The Great Artist, the Little Fellow: Reading Charlie Chaplin and James Agee
Photoplays, personality, passion, purpose, and politics
Charlie Chaplin: Interviews
Edited by Kevin J. Hayes
University Press of Mississippi, 2005
James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism
Selection and notes by Michael Sragow
Library of America, 2005
Chaplin and Agee:
The Untold Story of The Tramp,
The Writer, and The Lost Screenplay
By John Wranovics
em>Charlie Chaplin: Interviews
“I’m an individualist”
“I am an internationalist, a peacemonger”
There are days when it seems as if life can only be understood through the eyes of a Greek tragedian or Shakespeare, when the habits, thoughts, and feelings of men seem so lavishly loving and cruel as to be nearly unbelievable: and the human condition inspires awe, terror. Reading the interviews of Charlie Chaplin, the actor, writer, director, and musician, a phenomenon in film and world culture, is to see a poor boy, of talent, ambition, intelligence, and spirit go from impoverishment and humility to public acclaim and affection and increasing self-confidence and then on to international respect (worship, really) and self-conscious mastery of work, self, and ideas, only to be sabotaged by controversies involving his own personal life, the narrowing of political tolerance, resentment and time. Charlie Chaplin’s filmography is made up of many works, including Making A Living, His New Job, The Tramp, The Vagabond, Easy Street, A Dog’s Life, A Woman of Paris, The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight, A King in New York, and A Countess from Hong Kong. The English-born, Hollywood king of comedy Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin (1889-1977) spent his last years in Switzerland with his family, a sometimes neglected, sometimes revered, still-legendary master of film art.
In his introduction to Charlie Chaplin: Interviews, published by the University of Mississippi in 2005, Kevin J. Hayes writes of how Chaplin’s expressive physical gestures were often found more articulate than words, but what is impressive about Chaplin’s interviews are his honesty, how well he spoke for himself, how fresh his observations still seem. It is wounding—and not for the first time, nor the last—to read how often the talent that brings success is soon overwhelmed by that very success: so that the talent seems to be not for developing creative ability or conveying insight but for success itself, and people begin to think of a successful man in terms of his wealth and social status. Audiences and fellow citizens also resent as a burden the love and authority that talent and success have brought; and begin to look for reasons and ways to relieve themselves of that burden, I think. Kevin Hayes salutes the writers, such as Mary E. Porter, Walter Vogdes, and Benjamin De Casseres, who spoke to Charlie Chaplin about his work and life in ways that went beyond the common, the obvious. The better reporters discuss with Chaplin film intentions, technique, also life experience, and philosophy. Charlie Chaplin: Interviews is an anthology that both pleases and saddens—one is made happy by Chaplin and sad by his circumstances. The book contains a four-page chronology of the important events in Chaplin’s life, a filmography of eighteen pages, and an index, along with the interviews and articles by Victor Eubank, Mary E. Porter, Miriam Teichner, Grace Kingsley, Mabel Condon, Walter Vogdes, Julian Johnson, Ray W. Frohman, Benjamin De Casseres, Frank Vreeland, Ted Le Berthon, Mordaunt Hall, Robert Nichols, Harry Carr, Robert Van Gelder, Philip K. Scheuer, George Wallach, Ella Winter, Bosley Crowther, Richard Meryman, Francis Wyndham, and a few anonymous contributors. Charlie Chaplin: Interviews is a portrait of an artist, and an outline of twentieth-century film history. The book is, of course, worth reading: and one is grateful for it.
Whereas Victor Eubank describes Chaplin as serious, and notes Chaplin’s desire to one day work in drama, as well as how Chaplin studies for his comic portrayal of characters, Mary Porter describes Chaplin’s many smiles. Porter’s response to Chaplin is relaxed and smartly bantering, as she admits her fondness for his work and treats him like a creative man who is also a human being. “I lay out my plot and study my character thoroughly. I even follow the character I am to represent for miles or sit and watch him at his work before I attempt to portray him. For instance, I recently took the part of a barber. I even went and got my hair cut, which is my pet aversion. In fact, I never get it cut until the boys along the street yell at me. Then I know it must be done, and I submit to the slaughter,” Chaplin said in his 1915 interview with Eubank for Motion Picture Magazine (Charlie Chaplin: Interviews; page 5). “I watched all the barber’s ways. I studied out exactly what he did, and what he might be expected to do in my photoplay. Then I followed him home that night. He was some walker, and it was three miles to his home, but I wanted to know all his little idiosyncrasies” (5). Chaplin then talked with Eubank about his improvisations before the camera, his ability to lose himself there. Picture-Play Weekly’s Mary Porter, who saw an unknown Chaplin perform in a vaudeville house, when he was known not by name but as his principal character, a funny drunk, and then saw him in his films for Keystone, is aware of many expectations—such as, the question of whether Chaplin is as funny in person as onscreen, and also the matter of how journalists and subjects are expected to interact—and she turns in an intelligent, charming report. (She notes how Chaplin responds to the cold from a just-opened window in the Essenay film studio in Chicago, and his sneaking away one of someone else’s cigarettes.) Porter describes Chaplin’s performative range, his improvisations, and his careful and thorough direction of other actors. Chaplin, who said that when first invited to be in pictures he thought he would be the usual star rather than a comic, remarked that, “It only took about two weeks’ work at the Keystone plant to make me very enthusiastic about pictures, especially farces. I study the screen closely now, and I am firmly convinced that every one in the industry should do likewise. There are many things we can learn from it, even though we think we have perfected ourselves in our own line of the great industry. I endeavor to put nothing in my farces which is not a burlesque on something in real life” (10).
Miriam Teichner, of The Globe and Commercial Advertiser, also describes Chaplin’s smiles: she goes even further by saying, “His smile is the thing about him which commands attention. If there could be such a thing as a smile with a man instead of a man with a smile, Charlie Chaplin’s smile is it” (13). She mentions Chaplin’s violin-playing, the observations that lead to his performances, and his admiration for David Warfield (1866-1951), an actor who could make people laugh and cry but who is not now known by many. (Warfield, according to the online Encyclopedia Britannica, performed on the stage as Simon Levi in The Auctioneer, Anton von Barwig in The Music Master, Wes Bigelow in A Grand Army Man, and as Peter Grimm in The Return of Peter Grimm. Warfield’s investments with Marcus Loew led to the entertainment company.) Teichner’s 1916 interview reveals the origin of Chaplin’s (or that of his well-known character, the little tramp’s) unique walk and moustache: “I haven’t a comedy face,” Chaplin told her. “I had the feet and the walk. That walk came all the way from England. My old uncle used to keep a public house, and there was one of those old habitual drunkards that used to lean up against the wall for hours at a time waiting for a chance to beg or earn a few cents. When a rig drove up to the door he’d hobble out to hold the horses, and he’d be in such a hurry with his poor old sore feet, in their broken old shoes, that he walked just about the way I walk in the movies” (15). Then Chaplin explained, “I had to study for a long time to find out what I could do with my face. Painting wouldn’t fix it, so I tried the mustache. Then I found that if it were a big mustache it hid the lines of my face on which I depend for a good deal of the expression so I kept cutting it down, smaller and smaller until it became the funny little thing that it is today” (15). (In the interview that is the spelling given to the word for the hair above Chaplin’s lips, and in a later interview it is spelled moustache. I imagine that may be one of the idiosyncrasies of language or time.)
