responded with a book of her own, Life With Chaplin, in an attempt to balance the scales. The spark behind the writing of Chaplin’s book, Sydney, died on 16 April 1965 aged 80—the same day was also Chaplin’s 76th birthday.

Chaplin was still intent on making new films and he toyed with various projects in the decade after A King in New York. One was a spoof Hollywood epic, perhaps based on the movies of the 1950s now so out-of-date in the swinging 1960s, while he also harboured ambitions to write for the stage, perhaps an opera based on Tess of the D’ubervilles. For a long time he developed a story about a convict, intending the part to revitalise the acting career of his son Sydney, now in his 40s (his most recent film had been 1961’s Follow That Man).

Instead, for his 81st film and the only one he made in colour (and widescreen, a 1950s cinematic innovation he’d decried in A King in New York), Chaplin returned to an idea that dated from almost four decades before when in the 1930s it had been intended as a vehicle for his then partner Paulette Goddard. Like A King in New York, the original story drew from real-life deposed aristocrats (in this case, escapees from the Russian revolution). Chaplin returned to the material, updating it for contemporary times but essentially telling the tale he had intended many decades before.

01 Kong

Thanks largely to his standing, the 76-year-old Chaplin was able to line up a stellar 1960s cast, including Marlon Brando, Sophia Loren, and Tippi Hedern, without even showing any of them a screenplay. Several of the actors came to regret their impetuous choice to commit to Chaplin’s film sight unseen, especially Brando who feigned illness to escape the set at Pinewood studios just outside London (where shooting began in January 1966), and Hedren, who complained to Chaplin that her ‘substantial’ supporting role was little more than a cameo towards the end of the film.

In 2016 Hedren recalled her experience making A Countess From Hong Kong in 1966, including her exposure to Chaplin’s ‘bizarre’ method of direction that was completely different to that of Alfred Hitchcock whom Hedren was more used to. ‘It was interesting to meet Chaplin after Hitchcock,’ she wrote, ‘their directing styles were so different. Chaplin’s method was to act out all our different roles, which was brilliant to watch. Instead of directing, he’d get out there on set and say: “OK, do this,” and show us how. He’d become Sophia Loren. He’d become me and Marlon. It was really unusual and I’d never seen it happen before.’ Which goes to show that across his entire career, Chaplin never wavered in his unique style of directing others.

10 KongChaplin’s instructional directing style was also difficult for Brando, who revered the ‘method’ style of acting, popular since the 1950s. Hedren recalled: ‘Charlie and Marlon put up with each other, you might say. Marlon was so insulted to see someone acting out his role and that’s why he wanted to leave. I thought it was charming and funny, but Marlon wanted to quit and Charlie had to convince him to stay on.’ Brando took to showing up late on set, dominating Loren, and attempted to ‘psych-out’ his elderly director. Chaplin was having none of it and very quickly restored his authority by threatening Brando with rival press conferences to air their grievances. ‘We’ll see who gets the biggest audience,’ he said, no doubt with a twinkle in his eye.

For the first time since 1918, Chaplin was working for a studio—Universal—and did not finance or totally control the film. He was paid a director’s fee of $600,000 (not that he needed the money) and had a share in the film’s box office gross (worthless, as it turned out, as the film flopped). Working at Pinewood, Chaplin faced more of the same unfamiliarity with the equipment and protocols of modern studio filmmaking a whole decade after he’d lasted worked behind the camera. ‘I am the servant of the Muses,’ said Chaplin at a November 1965 press conference announcing A Countess From Hong Kong, ‘and when they say “Get back to work, you lazy bum” I get back.’

12 Chaplin CFHKChaplin made a small cameo in the movie—his only appearance in one of his own films in colour. He played an elderly ship’s steward who, unaccountably given his profession, seemingly suffers from seasickness, recalling scenes from earlier ship-board Chaplin shorts. Chaplin’s steward had few lines, and as this was his final appearance in his final films, he left the world of moving pictures as he’d come in, silently.

The final shots for A Countess From Hong Kong were actually the opening scenes of the film. Chaplin apparently deliberately scheduled this sequence as his final work as filming took place at the showrooms of tent maker John Edgington (doubling as a Hong Kong nightclub), located in the Old Kent Road, very close to where Chaplin had spent his troubled youth. The director had celebrated his 77th birthday during the shoot, so perhaps felt this might be his last time in London and took the opportunity of making his final film to return to the place where his life had begun.

A Countess From Hong Kong turned out to be an unremarkable, middling romantic comedy that was not greatly romantic nor particularly funny. If the film had not been made by the revered Charlie Chaplin, it is unlikely it would have received even the few positive notices that came its way. The film was out-of-step with the rebellious cinema of the late-1960s, a creaky would-be farce where a sharper, more youthful wit was required. It was the work of a filmmaker whose approach had changed little, and then exceedingly grudgingly, since the silent days before 1929. Now, in the late-1960s, his art was out-of-place and out-of-time—he was no longer capable of making films that were contemporary, with A Countess of Hong Kong stuck in some kind of vague wartime limbo, crossing the 1930s with the 1950s in its approach to comedy and drama.

02 KongFor the Sunday Express, the new Chaplin film was ‘old fashioned’ and ‘predictable’, while many critics complained about the miscast leads, deeming Loren and Brando unsuitable for such comedic farce material. Alexander Walker of the Evening Standard claimed Brando had been ‘directed to act in two styles, one reminiscent of a speak-your-weight machine and the other a sudden, manic frenzy peculiar to bedroom farce’. The Daily Mail was one of the few to lightly praise Chaplin’s late life effort: ‘Not by a long chalk the best of Chaplin, but all the same an agreeable escapist send-off for the New Year.’ In the United States, Time magazine called the film ‘probably the best movie made by a 77-year-old man. Unhappily, it is the worst movie made by Charlie Chaplin.’

A Countess From Hong Kong turned out to be Charlie Chaplin’s final film, but it wasn’t actually intended as such. Approaching the age of 80, he was still at work developing a new movie under the title The Freak, a fairy tale-like story following the fortunes of a young girl with wings found in Argentina by scientists. Chaplin planned to feature two of his daughters—Josephine and Victoria in the film; they had both made appearances in A Countess From Hong Kong along with Sydney (who shone) and Geraldine. It almost sounds like the kind of film Guillermo del Toro might make today, but it was not to come to fruition (although he was still talking about making it as late as 1972).

During post-production on A Countess From Hong Kong in October 1966, Chaplin had suffered a broken ankle following a fall in the street. He may have considered himself to be still young at heart, or at least mentally, but his body was beginning to let him down. He finally had to give up playing tennis, the one physical activity not involving women that he had pursued throughout his adult life. The much younger Oona, just 52 when Chaplin died, found her role as Chaplin’s wife morphing more into that of a care-giver, looking after a now elderly man. Chaplin continued working, composing new scores for his older films (such as 1928’s The Circus)

Throughout the 1960s, attitudes to Charlie Chaplin began to change, especially in America, the country that had expelled him in 1952. In 1962 The New York Times asserted ‘We do not believe the Republic would be in danger if yesterday’s unforgotten little Tramp were allowed to amble down the gangplank of a steamer or plane in an American port’. His work was being re-screened and re-evaluated, attracting new, younger audiences. He was awarded honorary degrees by Oxford and Durham universities. A year-long series of Chaplin’s lifetime of films began screening at New York’s Plaza Theater from November 1963, and his autobiography—despite its shortcomings and oversights—became a best-seller around the world (it spent six months on the American non-fiction best-seller list) in 1964.

Chaplin suffered a personal tragedy with the death of his son Charlie Chaplin Jr. on 20 March 1968, aged just 42, felled by a heart attack. The younger Chaplin had gone through two failed marriages and suffered from alcoholism. He’d attempted a career as an actor, but had felt professionally hamstrung by the famous name he’d inherited. He had been semi-estranged from his father for a long time, having been brought up largely by his mother, Lita Grey. He appeared in over a dozen movies, including Girls Town (1959), with the son of another famous silent comedian, Harold Lloyd, Jr., and in his father’s Limelight (1952). His autobiography, My Father Charlie Chaplin was published in 1960 and laid out the difficulties he’d had with his family. (‘My Father Charlie Chaplin’ was an odd title for a book about your own life; what with Chaplin’s ‘My Autobiography’—who else’s could it be?—and Michael Chaplin’s ‘I Couldn’t Smoke the Grass on my Father’s Lawn’ (1966), weird book titles clearly ran in the family.)

The 1970s were to be no quieter for Chaplin. He re-released revised versions of The Kid and The Circus and in 1971 won an award at the Cannes Film Festival, and then one at the Venice Film Festival in 1972. That same year, the Academy awarded Charlie Chaplin an honorary Oscar in recognition of his lifetime achievement in filmmaking. He was also finally accorded the long-overdue honour of a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Accepting the Oscar meant returning to the nation that has so forcibly ejected him two decades before. Chaplin, nonetheless, decided to make the trip and won a 12-minute standing ovation from the Hollywood audience which visibly moved him.

Although still planning new work that was never to be achieved, during his final years Charlie Chaplin continued to revisit his past, reissuing A Woman of Paris with a new score in 1976 and adapting his autobiography for a photo-driven volume, the punningly-titled My Life in Pictures (1974). In 1975 the documentary The Gentleman Tramp was just the first of many that chronicled the old clown’s life and career. In 1975, Chaplin was knighted, making him Sir Charles Chaplin, an award he received aged 85 from his wheelchair so frail was he by this point.

06 KongCharlie Chaplin died in his sleep on the morning of Christmas Day in 1977 at the age of 88 (Chaplin hated Christmas, and his daughter Geraldine even implied he may have deliberately chosen his moment of departure). A funeral two days later saw him buried at the local cemetery in Corzier-sur-Vevey, his home from the mid-1950s. There was a blackly comic postscript to Chaplin’s interment that he would no doubt have found humorously macabre—his body was stolen in March 1978 as part of a bungled ransom attempt. The police quickly caught the hopeless perpetrators, a pair of unemployed immigrants (Chaplin biographer David Robinson dubbed the pair ‘Keystone incompetents’). Chaplin’s coffin was recovered unharmed and re-interred, this time encased in reinforced concrete.

After a lifetime of screen work, spanning 1914 to 1967—an astonishing 53 years—what Charlie Chaplin left behind was not ongoing controversy about his private life or his politics but the fruits of that work: his films. Although revival screenings and reconsidered critical opinion had begun to emerge from the 1960s onwards, it wasn’t really until long after Chaplin’s death that his work became widely available for ordinary viewers to become acquainted with. Television screenings were rare, but the arrival of home video (VHS through DVD and Blu-ray) has allowed for meticulous, archive restorations of Chaplin’s films to become easily available for audiences to continually rediscover.

Shortly before Chaplin’s death, upon the 1976 re-release of Modern Times, Mike Harris of The Australian wrote of Charlie Chaplin: ‘Seeing his films helps one to understand how he has become legendary: they are his immortality.’

Trivia: Chaplin’s outline for The Freak saw the mysterious winged girl in Argentina kidnapped and brought to London where she is displayed in a circus/freak show as an ‘angel’. She escapes, but after various adventures is eventually recaptured only to be put on trial to determine her humanity. Chaplin started work on this idea in 1969 and continued to develop it over the next five or six years, on and off. The marriage of his daughter, Victoria, and her desire to ‘run off and join the circus’ in real life brought the project as originally outlined to an end. However, as late as his 85th birthday in 1975 (the same year he became Sir Charles Chaplin), Chaplin was still saying: ‘I mean to make it someday.’ Unfortunately, he never got the chance…

Charlie Says: ‘I sometimes sit out on our terrace at sunset and look over a vast green lawn to the lake in the distance, and beyond the lake to the reassuring mountains, and in this mood think of nothing but enjoy their magnificent serenity.’—Charlie Chaplin’s final paragraph in My Autobiography, 1964.

05 KongVerdict: An unfortunately misfiring final effort from Chaplin. The film takes the better part of an hour to get going, Brando is miscast, and the farce is neither fast enough nor farcical enough. There’s good value to be had from Sydney Chaplin, Patrick Cargill, and (briefly, in the available cut) Margaret Rutherford. Chaplin’s twinkly cameo is another brief highlight, but A Countess From Hong Kong simply proves Chaplin should have stopped after A King in New York.Brian J. Robb

13 The TrampProject Postscript: This is the final regular posting in a project that has taken five years to complete, from 2014 to the end of 2019. Initially, I covered each Chaplin release from the beginning exactly 100 years on from the original release, a neat way of re-engaging with Chaplin’s work as it originally unfolded. Of course, as Chaplin’s work rate slowed and into his features, I had to move on from that (otherwise I’d still be at it in 2067 on the 100th anniversary of A Countess From Hong Kong, when I’d also be 100 years old!). So I started covering those films on a more-or-less monthly basis. The work will remain here to be consulted, and is also available as a series of revised ebooks with additional content (the later ones will be released soon). It’s been a fun ride, and I hope some readers got some enjoyment and perhaps enlightenment from Chaplin: Film by Film. Hopefully it has also helped to keep Chaplin’s work alive and may have introduced him and his films to some new fans. Thanks to all who have read the material and stuck with the project across half a decade. Now, what to do next…?Brian J. Robb

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

A King in New York (12 September 1957)

10 King

Release Date: 12 September 1957

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 110 minutes

With: Dawn Addams, Michael Chaplin, Maxine Audley, Oliver Johnston, Jerry Desmonde, Sid James, Phil Brown, Frazer Hines

Story: Deposed King Shahdov seeks refuge in America, only to discover the modern metropolis of New York is not to his taste…

Production: Everything that had happened to Charlie Chaplin in his final years in America came pouring out in the final film he would star in, A King in New York, made in London and released in 1957. Ironically, his commentary upon contemporary mid-1950s American mores would not be seen widely in that country for several decades (it was finally released in 1973). Although much of the film is tied, inevitably, to the time and place of it’s making, the majority of what it has to say is just as relevant today as ever before.

