“Now, Goliath was a big man.”
With the release of The Kid in 1921, Charlie Chaplin had fulfilled his dream of making a full-length comedy that would be recognized as a “great film,” that would stand in comparison with D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation,1 and that would solidify his status as one of the great popular artists of the modern age.
Chaplin’s personal life, on the other hand, formed a near-perfect opposite to this triumph. Several years earlier, his obsession with young girls had gotten him trapped into marriage with the 16-year-old Mildred Harris, when she claimed that he had gotten her pregnant. In fact, Mildred wasn’t pregnant when she and Charlie married, but she was pregnant shortly thereafter. When their son, Charles Chaplin, Jr., was born dead, Chaplin lost all interest in Mildred. She somehow convinced herself that having children would revive the marriage. Since Chaplin would no longer sleep with her, she would adopt one. Her very public efforts to adopt a child infuriated and humiliated Chaplin, who, given the perversities of human nature, naturally loathed the young woman whose life he had more or less ruined.2
Chaplin ultimately managed to obtain a divorce from Mildred — big stars, then as now, usually manage to get their way — but his personal life scarcely improved. He still had a strong emotional commitment to Edna Purviance — she had been there with him in the beginning — but he clearly did not want to marry her. He continued to be involved with actress Florence Dershon, who shuttled back and forth between Charlie in LA and Chaplin’s friend Max Eastman in New York, an awkward, long-distance ménage á trois that was only resolved by Dershon’s suicide.3 He also had romances with Claire Sheridan — a sculptor who was related to Winston Churchill and who had hung with Lenin — legendary actress Pola Negri,4 and legendary temptress Peggy Hopkins Joyce.5 None of these relationships amounted to much, perhaps because Chaplin was nursing a secret crush for 12-year-old Lita Grey, the “naughty” angel whom he kisses in the dream sequence that concludes The Kid, and who would ultimately become his second wife.
Despite the artistic heights he had achieved with The Kid, and despite the chasm of confusion that was his personal life, Chaplin still had a job to do — the contract with First National for three more shorts. Unsurprisingly, he was not interested in creating another masterpiece for the First National moneymen, but the three films he did turn out, The Idle Class, Pay Day, and The Pilgrim, while “minor” Chaplin, are consistently well-made and funny and show us, for the last time, Chaplin when he isn’t swinging for the fences.
The Idle Class and Pay Day
The Idle Class begins in a manner befitting its name, with scenes from the class struggle. A deluxe passenger train pulls in at Miami for “the summer season,”6 discharging a collection of upper-class twits, all with clubs with them, ready to hit the links. Edna appears among the twits, a regal figure in a full-length mink, accompanied by two young women, apparently her daughters.7 Once the swells have descended, Charlie emerges,8 climbing from the undercarriage of one of the cars, also ready for the season, because he’s got his clubs with him too.
Once everyone’s disembarked, we cut to the hotel, where we meet Edna’s husband, also played by Charlie, reading a telegram from Edna, threatening to leave him if he doesn’t lay off the booze, a prospect that, naturally, drives him to drink.
Rich Charlie’s such a twit that he goes down to the lobby sans trousers, not quite making it back in time to avoid Edna. His suspicious behavior convinces her that he’s back on the bottle (in fact, he never left), so she takes “separate rooms.”
While Rich Charlie drinks, the Tramp hits the links, running afoul of both Mack Swain and John Rand.9 Charlie and John become pals, despite the fact that Charlie steals John’s balls (and his cigarette case) and despite the fact that John absorbs a series of furious beatings from Mack that are rightfully Charlie’s. Later, the Tramp encounters Edna, out for a ride, and is naturally smitten.
Back at the hotel, Rich Charlie is pondering an invitation from Edna, saying that if he wants to try for a reconciliation, he should meet her at the costume ball that evening. His choice for a costume, a complete suit of armor, proves unfortunate when the visor on his helmet locks shut. Naturally, the Tramp arrives at the ball as well, and naturally Edna, looking like Marie Antoinette in the guise of a shepherdess, “surrenders,” to his amazement and delight.