I do not know whether it’s noteworthy that many of Chaplin’s early interviewers seemed to have been women. Was that because films or personality profiles were considered soft news, the province of women, or because they had a particularly enthusiastic response to the handsome young comedian? (Mary Porter wryly notes Chaplin’s status as a single man.) The women’s reports—chatty, observant, and still warm after decades—are commendable. Grace Kingsley (Los Angeles Sunday Times, 1916) notes that Chaplin plays golf, is funny about cars—“I don’t own a car. I rent one when I need it. When I was over at the Keystone I bought a car. The first day I ran it it went on a gasoline jag. First it playfully climbed a telephone pole, then it bit me when I tried to fix the speedometer, and lastly, when I got out and tried to pry the darn thing loose from a house it had run into, it jammed me up against a wall and wouldn’t let me go” (19)—and Kingsley also notes that Chaplin has begun to have imitators. Mabel Condon (Picture-Play Magazine, 1916) quotes Chaplin as saying he feels himself becoming temperamental, and that he has begun to enjoy having valets and being served. Walter Vogdes—yes, a man—focuses on Chaplin’s seriousness, his great fame, his shyness, the flawed continuity in Chaplin’s films, his work schedule, and Chaplin’s critique of excess of emotion or technique in cinema. Vogdes, of the New York Tribune Sunday (1917), has a more distant, flatter, and practical response to Chaplin than Porter, Teichner, Kingsley, or Condon; and Vogdes, who met Chaplin in Los Angeles during a time when Chaplin wasn’t working on a film, writes about Vogdes’s sharing conclusions about his visit with Chaplin: “Afterward, when I told several people that he was timid and nervous, they were astonished. They seemed to think that because he is so much in the public eye he must be self-contained and talkative to the point of fulsomeness. To me it seemed most natural to find him as he is, for in his work there is a reflection of that self-same spirit” (28). I guess there’s nothing like perspective, but I wonder how much Chaplin’s manner was a response to a particular reporter’s style. Vogdes describes behavior and events as facts, as surfaces, but his account is not without genuine appreciation: “Chaplin’s ‘picture sense’ is unerring, and he gauges his work, the light and shade of it, the value of a raised eyebrow, the significance of the faint tremor of a lip, in a way unsurpassed by any other man in the moving pictures. He has the artist’s passionate desire to express himself with the utmost economy of means” (31). Chaplin seems to have inspired respect rather than love in Vogdes.
In Julian Johnson’s short 1918 Photoplay article, Chaplin has begun to complain about fame and how it changes other people’s response to him and affects his ability to observe human nature, something he needs for his work. Chaplin, in this article that has a bluntness that is at once assuming, friendly, and oh so manly, is compelled to respond to public accusations that he has been a draft-dodger. Somehow, Charlie Chaplin is expected to be an idol and an ordinary citizen: an ideal human being to all people at all times. Ray Frohman’s 1919 Los Angeles Herald article profiles Chaplin in the company of a peer who teases him, Douglas Fairbanks, and it is a wonderful angle from which to see the comedian: respected, loved, successful; and talking about whatever comes to mind—art, women, nature, clothes, work, with Chaplin affirming the beauty within people. Benjamin De Casseres resumes the emphasis on Chaplin’s seriousness, but here—in a New York Times Book Review and Magazine piece of 1920—it seems warranted, as Chaplin’s own references are philosophical and ponderous (I like them): Chaplin remarks on the world-weariness he sometimes feels, and says, “Solitude is the only relief. The dream-world is then the great reality; the real world an illusion. I go to my library and live with the great abstract thinkers—Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Walter Pater” (47). Chaplin remarks on how his well-known film costume—worn derby, cane, broken shoes, dirty collar and shirt—had taken on a haunting reality for him, even repelling him to want to retire to Italy, where he would read Shelley and Keats and play violin. Chaplin, who will mention Freud before the end of his conversation with the reporter, talks about a time when he was a boy and in an orphanage and for Christmas saw and wanted a large apple but he was denied it—and how he sees being forbidden what he wants of signal importance. Reading the piece, reading of Chaplin’s serious concerns, I wondered if Chaplin was being confident or humble or practicing a form of image control; and yet, as with the piece in which he’s interviewed with Douglas Fairbanks, it seems a classic display of the artist at the height of his public recognition.
“Yes, I’m an egotist,” is one of the first things Chaplin says in Frank Vreeland’s New York Herald (1921) article, another in which the comedian’s seriousness is accented (51). Vreeland states, “It is simply that he is confident in himself, that he has arrived at his viewpoint deliberately as a result of his career” (51). It’s fascinating how a man can be so at one with the public that most of us—and he too—seem to think of him at the same time and in the same ways (first as an entertainer, then as an eminence). The Herald article notes Chaplin’s age, and that he is beginning to get gray hair (we begin to count time by the changes in a famous figure; and time’s power is one of the few the great must respect). The article also notes that Chaplin hasn’t played violin in years (has he begun to give up what doesn’t pay in dollars or image?). Chaplin describes his work habits, with his rehearsals and improvisations, and the futility of art compared to life, and his wanting to go to England to meet Herbert George Wells and Bernard Shaw and his admiration for dancer Anna Pavlowa and David Wark Griffith. Chaplin also describes a project he wants to do—one that that will portray a clown and the clown’s work as only a means to earn the man’s bread and cheese and the clown’s “utter contempt for his audiences” (59). Is that self-revelation? Chaplin, who acknowledges his own appreciation for the independence of thought and habit that comes with success, does make the rare admission that, “I’m not satisfied with the world as I find it. There are many things in it I’d like to change. Do I mean political and economic conditions? Well, yes, I suppose I do” (53). Chaplin, mentioning poverty, does not name the precise changes he would make.
When Chaplin gets to London, where he is given a great public reception, curious, respectful, affectionate, something that is recounted in an anonymous 1921 Manchester Guardian piece, Chaplin notes a sadder spiritual atmosphere in London, something he supposes is a response to war, and Chaplin again assails his character’s—the little tramp’s—costume, but he also now draws that costume as part of the autograph he signs. It is one of the contradictions of fame: the attraction to and repulsion of one’s own iconicity. (If the icon feels it, why wouldn’t the public?) By 1923, Chaplin has found a way of blending his sense of the difference between inner life and public appearance in his work, in the film Public Opinion, which he discusses (along with Freud’s Wit and the Unconscious) in Ted Le Berthon’s 1923 Motion Picture Classic article: “Most photoplays emphasize the apparently important, the outward actions of a human being. Of course, you know that people ever hide their real motives. Of course—their actions are paradoxical. In Public Opinion, I stress the really important thing, the mental processes that brought about the action!” (68). The film is about a young woman who brings about the deaths of those she loves. “Every photoplay I have ever seen has divided the world into good people and bad people, has depicted a cosmos where humans were held responsible for their actions or the results of their actions. All such notions are absurd, antiquated, and unfair to humanity” (69), Chaplin told his interlocutor, who observes that Chaplin’s film does not have the usual action sequences—chases, fights, fires, storms—and few subtitles regarding motives. Chaplin also says, “The picture will mean all things to all people, always depending on the individual’s perspective and imagination—both founded on his past experiences, environment, and heredity” (70).
At the time of a serious film which Chaplin directed and made a brief appearance in but in which he did not star, A Woman of Paris, there is much discussion of Chaplin’s future direction, and Chaplin—despite his obvious engagement with current ideas and facts in the world, what can easily be called realism and modernism (though what will people a hundred years from now call their civilization?)—reassures, in an anonymous 1923 New York Times article, that he will return to the kind of comedy he has been known for.