07 KingThe writer-director had decided not to return to London permanently as he felt the extradition arrangements with the United States meant he could not be sure of his own long-term safety. He turned in his void re-entry permit at the US consulate and issued a statement: ‘It is not easy to uproot myself and my family from a country where I have lived for 40 years without a feeling of sadness, but since the end of the last war I have been the object of vicious propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who by their influence and by the aid of America’s yellow press have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted. I have therefore given up my residence in the United States.’ This ‘persecution’ of ‘liberal-minded individuals’ and America’s ‘unhealthy atmosphere’ would be the backdrop for A King in New York.

Early in 1953 the Chaplin family had settled into the Manoir de Ban in Corsier-sur-Vevey, near Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The new multi-room mansion was a far cry from the poverty in London in which Chaplin had grown up and exceeded even the homes he’d lived in when working in the United States. Chaplin sought seclusion, both for himself and his large family.

A year after the move, Chaplin first announced plans for a new movie to be centred around a king in exile—the echoes of his own situation were only too obvious. As usual, the development process of the story and the actual script was a lengthy one, taking up much of Chaplin’s creative energy over the next two or so years. Towards the end of 1955 he had something he was reasonably pleased with and confident enough about to schedule filming for the following spring. He resolved to film at London’s Shepperton Studios and the Chaplin family were removed to Egham’s Great Foster Hotel for the duration.

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As well as his own exile and a broad-brush satire of the modern United States (television, advertising, cosmetic surgery, McCarthyism), Chaplin drew upon the presence of several former monarchs in Switzerland in researching his film. He travelled to Lausanne-Ouchy to meet with the former Queen of Spain (who advised him on royal etiquette) and had a meal with an Italian Prince at his home in Italy. The third factor that played into A King in New York was the atom bomb, the instrument of destruction that had brought to an end the Second World War but now in its proliferation across the globe was threatening to bring to an end all humanity.

00 KingChaplin’s deposed monarch, King Shahdov (his name suggests a ‘shadow’ personality; curiously it is depicted as ‘Shadov’ on the film credits) of Estrovia, has been overthrown by a cabal within his government following his plans to use atomic power to improve the lot of his people. Having fallen on hard times (the money looted from his kingdom has in turn been looted by his prime minister), the King becomes a celebrity and takes on advertising contracts in order to pay off his expensive hotel bills. He encounters modern culture, such as movies, and decides it’s not to his taste. A relationship with Dawn Addam’s advertising advisor continues Chaplin’s infatuation (on- and off-screen) with women far younger than he was—Chaplin was in his mid-60s, Addams in her mid-20s.

08 KingAs with Limelight, family became important to the making of A King in New York with Chaplin casting his son Michael in a major role as Rupert Macabbe, a young victim of America’s anti-Communist blacklist that was continuing to rage through the end of the decade. Ten-year-old Michael gives a creditable performance, even if in his first scene where he meets the king, he is clearly mouthing along with Chaplin’s lines in order to keep himself straight on his bits. This lessens as the film goes on, suggesting that these scenes at least may have been filmed in order.

‘I had a wonderful time working with my father,’ recalled Michael Chaplin, who later rebelled against his father’s stern parenting. ‘It was the only time, really, that I had any relationship with my father—with him coaching me and acting with him. I was able to become part of his creative world … My father acted out every gesture and every inflection of my performance. As with everything and everyone else on the film, he was meticulous. I recall the advice he gave me on acting was “What you have to try to achieve is to be as natural as possible”. It was a wonderful time. As a young man, I rebelled. I was only able to come to terms with my father—and appreciate him and understand his personality—much later.’

10 KingMany of those caught up in accusations of Communism relocated to Europe with several prominent American filmmakers working in 1950s London on both film and television projects. Chaplin’s leading lady this time was Dawn Addams, who first made her mark in 1952’s MGM musical Singin’ in the Rain and had married a Prince in 1954 (she had previously auditioned for Chaplin’s Limelight, losing out to Claire Bloom). Incongruously, for modern British audiences more used to his later Carry On… film bawdy comedy roles, the film features Sid James in a minor role (apparently cast as a replacement for Sam Wanamaker!). Featured in the final scene as Rupert’s school headmaster was American actor Phil Brown, himself a victim of the blacklist working in London (he was later better known as Luke Skywalker’s Uncle Owen in 1977’s Star Wars). Given his own political beliefs, his dialogue is doubly ironic.

Working in a studio other than his own was discomfiting to Chaplin who found the unfamiliar environment and technology of Shepperton Studios somewhat alien compared to the long-used and very familiar facilities at the Chaplin studio in Los Angeles. Another factor that hampered his free-wheeling filmmaking approach was the strict enforcement of union rules, which set the hours that could be worked and specified particularly timed breaks. Chaplin was more used to working simply to his own inspirations, muse, and provocations. In practice, Chaplin felt like a stranger among his own countrymen.

03 KingThe film was completed relatively quickly across a tight nine-week period, with an additional week devoted to location filming. Chaplin himself was under a strict limitation as to how long he could stay in Britain, largely for tax reasons and because he was in fear of attracting the attention of the American authorities who might decide at any moment to have him arrested. It is little wonder, then, if he was somewhat paranoid and irritated when filming A King in New York. As soon as the filming wrapped in summer 1956, Chaplin left for the relative quiet and solitude of Switzerland once more.

While initially happy enough with A King in New York upon its completion (‘It’s good, it’s my best picture, it’s entertainment, don’t you think?’ he told a friend), he later became unhappy with it, perceiving his attempt to make a modern 1950s movie as something of a failure: ‘Perhaps I didn’t quite understand it,’ he said. ‘It started out to be very good, and then it got complicated and a little heavy handed.’

01 KingAmerican audiences and critics would not officially see A King in New York for 16 years after its release, although some critics did sneak in a viewing, with the New Yorker dubbing it ‘maybe the worst film ever made by a celebrated film artist.’ British critics were more welcoming if not universally positive. ‘Never boring,’ was the conclusion of Kenneth Tynan writing in The Observer. ‘The points that are made—about the withdrawal of passports and the abject necessity of informing—are new to the screen, and it is about time somebody made them.’ For the Daily Mail, Chaplin’s latest was ‘a lumpish mixture of subtle slapstick and clumsy political satire’. In The Sunday Times, Dilys Powell described Chaplin’s character in A King in New York as the final step of his discarding of the Tramp guise, now he was simply playing himself onscreen. Some critics missed the ‘old-fashioned’ slapstick Chaplin and decried his ‘message-crammed’ later movies like The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux, and A King in New York.

In interviews promoting A King in New York, Chaplin explained his reason for shelving his character of the Tramp. ‘The world in which he lived just doesn’t exist anymore,’ said Chaplin, lamenting its loss as much for the Tramp as for himself. ‘There is such a thing as an anachronism, and a satire about the Tramp today would be just that.’

09 KingChaplin—unusually for the 1950s—was aware of the economic value of his back catalogue. Many other film comedians, especially of the early silent years, did not control their own material, and Chaplin in fact did not have any say over future use of his Keystone and Essanay films, either. Everything else post-1918, though, had been produced at studios under licence or via his own studio. In 1954, Chaplin called his long-term camera operator/cinematographer Rollie Totheroh to clear out the vaults of his old studio and ship all the film material stored there to Switzerland. He had special adjustable temperature controlled storage vaults built in the basement of his Swiss home to store the material.

Totheroh also personally brought Chaplin’s original hat, baggy pants, and cane from Los Angeles to Switzerland (Chaplin’s one-time home is now the Chaplin museum and much of the collection comes from Chaplin’s own material). Totheroh was paid off with a ‘generous bonus’ (according to John McCabe) and ended his decades-long relationship with Chaplin then. He would die in 1967. Having sold his studio and sold off his interests in United Artists, Chaplin had finally severed all ties, business and professional, with the United States.

02 KingTrivia: Several scenes and moments in A King in New York directly reflected events in Chaplin’s life. Arriving in the United States, King Shahdov is fingerprinted by officials of the immigration department, directly recalling what had happened to Chaplin during the Barry trial in front of photographers, a humiliation he never forgot. Scenes of the King attempting to outrun a subpoena from HUAC (in fact, a mere autograph hunter), recalls Chaplin’s own actions just before leaving America when he was desperately trying to avoid writ-servers, only to be confronted by an autograph hunter who had pursued him for days. As Chaplin never actually appeared before HUAC, Shahdov’s dousing of them thanks to a firehose is merely wishful thinking.

Charlie Says: ‘It was with trepidation and uncertainty that I ventured onto the stages at Shepperton Studios: I felt like an old horse in a different stable. Everybody was so English and slightly diffident … I felt I was the only vulgarian … The atmosphere was quite different to American studios—at least, to my own studio in Hollywood. There the environment was like a family; and there I was treated like a spoiled child. There I was reassured by everybody, the property man, the carpenters, the electricians, the cameraman … Naturally, I am nervous when starting a picture, and irritable…’—Chaplin’s Private Notes, 3 July 1957.

Chaplin does not even mention A King in New York in his My Autobiography; perhaps it was too recent for him to be concerned with. Towards the end of the book he says this: ‘My life is more thrilling today than it ever was. I am in good health and still creative and have plans to produce more pictures—perhaps not with myself, but to write and direct them for members of my family, some of whom have quite an aptitude for the theatre. I am still very ambitious; I could never retire. There are many things I want to do; besides having a few unfinished cinema scripts, I should like to write a play and an opera—if time will allow.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964.

Verdict: A film of two halves (a satire on advertising and an attack on McCarthyism) A King in New York takes aim at a scattershot targets but misses many of them. Occasional laughs and a more mature Chaplin performance are the compensations in this late work.

Brian J. Robb

Next: A Countess From Hong Kong (5 January 1967)

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

Limelight (16 October 1952)

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Release Date: 16 October 1952

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 137 minutes

With: Claire Bloom, Sydney Chaplin, Nigel Bruce, Buster Keaton, Norman Lloyd, Wheeler Dryden

Story: A past-his-prime comic saves a young dancer from suicide, and in forming an unlikely relationship the pair find ways to encourage each other in life.

Production: For Charles Chaplin, 1952’s Limelight—the penultimate film in which he’d play a leading role—was a comforting look back at where his career as an entertainer began, on the stages of the UK’s music hall circuit. It came at a difficult time in his life, when his politics finally caught up with him and he found himself forced into involuntary exile from the United States. This look back at the simpler days of vaudeville was originally intended by Chaplin to be his final film.

Following the controversies surrounding Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin had attracted unwanted attention from various agencies of the US Government. In 1947, after he was ambushed by journalists at the press conference for Verdoux, a New York congressman called for his deportation from the country as his presence was ‘detrimental to the moral fabric of America’. The bad press from the Joan Barry affair—although it had been proven scientifically that he was not the father of her child—still hung over Chaplin, despite the fact he was now happily married to Oona O’Neill.

LIMELIGHT

The House Un-American Activities Committee, that was to prove a thorn in the side of so many in Hollywood, also turned its attention to Chaplin that July. Chaplin referred them to his most recent film, Monsieur Verdoux, if they wanted to know his views. ‘It is against war,’ said Chaplin in a letter to HUAC, ‘and the futile slaughter of our youth. I trust you will not find its humane message distasteful. … I will give you a hint on where I stand—I am not a Communist. I am a peace-monger.’ He was ultimately not called to give testimony before the committee.

The year after, 1948, saw the Immigration and Nationalisation Service (INS) on Chaplin’s case. An investigator visited his house on Summit Drive in the company of an FBI agent and a stenographer to record Chaplin’s responses to their intrusive questioning. Chaplin was intending a visit to London and his application for a re-entry certificate (required as he was not a US citizen) had attracted the attention of the INS, no doubt helped by his notoriety in the wake of the Barry case and Monsieur Verdoux. Once again, he was questioned about his supposed Communist affiliations. His vague, non-committal answers to most of the queries were enough to secure him a re-entry document, this time, if he would add his signature to the stenographer’s record of the meeting. Chaplin’s lawyer advised him not to do so, as if anything were to arise that contradicted his answers he could be charged with perjury. Chaplin did not sign, but neither did he make the planned trip to London, concerned about his ability to re-enter the United States, where his work and family were all based.

Chaplin had been disturbed by all these developments, writing in 1947: ‘Hollywood is dying. I have made up my mind to declare war on Hollywood and all its inhabitants. Before long, I shall perhaps leave the United States.’ His seeming rejection by both the country and the business that had adopted him, as well as his audience, fed into Chaplin’s nostalgia for times that were both simpler and yet harsher. As he aged, he spent more times recalling his beginning in the Victorian London slums.

