Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Chaplin, by Simon Louvish

Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey, by Simon Louvish. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2009. Hardcover. $27.99. 412pp. ISBN 987-0-312-58169-5.

Do we really need another book about Charlie Chaplin? Well, yes, we do, as long as it’s this one. Simon Louvish, author of books on the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Laurel & Hardy, Mae West, Mack Sennett, and Cecil B. DeMille (not that funny, in my opinion) knows a thing or two about big screen comedy.1

What makes Louvish’s book work for me is his investigation of Chaplin’s creative methods in crafting his features. Chaplin was in the habit of writing a first draft of his films as stage plays, not screenplays, with everyone exiting left and right and the curtain coming up and down. He filled these scripts with backstory and florid asides on “life,” “woman,” and “destiny,” among other things, displaying that world-weary ennui that he always associated with “class.” Louvish gives us the following one-liners, Chaplinesque if not downright Schopenhauerian2 in tone, from the original script for A Woman of Paris, the film Chaplin created in an attempt to make Edna Purviance a star in her own right:

King ‘Jazz’ promises that brand of joy and laughter that will banish worry if only for a moment

Innocent intentions often give birth to dangerous results — a woman may love her lover but mostly she loves, love

The force is yet to be found that will successfully combat the call of youth and the repression of nature makes its conquest all the more inevitable

One of her greatest charms, inconsistency, has always been with woman whose brain will seldom sit in agreement with her heart

In his script for The Great Dictator Chaplin imagined an elaborate “contemporary” theatrical production, something we might imagine Orson Welles putting together for Julius Caesar or Macbeth: “For all acts one of the stage boxes will be outfitted like a radio station. In it will sit the Commentator who bridges the action as it flows from scene to scene, and from year to year. His voice will be heard coming over a loudspeaker at the rear of the balcony.”

Louvish’s book is half discussion of Chaplin’s films and half biography. I think he would have been well advised to skip the biography, because he relies, for the most part, on “David Robinson’s magisterial tome, Chaplin: His Life and Art.” Robinson’s book is not uncritical, but I much prefer Joyce Milton’s Tramp. Robinson is far too willing to take Chaplin at his own estimation — for example, calling Chaplin’s marriage to Oona O’Neill a “perfect love affair.” I can see why a man would think that marrying a beautiful young woman 36 years his junior would be a “perfect love affair,” but Milton, being a chick and all, somehow thinks that marrying a guy 36 years her senior might be a little, you know, gross. He’s 60 and you’re 24? Hey, sounds like a party!

Both Robinson and Louvish pooh-pooh the idea that Chaplin was involved in the mysterious death of film producer Thomas Ince aboard the yacht of William Randolph Hearst. Louvish goes so far as to say that “Recent research suggests that the original finding of death by heart attack was correct,” without bothering to identify the “recent research” or to explain how it could “suggest” that Ince died of a heart attack.3

To his credit, Louvish does not let Chaplin get away with his too cute “not a Communist but a pro-Communist” hypocrisy:

In retrospect, with the hindsight of history, Chaplin’s choices, as were those of thousands of peace-oriented liberals in America and western Europe at the time, were deeply flawed. When one reads the histories of American Communists such as Paul Robeson one can sense the false hope of the embrace of a supposedly anti-racialist, anti-capitalist social alternative in the world shaped by the Depression and Fascism, but one cannot fail to cringe at his whole-hearted support of Stalin’s regime. It is not enough to say that the well-meaning were fooled, for the facts were available for those who took the trouble to find out. As an intellectual, one has to make an effort to be fooled, as well as to avoid foolishness. Chaplin’s willed ignorance was one with all those who wished to see, and were encouraged to make a clear-cut distinction between Good and Evil.

I don’t know if this is the “first” Chaplin book anyone should read, but on the other hand, why not? You’ve got to start somewhere.

Afterword

I’ve written a lot about Charlie for Bright Lights. See my author page for details.

  1. Louvish has also writen a lot of fiction, including Your Monkey’s Shmuck. Already, I’m laughing! []
  2. Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Understanding was Chaplin’s bible, more or less. He read from it at random all his life, though never straight through, which probably would have irritated the easily irritated German. Schopenhauer maintained that his masterpiece was the presentation of a single idea and had to be read twice in its entirety to be understood at all. Schopenhauer, like a lot of philosophers, had serious mommy problems (she was a well-known hostess; he was a near recluse for most of his life, despite a few early love affairs), and his sardonic obsession with the supposed short-comings of le femme spoke directly to Chaplin’s own neuroses. I am definitely not a Schopenhauer guy, but it’s interesting to note that he had a strong influence on fellow ascetics like Friedrich Nietzsche, George Bernard Shaw, and Ludwig Wittgenstein as well as skirt-chasers like Charlie and German composer Richard Wagner. []
  3. As Milton points out in Tramp, what makes the Ince “case” suspicious is not the bare facts but the endless lies, non-denials, and evasions uttered by people like Marion Davies (Hearst’s mistress, who was, of course, onboard the yacht), Adela Rogers St. John (one of Hearst’s star reporters/apologists), Ince’s wife Nell, and Chaplin himself. []