It’s easy to think that an artist can begin work that is an entertainment for, and a conversation with, self, family, friends, living peers, and the general public, but that a time comes when he begins to converse with the tradition of culture itself—with the ideas in the forms and works of the past, and with the figures who produced those works. That seems to have been what happened in Chaplin’s life. That can sometimes help to explain both what is old and also what is new in an artist’s (or a thinker’s) work. Reading Chaplin’s interviews, I thought about a range of artists, performers, and thinkers. I thought of John Stuart Mill’s concern for individual liberty and his warnings against the tyranny of both government and popular opinion. I thought of Nietzsche’s idea that moral values are not absolute, but are rather reflections of society, and the strong and weak wills in any society. Charlie Chaplin was a distinctive individual, and enjoyed liberties, but also felt the threat of social tyranny, despite his prominence. Reading the interviews, I thought of Carl Dreyer, Woody Allen, Carol Burnett, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Tom Cruise. I thought of how Dreyer’s concern with genuine experience, especially with honest emotion, is similar to that of Chaplin, but I wondered if Dreyer’s emphasis on emotion, his desire to avoid the usual in film—in eliminating everything from décor to establishing shots—meant not only that the emotion in his work, specifically in Joan of Arc, was given greater visibility and impact, but that it may have been distorted by his stark presentation, by the lack of context. I thought of the imaginative Woody Allen’s admiration for Bergman and other artistically inventive and philosophical directors, his yearning for seriousness, and the change in his public reputation as a result of a personal scandal. I recalled Carol Burnett’s character the charwoman (cleaning lady), who seems an echo of Chaplin’s little fellow. I thought of Diana Ross’s impersonation of Chaplin in a television special and of her performance of Chaplin’s “Smile” on a subsequent album and in concert, and of Michael Jackson’s performance of the song as well. I thought of how Tom Cruise’s significant public attention has drawn resentment and rumor, so that people seem to look for things in his private or offscreen life to use against him in public, including using perceptions of his personality to negatively interpret his work. (One critic accused Tom Cruise of vanity and of being afraid to age onscreen, but among Cruise’s recent roles are a gray-haired killer, in Collateral, and a negligent father of a teenage son, in War of the Worlds.) I thought also of how the use of improvisation in Charlie Chaplin’s work could be compared to improvisation in jazz music and also in twentieth-century painting, such as that of Jackson Pollock. Improvisation opens the present moment to both the past and the future, allows experimentation and freedom, quick intelligence and deep impulse, and reconciles art with life. Charlie Chaplin himself is compared to James Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, in more than one article collected in Charlie Chaplin: Interviews.
Charlie Chaplin is compared to James Barrie, O. Henry, and Thomas Burke in the 1925 article that marked the making of his film The Gold Rush, a comedy featuring Chaplin’s little fellow as a lone gold prospector and set in Alaska and inspired by the Donner expedition (and a desperate hunger that led to cannibalism). Chaplin again discusses the freedom he has to do the work he wants to do, and his commitment to being true to his ideas, which he thinks about almost no matter what else he is doing. “I work while I play,” he told the New York Times’s Mordaunt Hall (77). Charlie Chaplin also recalls his early poverty, and his welcome by the wealthy, while Hall notes Chaplin’s courtesy to ordinary people. Another writer in the same year describes how expressive Chaplin is. Chaplin compares film to music, and speaks of suspending judgment of his characters. “It’s easy to judge. It’s not so easy to understand,” he tells Robert Nichols of the Times of London (81). Chaplin also discusses the advice of producers: “The producers assert the public wants this, that, or the other—say, battle, murder, and sudden death in evening dress and smoking jackets. That’s the ‘bunk.’ The public doesn’t know what it wants except that it wants an evening’s entertainment” (81). Chaplin, who discusses some of the limitations and resources of film—“Motion, two planes, and a suggestion of depth,” also said, “People complain that there isn’t more beauty on the screen. Well, first of all, do all of them know what beauty in this new medium is?” and concluded that, “Taste takes time to form” (82). It seems as if little has changed regarding many producers since his time and ours, though regarding the public’s taste, much of the public has seemed to come to want what they have been given so often, the battles, murders, and sudden well-clothed deaths. Chaplin describes a scene in The Gold Rush in which a pillow is torn to pieces and the feathers seem to dance in the darkness, something he perceived as an intense visual music, a new kind of beauty.
Charles Spencer Chaplin spoke for beauty and tragedy, but came to deny being sophisticated, and Chaplin’s work was seen in different ways by different people, a predictable phenomenon that we are often surprised by. Chaplin said that in Russia people saw his films and cried, in Germany they talked about his ideas, and in England they liked his comedy of gesture and movement. To Motion Picture Magazine’s Harry Carr, Charlie Chaplin, in 1925, said he thought his best photoplay or film was Easy Street, his single best scene something out of The Kid, and his favorite films The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and Hearts of the World (all directed by D.W. Griffith). Chaplin also acknowledged a desire to make a film about Christ as a charming and well-intentioned but misunderstood man. The reporter mentions bad publicity around Chaplin’s marriage. (According to the little I have read on the subject, Charlie Chaplin, born in 1889, liked young women, sometimes very young, and was married four times: to Mildred Harris, from 1918 to 1920; and to the sixteen year-old and pregnant Lita Grey, 1924 to 1927, and with whom he had two children; and then to Paulette Goddard, 1936 to 1942; and to the eighteen-year old Oona O’Neill from 1943 until his death, and with whom he had eight children.)
Chaplin spoke about the slow tempo of English films as one reason why they weren’t more popular in the United States, and spoke as well about talking versus silent pictures, fame, costuming, and change, when he conversed with an unnamed journalist from the Times of London several years later, in 1931. Chaplin, in the article, says that talking films have more vitality but less beauty than silent films. He speaks of how he saw his little fellow’s costume—the large pants as a rebellion of style, the moustache as vanity, the hat and cane as a reach for dignity, and the boots as constant impediments. Chaplin is observed as still appreciative of his public.
It seems that Chaplin began to be less open to interviews as time went on, something that often happens with the very famous, who find themselves misunderstood or ill-treated by the press, and who begin to evade publicity except to promote work. There is a gap of almost ten years between that 1931 Times article and the next interview that appears in the book, a 1940 profile that notes something in passing that is also important about Chaplin’s smile: “He smiled his bright smile. When the smile is directed at you it doesn’t seem automatic. It seems friendly, slightly self-deprecatory, and utterly confidential. When you sit to one side and watch it bestowed upon someone else, the lips look mechanically creased, and the eyes seem absent, almost unseeing. The smile is a masterpiece made for one person at a time” (91), wrote Robert Van Gelder in the New York Times Magazine. That last line seems a bit of gloss, of recovery: who wants to know what a beloved artist does not feel? In Robert Van Gelder’s report, Chaplin discusses The Great Dictator’s expensive presentation of a Jewish barber and a Hitlerian figure, in which Chaplin talks on film for what seems the first time. The dictator is posed in the film with a large globe, something he thinks he possesses but which obviously cannot be possessed by him. (The film’s suggestion that international intervention should be marshalled against Hitler led to Chaplin being called to testify before a disapproving, then-isolationist United States Senate committee; and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the F.B.I., called Chaplin a premature anti-fascist.) The writer, Van Gelder, describes some of Chaplin’s spoken ideas as “unfresh” (92), and, while I don’t find Chaplin as full of philosophical references, or even enthusiasm, as in some of his earlier interviews, something that might have to do with his four-year absence from film that occurred between Modern Times and The Great Dictator, and the relative solitude of that absence, the limits on journalistic intrusion, a time in which his mind and manner had a chance to grow simpler, I still find him eloquent, honest, observant, possibly too honest. “I am protected by being a charlatan. I don’t think in terms of common sense and, to be honest, I don’t search for truth. I search for effectiveness. Do you know why most writers fail in the theatre? Because they try to write what is worthwhile rather than what is effective,” Chaplin is quoted as saying (95).