Lime10That train of thought fed into his next movie, the final film he would make in the Unite States. By 1948 he was working on a project entitled ‘Footlights’—although he always intended it to be a film, he’d begun building the narrative in the form of a novella. He dictated his story, breaking occasionally to work on developing tunes with his piano that, as Peter Ackroyd puts it ‘might help to evoke the spirit of London immediately before the First World War’, filtered through the earlier London of his childhood. Although autobiographical in nature, the story as it unfolded was not about Chaplin himself, but a Chaplinesque figure that he would undoubtedly play. Towards the end of 1950, the novella had turned into a screenplay now called Limelight.

The story centred on a Victorian-era stage performer called Calvero, a man whose failure at becoming a dramatic actor led him into a life as a clown in vaudeville. Far from a natural comic, the well-past-his-prime Calvero had come to despise the audiences who laughed so easily at his antics. As much as he was drawing upon his own memories and experiences, Chaplin was also striving to reflect those of his performer parents (although in his book My Autobiography he claimed to have based Calvero on stage actor Frank Tinney). In putting Calvero into a relationship with a young ballet dancer named Terry, Chaplin was reflecting his more recent life with Oona O’Neill. After a seven month search for the right person, he cast then-20-year-old Claire Bloom in the role partly due to her uncanny resemblance to his wife.

Lime11Rehearsals for Limelight began in September 1951. Chaplin’s production methods had changed considerably since the early days of 1914 when he and a gang of clowns could simply turn up to a Los Angeles park, camera equipment in hand, and make up a slapstick entertainment on the spot. The rehearsal period was partly mandated by the need for Bloom to train to master her role as a ballerina (she would be doubled in some bed scenes by Oona O’Neill). Filming actually began in November, and while as involved in every detail as before, Chaplin followed his recent, more efficient production process on Limelight.

During his professional decline, Calvero (Chaplin), a former ‘tramp comedian’, takes in Terry Ambrose (Bloom) during a psychosomatic illness that has left her unable to use her legs, and so unable to perform as a ballerina. Together they face the world as their fortunes change. Flashbacks in dreams give us a glimpse of Calvero at his peak, and allowed Chaplin to finally find a home for his long-in-gestation flea circus routine. There are flashes here of Chaplin’s original few years of work as the Tramp at Keystone. Here we see the more physical comedy that Chaplin pioneered on film from 1914, when Limelight is set. Bloom is a little earnest, or even melodramatic, in her role (her first on film), while Chaplin’s son Sydney just about adequately plays her putative love interest, a composer. Chaplin himself is great, making the best use of his mellifluous voice in his philosophical conversations with Terry. At the end, Calvero dies unlike Chaplin, almost on-stage.

Although set in London, all of Limelight was filmed in Los Angeles, largely at Chaplin’s own studio, but also on Paramount’s standing street set (for Calvero’s home) and at RKO Studios (for the music hall sequences). Some sequences used shaky back-projected scenes of London (or, in one scene, a blatant still photo) to give the film a geographical anchor, although Chaplin was as uninterested in such ‘special effects’ as he had been during the making of Monsieur Verdoux. Chaplin shot Limelight across 55 days (longer than the optimistically-planned for 36 days filming), and believing it was likely to be his final film, he put his children in a variety of roles.

Assisting Chaplin on the project was Robert Aldrich, who’d later make his mark as a director in male-driven action films. His 1955 film The Big Knife, starring Jack Palance, was an insider’s look at life and love in Hollywood. Chaplin also hired Russian emigre Eugene Lourie as his production designer, charged with bringing the London of his childhood to cinematic life. Lourie had previously worked with Jean Renoir and would go on to become a director himself (best known for such sea monster movies as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, 1953, The Giant Behemoth, 1959, and Gorgo, 1961).

Lime00While much of Limelight—a film that is overlong by at least half-an-hour—is maudlin and self-regarding, it is well-remembered for the only screen pairing of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. In his early days Chaplin had worked with such figures as Mabel Normand and Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, whom he later came to eclipse in terms of productivity and popularity. Chaplin was a contemporary of both Keaton and Harold Lloyd (and Lloyd had a serious claim to having been the most popular of the three comics with audiences). For the final musical number of Limelight, Chaplin brought in Keaton as his stage partner partly due to the fact that his comic rival had fallen on hard times following a divorce and loss of his fortune.

The unnamed character role was a small one, but in bringing in Keaton, Chaplin elevated the sequence to a piece of classic comedy that has outlived the film that originally contained it. Chaplin’s former publicist Harry Crocker, now working for him again on Limelight, realised that this pairing was a momentous occasion, so he invited a selection of entertainment journalists to attend the filming to watch the two old vaudevillians at work.

For this sequence, Chaplin was reported to have relaxed his rigid control over everything he filmed, giving Keaton the space in which to develop his own comic routines. Conflicting rumours have arisen concerning the filming of this sequence. The first is that Chaplin cut much of Keaton’s work as he feared his display of skill and comic timing might overwhelm that of the star of the film. The second is that Chaplin cut back elements of his own performance in order to enhance that of Keaton. At this far a remove and with conflicting eye-witness accounts, it is hard to tell what might be true. The resulting scene, however it was arrived at, is a comic masterpiece that rises head-and-shoulder above the rest of the rather self-indulgent Limelight.

Lime01When Limelight was released in October 1952, Chaplin summed up the critical reaction as ‘lukewarm’, which is at least better than outright hostility. Many critics noted how much this once silent comedian, who had so actively resisted the sound film for so long, now rather liked the sound of his own voice. This reaction was best summed up by Walter Kerr: ‘From the first reel of Limelight, it is perfectly clear that Chaplin now wants to talk, that he loves to talk, that in this film he intends to do little but talk!’ For others, though, Chaplin’s best moments in Limelight came with Calvero’s contemplative silences, where according to critic Robert Warshow Chaplin’s ‘true profundity’ lay.

Some welcomed the chance to see a less political, more personal Chaplin on the screen again. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther called the film ‘a brilliant weaving of comic and tragic strands, eloquent, tearful, and beguiling with supreme virtuosity’. Variety described Chaplin himself as ‘at times, magnificent’ while criticising how ‘too much talk’ became tedious. The Washington Post dubbed the movie ‘over-long and under-disciplined’ but celebrated its theme of ‘human companionship’, concluding that ‘for all its shortcomings, Limelight is a creative, distinguished film’.

Lime05Limelight, however, did not get a wide release across the United States. It was not seen much beyond the East Coast and New York area in 1952, with many cinema chains simply refusing to show the picture in reaction to Chaplin’s unfavourable public profile following the Joan Barry scandal and the fuss over his personal politics. Several Los Angeles theatres dropped planned screenings of the film when threatened by anti-Chaplin pickets on behalf of the American Legion (the organisation attempted to have release of the film entirely banned across the US). This situation, bizarrely, allowed Chaplin to win his first competitive Oscar, even if somewhat belatedly. The film was re-released in 1972, by which time it had picked up a more positive critical reputation, and as this release saw its first screenings in Los Angeles Limelight was eligible for contention in that year’s Academy Awards. As a result, Chaplin (along with collaborators Ray Rasch and Larry Russell) won the Oscar for Best Music, Original Dramatic Score for Limelight.

As if anticipating the problems to come, Charlie Chaplin set about winding up some of his business affairs in the United States in the early-1950s. After completing the shooting of Limelight, the fastidious Chaplin put his financial affairs in order, locking the most important papers in a home safe to which only he and his wife had keys. He reassigned his ownership of stock in United Artists to Oona, and put her name on his bank accounts, also giving her power of attorney should anything happen to him.

Lime04United Artists had been largely profitable since the late-1930s, although the business had declined in recent years. Chaplin’s involvement in the company had been minimal. Various management teams had come and gone, as had various ‘output’ deals with independent studios that would see UA distribute their films. By the start of the 1950s, only Mary Pickford and Chaplin remained of the original founders. They had allowed producers Arthur B. Krim and Robert Benjamin to run UA for a period of 10 years, with a view to them becoming co-owners if they were successful. The pair quickly released two successful films, The African Queen (1951) and Moulin Rouge (1952), both directed by John Huston. By 1955, following his departure from the US (see below), Chaplin had sold his 25 per cent of the company directly to Krim and Benjamin for just over $1 million. That left Pickford, who followed suit just a year later, selling up for $3 million. For the first time, United Artists was free to pursue a new destiny without any of its illustrious founders. Krim and Benjamin would take the company public in 1957, and decades of success (backing the James Bond franchise) and trouble (several near bankruptcies and takeovers, including by MGM and Turner) followed.

Chaplin wanted to launch Limelight in London, so he applied for a re-entry permit to allow his return to the United States afterwards. Perhaps to his own surprise, after a slight delay, he was awarded the necessary permit. This allowed Chaplin and family to depart America fairly secure in the knowledge that they could easily return. Two days into his September sailing to the United Kingdom aboard the Queen Elizabeth, Chaplin was informed that his re-entry permit had been revoked. He could not return to the United States, where he had lived and worked for the better part of four decades, without submitting himself to hostile interrogation about his political beliefs and affiliations and even his ‘moral character’. According to the then Attorney General, James McGranery, Chaplin was ‘in my judgement, an unsavoury character’ who was unlikely to be allowed back to the country. Chaplin’s co-owner in United Artists called McGranery’s statement ‘beneath the dignity of the great United States’.

Lime03The comedians initial reaction was to declare his unequivocal intention to return once he had launched Limelight in London. He would, he said, be more than happy to face any allegations or accusations that could be made against him—after all, he’d taken on both Joan Barry and HUAC and triumphed. At the back of Chaplin’s mind, however, was the potential loss of all his financial assets (his studio, bank accounts, and various remaining investments) if they were to be seized by the government—this would mean for him a return to the childhood poverty he had been running from all his life. He’d been lucky to avoid the financial crash of 1929, so he wasn’t prepared to lose everything to the American government without a fight.

Lime12In November, Chaplin had Oona return to Hollywood via New York, where she spent several days retrieving Chaplin’s financial papers and redirecting his assets, including shifting over $4 million to European banks. She closed up Chapin’s home on Summit Drive, where he had lived the longest, and arranged for the furniture to be shipped to Europe. In her absence, Chaplin was said to be suffering a form of nervous exhaustion, fearing she might die in a plane crash or somehow be detained by FBI agents. It was no fanciful fear, as Oona found that FBI agents had been questioning the staff who remained at Summit Drive, clearly preparing a ‘morals’ case against Chaplin. Many in his circle of friends, work colleagues, and acquaintances were questioned, but little of any value was ultimately uncovered. However, once Oona was back safely in London, it was clear to Chaplin that his days as a non-citizen of the United States had firmly come to an end.

Trivia: Writing of Chaplin’s predicament, Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper said the comedian did not have the right ‘to go against our customs, to abhor everything we stand for, to throw our hospitality back in our faces’, no matter how good his films might have been, how long he’d been resident in the United States, or how widely he’d been acclaimed for his art. ‘Good riddance to bad company,’ she concluded.

Charlie Says: ‘When Limelight was finished, I had fewer qualms about its success than any other picture I had ever made. … We began thinking of leaving for Europe, for Oona was anxious to send the children to school there, away from the influence of Hollywood. … It was a poignant day when we left for New York. While Oona was making final household arrangements, I stood outside on the lawn viewing the house with ambivalent feelings. … I felt wistful about leaving it.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964

‘[PR man Harry Crocker] called me into his cabin and read the cable. It stated that I was to be barred from the United States and that before I should re-enter the country I would have to go before an Immigration Board of Enquiry to answer charges of a political nature and of moral turpitude. … Every nerve in me tensed. Whether I re-entered that unhappy country or not was of little consequence to me. … I was fed up with America’s insults and moral pomposity. The whole subject was damned boring, but everything I possessed was in the States and I was terrified they might find a way of confiscating it…’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964

Verdict: An overlong (the ballet sequence is somewhat dull), self-indulgent, and melancholy piece, Limelight nonetheless contains several flashes of Chaplin’s brilliance, not least being the scene near the end that teamed him and Buster Keaton for a slapstick tour-de-force.

Brian J. Robb

Next: A King in New York (12 September 1957)

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

Monsieur Verdoux (11 April 1947)

03

Release Date: 11 April 1947

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 124 minutes

With: Martha Raye, William Frawley, Marilyn Nash, Isobel Elsom, Barbara Slater, Fritz Leiber, Mady Correll Robert Lewis, Charles Evans

Story: During an economic depression, a former bank clerk turns to seduction and murder to keep the money flowing…

Production: There’s a question of authorship lingering in the development of Monsieur Verdoux (1947), the film that finally saw Charlie Chaplin dispense with the Tramp character he’d been playing (in several variants) since 1914, once and for all. There is no doubt the idea for a film based upon the Landru story originally came from Orson Welles, who’d made his mark in Hollywood in 1941 with Citizen Kane. What happened beyond that was long a matter of debate between Chaplin and Welles.

10Landru was notoriously known as ‘Bluebeard’. Between the end of 1915, just as Chaplin was enjoying his first fame, and early 1919 (between the release of Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms in October 1918 and Sunnyside in June 1919), Parisian Henri Landru killed seven women (his total may stretch to 10, including at least three people he may have killed earlier). As a serial killer, Landru’s modus operandi was romance—he would seduce women, preferably rich women, only to then kill them, most often by strangulation. Following a trial, Landru was executed by guillotine in February 1922, shortly before Chaplin’s Pay Day reached movie screens. If nothing else, the serial killer and screen clown were contemporaries.

