Charlie Chaplin, The Serious Funny Man (1936) 🇺🇸
In reality, this lovably screen tramp is a charming scamp, or a chap at will.
by Karen Hollis
At last, there is another Charlie Chaplin picture to be chuckled over, and thousands of youngsters who have grown up to movie-going age since four and one-half years ago, when his last picture was shown, are having the fun of discovering him for the first time. During that long lapse between “City Lights” and “Modern Times,” I’ve burst into guffaws at the most unexpected and embarrassing moments, remembering a scene from “City Lights.” I and a few million others. It was one of those subtle scenes that would take a psychology professor to figure out. He swallowed a whistle, and from then on, whenever making a sound would do him the most harm, he hiccuped and the whistle blew.
A lot of long-faced professors would have us believe that Chaplin is much more profound than that. They have put him into college textbooks on the psychology of humor. Reams of learned and very dull interpretations of his pictures have been written, but don’t let that fool you. The actor who slips and gets his backstop stuck in a pail of water just when he is trying to make a dignified impression belongs to us shouters more than to the thinkers.
There ought to be a law providing that everyone see each Chaplin picture at its very first showing. Then we could shout down all the wet blankets who try to tell us about the mysticism, symbolism, and assorted hooey they discovered in his picture.
Charlie Chaplin himself is all things to all people. Stop any five of his most intimate friends (and you never saw a man who has so many intimate friends from here to Japan) and they will all tell you a different story. Mary Pickford, who counts him first among her friends, thinks he is the wisest and most dependable man she ever met. A famous author, who has often gone from New York to Hollywood at Charlie’s invitation, only to find that Charlie has left town, considers him the most flighty minded and most undependable person he knows. But he’d go from here to Timbuctoo to spend five minutes with him.
Marion Davies thinks Charlie is the perfect party guest. When you have once been entertained by his untiring antics, all parties without him are a frost. A Hollywood delicatessen owner, who is one of his oldest friends, enjoys Charlie as a daily companion. He says he will sit silently munching rye bread and liverwurst for hours, then go out and prowl around the streets, and along the most sordid waterfront never saying a word, but obviously enjoying himself. H. G. Wells, who wrote “The Outline of History,” and who has come from England to be Chaplin’s house guest for several months, admires him tremendously because his unquenchable curiosity about things and people has made him make up for his lack of schooling as a child by reading everything he gets his hands on, and listening intently to all the great men he meets. And he has met practically every great person alive in the world today from diplomats to bull fighters, from Professor Einstein to Peggy Hopkins Joyce. At their request, incidentally.
When I hear acquaintances talking about Charlie Chaplin, even people who have known him much longer and better than I have, I want to get up on a soap-box and scream, “He’s not like that, he’s like this.” But everyone else feels the same way, so you can’t hear a thing for the noise we make.
If you will let me ramble on, I’ll tell you some of my most vivid memories of meeting Chaplin. Before anyone can get through an introduction, he says, “But surely we have met before.” Nine times out of ten, he has guessed right. And does everyone get thrilled at that bit of kindly tact. Even if they have not met him before.
You are apt not to remember anything he said at your first meeting. That’s because you probably did all the talking. He has a sweet, ingratiating way about him, that Chaplin.
I like best to remember him at big parties. I have seen him stand behind a phonograph imitating an orchestra conductor. His anxiety, then relief, over a brief solo from the first violin, his dismay over a sour note, his frantic efforts to get more volume from his orchestra, make you see every one of the stodgy or temperamental, sleepy, or nervous, or arrogant players in his imaginary orchestra. His despairing shrug, as if to say, “I have to do everything around here, you men just aren’t trying,” is a masterpiece of caustic wit.
I have seen him walk around the guests at a party, impersonating a desperate man who thinks that perhaps he will take up picking pockets as a profession. It is nothing short of magic the way he makes you follow every thought of his, without words, almost without gestures. He makes you see what he thought of doing, but decided against. He makes you agonize over the poor man’s temptation, and roar because a pretty girl distracts his attention from a fat bankroll.