It’s no surprise that the next interview in the book would take place about seven years later, at the time of Monsieur Verdoux, a time in which Chaplin asserts the separation between the artist’s life and work, and a film about a depression-era, opportunistic murderer of his many wives. Chaplin, by then, was no longer the sensation he was once, and his image had been harmed by a controversial marriage to a younger woman, Oona O’Neill, and a paternity suit involving another, Joan Berry; and he, as well, noted many of the clichés that had begun to inundate the film world, such as the rampant publicity and swimsuit photos of young women. Chaplin, no longer skeptical of sound in film, said to Colliers’s Philip Scheuer that the ideal talking film would be made when the limits of sound are discovered. George Wallach recorded a press conference for New York’s WNEW radio station in 1947 following the premier of Monsieur Verdoux, a contentious press conference that was transcribed and presented in the Winter 1969 issue of the controversy-alert Film Comment, reprinted in Charlie Chaplin: Interviews. There were hostile questions about Orson Welles claiming origination of the film’s idea, whether Chaplin was a Communist, the nature of Chaplin’s patriotism, the atom bomb and so on. One journalist complained that Chaplin’s films are less entertaining since they’ve begun to include messages. Chaplin was pressed about politics and war; and said, “I have always loathed and abhorred violence. Now I think these weapons of destruction—I don’t think I’m alone in saying this, it’s a cliché by now—that the atomic bomb is the most horrible invention of mankind, and I think it is being proven so every moment. I think it’s creating so much horror and fear that we are going to grow up a bunch of neurotics” (111). The writer James Agee, who also shared a horror of atomic weaponry that had led him to create a story about Chaplin’s little tramp in a destroyed world, was in attendance at the press conference and voiced a question that incriminated the press. Agee said, “What are people who care a damn about freedom—who really care for it—think of a country and the people in it, who congratulate themselves upon this country as the finest on earth and as a ‘free country,’ when so many of the people in this country pry into what a man’s citizenship is, try to tell him his business from hour to hour and from day to day and exert a public moral blackmail against him for not becoming an American citizen—for his political views and for not entertaining troops in the manner—in the way that they think he should. What is to be thought of a general country where those people are thought well of?” (115).
“I’m an individualist” (120), Chaplin said ten years later to The Observer’s Ella Winter, who describes Chaplin’s many moods during her visit with him in Switzerland, his concern for an audience’s response to his work, his love of serene nature, his confusion about the American response to him. “What are they so sore about? There was a time when they put out the red carpet, literally, on every platform when I went from Los Angeles to New York—the crowd adored me…Now all that nonsense…people who spend time disparaging me…Actually I’m a Puritan. I haven’t had the time to live the lives some of them attribute to me—or the energy. I’ve made eighty-five pictures—!” (120). The encounter occurs during the year, 1957, of Chaplin’s A King in New York. (It has been reported elsewhere that A King in New York was not shown in the United States until the early 1970s.) Ella Winter describes Chaplin one moment denying his film is political and in the next saying, “This is my most rebellious picture. I refuse to be part of that dying civilization they talk about” (121). Chaplin, in defining the political, may have made a distinction between social situations, or society, and the workings of government. Bosley Crowther, of the New York Times Magazine, also made the pilgrimage to Switzerland in 1960, despite Crowther’s negative sense of Chaplin’s later, more original and demanding work, a contrast to the esteem in which film critic James Agee held Chaplin’s last works. Crowther quotes Chaplin as saying, “I am an internationalist, a peacemonger. When the F.B.I. asked me if I followed the ‘party line,’ I told them I couldn’t say because I didn’t know what the ‘party line’ was. I asked them if they knew what it was. They didn’t. So we got nowhere with that” (127). Talk about governmental idiocy.
Chaplin’s commentary is provided entirely in the first person in Richard Meryman’s Life magazine piece in 1967, marking The Countess from Hong Kong, Chaplin’s film starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren. Chaplin recalls a decades-old comedy, noting that when his character washed his hands and wiped them on another man’s beard, “The audience feels it is in on something special, something the person on the movie screen isn’t. That’s the basic element that’s in comedy. What appears to be sane is really insane” (130). Chaplin notes that he had to keep Brando and Loren from acknowledging the comedy of their situations. Chaplin says, “Ideas are stale things, so stale. The intellect is not too great a thing” (130), before criticizing as too monotonal the film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? “Life isn’t in one key and neither are people” (130). Chaplin also speaks about sympathy and cruelty, life and art; and the value of good acting and a good script over camera technique. He sees cruelty as a fundamental part of comedy. He seems to be talking about the principles he has discovered for and in his work rather than general principles, though it’s not always clear that he knows that. “Complexity isn’t truth,” he says (133). I wonder, again, if Chaplin’s withdrawal into a simple life—as much as a famous and rich man can have a simple life—made him simple, just as his early international social interactions made him aware of large realities and large ideas. Chaplin does acknowledge the desire for dignity and rest within a poor man, within the little fellow; and he remembers himself before he had money walking on Fifth Avenue and seeing the mansions of the rich, mansions to which he later would be invited. (He talks about how tearing down those mansions to establish tall buildings destroyed much of New York’s allure.) “I was always very modest. I was very charming. I was very innocent, terrifically innocent. Slightly afraid, I was just a little mascot, something they brought into a room,” he says of the wealthy’s embrace (137). He admits that he is not afraid of engaging cliché in his work, and says that avoiding clichés can lead to false endings (he cites Shaw’s Pygmalion, in which Liza doesn’t fall in love with the professor who has helped her). Chaplin, after citing The Countess from Hong King and City Lights as the best of his films, says, “I would never revive my tramp character” (139). Near the end of the article, Chaplin declares, “I’ve never been obsessed with friendship. In the first place I’m shy. In the next place I’m busy. People usually think I’m very sad, but I’m not sad. I am not a bit sad” (141). Not a bit? Charlie Chaplin, in the article, says his work is the best thing he does.
The same year, 1967, Charlie Chaplin, while discussing with Francis Wyndham of London’s Sunday Times the somewhat mixed critical and public response to The Countess from Hong King, which got reviews that Chaplin considered personal attacks in England, reviews that seemed to desire his failure, Chaplin made comments about various films by others—saying he was amused by Goldfinger, but found Doctor Zhivago banal (though his daughter appeared in the film), and thought Blow-Up slow and boring and a Beatles movie dully redundant. Charlie Chaplin was reassured that the audiences attending The Countess obviously enjoy it. He speaks about another film he wants to do—though The Countess was his last completed film—and Chaplin, wondering if aesthetics are being invested in science, such as in space ships, rather than in art, says, “The trouble is that as I get older I get more and more interested in beauty. I want things to be beautiful” (145).
James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism
Seeing Chaplin through James Agee’s Eyes
James Agee, the author of the novel A Death in the Family, and, with photographer Walker Evans, a study of poverty, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, works that received accolades after Agee’s death, James Agee (1909-1955), one of the most respected of American writers and film critics, a man of honesty, insight, passion, and wit, called Charlie Chaplin one of the masters of early film comedy, along with Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, and Buster Keaton. “Before Chaplin came to pictures people were content with a couple of gags per comedy; he got some kind of laugh every second. The minute he began to work he set standards—and continually forced them higher. Anyone who saw Chaplin eating a boiled shoe like brook trout in The Gold Rush, or embarrassed by a swallowed whistle in City Lights, has seen perfection. Most of the time, however, Chaplin got his laughter less from the gags, or from milking them in any ordinary sense, than through his genius for what may be called inflection—the perfect, changeful shading of his physical and emotional attitudes toward the gag,” wrote James Agee in a retrospective essay on comedy (Film Writing and Selected Journalism, Library of America, 2005; 18).