Subtitled ‘A Comedy of Murders’ (which had been an overall working title), the idea for a Landru film originated with Welles, with Chaplin set to star for the director. Welles regarded Chaplin as a better actor than he was a director, offering The Great Dictator as evidence of his old-fashioned and rather simplistic approach to filmmaking. It is true that Chaplin was no great stylist behind the camera, but then he was probably more focused on what he was doing, as the Tramp, in front of the camera than on finding an innovative way of filming it. Having agreed to star, Chaplin had second thoughts and reneged on their arrangement.

It appears Chaplin was concerned about playing a leading role in another director’s film—he was certainly not an actor-for-hire, and was worried that there would be inevitable clashes between two such titanic personalities as he and Welles. Chaplin offered to buy the Landru script, then entitled ‘The Ladykiller’, from Welles, and needing the money—as he often did from the mid-1940s onwards when he was pursuing his independent productions—Welles agreed to sign over all rights to the Landru story concept to Chaplin.

For his part, Chaplin had claimed the Landru idea originally came to him from Welles as a possible documentary project. Instead, Chaplin saw the comic possibilities in playing the role of a suave, sophisticated murderer (which Landru almost certainly was not in real life). He paid off Welles with $5,000 and a ‘story by’ credit on the resulting film. The only part of the film that Welles specifically claimed credit for was an early scene of Verdoux tending to his roses in the garden while in the background a chimney belches ominous black smoke…

By the fall of 1942 Chaplin was openly talking about his next project, with critic and writer Alexander Woollcott recalling a dinner during which the director acted out virtually every scene from the planned movie. During the writing of the script in 1943, Chaplin paused to marry the now 18-year-old Oona O’Neill in June (he was 52). In 1944 there was further delay when the Joan Barry case enveloped Chaplin (see below), dragging him into court and all but monopolising his time and focus. As a result, Chaplin didn’t have a completed shooting script for Monsieur Verdoux until 1946, and shooting finally took place between May and September that year.

11To play a role very far removed from his internationally recognised Tramp, Chaplin decide it was necessary to dramatically change his entire appearance . He spent six weeks growing a genuine moustache, wax-tipped in the approved French manner. He allowed the grey that featured in his natural hair to show through for the first time on screen, and he dressed in exquisite suits, complete with a range of hats and canes. As Henri Verdoux, Chaplin was, to all intents-and-purposes, the most polite and dapper ‘lady killer’ in town.

Having got away with his comic portrayal of Hitler in The Great Dictator, his comedy murder script ran into unexpected censorship problems the like of which Chaplin had never really dealt with before. The Breen Office made such strenuous objections to his screenplay [see Trivia] that Chaplin threatened to make the film but not release it in American. ‘I can get all I need [financially] to make a profit from foreign distribution alone,’ he claimed. Whether this threat gave him greater leverage with the censors is unclear, but he persisted with them engaging in their seemingly endless process of focusing on minutia like Verdoux’s questionable tone with the Priest, as well as ‘big picture’ concerns such as suggestions of ‘illicit sex’.

When it came to finally shooting the film, Chaplin hired director Robert Florey (who had carried out his own cinematic murder spree in 1931’s Murders in the Rue Morgue) as an associate director and an informal advisor on all-things French, which Chaplin went to great pains to get right. It is possible this move suggests a lack of confidence in Chaplin especially when it came to directing himself in such a sustained character piece, complete with more dialogue than he’d ever spoken on screen before. Florey became an all-round assistant, directing some of the non-Chaplin scenes, casting some of the smaller roles, and generally helping Chaplin achieve his vision.

02Chaplin as Verdoux adopts a variety of aliases to access his various ‘wives’. At home waits his real wife, Mona (Mady Correll), looking after their young son, Peter. Also waiting is Lydia Florey (Margaret Hoffman), who believes Verdoux to be an engineer who has been travelling for three months. She’s the first victim we see Verdoux eliminate, only to make use of her funds the next morning. In his sights as his next victim is Marie Grosnay (Isobel Elsom) who comes to view his for-sale house. Also in play is the alarming Annabella (Martha Raye), who believes Verdoux to be a sailor, Captain Bonheur. She proves somewhat indestructible, surviving all of Verdoux’s attempts to remove her, whether through poisoned wine or the more direct approach of tossing her overboard from his boat. It is Annabella who ultimately thwarts his attempt to marry Grosnay. Also featured is ‘The Girl’, a young woman Verdoux finds on the street—a ‘derelict’, and in no way a prostitute, thanks to film censor intervention. He plans to try out his poison on her, but her commitment to looking after her now deceased injured war veteran husband stays Verdoux’s hand. She ultimately makes good in life as the wife, or perhaps companion, to an arms dealer making a fortune from war. That’s the core of Chaplin’s take on Verdoux—his individual acts are immoral, but society’s collective acts of war and destruction are seen as patriotic. It was a view that would bring Chaplin further trouble later.

Hanging over the entire period that Charlie Chaplin was working on the script for Monsieur Verdoux was the bizarre Joan Barry case. Chaplin had met Barry in between his relationships with Paulette Goddard and Oona O’Neill. She was an aspiring actress who’d come to Hollywood intent upon becoming a film star. She and Chaplin met following one of his regular, well-populated weekend tennis parties. They dined together at Romanoff’s, and the following day took a trip to Santa Barbara. This was in 1941, when Chaplin was 52, while Barry was 30 years younger. In his 1964 autobiography, Chaplin bizarrely described Barry as ‘a big handsome woman of 22, well built, with upper regional domes immensely expansive and made alluring by an extremely low décolleté summer dress which … evoked my libidinous curiosity.’ In the aftermath of the scandal that unfolded, Chaplin maintained that Barry had pursued him romantically; however it was instigated, the pair certainly had a stormy, short-lived relationship.

As had been his habit, Chaplin justified his interest in yet another young woman thorough his work—he had her screen tested for a proposed film of a 1937 Paul Vincent Carroll play entitled Shadow and Substance. By June, Barry was under contract to Chaplin, and in time honoured fashion he sent her out for acting lessons. Barry claimed it was only at this point that she gave in to Chaplin’s demands for a sexual relationship.

Things very quickly unravelled. Barry became a nuisance, whose drinking was getting out of control making her erratic behind the wheel of any automobile. She would arrive at Chaplin’s home at all hours of the day or night demanding his attention, often drunk. Property was damaged, including broken windows. ‘Finally, she got so obstreperous that when she called in the small hours, I would neither answer the phone nor open the door to her,’ wrote Chaplin in My Autobiography (1964). ‘Overnight, my existence became a nightmare…’

It became clear that Barry had not been attending the acting lessons that Chaplin was paying for, and when he called her on it, she denied any ambitions to become an actress. Her interest in Chaplin seemed purely financial as she demanded $5,000 in order to return to New York with her mother. Chaplin claims he agreed, and tore up her contract upon paying her off. Barry told a different story, claiming to have been pregnant and to have been sent by Chaplin for an abortion in New York (then a criminal offence). Upon arriving in the city, Barry apparently decided not to go through with the procedure that she claimed Chaplin had paid for. Back in Los Angeles, Chaplin and an associate seemingly made sure she underwent the procedure this time.

Monsieur Verdoux - 1947That was thought to be the end of the matter, and while things went quiet for a while, Joan Barry never really went away. By the end of 1942, she was back to trouble Chaplin once more. A couple of days before Christmas, Barry broke into Chaplin’s house, wielding a gun and threatening suicide. Apparently, with Chaplin’s willing acquiescence, she then stayed the night. She was back a week later, like a stalker, and this time Chaplin took her to the police. That apparent warning shot wasn’t enough to make her change her behaviour and she was found the following night on Chaplin’s grounds, once again armed.

Through a media-savvy friend Barry planted a story in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner that she had been ‘dumped’ by Chaplin following a romance and would kill herself as a consequence. The newspapers referred to Barry as ‘a Titian-haired protégée of Chaplin’. A subsequent overdose of barbiturates was described by the attending physician as a ‘simulated suicide attempt’. The police charged the seemingly homeless Barry with vagrancy. Sentenced to 90 days in prison, she was told the term would be suspended as long as she left town and stayed away for two years.

Joan Barry didn’t stay away from Charlie Chaplin for long. By May 1943, she was back at his home claiming once more to be pregnant. Following an unsatisfactory confrontation, Barry began to communicate with Hearst columnist Hedda Hopper, who was only too willing to listen to malicious gossip about the ‘Communist Charlie Chaplin’. Barry continued to harass Chaplin throughout the summer of 1943, even as her pregnancy began to be noticeable. Fearing for his life, Chaplin attempted to console Barry, but this only served to encourage her.

That same month, Barry’s mother Gertrude filed suit against Chaplin naming him as the father of her daughter’s unborn child and demanding a payment of $2,500 per month and $10,000 for ‘pre-natal costs’. Chaplin flatly denied paternity and refused an offer of a quick settlement that would see him pay Barry off. The scene was set for a sensational court action.

Around this time Chaplin married Oona O’Neill, who was 36 years his junior. It was his fourth wedding, if that with Paulette Goddard was counted. What followed was a ‘phoney peace’, as the law took its time to come to terms with the Joan Barry case. At the start of October, Barry gave birth to the child that she claimed was Chaplin’s. The following February Chaplin was formally charged under the Mann Act which forbade the crossing of State lines for immoral purposes, something he was said to have done by buying Barry a train ticket to New York. A prison sentence of at least 20 years awaited Chaplin if he was found guilty by a Federal grand jury.

13The use of the Mann Act in this way by prosecutors was targetted against those (like Chaplin) who’d spoken out in favour of a ‘second front’ during the war to help relieve pressure on Russia; a similar prosecution had been considered against writer Theodore Dreiser for similar reasons, but was not ultimately progressed. Now, Chaplin was the target. One newspaper commentator even went so far as to claim that Chaplin might have been the victim of a ‘fascist clique in America’ in retaliation for his caricature of Hitler in The Great Dictator. The Washington Times-Herald opined that ‘this is persecution of Chaplin by the Federal government’.

The trial of Charlie Chaplin began on 21 March 1944, with the expected press and public hullabaloo. The event was a circus, with witnesses lining up to testify against Chaplin. The trial ended with Chaplin’s own evidence in which he denied all the charges. On 4 April, Chaplin was acquitted on all charges, but the screen clown’s reputation would never recover from the damage the public spectacle of a ‘morals’ trial had inflicted on him, combined with his well-known leftist political views.

That should have been the end of the Joan Barry affair, yet—bizarrely—it was not. At the end of the year, Chaplin faced a paternity case over Barry’s child. A trio of doctors stated that blood tests proved that the comedian could not possibly be the father of the child. Barry’s legal representative attacked Chaplin’s person and morals in an attempt to sway the jury, despite the established biological facts. Barry’s attorney Joe Scott impugned Chaplin’s character with epithets like ‘Cockney cad’ and ‘Piccadilly pimp’ (among others), while also calling attention to his London origins and failure to take up US citizenship. Chaplin complained to the judge: ‘I’ve committed no crime. I’m only human, but this man is trying to make a monster out of me.’ The trial ended in deadlock and was not resolved until the following spring when during another hearing where Chaplin did not appear, he was deemed—by a jury of 11 women and one man—to be responsible for the child that he could not have possibly biologically fathered.

It was an astonishing mind-boggling outcome, and Chaplin was forced to pay $75 each week (later raised to $100) to Barry’s daughter Carol Ann (until her 21st birthday) who was, furthermore, also legally allowed to use the name Chaplin. It was a bizarre travesty of justice, but Joan Barry’s relentless campaign of harassment appeared to have paid off. While the girl continued to receive payments, Barry herself didn’t ultimately benefit as she vanished into the American mental health care system of the 1950s. It was an entirely unsatisfactory end to an entirely unsatisfactory sequence of events that contributed to Chaplin’s eventual downfall in the US..

Chaplin had gambled with The Great Dictator and had won, now he gambled with Monsieur Verdoux and, misjudging both the times and the fallout from the Barry case, he lost. The film was a commercial failure, a fact that Chaplin’s longterm associate Henry Bergman had predicted. Bergman had been considered for a role, especially as Bergman considered himself to be Chaplin’s good luck charm. Chaplin, however, felt the actor looked too ill to participate—Begrman died in October 1946, prior to the release of Monsieur Verdoux. His final film appearance had been as the cafe proprietor in Chaplin’s own 1936 film Modern Times.

The subject matter alone should have been a red flag. In the years immediately following the conclusion of the Second World War audiences were in no mood for a tale of a serial murderer who almost gets away with it. Even more, they were not prepared to accept such a film from Charlie Chaplin, whose reputation had been sullied by the Barry affair and by allegations regarding his political views, some of which seeped into the film. Monsieur Verdoux raised questions about the connections between business and war, from which business can profit at the expense of lives.