But bright things must fall to ruin, it seems. Mack, arriving in highlander garb, is greeted as “father” by Edna, which does not seem that dangerous, but when Mack introduces the Tramp and Edna to another couple as “my daughter and her husband,” Charlie politely explains “Oh, no. We’re not married.”
Mack doesn’t think this is funny, leading to a wild pursuit that ultimately involves the other Charlie, not to mention the sight of an upended Mack’s mighty boxer’s. Once the Rich Charlie’s helmet comes off, the Tramp is dismissed. Edna, remorseful, sends Dad out to extend an apology, but Charlie, having had his fill of the Idle Class, gives the old man a boot in the backside of his kilt and flees down a Hollywood street lined with palms, ending the film just as he did in the good old days back at Keystone.
Chaplin dug even deeper into the music hall bag for the plot of Pay Day, which features Charlie as a construction worker. Mack is the foreman,10 looking naked without his bushy prop moustache, while Edna is his daughter. Charlie’s smitten once more, but his options are limited, because this time he’s married, to the massive, and massively intimidating, Phyllis Allen. There’s quite a bit of Maggie and Jiggs, Andy Capp-style humor between Charlie and Phyllis, which I find quite funny. At the end of the film, Charlie staggers home after a night on the town and is preparing to change into his nightclothes when the alarm clock rings. Instantly, he pretends to be just finishing getting dressed, slipping away to fall asleep in a bathtub filled with dirty clothes, which (of course) is also full of water. Making the best of a bad situation, he turns on the hot water and settles back for a little shuteye.
The Pilgrim, Chaplin’s last film for First National, is a little more expansive, a four-reeler that represents a reworking of the ideas that Chaplin had for “Life,” the feature he had wanted to make for Essanay way back in 1915.11 Charlie is a convict (“Slippery Elm”) just escaped from prison, who has stolen the clothes of a bathing minister (which could happen). He buys a ticket to Devil’s Gulch, Texas, where, coincidentally, the local congregation is expecting the arrival of a new minister, who, also coincidentally, has been delayed.
Charlie is welcomed with open arms by the senior minister Mack Swain, along with a congregation that, of course, includes Edna. According to Joyce Milton, in Tramp, her 1996 biography of Chaplin, Charlie intended to show the church in Devil’s Gulch struggling with a declining congregation. It seems the locals prefer good times to the gospel. As the new minister, Charlie sets out to fight fire with fire, installing roulette wheels and featuring sexy choir girls to lead the parishioners away from sin instead of towards it.
Unfortunately, the infamous Fatty Arbuckle rape case was underway, prompting Hollywood’s first great spasm of morality. Chaplin jettisoned the “new model” church plot, although he still exposes Mack as a secret tippler. The real set piece of the film is Charlie’s sermon on the subject of David and Goliath. In wonderful pantomime, Charlie shows us a prissy little David assaulting Goliath with his tiny sling. The giant, provoked rather than slain, promptly beheads the little snot. The congregation stares in horror, but a little boy in the front pew bursts into delighted applause. At last, some honest insight into how the world works! Reality, not myths! Right on, dude!
Charlie is installed at the home of “Mrs. Brown” and daughter Edna. At a “social” hosted by the trio, another little boy, “Dinky Dean” Riesner,12 shows up and proves to be a relentless terror, harassing Charlie and the other guests without mercy. Charlie has bigger problems than Dinky, however. He crosses paths with one of his old prison buddies, played by Dinky’s father Charles Riesner,13 who figures Charlie must be running some sort of hustle with the preacher thing and wants in on it. Charlie, of course, has fallen in love with Edna by this time and has turned his back on crime.
Riesner successfully invites himself into the Brown household and is even accepted as an overnight guest. He takes the opportunity to steal the mortgage money, despite the best efforts of Charlie, who takes off in hot pursuit. While Charlie’s gone, the sheriff shows up, bearing the bad news about Charlie — he’s an escaped con. Charlie’s cover is blown but he doesn’t know it. In a hurried and confused sequence, Charlie brings retrieves the cash from Riesner and returns it to Edna.14 Unfortunately, the sheriff is listening in. He allows Charlie a brief farewell to Edna, who is then taken away, he thinks, to prison. Instead, the sheriff, perhaps the only merciful lawman in the Chaplin œuvre, lets Charlie walk, but he had to do it south of the border. As Charlie steps into Mexico, a couple of bad guys start shooting at one another. He hops back into the U.S., but then, recalling the sheriff’s instructions, starts racing away, one foot on either side of the dividing line.