Agee, who had loved Chaplin since he was a boy, was an impassioned interpreter of Chaplin’s work, and helped to describe and explain some of Chaplin’s more controversial films, such as Monsieur Verdoux when it was subject to attack and misunderstanding, calling Monsieur Verdoux “one of the best movies ever made, easily the most exciting and most beautiful since Modern Times. I will add that I think most of the press on the picture, and on Chaplin, is beyond disgrace. I urge everyone to see Monsieur Verdoux who can get to it” (291). Modern Times, one of Chaplin’s most well-regarded films and his last silent film, silent in terms of having no speech though it did have the sounds of the world, was a film that satirized both labor and management; and featured Chaplin’s little tramp trying to work in a factory and being outpaced by the machinery and being thought mad for his trouble. Agee’s comparison of Monsieur Verdoux with Modern Times was made in a May 10, 1947 article in The Nation, and is reprinted in the Library of America anthology of Agee’s film criticism. The anthology’s seven-hundred and forty-eight pages include also Agee’s screenplay for the film The Night of the Hunter and Agee’s journalism on the Tennessee Valley Authority, cockfighting, the (orchid) flower industry, and Agee’s book reviews on the work of writers such as Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf, and Agee’s commentaries and reports on war, peace, Europe, and democracy, along with a chronology of Agee’s life events, various notes on the assembled texts, and an index. However, Agee’s essays on Chaplin are among Agee’s finest words and works.
Chaplin said that he wanted the film Monsieur Verdoux, a social satire, to show how economic instability undermined morality; and some reviewers said the film was amoral, and lacked taste and a delighting humor. Agee wrote that much of the response to the film was “of interest, but chiefly as a definitive measure of the difference between the thing a man of genius puts before the world and the things the world is equipped to see in it” (294). Agee argued that the story of the French clerk who lost his job, Henri Verdoux, and who took to polygamous marriages to wealthy women he killed in order to support his unknowing wife and son, possessed, indeed, many of the qualities the critics said it lacked. Agee wrote that the film is not funny “unless you have an eye and mind for the far from cliché matters which can be probed and illuminated through poetically parodied cliché; an appetite for cold nihilistic irony; respect for an artist who subdues most of his outrageous fun to the grim central spirit of his work” (294). Agee accused condemning critics of lacking moral perception, and Agee said the film was in bad taste only if death is, and that Chaplin had written a distinguished screenplay exceeded only by his visual imagination, creating a world that blended the real and the imaginary, and creating characters as individuals and social types, and that Chaplin had cast the film well and directed his cast beautifully, brilliantly. That is a remarkable defense: and Agee seems heroic when one knows that it was only the beginning of his defense of Chaplin’s film.
“Chaplin’s performance as Verdoux is the best piece of playing I have ever seen: here, I cannot even specify the dozen or so close-ups each so great and so finely related and timed that withdrawn and linked in series they are like the notes of a slow, magnificent, and terrifying song, which the rest of the film serves as an accompaniment,” James Agee began the second part of his commentary on the film Monsieur Verdoux, which Agee considered Chaplin’s most ambitious film, in the June 14, 1947 issue of The Nation, reprinted in the Library of America anthology of Agee’s work (296-297). Yet, Agee was not blind to aspects of the film that even he was willing to call weaknesses. Agee said that “because I love and revere the film as deeply as any I have seen, and believe that it is high among the great works of this century, I wish I might discuss at proper length its weaknesses as a work of art and of moral understanding” (297). In considering the film’s weaknesses, Agee will discuss the extent to which an individual is responsible for his own fate, and the limits of society’s power, but first he argues for the film’s strengths. Survival in the modern world is Chaplin’s theme, wrote Agee, noting that Europeans more than Americans are aware of the relevance of such a theme. Agee compares Chaplin’s new character to his old one: “The tramp is the free soul intact in its gallantry, innocence, eagerness for love, ridiculousness, and sorrow; we recognize in him much that is dear to us in ourselves. Verdoux is so much nearer and darker that we can hardly bear to recognize ourselves in him. He is the committed, dedicated soul, and this soul is not intact: we watch its death agonies. And this tragic process is only the more dreadful because it is depicted not gravely but briskly, with a cold savage gaiety; the self-destroying soul is rarely aware of its own predicament” (297-298). Such lyricism in argument! While I recognize the truth of what Agee observes, I have a small reservation about some of his language—if the twentieth century is modern, what will eras far advanced in the future, say in two-hundred years, be called if the world still exists with superb and even better technology and more knowledge? And the (poetic) idea that darkness is dangerous and difficult and even damning is an idea I accept as rhetoric (and use as rhetoric), but find a problem when it becomes part of a general attitude at walk in the world, such as when dark-skinned people are seen as emblems of a dark existence. Beyond that quibbling, I find that Agee, following Chaplin, has exactly named a moral and social problem that has resonance today, decades after the film Monsieur Verdoux was made, for there are many people in American prisons, more than two million, and most of them were poor; and I have just read an article that states that American prisons add one-thousand new inmates every week. What choices did they have, what pressures, and with what ignorance and solitude did they face them?
Agee also argues that the film Monsieur Verdoux is a metaphor for war, with the home as a symbol for nation, and Verdoux as soldier and war criminal. And that the film is “even more remarkable and fascinating as a study of the relationship between ends and means, a metaphor for the modern personality— that is, a typical ‘responsible’ personality reacting to contemporary pressures according to the logic of contemporary ethics” (298). It is possible to think that both Chaplin and Agee have entered the realm of philosophy, of articulating complexity, of revealing and testing knowledge and propositions, out of a love of humanity and the resources and tools of humanity—art and wisdom. Agee points out a moral paradox: and that is in order to protect “in such a world as this those aspects of the personality which are best and dearest to one, it is necessary to exercise all that is worst in one; and that it is impossible to do this effectively if one communicates honestly with one’s best” (298). Men treated rudely, and without justice, take the treatment as a lesson; and the moral and practical sacrifices made for home, for nation, sacrifices that are also transgressions against ideals, civil society, and self, destroy the spirit of home and nation.
By the time of James Agee’s June 21, 1947 comment in The Nation on the film Monsieur Verdoux, the film had been withdrawn with plans for a new opening with new publicity. Agee continued his detailed exploration of the film, remarking that Verdoux, his wife, and son can be seen as one personality suffering the same moral poison begun in desperation and distrust, and that when mother and son die, Verdoux’s reason for his murders no longer exists. Verdoux can allow himself to be arrested. Finally, Agee articulated his own firm sense of fault in Chaplin’s film, when he asks about the inevitability of Verdoux’s choice to murder. Agee says, “Verdoux, to be sure, is grandly in character in holding ‘society’ accountable and in absolving the individual; but is this all that Chaplin knows? If so, he is surely a victim and dupe of evil as Verdoux or the civilization he excoriates, and all that goes deeper in the film is achieved intuitively, as if in a kind of waking dream. If he knows better, then he is gravely at fault, as artist and moralist, in making clear no more than he does, still worse in tossing the mass-audience so cynical and misleading a sop; and one of the purest and most courageous works I know of is, at its climax, pure and courageous only against the enemy, not in the face of the truth. For the answers to why and how criminality can be avoided, we can look inward more profitably than at the film; for all that is suggested in the film is operant in each of us. If Chaplin had illuminated these bottom causes more brightly than we can see them in ourselves, Verdoux would be a still greater work than it is” (302-303). That, which seems a call for self-criticism and philosophy, is a stunning qualification—and that it comes so obviously out of love and respect is admirable and humbling. Agee says that Chaplin’s film suggests, without specifying, an answer: “Good and evil are inextricable, Verdoux insists. But his fatal mistake was in trying to keep them apart” (303). (Chaplin had said something similar when discussing in interview his film Public Opinion.) With such a meaning as the indivisibility of good and evil, Chaplin and Agee see beyond the insistence on conflict—between good and bad, light and darkness; the conflict of real and symbolic opposites—on which much of western art and society rests. If Verdoux had accepted both his love for his family and his poverty, and shared the fact of his poverty with his family, and if they had borne the difficulties together, no murder would have been necessary.