01On some posters for Monsieur Verdoux, a challenge was thrown out to audiences that had grown-up with the ‘old’ Charlie Chaplin, the knockabout Keystone Tramp: ‘Chaplin Changes!’ the poster declared, and then asked, pointedly, ‘Can You?’ Chaplin knew the film would be challenging to some audiences, and he expected critics to dislike it. At a press conference to launch the movie in New York in April 1947 he invited the attending reporters to ‘proceed with the butchery’. Many of the questions concerned what ‘message’ Chaplin was trying to communicate, and whether he felt audiences would be willing to follow him in this new, somewhat startling direction. Chaplin’s supposed ‘Communist sympathies’ were also queried, something he denied although he was happy to admit to having supported Russia as ‘a wartime ally’. The press conference rapidly became an inquisition with a free-for-all as journalists hurled questions to Chaplin about his nationality status, his income, and his refusal to fight for Britain in either of the World Wars. Getting back on topic, Chaplin was finally asked about his reaction to the reviews of his latest film: ‘Well, the one optimistic note is that they were mixed,’ said the screen clown.

There was a wave of hostility towards Monsieur Verdoux from the press critics, with James Agee in The Nation standing out against the tide. ‘Disregard virtually everything you may have read about the film,’ opened Agee in a lengthy, three-part essay. ‘It is of interest, but chiefly as a definitive measure between the thing a man of genius puts before the world and the things the world is equipped to see in it.’ Others were not so kind or open-minded, with Howard Barnes in the Herald-Tribune calling the film ‘an affront to the intelligence’, while Bosley Crowther tore the film apart in the New York Times. Theatres screening Monsieur Verdoux were actively picketed by Catholic War Veterans and the American Legion, more in reaction to Chaplin personally than anything the film might have contained—it is unlikely that any of those picketing had taken the time to actually watch the movie.

04It may be relentlessly old fashioned in style and approach, but Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux held up a perhaps unwelcome mirror to contemporary society. The core of the film’s meaning comes in the words of Verdoux uttered towards the end of the film. They are a briefer, more refined version of the passionate declaration that had climaxed The Great Dictator, and they are all the more effective for it: ‘As for being a mass killer, does the world not encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? … As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison. … Wars, conflict—it’s all business. One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Number sanctify.’ The fact his victims were women could perhaps be read as Chaplin’s personal verdict following the Joan Barry case (as Henri Verdoux he admits: ‘I like women, but I don’t admire them’), even though he had begun formulating the film before that ‘landmark miscarriage of justice,’ as Los Angeles attorney Eugene L. Trope had described the case.

Monsieur Verdoux was one of a series of dark, morbid, almost gothic, comedies released in the post-war years that included the likes of Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) and Britain’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). Audiences took to those films well enough, and while Monsieur Verdoux flopped in America, it—true to Chaplin’s prediction—did well enough overseas to not be a financial catastrophe. The factor that made the film unpalatable to American audiences as the 1950s loomed was Chaplin himself, now seen as not quite ‘one of us’, a foreigner who had made his fortune in America but who seemingly ‘supported’ America’s enemy (the Cold War was just kicking off). As well as the political questions swirling around Chaplin, the Joan Barry case had relit all those moral concerns that had previously surrounded his marriages and divorces in the past , but which he had managed to more or less recover from. Now, Chaplin was being portrayed in the United States as morally and politically undesirable, and this would have huge consequences for both his movie-making and the remainder of his long life.

05Trivia: The entire initial script of Monsieur Verdoux was rejected by the Breen office of censors due to ‘elements which seem to be anti-social in their concept and significance … the sections of the story in which Verdoux indicts “the system” and impugns the present-day social structure.’ There was about the proposed film ‘a distasteful flavour of illicit sex, which in our judgement is not good’. On a far more trivial (not to say ridiculous) note, the censors wanted there to be ‘no showing of, or suggestion of, toilets in the bathroom’ (a taboo that Alfred Hitchcock would finally shatter with Psycho, 1959). Chaplin met with Breen to discuss the screenplay, and changes were made but not as many or as extensive as the censors required—Chaplin followed the tried and tested method of altering some big items and simply ignoring the guidance offered on many much smaller concerns. The finished film was ultimately passed without further censorious comment.

Charlie Says: ‘A day or so later [after talking with Orson Welles] it struck me that the idea of Landru would make a wonderful comedy. So I telephoned Welles. “Look, your proposed documentary about Landru has given me the idea for a comedy. It has nothing to do with Landru, but to clear everything, I am willing to pay you five thousand dollars, only because your proposition made me think of it.” … Thus a deal was negotiated. … I began writing Monsieur Verdoux.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964

‘I had been working three months on [Verdoux] when Joan Barry blew into Beverly Hills. The events that followed were not only sordid but sinister. Because I would not see her, she broke into the house, smashed windows, threatened my life and demanded money. … Barry blithely announced she was three months pregnant. … It was certainly no concern of mine. … A few hours later the newspapers were black with headlines. I was pilloried, excoriated, and vilified: Chaplin, the father of her unborn child, had had her arrested! … The following weeks were like a Kafka story. I found myself engrossed in the all-absorbing enterprise of fighting for my liberty [and] facing twenty years imprisonment!’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964

Verdict: Overlong and frustratingly episodic, Monsieur Verdoux is nonetheless a triumph, largely thanks to Chaplin’s uncharacteristic yet nuanced performance, one so far removed from his regular character of the Tramp. If only he had played many more such characters than he did!

Brian J. Robb

Next: Limelight (23 October 1952)

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

The Great Dictator (15 October 1940)

Great 00

Release Date: 15 October 1940

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 124 minutes

With: Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Henry Daniell, Reginald Gardiner, Billy Gilbert, Maurice Moscovich

Story: A meek Jewish barber and dictator Adenoid Hinkel look so alike, they are able to unwittingly trade places…

Production: For a long time, Charlie Chaplin had avoided engaging directly with contemporary politics in his work. He had his views, and made them known to many of the great and the good he met during his world travels in the 1930s. His work had, inevitably, been influenced by issues of the day—poverty, homelessness, war, and violence—but he rarely took what might be considered sides or a party political viewpoint. All that changed with The Great Dictator—if nothing else, the resulting film tackling the rise of Adolph Hitler, proved Chaplin’s humanist credentials.

Great 02The odd similarity between the appearances of Chaplin and of Hitler was hard to ignore in the later 1930s. It had inspired a comic song by British performer Tommy Handley entitled ‘Who is That Man Who Looks Like Charlie Chaplin?’ and was often used by newspaper cartoonist to make satirical political points. The similarity was not simply in their appearance—Chaplin and Hitler had been born in the same April week in 1889. This was something Chaplin could not ignore, especially when in the wake of Modern Times the German authorities at the direction of Hitler began to ban his films.

In fact, director and producer Alexander Korda had suggested that Chaplin should make a film based around his similarity to Hitler as early as 1937. By the beginning of 1939, Chaplin had begun work on a screenplay simply titled The Dictator that aimed to satirize Hitler, a ‘story of a little fish in a shark-infested ocean’. This proved worrying to United Artists, who in keeping with most Hollywood studios (and, indeed, most international politicians at the time) was keen to appease Hitler rather than rile him. Hollywood, worried about losing the German market, bent over backwards not to make films that could be regarded as controversial by the new German Chancellor. Studios even went so far as to have their scripts approved by German authorities, notably German Consul to the US Georg Gyssling (who was conveniently based in Los Angeles), before entering production. Any criticism of Germany or of the Nazi party and Hitler in particular were verboten. Chaplin even received death threats during the making of The Great Dictator.

Much of this collaboration between Hollywood and the Nazis did not come to light until much later, but it was no doubt known to those involved or otherwise connected to filmmaking. It seems unlikely that Chaplin was unaware of this, and probably disapproving. This disapproval no doubt drove him forward in the face of the objections raised by United Artists and others in the industry to The Great Dictator.

Great 16Direct inspiration came from a viewing of the Leni Rienfenstahl German propaganda film The Triumph of the Will (1935). Chaplin saw the film with fellow director Rene Clair, who found it horrifying while Chaplin thought it a hilarious production, so ridiculously over-the-top was the propaganda element. Watching Hitler giving speeches, Chaplin began to see how he could imitate and so satirise Hitler’s mannerisms and movements, even his vocal inflections. He followed a viewing of the Rienfenstahl film with careful study of newsreels of Hitler’s speeches, and slowly developed his caricature of the dictator’s oratory. The core of The Great Dictator lay in this simple conceit.

By July 1939, Picturegoer magazine was reporting that Chaplin had begun work on his next film, set to co-star Paulette Goddard (Modern Times) once more, with the construction of a large European-influenced street set at the Chaplin studio. With a full script in hand (an unusual step for the filmmaker), Chaplin was arguably better prepared for making The Great Dictator than he ever had been for any of his films up to that point. Shop fronts on the set had signs written in the ‘international’ language of Esperanto, developed in the late-19th Century (used, perhaps, as Hitler had decried the language in Mein Kampf as a ‘plot to break down national difference’).

Set building was finished by mid-August, just one month before the outbreak of the Second World War. In October, Picturegoer was able to confirm the rumours that Chaplin was ‘frankly and unequivocally’ playing Hitler as well as ‘an unknown Jewish tailor in Berlin’. By the time the film was complete, the tailor had become a barber. Rather optimistically, Picturegoer concluded its reporting by speculating that ‘There is always the danger that by the time the picture is eventually completed and shown, we may all have forgotten who Hitler was.’ This, of course, may have been a dig at Chaplin’s tardy production habits where in the past it had taken him literally years to produce a finished film.

Great 17Shooting actually started just days after the war began and ran through until March 1940, a rather rapid production process in comparison to some of Chaplin’s past endeavours (but not as rapid as Hitler’s assault on the countries of Europe). His first drafts of the script are, at their core, remarkably similar to what was to finally end up onscreen, including a shorter version of the climatic speech. For the first time Chaplin deviated from his use of the regular supporting cast members he’d worked with over many years in favour of hiring several well-established acting names. Henry Daniell, with a reputation for playing villains, took on the Goebbels-like role of Garbitsch and played it rather straight in stark contrast to the comic acting going on around him, particularly from Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel and Jack Oakie as the Mussolini-equivalent, Benzino Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria. Billy Gilbert, familiar from his work with Laurel and Hardy especially in 1932’s Oscar-winning The Music Box, partnered Daniell by playing the Goering inspired character of Herring.

Having been beaten to the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939), Paulette Goddard was prepared to take the co-starring role in The Great Dictator despite the growing personal estrangement between her and Chaplin. The director had been annoyed at Goddard’s decision to take on roles for other directors, yet he continually criticised her in front of others (including his children) by claiming that she needed extra acting ‘coaching’.

Great 18Chaplin cast Goddard as Hannah (presumably deliberated named for his mother), the waif-like companion to the little barber, a role not a million miles away from that she had on Modern Times (except here she gets to speak!). The big difference with The Great Dictator is that there would be no sunset for the pair to walk off into at the end; the real world situation was too grave for that, as was the breakdown in relations between Goddard and Chaplin. Chaplin noted: ‘Although we were somewhat estranged we were friends and still married.’ They remained living together in Chaplin’s home during production, but the strain between them became obvious to many working on The Great Dictator. Chaplin’s writing assistant Dan James recalled that in the studio ‘You belonged to the Paulette faction or to the Charlie faction. You couldn’t be both.’

Great 19Chaplin’s detailed attempts to guide his wife’s performance didn’t help matters. Dan James noted: ‘There was some anger on both sides, but he worked very hard with her. Sometimes he would make 25 or 30 takes. He would stand in her place on the set and try and give her the tone and the gestures. It was a method he had been able to use in silent films; it could not work so well on a talking picture.’ Part of the problem for Chaplin was that filmmaking had changed, as had screen acting, but his infrequent filmmaking endeavours had not allowed him to keep up with the trends or further develop his art. Essentially, he wasn’t keeping up with the times, and was at least a decade behind everyone else in sound filmmaking techniques. Just as the events between the wars had bypassed the Jewish barber, so developments in modern 1930s filmmaking had bypassed Chaplin who worked as though it were still 1918.

As Chaplin relates in his autobiography: ‘It was inevitable that Paulette and I should separate. We both knew it long before The [Great] Dictator started … Now that it was complete, we were confronted with making a decision. … She returned to the Beverly Hills house, she did not stay, but packed up her things and left. She had gone to Mexico to get a divorce. The wrench naturally hurt, for it was hard cleaving eight years’ association from one’s life.’

Never one to give up on any bit of comedy ‘business’ that he considered a good idea, Chaplin again made efforts to work his long-in-gestation flea circus bit into The Great Dictator, as he had done on The Circus. Returning from the First World War, the barber takes up temporary residence in a dosshouse where another resident allows his fleas to escape from his miniature circus. This was among several bits dropped from The Great Dictator, but a form of the flea circus scene would finally see the light of a cinema projector when Chaplin as at last able to incorporate it into Limelight (1952).

Great 08There is some debate about whether Chaplin’s Jewish barber is the same Tramp figure he’d been playing since 1914. In his autobiography, Chaplin himself refers to the character as ‘the tramp’, and while he speaks it is rather infrequent and not at any length (until the climatic speech, when he is dressed as Hynkel), suggesting that the Jewish barber is perhaps a development of the Tramp figure rather than a simple reproduction (as in Modern Times). There is an argument that Chaplin’s barber is a more subdued and gentle version of the Tramp, with Hynkel representing the anarchic and wild side of Chaplin’s original wild-and-crazy Keystone Tramp.