All three films are well-constructed and contain excellent scenes,15 but it’s easy to believe that Chaplin’s heart wasn’t in them. He didn’t have anything left to prove with the Tramp character, but what else was there? He toyed with abandoning the Tramp, and there is footage, available on the DVD The Unknown Chaplin, that shows him experimenting with another character, “the Professor,” a grifter quite similar to the character favored by W.C. Fields.16
Instead of pursuing another character, Chaplin took a break from acting entirely, directing Edna in A Woman of Paris,17 a remarkable gesture intended to establish her as a star in her own right. The picture obviously took off from the extravagant decadence of such films as Erich Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922)18 and the 1922 version of Camille with Rudolph Valentino and Alla Nazimova.19
A Woman of Paris
Edna is Marie St. Clair, a French country girl determined to see the bright lights of the City of Lights. When she meets with her lover Jean (Carl Miller), who dreams of being a painter, her suspicious father locks her out. Jean takes her home, but his father refuses to allow her to stay. Jean decides that the time to leave for the big city is now. They go to the train station. Jean leaves Marie there while he obtains a few possessions. But he returns to discover that his father has just succumbed to a fatal stroke. Jean is torn. Should he pursue his dream with Marie, or stay home to help Mother (Lydia Knott)? Marie calls. What’s keeping him? Something terrible has happened, he tells her. Hold on, I’ll explain!
The train arrives. Marie faces her destiny. She’s getting on that train, no matter what. She hangs up on Jean without waiting to hear his news.
Chaplin shoots these first few scenes in a heavily pictorial style, using darkened interiors and heavy shadows to conjure up images of a narrow, constricting rural life, dominated by bitter old folk. We never had any fun, and you won’t either! The rest of the film, of course, gives us lots of Paris luxury, but the flavor of the film is more conventional, with the focus on the action rather than a setting.
A year passes, and Marie is now the toast of the town, with tout le Paris at her feet. She’s the kept mistress of the infinitely fashionable Pierre Revel (Adolphe Menjou).20 We see them being decadent in a restaurant, eating truffles poached in champagne, a dish that doesn’t exist, apparently, along with a woodcock21 so overripe and gamy that it makes the chef preparing it gag.22 The next day Marie, hanging with gal pals Fifi (Betty Morrissey) and Paulette (Malvina Polo), learns that Pierre is getting married, to a wealthy heiress!23 Gee, he coulda told her, don’t ya think? But in Paris, to be cool is all. One is always amused, and one is always amusing. Of course, we can tell that not only is Marie seriously pissed, she’s actually hurt. When she talks with Pierre, he isn’t giving an inch. Why should it make any difference? And since he’s paying the bills, it’s not a good idea to kick too hard, is it?
That evening, Marie isn’t feeling too chipper. But while Marie mopes, Paris parties. Charlie takes us to the Latin Quarter, where a “wild” soiree is taking place, complete with a “wild” striptease. Of course, we don’t see much, but just the idea of a young woman being naked and unashamed in front of a bunch of people — oh, those Frenchies, eh? A third, unnamed gal-pal, present at the party, calls Marie with an invite, who decides, hey, what the hey, life’s too short. Put on your glad rags and have some fun!
Marie steps out, but when she gets to the address, she can’t find the party. Instead, she stumbles into a shabby flat inhabited by — Jean and his mom! Jean definitely has the starving artist thing down pat, at least the starving part, and, as a great lady, and for old times sake, Marie insists that Jean must paint her portrait.
Marie’s life is getting complicated. She’s pretending with Pierre, and with Jean. She dresses herself in an absurdly elegant gown for her portrait with Jean. Pierre runs into Jean at Marie’s flat and finds the whole thing trés amusant. “Oh, your painter! How droll!”