Chaplin and Agee: The Untold Story of The Tramp, The Writer, and The Lost Screenplay
Controversies and Conclusions
I vaguely remember Ed Sullivan as the presenter of popular performers such as Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones on his decades-ago television show, so I was surprised to learn about his violent nature and his destructive impact on Charlie Chaplin’s public reputation and career, things I read of in John Wranovics’s Chaplin and Agee (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2005). Ed Sullivan, years before he came to my attention, had been a sports writer then a gossip columnist, and after a disagreement with a fellow gossip scribe he threatened the man, Louis Sobol—“I’ll rip your cock off, you little bastard”—and Sullivan was seen dunking the head of writer Walter Winchell into a urinal, which Sullivan continued to flush (2). Sullivan was antagonized by more than professional rivalry. He also hated communism, and disliked Chaplin, who, though not on record as a communist, had been associated with various social causes. Chaplin’s private life, his relationships with women, had received scorn, and Sullivan, a Catholic, was influenced, informed, by the conservative politics of Bishop Fulton Sheen and Cardinal Francis Spellman. “As a gossip columnist, Sullivan knew as well as anyone that the greatest damage to a man’s life could be effected through the destruction of his reputation. Reputation was, after all, his stock in trade. And the reputation of Chaplin, arguably the most famous man in the world, made one hell of a target,” writes John Wranovics in his book Chaplin and Agee (3). Before Chaplin arrived in New York in 1947 for the premiere of the film Monsieur Verdoux, which associates and friends assured Chaplin had moral force, Sullivan announced Chaplin’s press conference in Sullivan’s column, and suggested a list of questions Chaplin should be asked about his war time passivity, about his not entertaining American troops or visiting the wounded; and whether Chaplin preferred the government and society of Russia to the United States; and why Chaplin had not become an American citizen. That assaultive press conference, which many writers attended and which was presented in Charlie Chaplin: Interviews, and in which James Agee participated, defending Chaplin with a question, affected the reception given to Chaplin and his film. Agee was someone fighting history. The interrogation of Charlie Chaplin, and the querulous response to his film, were part of a conservative and fearful era in American life, one that encouraged the suspicious and the vindictive.
“It is time and past time to add my own useless comments to all those which have been provoked by the recent relationships between Congress and Hollywood and by the Catholic Veterans’ holy war against Chaplin. But I can say very little,” wrote James Agee in the December 27, 1947 issue of The Nation (Film Writing and Selected Journalism, Library of America, 2005; 329). Agee acknowledges the age of persecution in which he writes, mentioning ten men recently called before Congress and cited for contempt. “I believe that a democracy which cannot contain all its enemies, of whatever kind or virulence, is finished as a democracy. I believe that a vigorous and genuine enough democracy could do so. But I see no reason to believe that this democracy is vigorous or genuine enough by a good deal, or to hope that it can become so; nor am I thoroughly convinced that such a democracy can ever exist except in the most generous and sanguine imaginations. It seems to me that the mere conception of a vigorous and genuine democracy, to say nothing embarrassing about its successful practice, depends on a capacity for faith in human beings so strong that on its basis one can dare to assume that goodness and intelligence will generally prevail over stupidity and evil” (329-330), Agee wrote; and these were scathing, harsh words from a man bred in a good family, educated at Harvard, and established in some of his country’s most important institutions, such as Time magazine and The Nation. Chaplin’s treatment, and that of other men suspected of social or political subversion, was merely a symptom of a great failure of faith and imagination, of civic life and ideas, and even of morality and spirituality. Agee continued to be a champion of Chaplin’s work in an early January 1948 Nation survey of films, calling Monsieur Verdoux “not the best of Chaplin’s films, but it is the most endlessly interesting. Beside it every movie since Zero to Modern Times is so much child’s play” (332). James Agee, who admired David W. Griffith and John Huston, ranked Chaplin in the September 18, 1950 Life magazine as one of the masters of the best work done in film, naming also Dovzhenko, Eisenstein, Griffith, and Jean Vigo (380).
It may be telling to take a few steps away from that and note that Agee seems to have first written about Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux not in The Nation, but in Time magazine, on May 5, 1947 (Film Writing and Selected Journalism; 424-426). The differences in what he wrote and how in the two publications may say something about American audiences. James Agee’s Time report is a brisk, short summary of the film’s story, the attitudes on view, the performances, and some of the film’s underlying philosophy—moral and public concerns—while acknowledging the difficulties of the subject and treatment for many, and saluting the moral and artistic challenges Chaplin faced. “Monsieur Verdoux has serious shortcomings, both as popular entertainment and as a work of art. But whatever its shortcomings, it is one of the most notable films in years,” Agee writes (425). Agee’s Time article is an accounting of facts, and an expression of judgment, without the poetry or philosophy Agee brought to his exploration of the work in The Nation. For Time, Agee seemed to be writing for people with settled views, and for The Nation for people whose views could be changed. Agee seems to have gone from writing for an establishment, for a country that existed, to writing for individuals who might come to form a community. One piece is news, the other exploration. Agee’s objectivity can seem a little chilling when he says, “Chaplin overexerts, and apparently overestimates, a writing talent which, though vigorous and unconventional, weighs light beside his acting gifts. As a result, a good deal of the verbal and philosophic straining seems inadequate, muddled and highly arguable—too highbrow for general audiences, and too naïve for the highbrows” (426). I want to be clear—Agee does not contradict himself, does not lie, and does not betray Chaplin, but he does not present his full experience or testimony in the earlier Time piece, which he does conclude by saying, “Working with a new character, and adapting his old, mute artfulness to a medium new and basically hostile to him, Chaplin still has his sure virtuosity; his is one of the most beautiful single performances ever put on film” (426). What I am suggesting is something about the way power works, the assumptions and the complicity it insists on: those are the assumptions that Chaplin and Agee contested in their most brave, intelligent, and resonant work.
Monsieur Verdoux, after its mid-year withdrawal, opened again with a premiere in September 1947 in Washington, D.C., and Chaplin invited the House Un-American Activities Committee to attend, according to John Wranovics’s Chaplin and Agee (53-54). The new publicity for the film was bold: “Chaplin Changes. Can You?” In December of the same year, The National Board of Review chose Monsieur Verdoux as the best picture of the year (54). Charlie Chaplin was nominated for best original screenplay for Monsieur Verdoux in 1948 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Oscars (57-58).