Great 03

While reconciling himself to using sound—with The Great Dictator being his first true sound (all-talking) production, Chaplin does make at least once extremely clever joke that depends upon sound’s absence, when the ‘light infantry’ pass offscreen in complete silence. The most feted scene in the film is also mostly silent (only accompanied by some Wagner): Hynkel’s symbolic ballet with an inflated globe indicating his intended domination of the Earth, a scheme that is well-and-truly punctured by Chaplin.

Great 11Making a film with recorded sound was somewhat discomfiting to Chaplin, who had been used to the audible whirr of the camera equipment (Peter Ackroyd argues that Chaplin even used this audible rhythm to time some of his comedy) as well as the responsive laughter of the stagehands and others on the set. In fact, sound filmmaking required so many additional people that Chaplin was supposedly unsure of who some of them were and what they were doing (although this seems unlikely for a filmmaker who was at pains to control every aspect of his work, sound or no sound). According to some the always dictatorial Chaplin became even more so on set when dressed as and in character as Adenoid Hynkel. Wearing the costume and getting into character saw some of that fantasy dictator spill over into the real world of the filmmaking. According to his writing assistant Dan James, Chaplin had ‘in himself some of the qualities that Hitler had. He dominated his world. He created his world. And Chaplin’s world was not a democracy either. Charlie was the dictator of all those things.’

Great 14Following the release of The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin had to face yet another plagiarism claim. This time, a writer named Konrad Bercovici (a friend of Chaplin’s since 1915) claimed he had originated the ideas behind The Great Dictator and had, in fact, discussed them at great length with Chaplin. He wanted to be paid $6 million for not only originating the core idea of Chaplin as Hitler, but also as the originator of such specific scenes as the globe balloon ballet sequence (although this dated back to a 1920’s party piece Chaplin performed, as home movies later revealed). The matter finally came to trial, where Bercovici testified he had written a five page outline for the proposed film and that he and Chaplin had discussed it for several hours. Chaplin was, Bercovici claimed, concerned that ‘the State Department says we cannot ridicule the heads of two states with which we are at peace’. For his part, Chaplin testified he had never seen Bercovici’s outline, despite their lengthy friendship. Bercovici had form in Hollywood; he was regarded as a radical writer (dislike by left and right almost equally) and his ‘Red Revolution’ novel The Volga Boatman had been turned into a film in 1926 by United Artists’ co-founder, D. W Griffith.

However, concerned over the impact the negative publicity could have on Chaplin at a time when he was already under great public scrutiny, the writer-director of The Great Dictator agreed to settle up with Bercovici for $95,000 out of court. If Bercovici’s action was a shakedown operation, it was successful. Oddly, Chaplin did not point to a film made in 1921 that had been directed by and featured his half-brother Sydney—King, Queen, Joker—in which he had played both a lowly barber and a dictator, who resemble one another, in a country in which revolution was brewing. Was this family-connected film actually the true source of the ideas behind The Great Dictator?

Great 07Encompassing 559 days of production, only 168 of which were actual shooting days, and costing over $2 million, The Great Dictator proved to be the most expensive Chaplin film yet. It was also one of his most successful, taking more at the box office (taking about $5 million) than any previous Chaplin release. The Great Dictator premiered in two New York theatres on 15 October 1940, a time when America was still equivocating when it came to taking action in the war and at a time when there was still a degree of Nazi support in the country. Chaplin had not only gone against United Artists (whose executives had predicted the film would be a disastrous flop)and the general Hollywood establishment (which was busy appeasing the Nazi party at every opportunity), but he’d also produced a picture that would not gain complete support from the American public, many of whom still felt that they should simply ‘stay out’ of European affairs, as they viewed the war at that stage. ‘More than ever now,’ said Chaplin, ‘the world needs to laugh.’

Nonetheless, some critics saw the timely nature of Chaplin’s scathing satire of those in power in fascist Germany and Italy. In the New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote: ‘[Chaplin directs] his superlative talent for ridicule against the most dangerously evil man alive.’ While he had some reservations, he called The Great Dictator ‘a truly superb accomplishment by a truly great artist, and—from one point of view—perhaps the most significant film ever produced.’

Great 09There was much concentration on the climatic speech, a clear call-to-action from Chaplin, that the UK’s The Daily Herald dubbed ‘electrifying’ while The Times saw the overall film as ‘a logical development of the mood of Modern Times’. The newspaper noted that the film included ‘a wealth of wit and invention … [and] brilliantly conceived and executed essays in caricature.’ While the film was being made, there had been a suggestion it might be banned in Britain, but that was before the country was at war with Germany. Released just as the Blitz kicked off, The Great Dictator was a very welcome fillip on the British home front (and a suggestion that there may be some support for the anti-Nazi cause in America after all).

As the German military advanced across Europe during the making of The Great Dictator, Chaplin was worried about his picture appearing out-of-date, but not quite in the way that Picturegoer had suggested. It was possible that with Hitler’s seemingly irresistible rise and his rapid military progress across the continent, there would be precious little to laugh about. He kept up with the news, through channels both official and unofficial, and worked in new developments into the film. A major deleted scene dealt with the touchy subject of concentration camps, which had by then become public knowledge, although the full extend of the horrors that transpired in those camps would not be widely known until towards the end of the conflict. The deleted scene features Chaplin and Reginald Gardiner as prisoners in just such a camp who attempt to escape by chewing their way through the barbed wire. This perhaps on-the-nose scene was dropped, and Chaplin admitted in retrospect that ‘had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator’.

Great 01According to Jerry Epstein, the main target of Chaplin’s caricature did see his film, with Hitler’s architect Albert Speer claiming that Chaplin’s Hynkel saw the comic come closer to impersonating Hitler than anyone else had managed. The story goes that despite his banning of Chaplin’s film, Hitler himself had a print of The Great Dictator smuggled into Germany from Portugal and watched it not once, but twice! He supposedly watched it alone, both times, so there is no eye-witness report of Der Fuhrer’s reaction to Chaplin’s ribbing of him and all he stood for. A defector from the Nazi Ministry of Culture apparently related the tale directly to Chaplin, with the filmmaker supposedly responding: ‘I’d give anything to know what he thought of it!’

Trivia: Charlie Chaplin was awarded the New York Film Critics Circle Best Actor award for 1940 for The Great Dictator, but he refused to accept it. It appears that Chaplin felt an award for simply acting (albeit in two contrasting comic roles) was to diminish his talents in other areas, such as writing and directing. He had his press agent Albert Margolies issue a churlish statement: ‘Many hurtful things have happened to Chaplin all through his life, many more than he deserved. But I doubt whether any caused him more pain than to be regarded as a mere actor.’

Charlie Says: ‘Another war was brewing and I was trying to write a story for Paulette; but I could make no progress. How could I throw myself into feminine whimsy or think of romance or the problems of love when madness was being stirred up by a hideous grotesque, Adolph Hitler? Alexander Korda in 1937 had suggested I should do a Hitler story based on mistaken identity, Hitler having the same moustache as the tramp: I could play both characters, he said. … As Hitler I could harangue the crowds in jargon and talk all I wanted to. And as the tramp I could remain more or less silent. A Hitler story was an opportunity for burlesque and pantomime.’—Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964

Verdict: Possibly slightly overlong at two hours, The Great Dictator was a much-needed film at the time, and the satire and polemic stand up surprisingly well, especially in the 21st Century when many of the same dark forces that the world faced in the 1930s and 1940s appear to be on the rise once more.

Brian J. Robb

Next: Monsieur Verdoux (11 April 1947)

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

Modern Times (5 February 1936)

Times 00

Release Date: 5 February 1936

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 87 minutes

With: Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford, Chester Conklin

Story: Now an assembly line factory worker, the Tramp gets caught up in a workers’ demonstration and falls for a barefoot waif…

Production: For many, Modern Times is the final film appearance of the original Tramp figure created by Charlie Chaplin way back in 1914, while others consider the Jewish barber featured in The Great Dictator (1940), although he speaks, is a close enough analogue to be considered a continuation of that same character. As with City Lights, by 1936 Chaplin had to face up to the fact that the sound film had well and truly surpassed the silent—would he finally allow his Tramp to talk? Well, kinda.

Times 07Chaplin’s travels through Europe, particularly in support of the release of City Lights, had helped enlighten him to the plight of the poor, the working folk from whom he’d originated. The ‘great depression’ had made a major impact in America and mechanisation was putting even more people out of work. The world of work was changing as factory jobs replaced rural employment, jobs were being eliminated, and there was social unrest among the workforce whose pay and conditions were being undermined. These elements would all feed into Chaplin’s next film, Modern Times.

For the first time Chaplin utilised a fully developed shooting script. Previously he’d worked from the vaguest of scenarios, developing comedy sequences as he went along, especially in his earlier knockabout shorts. As his work grew in depth and length, Chaplin found he had to become more organised in his approach to filmmaking. Although he still resisted using a full screenplay, for his most recent features—The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights—he’d drawn upon longer and more developed documents outlining the stories and breaking the films down into their component scenes. That didn’t mean he couldn’t alter course, and he still retained the habit of shooting many more takes than he’d ever need. Chaplin felt it was important he remain open to the possibility of finding fresh comedy in the moment.

Partly, the use of a script was prompted by lessons learned on The Circus and City Lights, especially in relation to the now very much required soundtrack. No longer would there be live accompaniment to Chaplin’s films. Instead, he created a soundtrack for Modern Times that incorporated speech, mostly from other characters than the Tramp, such as through television screens, radio broadcasts, records, and singing waiters. He didn’t allow his main characters to talk, relying as always on inter-titles to convey the narrative, a by-now rather old fashioned practice.

Times 12At the climax of the film, Chaplin’s Tramp did indeed ‘talk’ in a delightful and surprising sequence. While responding to all the calls in the media for the Tramp to finally speak, Chaplin undermined these requests by responding with a gibberish song sung by the Tramp as a singing waiter. It is a sly and clever move, and the performance itself is a delightful treat, one of the highlights of Chaplin’s entire oeuvre… yet the Tramp doesn’t actually speak in any real sense. Critic James Agee noted: ‘Half the secret of that wistful Tramp, that pilgrim of eternity … lies in the fact that he has walked the silent screen guessed at by all the world, yet never wholly revealed.’

Chaplin shot Modern Times across a ten month period beginning in October 1934. The ever reliable Henry Bergman was Chaplin’s assistant director on this project, joined by vaudeville veteran Carter De Haven (who later acted in The Great Dictator). The factory set where the classic production line sequence takes placed cost an estimated $14,000 to construct, while a further $11,000 was spent upon building three streets on the San Pedro waterfront (where Chaplin had filmed some of A Busy Day. Up to 400 people (with many bussed in to the Chaplin studio) were used in the cafe scenes that make up the climax of the film and for the opening crowd shot.

During his travels in the early-1930s, Charlie Chaplin visited Switzerland, little realising than in just under 25 years it would become his permanent home. His first impressions didn’t suggest the country might be where he would eventually settle after exile from the US in the middle-1950s. ‘I have never been intrigued by Switzerland,’ wrote Chaplin in his account of his travels, A Comedian Sees the World. ‘Personally, I dislike all mountainous country. I feel hemmed in and isolated from the rest of the world.’ A trip around the Far East in the company of his brother, Sydney, followed.

Times 08Chaplin met Paulette Goddard, then doing mere bit parts for comedy producer Hal Roach, shortly after his return to the US when he was invited to spend some time aboard Joseph Schenck’s yacht. Goddard had been born Marion Levy in New York in 1910 (she often claimed a birth year of 1915, however), was a child fashion model and stage performer before becoming a teenaged Ziegfeld girl in the late-1920s. Her stage work brought her to Hollywood, where she played bit parts in a handful of Roach’s Laurel and Hardy shorts (she can be spotted in 1929’s Berth Marks and 1932’s Pack Up Your Troubles). She’d been briefly married for two years from 1927, and had won a $375,000 divorce settlement. She continued appearing in minor films during the early-1930s, but all her roles were uncredited.

Chaplin and Goddard quickly struck up a relationship beginning in 1932, despite their 22 year age difference (she was just 22—although significantly older than most of Chaplin’s partners—and he was 44. Peter Ackroyd suggests that Goddard initially told Chaplin she was only aged 17). Chaplin found in Goddard a woman who could match him in wit and intelligence, something lacking in his previous liaisons. He bought out her contract with Roach and began to give Goddard intensive acting lessons. Goddard also found herself playing a role in the life of Chaplin’s two young sons, Sydney and Charlie Jr. Moving into Chaplin’s mansion home, she found herself playing weekend mother to the boys, and both Chaplin children appear to have responded well to her presence in their lives. According to one of Chaplin’s biographers, even Chaplin’s previous wife Lita Grey liked Paulette Goddard, describing her as ‘utterly without affectation or guile’. Chaplin saw in Goddard’s seemingly gamine naivety a possible partner for his Little Tramp figure, a female compliment to his wandering seeker.