Marie’s life gets even tougher when she sneaks a peek at her portrait in progress. (Jean, like so many artists, won’t let her look at it until it’s finished.) What she sees is a shocker: Jean hasn’t painted her in fancy gown, but as she was when she ran off to Paris: young, frightened, brave, and alone. He’s never stopped thinking about her. He wants to marry her.
Such words aren’t meant for eavesdroppers, but unfortunately someone is eavesdropping — mama, back from the store. She lets Marie leave and then confronts Jean. How can he marry “that woman”? Poor mom! She’s losing the only man left in her life, and she fights back in the only way she knows how, fixing dinner for her son, who’s too upset to eat.
Marie’s upset too. Life with Pierre was complicated enough when he was getting married. Now she’s wondering if she should get married. Pierre, tootling away on a little saxophone,24 can’t stop chuckling. In a cheap bit, Marie tosses a pearl necklace out the window to show Pierre that she doesn’t care about the cash. Then when a bum picks it up she races out to retrieve it. Still, she tells Pierre that he’ll never see her again, and she heads off to tell Jean that she’s ready for true love.
Unfortunately, Jean just can’t stand up to mom. Yes, he asked Marie to marry him, but he didn’t mean it. It’s over. Unfortunately, this time Marie is eavesdropping, and when she hears Jean crack, well, it is over.
Marie, shattered, goes back to Pierre, who is delighted to see that she’s come to her senses. They head off to fancy club, whose lobby has a life-size nude as the centerpiece of a large fountain, presiding over the festivities like the Eternal Feminine. Jean, packing a six-shooter, tracks them down. Pierre, ever the gentleman, invites Jean to sit at their table, but Jean proves an indifferent conversationalist and is asked to leave. Bitter and furious, he shoots himself at the base of the fountain. A huge crowd rushes to and fro around the fountain, and above it all we can see the head and torso of the statue.
Jean’s body is returned to his flat. Mom mourns over the body of her son, while the portrait of Marie looms over them both. Mom takes Jean’s gun and heads out to do what Jean should have done. But when she gets to Marie’s flat she learns that Marie has left to visit her.
Mom returns to find Marie desperately weeping over Jean’s body. Mom watches and then extends her hand to Marie. They bond over the death of the man they both loved. We jump forward in time, and, after a bit of cutsyness, we discover that we’re back in rural France, in a humble house that mom and Marie operate for orphans. As they’re setting down to lunch, they discover they’re out of milk. Marie heads out for a refill, apparently from a cow down the road. One of the orphans chases after her. A polished limo roars past. Pierre and another boulevardier are enjoying the countryside. “By the way,” says Pierre’s companion, “whatever happened to Marie St. Clair?” Pierre shrugs, as only a Parisian can. Le femme, eh? They come, they go. The wise man enjoys their favors as he can, and does not worry about the rest. As the car passes, Marie and the orphan catch a lift in a donkey cart. A fellow with an accordion strikes up a tune.
There’s a ton of subtext to all of this, but I’m damned if I can make it out. Charles Miller, who plays Jean, also played the artist in The Kid who seduces and abandons Edna, who in turn is quite similar to the artist (played by Lloyd Bacon) who almost stole Edna from Charlie in The Vagabond. Chaplin’s fascination with artists remains persistent yet unclear.
A Woman of Paris is the only Chaplin picture where the hero has a mother. Chaplin’s mother was surely the most important woman in his life, but after her first mental breakdown, when Chaplin was six, he never allowed himself to be close to her again.25 Did he still feel oppressed by her? Again, it’s hard to say.
The nude statue that appears in A Woman of Paris also appears in one of the opening scenes of City Lights. Charlie, seeing it in a store window, devours it with his eyes, while maintaining the pose of a dispassionate connoisseur. The same statue shows up again in Monsieur Verdoux as part of Verdoux’s art collection. In part one of this series on Chaplin, I suggested, based on a scene in Chaplin’s early comedy A Woman, in which Charlie confronts a clothing dummy, that his fascination with nude statues may have stemmed from his mother’s clothing dummy (if she had one). In Monsieur Verdoux, just after Charlie walks past the statue that appeared in both A Woman of Paris and City Lights, he crashes into a clothing dummy, much to his embarrassment. He then places it so that it’s on a direct line between the camera and the nude statue. So it must mean something, eh? But what?