In 1958, the French film publication Cahiers du Cinema named Monsieur Verdoux one of the greatest films of all time, as noted in a summer 1963 issue of Film Quarterly by film critic Andrew Sarris. In various parts of the United States the 1947 film Monsieur Verdoux had been the subject of protests, and was banned in Memphis, according to The New York Times’s Bosley Crowther in a July 4,1964 comment on the film’s rare screening in Manhattan, seventeen years after its premiere. Crowther, once referred to by Pauline Kael as the Times’s colossus (it was not intended as a compliment), suggests the film’s appeal and indicates one of its themes is social hypocrisy: “Monsieur Verdoux is an engrossingly wry and paradoxical film, screamingly funny in places, sentimental in others, sometimes slow and devoted to an unusually serious and sobering argument. This is that the individual murderer—‘the small businessman in murder,’ as the protagonist says—is regarded as a criminal, but the big businessman, the munitions manufacturer, and the professional soldiers who contribute to murder on a mass scale are given great honors and monetary rewards.” Pauline Kael herself said that she thought James Agee, like Robert Warshow, had esteemed the film for Chaplin’s good intentions. Dwight MacDonald, who wrote about the film in Esquire, according to John Wranovics’s Chaplin and Agee, made the same assessment as Kael of Agee’s response to the film (though it seems to me that Agee, in The Nation, was writing not only film criticism but film interpretation—and the believability and strength of his arguments, then, must be considered). The Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr called Monsieur Verdoux a masterpiece. Martin Scorsese, appearing in film scholar Richard Schickel’s 2003 documentary on Charlie Chaplin, Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, described Monsieur Verdoux as beautiful and ugly, full of elegant, eloquent, and horrendous behavior. Chaplin’s children, and Claire Bloom (Limelight’s dancer), Marcel Marceau, and Robert Downey Jr., who starred in a 1992 biographical movie as Chaplin, and Johnny Depp, Woody Allen, and writer David Thomson were also featured in Schickel’s documentary, as was Andrew Sarris. Andrew Sarris, who wrote decades ago that the perspective of the creator and the critic are different—one brings together elements to form a complete vision, the other attempts to see each element within that vision—also believed that knowledge of all a director’s works illuminates a single work; and it was Sarris who once said it could be argued that Chaplin was cinema’s most important artist.
The book Chaplin and Agee, by John Wranovics, is most noteworthy for chronicling the significant friendship that developed between Charlie Chaplin and James Agee after Agee’s published defense of Monsieur Verdoux, and for the book’s inclusion of the story-screenplay Agee wrote for Chaplin and his little tramp character about the world after nuclear devastation. Chaplin and Agee seems a well-researched work, rooted in curiosity about and high regard for its subjects, and while the biographies of both men can be glimpsed in the book, the book is most focused on particular events in their lives and relationship. However, doing a lot of research does not mean that each item presented as a fact or sound idea will be; for instance, while Wranovics’s Chaplin and Agee states on page 60 that the wedding of James Agee and his third wife Mia Fritsch, with whom he had two daughters and a son, was in 1945, the life chronology in Agee’s Library of America film anthology says on page 713 the wedding was in 1944. (Agee also had a son with a previous wife, his second wife Alma Mailman, and no children with first wife Olivia Saunders.) Wranovics also states that Monsieur Verdoux was reissued in the United States for the first time in 1965 (on page 50), but there’s a Bosley Crowther New York Times review of a 1964 Manhattan run of the film.
Chaplin and Agee had been love’s labor for its author, a Boston Book Review contributor and a married father with two children, John Wranovics, who was introduced when a boy to James Agee’s work through his own father, a professor of rhetoric for the University of California at Berkeley, according to Julie Nostrand writing in a local California paper, the Pleasanton Weekly (“The Scholar and the Screenwriter,” October 14, 2005). Wranovics planned a college thesis on the editing of Agee’s A Death in the Family, interested in the deletion of several of Agee’s chapters before publication, and while doing research found reference to an Agee screenplay for Chaplin’s little tramp, and he began to investigate, says Julie Nostrand. Wranovics found and transcribed a hand-written script with missing pages at the University of Texas at Austin, but when he asked the Agee Trust for permission to go further they refused him and others access to the papers. Fifteen years later, in 2001, someone from the Agee Trust called Wranovics and asked him if he was still interested in the project—and Wranovics continued his research, discovering the correspondence between Agee and Chaplin and contacting the Chaplin family, who provided Wranovics with a complete copy of the script. Wranovics would like to see the script made into a film, but who, but Chaplin, could play the little tramp?
Of course, it has been made obvious that not everyone sees Chaplin, Agee, or their works as having transcendent or unquestionable value; and there are more recent reminders of that. I was surprised to read a crudely skeptical commentary on Wranovics’s Chaplin and Agee, done around June 10, 2005 and still available online on the web pages of Bookreporter.com as of late May 2006 when I saw it, a commentary that stated about Monsieur Verdoux, “The movie—Chaplin’s second talking picture, after a career making silent films—is little-known or remembered today. It’s a dark comedy where he plays a charming serial killer—not the sort of thing that would resonate with postwar audiences. It is an utterly unimportant film, except to the extent that it is discussed here, and that is only because of its effect on novelist and film critic James Agee.” If that is not bad enough, the reviewer first damns Agee’s screenplay by saying, “In fact, the screenplay is quite near unreadable, with great masses of impenetrable stream-of-consciousness dreck and some ham-handed political parody. What’s fascinating is the length that Agee went to bring it to Chaplin’s attention. (Chaplin, reasonably enough, seems never to have given it any serious consideration.),” and the reviewer then challenges Agee’s motives as a critic:
“What Agee did, in his role as a film critic, is remarkable. He wrote his initial review of Monsieur Verdoux for Time magazine, and it was fairly noncommittal and unenthusiastic. But in The Nation, he changed his tune sharply, arguing in three different installments that Monsieur Verdoux was the best movie of the year and one of the best that he had ever seen. The Nation reviews are treated uncritically by Wranovics, as evidence of Agee’s respect for Chaplin. But seen from a reviewer’s perspective, especially given that this reviewer was trying to sell Chaplin a screenplay, they are embarrassing at best, horrifying at worst. Wranovics obviously admires Agee, even as he chronicles his slow descent into an alcoholic stupor. But Chaplin and Agee perhaps ought to be a bit more skeptical about Agee’s motives than it is.”
I do not know the reviewer’s oeuvre or his personality. He may be more respectable and valuable than I suspect. His brief biography at the end of his Chaplin and Agee review says that he comments on film. (Seeing that I read one of his film reviews.) His sentences suggest to me that it is unlikely his work can be positively distinguished; and that, more likely, he is given to stupidity and vulgarity. He seems not to have understood the ideas or spiritual concerns expressed by James Agee. He seems ignorant of the other responses to Monsieur Verdoux—such as those of The National Board of Review, Cahiers du Cinema, the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr, or even Martin Scorsese. (The dismissive reviewer does not have to agree with positive views of the film—but to claim the film is unimportant, when others say it is, seems a fault of consciousness. Many people do not like the content of Birth of a Nation, but respect its techniques and its place in film history.) One must offer argument and proof for accusation and dissent. The untrusting and untrustworthy reviewer seems to be one of those people who has strong responses and thinks that those are enough to make a writer or a critic—and he is wrong. He seems to lack imagination, intellectual range, spiritual awareness, and taste. I have hesitated to give his name—Curtis Edmonds. I cite his work not out of malice, pleasure, or respect, but because I think that it is important to note not only that opinions about significant works and people differ through time but that inclinations toward stupidity and vulgarity are as indestructible, as timeless, as quests for excellence, grace, and illumination.