Times 10The opening title card of Modern Times describes the film about to unfold as a ‘story of industry, of individual enterprise—humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness’. Chaplin’s awareness of the increasing mechanisation of the world of employment was the driving force behind the film, but he also had a personal nightmare from his childhood that he drew upon in relation to the fear of all-devouring machines. Aged just 12 in 1901, Chaplin had a temporary position working as a ‘printer’s devil’ in a printing plant where he had to tend a huge (from his diminutive youthful perspective) Wharfdale printing machine. To work the equipment, the young lad had to scale a five foot high platform and wait as his foreman sparked the machine to life. Unearthly noises emerged from the machine’s mysterious innards, as its gears ground round and its mechanical protuberances sprang into action. ‘I thought it was going to devour me,’ claimed Chaplin of the demonic device. A lot of Modern Times’ assembly line sequence and the Tramp’s tackling various machines came from that nightmare experience.

For Chaplin, Modern Times ‘started from an abstract idea, an impulse to say something about the way life was being standardised and channelised, and men turned into machines.’ Chaplin had definite feelings about the machine age. ‘Machinery should benefit mankind. It should not spell tragedy and throw it out of work,’ he said. ‘Labour-saving devices and other modern inventions were not really made for profit, but to help humanity in the pursuit of happiness.’ His aim with Modern Times was to make an amusing film about these issues, not a didactic tract that laid out his world view. ‘I am always suspicious of a picture with a message,’ he said in a 1931 interview just as he was beginning to consider the ideas that would lead to Modern Times.

Early titles for the project include the blunt likes of The Masses and Commonwealth, while Chaplin initially seems to have thought of the film as a way of conveying the economic theories he’d been developing and talking to world leaders about during his grand tour in the early-1930s. Thankfully, this concept got lost as he began to focus on what really mattered—comedy. There was such concern about Chaplin’s seeming political turn expressed in the popular press that he felt he needed to issue a statement. His new film was to be ‘a comedy picture with no endeavour to comment or satirise on social or political affairs’. That wasn’t strictly true, either, as lurking beneath the comedy, Modern Times would contain a certain degree of social and industrial satire.

With the Chaplin studio modernised to sound film standards (the formerly open air stages were finally fully enclosed and soundproofed), Chaplin was ready to begin shooting Modern Times on the specially-built factory set. Work on the film would take place between October 1934 and August 1935, with an additional huge street set (that was simply too large for the Chaplin studio to accommodate) built on four acres of rented land in Wilmington.

Times 01There is something of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) in the early factory scenes of Modern Times, with its seemingly pointless labour and all-pervasive surveillance by the boss. It was, however, this sequence’s similarity to scenes in another film that was to get Chaplin into hot water. Chaplin was sued by the French producers of Rene Clair’s A Nous la Liberte (1931) on the grounds that Modern Times had plagiarised the production line sequence. Chaplin maintained that neither he nor anyone else involved in making Modern Times at the Chaplin studio had ever seen Clair’s film. Clair himself joined the debate, noting that if Chaplin had indeed ‘borrowed’ from him and his work he was in fact honoured and flattered, not furious. After all, Clair concluded, ‘I have certainly borrowed enough from him.’ The case was quietly dropped with a settlement, but only after the conclusion of the Second World War.

Times 04Encoded within Modern Times’ theme of technology and obsolescence is a reflection of Chaplin’s growing antipathy to sound filmmaking and his own fear of redundancy. Given the new filmmaking technology, that he was largely ignoring, and the audience expectation that characters in films, including comedies, should talk, Chaplin was growing ever more fearful about his own obsolescence and that of his character of the Tramp. ‘I was obsessed by a depressing fear of being old-fashioned,’ he said. ‘Dialogue does not have a place in the sort of comedies I make … I cannot use dialogue.’ Although Chaplin shot sound tests of himself and Paulette Goddard for Modern Times, he ultimately decided to restrict the use of sound to simple sound effects, noises off, and—ultimately—to his nonsense song at the climax.

Times 02Modern Times opened on 5 February 1936 at the Rivoli Theatre in New York, five years after the release of City Lights. The New York Times correspondent Frank Nugent noted Chaplin’s return to the screen after ‘an undue absence’. He highlighted the film’s social themes, but contended they didn’t dominate the picture as it contained ‘rousing, rib-tickling, gag-bestrewn jest’. Some were not as taken by the new Chaplin, however, with Upton Sinclair writing that ‘the part about the factory was very interesting, and charming, but the rest just repeats Charlie’s old material’. A criticism laid against Modern Times concerned its episodic nature and its echoes of several of Chaplin’s old shorts. There may be something to that criticism, with the roller skate and escalator sequences, as well as the presence of comedy waiters, suggest. However, another way of looking at Modern Times is that it is a justified ‘greatest hits’ package as it is the last film to feature a true representation of Chaplin’s 1914 Tramp character, so is therefore largely forgivable. The iris out at the end of Modern Times is the only time a film concludes with the Tramp walking away to further adventures with someone else—Paulette Goddard’s ‘gamine’ is still on his arm come the end of this particular story.

Times 06He and Goddard would be together until 1942, and she would feature in his next film The Great Dictator, making this one of his longest lasting relationships (second only to that with his final wife, Oona O’Neil). Immediately after the release of Modern Times, Chaplin and Goddard embarked upon a five month long around the world trip. They sailed to Honolulu in February 1936 on the SS Coolidge, and according to Chaplin they were married while in Canton. Goddard recalled: ‘We got married and travelled … Bali, Indochina, China, those sorts of places.’ There appears to be no paperwork to confirm this supposed marriage, though, and it may have simply been seen by the pair as an expedient story to tell upon their return in order to quieten some of their more vocal moralistic Hollywood critics.

Within a couple of years, however, the relationship between Chaplin and Goddard had cooled somewhat. By 1938 they were spending as much time apart as together, often due to work reasons; Goddard was now in demand and had been considered for the much coveted role of Scarlet O’Hara in the movie of Gone with the Wind (1939). She appeared in several other films at this time, perhaps most notable as one of the ensemble cast of The Women (1939) alongside such star names as Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and Rosalind Russell and in her role opposite Bob Hope in both The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940).

Times 13Chaplin, meanwhile, had revived his idea of filming a life of Napoleon, perhaps with Goddard as Josephine. He went so far as to acquire the film right to a book about Napoleon’s life and times, and developed potential scripts with both Alistair Cooke and John Strachey. He was also developing an idea he’d come up with during his travels for a story about a stowaway (revealed to be poor Russian countess) who falls in love with a rich America while travelling on a luxury liner. The film would later emerge much later as Chaplin’s final project, A Countess From Hong Kong (1967). Eventually, he and Goddard would reunite professionally and personally to make The Great Dictator (1940), but it wouldn’t last. They separated in an amicable manner, more than could be aid for Chaplin’s past romantic exploits, and were divorced (giving credence to the marriage claim) in 1942 in Mexico, with Chaplin paying what has been described as ‘a generous settlement’.

The politics of Modern Times certainly struck a chord in Nazi Germany where the film was banned outright, which was quite a contrast to the reception accorded City Lights several years before when crowds lined the snow-covered streets cheering Chaplin on. The German government, led by the new Chancellor Adolf Hitler (elected in 1933), had begun to doubt Chaplin’s ‘Aryan purity’ and so had decided not to continue the programme of re-issues of his short films. There was speculation that the case brought against Chaplin over the Rene Clair film A Nous la Liberte was a German plot to discredit the comic—the production company on the Clair film was the German outfit Tobis-Tonbild Syndikat.

According to a contemporary report in the Manchester Guardian, German satirists and clowns who imitated Chaplin’s Tramp were instructed to drop the character from their acts or face penalties. The German censor identified ‘Communist tendencies’ in Modern Times that made the film unacceptable for release in Nazi Germany. For the Daily Telegraph, the German ban on Chaplin’s film was a result of a misunderstanding thanks to the widespread belief that Chaplin was Jewish (Chaplin himself often added to the confusion over this issue). For the Daily Herald the ban was more personal, with the toothbrush moustachioed Hitler taking a dislike to Chaplin as he sported similar facial hair… Ever the Fascist lapdog, Mussolini soon followed Hitler’s lead and banned the film in Italy, even though it had previously been cleared for release. Chaplin would get his revenge on both Hitler and Mussolini with his next film, The Great Dictator (1940).

Times 11Trivia: Bizarrely, but perhaps in an effort to abide by the Hays Code, the Hollywood censorship regime that was being imposed stronger than before in the middle-1930s, Chaplin originally intended to conclude Modern Times with the gamine becoming a nun! Throughout the film she was to have been in awe of and inspired by nun figures that appear randomly. However, the finale would see her ‘inner spirit’, attired as she was throughout the picture, slip out of the nun’s body and pursue the Tramp as he leaves, alone again. As production stills show, this sequence was shot but Chaplin never edited it, having already thought better of the idea. Thankfully, that ending was abandoned in favour of the existing, more hopeful, one in which they leave together. Given his evident concern with the Hays Code, it is surprising that he managed to slip the jail ‘nose powder’ cocaine scene past the vigilant censors…

Charlie Says: ‘Hollywood was going through a change … Most of the silent screen stars had disappeared—only a few of us were left. Now that the talkies had taken hold, the charm and insouciance of Hollywood were gone. Sound technicians were renovating studios and building elaborate sound devices. Cameras the size of a room lumbered about the stage like juggernauts. … Men, geared like warriors from Mars, sat with earphones while the actors performed, with microphones hovering above them like fishing rods. It was all very complicated and depressing. How could anyone be creative with all that junk around them? I hated the whole idea of it.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography (1964).

Times 03‘[I was told] a harrowing story of big industry luring healthy young men off the farms who, after four or five years at the [factory] belt system, became nervous wrecks. It was that conversation that gave me the idea for Modern Times. I used a feeding machine as a time-saving device, so that the workers could continue working during lunch time. The factory sequence itself revolved around the Tramp having a nervous breakdown. … The theme is about two nondescripts trying to get along in modern times. They are involved in the Depression, strikes, riots, and unemployment. … Before the opening of Modern Times a few columnists wrote that they had heard rumours that the picture was Communistic. … However, the liberal reviewers wrote that it was neither for nor against Communism and that metaphorically I had sat on the fence…’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography (1964).

Times 14Verdict: Chaplin’s finest and funniest film, Modern Times is a politically-engaged 1930s satire that doesn’t forget to deal with character and comedy. It flows from classic sequence to classic sequence: the production line, the food machine, the street demonstration, the jail ‘nose powder’, the fantasy home, the department store, the shack, and the Chester Conklin bit. Everything culminates in the Tramp’s delightful nonsense song, my absolute favourite Chaplin bit, and such a clever response to the whole should-the-Tramp-talk dilemma. It is Chaplin’s finest work, perhaps second only to The Great Dictator.

Brian J. Robb

Next: The Great Dictator (15 October 1940)

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

City Lights (30 January 1931)

USA Charlie Chaplin

Release Date: 30 January 1931

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 87 minutes

With: Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Meyers, Allan Garcia, Joe Van Meter, Albert Austin, Hank Mann, Eddie Baker

Story: The Tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl while also pursuing a complicated friendship with a rich alcoholic friend who never remembers him when sober…

City11Production: Even before the public had even seen The Circus, and certainly long before Charlie Chaplin received his special Oscar for the film, the writer-director-performer had moved on to his next project, his fourth full-length feature film and his 75th film overall since 1914. This was highly unusual for Chaplin, who liked to take his own good time developing and reworking potential film material (financial pressures, from his recent divorce and tax troubles, may have been a motivator). Since he’d completed work on The Circus, he now also had to contend with significant changes in the film business—the long mooted possibility of sound cinema had come to pass. His brother, Sydney, had already appeared in a Warner Bros. Vitaphone sound short in 1926 entitled The Better ‘Ole, so the Chaplin brothers were only too aware of the implications of these major industry developments. How would the greatest silent comedian of them all react to this new direction? In typical Chaplin style, he virtually chose to ignore it altogether.

‘They are spoiling the oldest art in the world, the art of pantomime,’ complained Chaplin of the headlong drive of the industry to implement sound. From the debut of The Jazz Singer in 1927, nothing would ever be the same, even though that was not a ‘true’ sound film as it just featured elements of music and dialogue. The first full sound film was 1928’s Lights of New York, driving cinemas across the US (and then the world) to rapidly install sound equipment. ‘They are ruining the great beauty of silence,’ lamented Chaplin. ‘They are deafening the meaning of the screen.’ Chaplin feared the cinema sound revolution would be ‘fatal’ for his comic movies.

One of the greatest benefits of the silence of Chaplin’s Tramp was the character’s effortless appeal internationally. His was the language of mime, of pantomime, not words. His physicality and his face revealed his emotions. His actions spoke louder than any words could—and they were understood in any and all languages across the globe. The Tramp was an international ‘everyman’ representing humanity the world over. If he were to speak, would that not change forever his essential nature?

City Lights (1931)Chaplin had many things to think about. Would the arrival and dominance of sound cinema mean the end of silent movies? Would his past work suddenly become passée, old fashioned, out of tune with the times? Could he still make films in this brave new world he was so fearful of? If the Tramp were to speak, what would he sound like? Chaplin’s own speaking voice featured a soft, cultured, English accent—surely that’s not what his huge audience of American (and international) filmgoers thought the character they’d loved on screen for so many years would sound like. It was certainly a conundrum, one that threatened Chaplin’s very abilities as an entertainer.