A Woman of Paris did not do well in the U.S., but thanks to a successful run in Europe earned a gross of about $635,000 on an expenditure of about $350,000. However, Edna’s career was still unassured, and in fact had only one more starring role, in A Woman of the Sea in 1926.26 She had taken to spending a lot of time with Mabel Normand, whose famous boyfriend, Mack Sennett, would not marry her.27 Edna and Mabel had a dismaying tendency to be involved in Hollywood shootings. Edna happened to be one of the first on the scene when director William Desmond Taylor was found murdered in 1922, and Mabel was identified as the last person to see him alive. The case was never solved. Then in 1924, Mabel and Edna were both on the scene when police arrived at the apartment of millionaire oil broker Courtland Dines to find Dines bleeding from a gunshot wound. Normand eventually acknowledged that Dines had been shot with a gun that belonged to her, but somehow she did not know what had happened. Dines, Normand, and Purviance all gave seriously uninformative testimony in court and were threatened with indictment for obstruction of justice, but nothing ever came of this. Hooray for Hollywood, eh?
Image Entertainment has released The Idle Class, Pay Day (right), and The Pilgrim on “A First National Collection.” A Woman of Paris is also available from Image, on a DVD with Chaplin’s last film, A King in New York. The Unknown Chaplin, a three-hour collection of out-takes, interviews, and other material, compiled by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, is now available on DVD and is well worth buying or renting.
A number of “Chaplin Collections” have been released in recent years, to the extent that it’s hard to keep track of which is which. Most of what’s being released, including a lot of previously unavailable two-reelers from Keystone, are in a poor state of restoration. Generally, low price means poor quality. Image, which has released everything except the Keystones, is quite reliable.
Chaplin’s account of his boyhood, My Early Years, out of print but available second hand through the web, makes fascinating reading. His My Life in Pictures, also out of print, has wonderful photos and memorabilia. Joyce Milton’s 1996 biography Tramp regards Chaplin short of idolatry, which is as it should be. Jefferey Vance’s Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003) is pricey but has wonderful photos as well and probably can be gotten second hand at a reduced price.
- While The Kid lacked the historical sweep of Birth of a Nation, it also lacked the pervasive racism of Griffith’s film. [↩]
- Mildred, who had come to Hollywood to be an actress, also signed a contract with Leo Mayer, to star in a series of pictures that would be billed as “Chaplin-Mayer Productions.” Chaplin did not appreciate this. There’s no doubt that Mildred was painfully immature, but Chaplin was the one who hopped into bed with a sixteen-year-old. [↩]
- Dershon committed suicide by turning on the gas jets in her apartment. In Limelight (1948), Chaplin saves dancer Claire Bloom from committing suicide in this manner. [↩]
- Pola is the subject of a great website, Pola! Pola!, Pola!, that tells everything, or nearly everything, about the actress who was “born in Poland, ‘made’ in Germany, stolen by Hollywood! A celebrity in America, an artist in Europe! Lover to Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, and Rod La Roque! Wife to a count and a prince! A high-grossing Nazi film star who would not bow to the idol of fascism! A ‘vamp’ by reputation, a tragedienne in practice, but a stunningly gifted actress in truth!” Yeah, baby! [↩]
- Peggy was notorious for marrying, and divorcing, millionaires in rapid succession. Whether they got their money’s worth is unclear, but Peggy surely got their money. She was the subject of a recent biography, Gold Digger: The Outrageous Life and Times of Peggy Hopkins Joyce, giving her credit for inventing, or at least saving, western civilization. She can be seen playing herself in the classic Paramount ensemble comedy, International House, with W.C. Fields, Franklin Pangborn, Burns & Allen, Cab Callaway, Rudy Vallee, and Bela Lugosi, not to mention “Baby” Rose Marie, surely the dykiest eight-year-old in captivity. [↩]
- Actually, it should be the “winter season,” since rich folks don’t go south for the summer. Chaplin, working in the permanent summer of LA-LA land, apparently forgot about how the seasons work. [↩]