When reviewing the Palgrave/Macmillan publication Chaplin and Agee for The New York Times (June 12, 2005), William Georgiades had written that, “Wranovics, a marketing executive and an independent scholar, has done his research, and in his first book he writes with a breathless enthusiasm that’s both winning and suitable to his subjects’ frenetic lives.” Georgiades, who liked Agee’s little tramp screenplay, observed, “Agee cared less about commercial gain than about making an important film with one of his childhood idols.” (Agee offered to give up all rights to the profits, and even to the ideas, in a letter Chaplin and Agee reprints on page 18.) Georgiades found Chaplin and Agee’s recording of aspects of Agee’s life sometimes more distinctive than details of Chaplin’s. Georgiades noted, “Agee went on to work in Hollywood with, among others, John Huston—though he had a near-fatal heart attack while collaborating on The African Queen. He traded his life in Greenwich Village for a series of Hollywood salons featuring a staggering array of European writers and intellectuals, including Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann. On the West Coast he grew closer to Chaplin; the deepening of their friendship ‘coincided with a narrowing of the comedian’s social circle,’ as the House Committee on Un-American Activities closed in on Chaplin and friends stepped away. Agee also made copious notes for Chaplin on his new film, Limelight.”
Limelight, about an old once-famous comedian and a crippled and unhappy ballet dancer whose suicide he interrupts, is a favorite Chaplin film of many, though it was years before it was much available. In the film the comedian promises to help the dancer, and goes back himself to performing—and he reunites with his partner, played by Buster Keaton. “It is widely believed that it was encouragement from Agee that led Chaplin to offer Buster Keaton a role in Limelight; it was the first and only time that the two great silent comedians would appear on screen together,” writes John Wranovics in Chaplin and Agee (120). John Wranovics adds that James Agee brought his wife Mia to watch the two comedians work. A photograph of James Agee looking down, listening, thoughtful, and amused, at the shorter Chaplin, in a suit and hat, on the set of Chaplin’s film Limelight, on page 121 of Chaplin and Agee, is one of the happiest photos I have seen of James Agee, whose drinking and smoking would lead, commentators have concluded, to an early death. Agee watched Chaplin make Limelight, which Chaplin wanted to open first in Europe, and in September 1952 Chaplin and his family left America for that purpose, and soon it was announced that the “Attorney General of the United States James P. McGranery had rescinded Chaplin’s reentry permit” (126). Chaplin, speaking from France, said, “I am not political. I have never been political. I don’t want to create any revolutions. I just want to create a few more films…I have never been a super-patriot. I think super-patriotism leads to Hitlerism and we have had our lesson from that. I assume that in a democracy one has a right to a private opinion.” (126-127). What was Chaplin charged with? Nothing much. McGranery announced that Chaplin had made “sneering references” regarding a children’s benefit, and that it was thought Chaplin had low regard for “the high estate of womanhood,” suggesting his moral delinquency (127). According to Chaplin’s F.B.I. files, as Wranovics reports in a preceding chapter of his book, Chaplin had lent a copy of his film City Lights for a benefit to the John Dewey-influenced progressive school his daughter Geraldine attended, and Chaplin appeared there at the Westland School benefit, and was written about by the Daily People’s World, which noted that Chaplin received an ovation, and the publication pointed out the mockery of authority in Charlie Chaplin’s films, something the publication said needed no explaining to the school’s audience (74-77). The only reason the episode of the government’s charges, which defy logic and sense, is believable is because it happened; and because such slanders—confusing moral convention, prejudice, and rumor with character and the practice of law and execution of justice—still produce effects. An editorial in a December 1952 Life magazine, under Henry Luce, made a distinction between a plan to overthrow the government and heresy, recounts Chaplin and Agee (127). Chaplin, who would not submit to persecution, made Switzerland his home.“I am so glad to be out of that stink-pot country of yours,” wrote Chaplin to Agee in December 1953, in one of the few letters that Chaplin wrote anyone (Chaplin and Agee; 135). James Agee had grown up with Charlie Chaplin’s work, and he had rediscovered the importance of that work in Chaplin’s hour of need, and Agee celebrated and shared that discovery of worth, setting memory against forgetting, and respect against rage. Chaplin appreciated that and had appreciation for Agee’s own work, replying to Agee’s qualification of one of Agee’s scripts by writing, “As for your new script being almost poetry I don’t think you could write anything without it having that flavour. So let us have more of it” (136). Charlie Chaplin invited James Agee to visit him in Switzerland.
The book Chaplin and Agee is divided into two parts, the first about James Agee and his relationship to Chaplin’s work and to Charlie Chaplin, with accounts of their lives together and apart; and the second part of the book is a publication of Agee’s manuscript, called in the book The Tramp’s New World, followed by notes and an index for all of Chaplin and Agee.
There are welcoming quotes from film critics David Sterritt (The Christian Science Monitor) and J. Hoberman (The Village Voice) about Wranovics’s work on the back cover of Chaplin and Agee, with Sterritt adding, “The screenplay itself is a riveting document of progressive 20th-century thought.” William Georgiades concludes his New York Times evaluative review of Chaplin and Agee with a commentary about James Agee’s screenplay, The Tramp’s New World, stating “The screenplay for Chaplin closes out this meditation on friendship and American culture and politics in the 1940’s and 1950’s. It is so rich that it brings to mind Huston’s admonition to Agee, captured by Lillian Ross in her book Picture, when the two were working on The African Queen: ‘Oh, Christ, Jim. Tell me something I can understand. This isn’t like a novel. This is a screenplay.’ Happily for us, in this case Agee didn’t take his advice.”
One can read the twentieth century in Charlie Chaplin: Interviews, and watch films of ideas as well as imagery roll by in James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism, and know more intimately the work lives and the relationship of two gifted, flawed, irreplaceable men through Chaplin and Agee, men whose gifts make their flaws inconsequential—for us. Their flaws do not harm us, and could never have harmed anyone in the way society or government can—although it is always easier, and safer, for individuals to look at the dangers other individuals embody rather than the dangers of social systems. I cannot help but think of Charlie Chaplin’s saying in 1957 to Ella Winter, on page 121, in Kevin Hayes’s Charlie Chaplin: Interviews, “As for politics, I’m an anarchist. I hate governments and rules and—fetters…Can’t stand caged animals…People must be free.” I am still reading James Wranovics’s Chaplin and Agee as I write these words, happy to seem to have two distinguished men breathing again, so I cannot offer a final statement about the book or Agee’s The Tramp’s New World—which seems, ah, complex, dark, and dense. James Agee’s screenplay outline of basic ideas makes it clear, if there were any doubt, that Agee’s sense of the difficulties of modern life found a reflection in Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux, as it did sometimes in the works of other artists, a reflection that liberated and troubled Agee and inspired his remarkable interpretation of Monsieur Verdoux in The Nation and gave Agee a renewed sense that his little tramp screenplay might be of interest to Chaplin. Much of the screenplay presented in Chaplin and Agee seems to have the detail of a poetic novel, with Agee’s descriptions evocative of intricate paintings, but some of Agee’s directions are so specific that it is hard to know what Chaplin would be left to do as a director, while other scenes name an occurrence without specifying how it would come about. In one scene, the lead character, the little fellow, enters a bedroom in which there are male and female nightclothes spread out, suggesting intimacy and eroticism, while the man and woman they belong to are presumably dead, something that inspires melancholy tenderness (172). Agee, at times, quotes from, or gestures toward, Chaplin’s previous work The Kid (179). The Agee little tramp scenario also involves scientists who have a base underground, and their attempts to perform experiments on, and spy on, the little fellow and the other survivors they find (186-194 and 204), something that reminded me of the film 12 Monkeys and a few other futurist tales. Could Chaplin have made Agee’s vision into a film? Possibly; probably not. Chaplin, probably, had grown too different—in body and in spirit—to portray the little fellow by the time he received Agee’s manuscript after the making of Monsieur Verdoux (in Limelight, the film that came after Verdoux, Chaplin is perceptibly old, with less effervescent spirit). I am still reading, and I would rather continue reading and enjoy the return of Charlie Chaplin and James Agee than rush to a final judgment.