There was much speculation about Chaplin’s options. In September 1929 Film Weekly ran a story headlined ‘Will Chaplin Talk?’, asking the question that was on everyone’s mind. Chaplin’s lawyer Nathan Burkan said: ‘It is still undecided whether or not this film will be a talkie’, suggesting that Chaplin was keeping his options open. ‘Charlie’s attitude to “talkies” at the present time is that they are interesting, but that he does not consider that speech is in any way essential to screen art,’ said Burkan, further suggesting that Chaplin saw his silent ‘art’ as being something quite separate to the mainstream direction movies were taking. ‘The script of City Lights contains dialogue,’ confirmed Burkan, ‘and it is almost certain the film will contain some speech, but whether Charlie will break his silence is an open question…’

City01The ideas for what would become City Lights (‘A Comedy Romance in Pantomime’, according to a title card) had come to Chaplin during the production of The Circus, so he’d set about developing the film in the traditional way, giving little thought to the advent of sound. He had three characters—the Tramp, a blind flower seller, and a millionaire, whom he saves from a drunken suicide attempt. Around these he would build his drama. When the millionaire was in his cups, the Tramp would be his best pal, but when sober he would refuse to even recognise him (in an interview, Chaplin called the character a ‘Jekyll and Hyde inebriate’). Confusion as to who is who causes the blind girl to think of the kindly Tramp as her benefactor, when it is in fact the rich millionaire. It is his money that buys her the operation she needs to restore her sight, yet when she can see she doesn’t initially recognise the Tramp. The moment of dawning realisation that makes up the climax of City Lights is considered one of the greatest scenes in all cinema.

Chaplin discovered his newest leading lady in the audience of a boxing match he was attending (Chaplin gives a different, even less likely account of their first meeting in his autobiography). Virginia Cherrill was aged 20 (too old to attract Chaplin’s romantic interest, perhaps?) and not an actress, but she had the right, almost ethereal looks that Chaplin knew he needed for the blind flower seller. He had considered using Georgia Hale (from The Gold Rush), but his motivation here seems to have been more lustful than professional. Merna Kennedy (the star of The Circus) was listed in early Chaplin Studio production records for City Lights, but she is not known to have actively participated in the making of the film.

Lack of acting experience for Chaplin was always better, as it allowed him to mould her performance precisely to his needs without challenge. Cherrill, for her part, was apparently divorced and happy to swan about society living off her alimony payments. Invited to star in a movie, she simply looked upon it as another jolly wheeze to be pursued for as long as it amused her.

City02Cherrill’s first scene, in which she offers a flower up to the Tramp, became legendary not so much for its content but for the reputed 342 takes that Chaplin indulged in to get exactly what he wanted. Even though the film was silent, he insisted that she say her line ‘A flower, sir?’ just so. If her expression did not touch him, he would take the scene again. Sometimes it was her gesturing that was off, or the way she looked at him, or looked past him. Little details obsessed Chaplin, and this repeated striving to get Cherrill to do exactly what he wanted was the inevitable downside of his dependence on an actress he openly called ‘an amateur’.

Cherrill was flighty, and in no way as committed to the making of the film as Chaplin inevitably was. One day she walked off the set, declaring she had to attend an appointment with her hairdresser. Chaplin flew into a rage, and then retreated to his bed for three days, unable to face the work, or—perhaps—his leading lady, who had disappointed him so. They did not get on personally, and more than once Chaplin fired his star, only to realise that he couldn’t face the prospect of starting all over again with someone new.

A witness to Chaplin’s tried and tested directing method, in which he acted out all the parts as a guide for his actors, was child actor Robert Parrish, who lated grew up to become a director himself. Writing in his memoir, he recalled: ‘[Chaplin] became a kind of dervish, playing all the parts, using all the props, seeing and cane-twirling as the Tramp, not seeing and grateful as the blind girl, pea-shooting as the newsboys. [We] watched as Charlie did his show. Finally, he had it all worked out and reluctantly gave us back our parts. I felt that he would much rather have played all of them himself.’ Virginia Cherrill too recalled Chaplin’s approach to directing her: ‘It seemed that the times you thought it was good, he’d hate it, and the other times when you felt flat and forced, he’d say it was great. If he enjoyed something, he’d do it forever until he was bored.’

A huge new city street set was constructed in the Chaplin studio for City Lights. It was built in a ‘T’ shape, thus allowing for deep street views, and populated with crowds of extras and plenty of vehicles to give the feel of a bustling city. A mix of the world’s greatest cities—New York, London, Paris—Chaplin’s fantasy conurbation included a theatre and a cabaret, an art store, and the monument seen at the film’s opening, as well as the flower store of the climax.

It has been suggested that rising star Jean Harlow was among the City Lights extras during a restaurant scene. If she was, it seems likely her scene was reshot without her as she is not readily visible in the film. According to Glenn Mitchell, Chaplin had cast Henry Clive as the millionaire but found him difficult to work with. The actor was fired and the part recast with Harry Meyers, meaning all the scenes featuring the millionaire had to be re-taken. It is likely that if she was originally in the film at all, Harlow may have appeared in one of the now replaced scenes with Henry Clive. Before City Lights was released in 1931, Jean Harlow would anyway go on to find fame on her own. It was to be short lived, as she died in 1937 aged just 26.

City03Also fired during production was Chaplin’s assistant Harry Crocker, who’d played the tightrope walker Rex in Chaplin’s preceding film, The Circus. Behind the scenes candid film footage released as part of the indispensable Unknown Chaplin (1983) documentary shows Chaplin becoming frustrated with Crocker on the set of City Lights. As a result of their differences on this production (which remain a mystery; Chaplin biographer David Robinson suggests it was something ‘extremely personal’), Crocker was let go. He and Chaplin later reconciled and Crocker again worked for the comic prior to Chaplin’s departure from the United States in 1952.

Chaplin lost the month of March 1929 to illness, but returned to the set at the beginning of April with renewed vigour and commitment to work positively with Cherrill and get his film finished. The break from filming had been useful, as a major operation had been undertaken to move the La Brea studio frontage (mainly offices) back 15 feet as mandated by the city’s desire to widen the road. The construction work was interfering with the making of City Lights, even though the film was defiantly silent. Production on the film was essentially halted through July and August, the summer of 1929, until the building work in the studio was done.

City13Chaplin wrapped filming in the autumn of 1930 (after many stop-start delays), and then decided that his only concession to the demands of sound cinema would be an original score of his own composition. It was a new delay to the completion of the picture, and a new, artistic and creative distraction for Chaplin himself. It was also the start of a slippery slope, because having decided to add music, he then considered working in some spot sound effects and even little bits of gibberish dialogue for crowd scenes. In fact, his use of a kazoo sound for the speech of the dignitaries was both a dig at such pompous people but also at talking films themselves. He made clever use of a whistle sound, having the Tramp swallow one and so almost ‘talk’ through it. These were all compromises with the way the art of cinema was going, and each of them no doubt struck at Chaplin’s heart, but he was fearful that if he did nothing and simply presented City Lights as a ‘true’ silent picture that audiences, now used to the new world of sound, would simply reject it outright.

Finally, in January 1931, Charlie Chaplin had to put City Lights before the public, and see what would happen. To Henry Bergman he expressed his doubts about the film: ‘I don’t know so much about that picture. I’m not sure.’ All through the making of the film right up to its premiere, Chaplin had been concerned about releasing what was essentially a silent film in the era of sound. Despite his bravado and his bold decision to stick to his artistic guns—silent film was what he knew how to do—there was a worry at the back of his mind that this could be the last film he might ever make.

Chaplin needn’t have worried—the debut screenings of City Lights in Los Angeles (attended by Chaplin’s guest, Albert Einstein) and New York were greeted by standing ovations from appreciative crowds. For many, this new film reminded them of what was possibly being lost in the headlong rush into sound. The filmic art of silent movies was being diminished by the need to put the visuals second to the needs of recorded sound, complete with bulky, immobile cameras that were incapable (initially, at least) of producing the kind of gliding camerawork that featured in F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) just a few years before.

City12What Chaplin had achieved with City Lights was a successful combination of some of his most successful shorts (such as The Rounders, 1914, A Night Out, 1915, The Champion, 1915, and The Count, 1916; even, perhaps, 1921’s The Idle Class) with the greater scope of the sort of emotional drama that needed to be central to a feature film. For The New Republic, City Lights was a masterpiece that ‘gave the impression of being created before your eyes, with this extraordinary result.’ For Mordaunt Hall in The New York Times, Chaplin had ‘proved the eloquence of silence’, while for essayist Alexander Woollcott, City Lights was nothing less than ‘a gauntlet thrown down to the rest of Hollywood’ and he labelled Chaplin’s Tramp ‘the finest gentleman of our time’. Variety saw no problem with Chaplin continuing to plow the furrow of silent movies as he was in the unique position of having ‘talent, time, and means’ to produce his films exactly the way he wanted to. For The Record, ‘Nobody in the world but Charlie Chaplin could have done it. He is the only person that has that peculiar something called “audience appeal” in sufficient quantity to defy the popular penchant for pictures that talk. City Lights is the exception that proves the rule.’

In Britain, Observer critic C. A. Lejeune felt that Chaplin’s work stood tall against the best that European cinema had to offer, citing the work of Rene Clair as comparable. ‘The two directors,’ noted Lejeune of Chaplin and Clair, ‘are almost alone in their power of pure film thinking, without translation through literary or sociological or dramatic idea; they are quite alone in their comic psychology, their sense of the right movement, or pause to reveal the whole mockable nature of man’s soul. Chaplin is the surer artist, giving what Clair has never quite succeeded in suggesting, the sense of frustration behind the laughter; there is always at the back of Chaplin’s work that emotion without logic which first carried him beyond Sennett and the Keystone comedies to be the world’s first clown.’ For critic James Agee (writing in 1950 when the film was re-released), the final scene of City Lights was simply cinematic perfection: ‘The greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.’

EGmagCity Lights cost Chaplin over $1.5 million to make, a huge sum for a near-silent movie under 90 minutes in length and without any big stars besides Chaplin himself. The average Hollywood feature film in 1930 cost $375,000, suggesting that City Lights cost a whopping four times as much as the average feature. Chaplin’s efforts to recover this expenditure led him into a conflict with United Artists. D. W. Griffith, one of the four original founders, was long gone and the business was now being run by Joseph Schenck, who’d come from the exhibition side into production largely through his wife, actress Norma Talmadge (he would later be a founder of Twentieth Century Pictures and would engineer the merger with the Fox Film Corporation to create 20th Century Fox in 1935). Schenck used United Artist as a vehicle to produce films for his extended family, including wife Norma Talmadge, sister-in-law Constance Talmadge, and brother-in-law Buster Keaton (whom he’d later bring to MGM).

City07Chaplin demanded that United Artists pay him fifty per cent of the gross takings of City Lights, a deal far in excess of that offered to any other filmmaker. United Artist’s management were already concerned that Chaplin was putting out an essentially silent movie, when even Fairbanks and Pickford had released a ‘talkie’ film of The Taming of the Shrew in 1929. When they refused his demands, Chaplin decided to distribute City Lights through a ‘roadshow’ method, and charged a higher than usual ticket price of $1.50 (15c higher than regular prices for the new sound films). The film—which took 190 filming days spread over a period of two years and eight months to complete—would go on the gross in excess of $2 million in the US, easily returning Chaplin’s investment; overseas distribution brought in an additional $3 million, making for an overall worldwide gross of $5 million. City Lights remains one of his most successful and most appreciated feature films, and it was Chaplin’s own personal favourite.

Having succeeded with City Lights, conquering his own fears and bringing his audience along with him, Charlie Chaplin took a break before the next challenge. He left on the ship Mauretania, intending to take time out to visit the London of his boyhood once more. Sitting in his cabin, however, he was plagued with one thought: ‘What am I going do next?’

Trivia: In 1991, the US Library of Congress selected Chaplin’s City Lights for preservation in the National Film Registry, recognising it as ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’. It is not the only Chaplin film to be so preserved—The Kid (1921), selected in 2011; The Gold Rush (1925), selected in 1992; Modern Times (1936), selected in 1989; and The Great Dictator (1940), selected in 1997, would also make the list.

City04Charlie Says: ‘Overnight, every theatre began wiring for sound. That was the twilight of silent films. It was a pity, for they were beginning to improve. Murnau, the German director, had used the medium effectively, and some of our American directors were beginning to do the same. A good silent picture had universal appeal both to the intellectual and the rank and file. Now it was all to be lost. I was determined to continue to make silent films, for I believed there was room for all types of entertainment. Besides, I was a pantomimist, and in that medium I was unique and, without false modesty, a master. So I continued with the production of another silent picture, City Lights.’—Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964.

‘[A] difficulty was to find a girl who could look blind without detracting from her beauty. Virginia Cherrill I had met before … after making one or two tests with other actresses, in sheer desperation I called her up. To my surprise she had the faculty of looking blind. I instructed her to look at me but to look inward and to not see me, and she could do it. Miss Cherrill was beautiful and photogenic, but she had little acting experience. This is sometimes an advantage, especially in silent pictures where technique is all important. Those with less experience are more apt to adapt themselves to the mechanics.’—Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964.

Verdict: Somewhat episodic and made up of moments Chaplin had explored before in some of his earlier shorts, City Lights is nonetheless a cohesive whole that merges theme and character successfully. Although widely beloved, it’s not my favourite (come back next month for that), but it is easy to appreciate its artistry.

Brian J. Robb

Next: Modern Times (5 February 1936)

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.