Best of all is his parlor portrayal of a man visiting an art gallery. With his back toward you and a blank wall in front of him, you know that he is looking at beautiful landscapes that make him feel shut in from all the fragrance and freedom of the outdoors. You know that the still life of fruit and a dead fish make him hungry. Then he comes to a nude. He doesn’t want to be caught staring at it, but he cannot resist. He rises to a perfect frenzy of curiosity and shyness that makes him look, turn away, look again, and turn away until his fellow guests are so worn out from laughter that they beg him to stop.
Don’t get the idea that Chaplin is always the inspired clown. Quite the contrary. Back in June, 1929, he and Lindbergh were fellow guests at a small luncheon party on a yacht anchored in the Hudson. Lindbergh had recently returned from his solo flight across the Atlantic, and Manhattan was one shoving, screaming, persistent lot of maniacal hero worshippers who all wanted to get close to him and talk to him. At luncheon Lindbergh experienced the first moments of quiet in a hectic day. He seemed happy and hurried away to pressing engagements with obvious regret. As the dinghy bearing him toward shore splashed its way through the water, the disconsolate little figure of Chaplin practically hung over the rail waving “Good-bye.”
There he stayed, watching Lindbergh land, get in a car, and drive away. Eventually, Chaplin straightened up and turned a curiously wistful face toward the others on deck.
“I wish I’d had nerve to ask him for an autograph,” he said earnestly.
The first time I met Chaplin was in his studio in California and I was disappointed in a way. He looked so sleek and polished and spoke with such a clipped British accent. He was kindly and deferential (I was with old friends of his) and frankly I wanted either the gay little clown I had seen on the screen or the curt, temperamental madman I had heard he was.
He explained to me patiently, as if it were a recitation he had repeated thousands of times, that in his screen character the mustache stood for vanity, the derby for attempted dignity, the tight coat and the cane an attempt to put up front, the baggy trousers and enormous scuffled shoes, inescapable poverty. The most important part of the tramp’s make-up, he assured me, was the part you couldn’t see, the rose-colored glasses through which the character sees everything. He expects the best, you see, when he has every reason to know the worst.
Another time he was at the home of friends, and a studio associate told me that no one had seen him for days, because although the company was waiting for him on the set, he had locked himself in his study and played mournful tunes on the violin all day. No one had felt sure enough of his job to go and disturb him. He told me about learning to play the violin as a boy. He just could not stick to tunes, but imitated animals instead.
Still later, some years later, he was at a big luncheon in a private dining room at the Ritz-Carlton in New York. He had been smuggled in a back door, because unruly mobs surged around wherever he was — admiring, adoring mobs, but over-enthusiastic, to say the least. It used to make him quite ill when he heard that women had been hurt in crowds pushing forward to see him. He seldom travels now and that is one of the reasons.
However, in spite of precautions, several people learned where he was and a cordon of waiters had to hold the crowds outside the door. Finally a waiter came in and begged Mr. Chaplin to see a little girl just for a moment. She would not leave, and she was simply heartbroken to think that he was so near and she could not see him. So he told the waiter to escort her in, greeted her cordially, and chatted for a few moments. After she left, he glanced around a little dazed.
“I hope that I struck the proper paternal note,” he said to the people nearest him, “but you see it was difficult. Neither of my wives was much older than that.”
Chaplin’s affairs of the heart have not been happy until now. No one seems to know whether he and the lusciously-beautiful Paulette Goddard are engaged or married, but anyone with half an eye can tell they are grand, congenial friends.
Chaplin today seems happy on the surface, but if he really were I do not think he would keep us waiting nearly five years for a new picture from him. He must be brooding over his early hardships, the death of his mother who never fully recovered from a London air raid though she lived on for years, the raffish mudslinging of the two young wives who divorced him for neglect and cruelty, the gaudy vixens who have momentarily interested him and who have screamed to the world that he was too stingy to buy a ton or so of diamond bracelets for them, the suits for back taxes from the government, the plagiarism suits by the dozen (all of which he won), the European vacation so long anticipated and during which he managed in one way or another to antagonize almost every country he visited.
Maybe you think he should rise above brooding because he stands alone as an idol of the world, with only Mickey Mouse as a possible rival.
But Chaplin in one of his rare bursts of confidence to a newspaper man recently said, “I got most of the things I wanted, but I found out after I got them that I should never have wanted them.”
Source: Modern Screen Magazine, March 1936