- Lita Grey is one of the pair and Lillian McMurray, her mother (and chaperone, one guesses), is the other. After the first few scenes, they disappear and we never see them again. [↩]
- Chaplin prepared a score for The Idle Class in 1971 (he fiddled with his films compulsively). When the Tramp appears the music swells to a florid dirge, if there is such a thing, full of the lacrimae rerum (“the tears of things” — the weltschmerz that overcomes Aeneas when he beholds doors carved with scenes from the fall of Troy in Virgil’s Aeneid), quite similar to the opening chords of the score for A Dog’s Life (1918), which he “composed” in 1957. (Chaplin would compose by hiring a composer and then inundating him with instructions in the following manner: “Give me eight bars of Puccini. No, no, fuller! And sad! Make me sad! More dramatic at the beginning! Now softer, softer! A little more brightness!” [↩]
- Rand appeared in almost all of Chaplin’s films, beginning with the Essanay two-reelers, always in minor roles, through Modern Times in 1936. [↩]
- Albert Austin, another regular from the Essanay and Mutual days, is also present, and also invisible because he isn’t wearing his big prop moustache. [↩]
- Most of the film that Chaplin shot for Life was used in the short Police. [↩]
- Riesner had a very limited career as a child actor, but ultimately segued into writing scripts for television, later becoming Clint Eastwood’s script doctor, getting credits for Coogan’s Bluff, Play Misty for Me, Dirty Harry, and High Plains Drifter. [↩]
- Charles Riesner played the Irish bully in The Kid and worked as assistant director for a number of Chaplin’s earlier shorts. In the early sound era he directed a number of big musicals, including The Hollywood Revue of 1929, which featured cameos by all of MGM’s leading actors. However, none of the films had much success (none are available on home video today, unfortunately) and Riesner’s career ran downhill thereafter. [↩]
- Riesner escapes with the swag and heads to the saloon to celebrate, only to fall victim to a second set of robbers. But Charlie appears and, with scarcely any complications at all, leaves with the cash. [↩]
- There’s a particularly nice bit in The Pilgrim where he flirts with Edna. Here we see the wonderful mobility and delicacy of his expressions, that convey emotion so clearly, yet so effortlessly, that set him apart from all his competitors. [↩]
- Chaplin also worked on another never-finished short (as the Tramp), featuring himself and Mack Swain as plumbers who (somehow) hit the big time. None of the footage of this film has surfaced, but Chaplin probably used some of the ideas for the conclusion of The Gold Rush, where he and Mack have become millionaires. [↩]
- Chaplin provided a score for A Woman of Paris shortly before his death at age 87. The Movie Data Base lists Louis Gottschalk as “uncredited” composer, meaning, I guess, that Charlie stole from Louie. [↩]
- An early example of Erich’s penchant for excess, the original cut of Foolish Wives ran for seven hours. Both Kino and Image have “class” restorations. Since I haven’t seen either, I don’t know which is better. [↩]
- Not on DVD at this time. A surprising number of Valentino’s films are still not on DVD. [↩]
- Menjou gave himself credit for teaching Chaplin how to live like a gentleman. [↩]
- I’m guessing. I’ve never had a woodcock. This bird, whatever it is, looks awfully small for a meal. [↩]
- Pierre’s waiter, Henry Bergman, alternates between groveling before Pierre and Marie and subjecting his assistants to brutal tongue-lashings. Bergman, perhaps Charlie’s most devoted yes-man, had a terrible reputation in Hollywood, and it’s likely that Charlie is, not very kindly, showing us Bergman as other people saw him. [↩]
- She gets the news in the paper, exactly as Edna learned of Charlie’s marriage. [↩]
- Soprano (Sidney Bechet) or C-melodry (Frankie Trumbauer)? I’m not sure, but I’m leaning C-melody. [↩]
- Chaplin brought Hannah Chaplin to live in the U.S. She was, naturally, well cared for, but more by brother Sidney than Charlie. Unsurprisingly, it made him very nervous to be around her. [↩]
- She appeared in brief, uncredited roles in both Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight. [↩]
- According to Joyce Milton (in Tramp), Mabel discovered Mack “rehearsing” Mae Busch in the shrubbery the night before they were to be married. [↩]