Tag Archives: Charlie Chaplin

Life’s Like A Movie…

Last Friday, I spent the morning at the Jim Henson Company and studios in Hollywood, where I took some time to poke around, then had yet another fascinating conversation with An Amazing Person.  Following that, I returned to my hotel, e-mailed the digital files of my conversations off to be transcribed, then collapsed with probably the worst case of jet lag I have ever had in my life.  And that’s only a three hour time change.  Whatta wimp.

The Jim Henson Company works out of a really neat, and important, piece of Hollywood history.  Back in 1999, the Henson family purchased the old Charlie Chaplin studios, which Chaplin built in 1917 and opened in 1918. Here’s the plaque mounted to the wall just outside the front entrance:

This is the studio where Chaplin filmed classics like The Gold RushModern Times and The Great Dictator, which makes it officially the stuff of Hollywood legend.  What makes the studio really interesting, though, is that Chaplin, like Jim Henson, couldn’t do anything in an ordinary way.  His studio, then, pulled off a bit of theatrical sleight of hand: from the street, it looked like a very proper English Tudor village, straight out of the 18th century — or, at least, a stage set built to look like one.  Once you were through the gates, however, everything was purely state of the art — a tradition that continues to this day.

The Hensons extensively renovated and refurbished the old studios (after leaving Chaplin’s hands, it belonged to CBS then A&M records) and in 2000, made it the new headquarters for The Jim Henson Company.  As Brian Henson said back in 2000:

“When we heard that the Chaplin lot was for sale, we had to have it. It’s the perfect home for the Muppets and our particular brand of classy, but eccentric entertainment. When people walk onto our lot, they fall in love with Hollywood again.”

Mission accomplished, I’d say; it’s a wonderful place.  Here’s the view of the exterior of the building, as you approach it from the south on La Brea Avenue:

As you can see, as a tribute to Chaplin, there’s a statue of Kermit in Chaplin’s trademark derby and baggy pants just beside the entrance.  Here’s a somewhat better picture, taken from just outside the front gate:

Just for a bit of historical perspective, here’s a view of the studio during Chaplin’s day . . .

…and now:

There’s one more tribute to Chaplin as you stroll past.  Just below Kermit is an arch-topped wooden door — you can see it in the photo above — which has now been affectionately painted to allow Chaplin to make a cameo appearance at his old studio:

Neat, huh?  Finally, just for fun, here’s a brief clip from The Chaplin Revue — narrated by Chaplin himself — with a bit of information about the studio, including a time-lapse film of it being built.

Reviews in Brief: Chaplin: A Life (Weissman)

chapalifeI’m normally wary of biographies that attempt to put their chosen subject “on the couch.”   I know it’s tempting, when writing about artists, writers, or other creative people  to try to view their work through the gauze of life experience, explaining their art in the context of childhood traumas, distant parents, or failed relationships.  There are some no-brainers out there, certainly — one could hardly write about Edgar Allan Poe or Vincent Van Gogh, to name only two, without looking into inner demons that ended up screaming at the public from the page or canvas.

It gets harder, however, with figures that, for the most part, aren’t quite as haunted or tormented. But that doesn’t mean biographers haven’t tried.   Some Disney biographers, for example, have claimed that Walt Disney obviously had a contempt for women and deep-seated abandonment issues, since several of his early films featured evil mother-figures or mothers who are dead or otherwise unavailable.  It doesn’t matter that Disney’s own life story doesn’t really seem to bear that out; once you’ve got him on the couch, you can use his body of work to explain away anything.  That was the sort of thing that nearly ruined David Michaelis’s otherwise dynamite Schulz and Peanuts for me — Michaelis tried, I thought, a bit too hard to use the Peanuts strip to explain Schulz’s psyche.  It was a valiant effort, but I just didn’t buy it.

And that, ultimately, is my problem with On The Couch biographies:  I don’t like being told that every inch of an artist’s output — whether it’s on film, on audiotape, on canvas, or on the printed page — is a channeling of some remote glob of their psyche, or reflects a subconscious effort to work out some personal issue.  I  believe you can understand an artist’s life by looking at his work; it’s more difficult and dangerous, however, to try to use an artist’s work to explain away an artist’s life.  Ideally, one must view the artist through the prism of both the life and the art together.

That’s a roundabout way of saying that I was skeptical of Dr. Stephen Weissman’s Chaplin: A Life. It’s true that Chaplin, with his mess of a private life and in-your-face politics, practically begs his biographers to put him on the sofa — a challenge to which Chaplin biographer David Robinson all but explicitly refused to rise.  But on the other hand, I did not want to be told that every Chaplin film was merely another psychological exercise in which Charlie either consciously or subconsciously tried to come to terms with some childhood trauma.

Well.  In his first chapter, Weissman — a for real psychiatrist, and not just playing one on TV — immediately put such concerns to rest.  Reading every Chaplin film or sketch as a therapy session, says Weissman,

“. . . does little to advance our undertstanding of how the creative process operated . . . It assumes that the comic mind operates as a seething id-cauldron automatically transforming childhood fears into schoolboy gags which are periodically belched and farted up from the steamy depths of the unconscious.”

Bingo.  That’s exactly what I wanted to hear — and that’s precisely why Weissman’s book works so spectacularly well.  Weissman doesn’t explain away every moment on film in psychological terms;  rather, he helps the reader understand why Chaplin makes particular comedic or artistic decisions, and where in his art Chaplin has borrowed or paid homage to his parents, mentors, rivals, and the London stage.

Weissman is particularly convincing in helping the reader understand some of the broader themes of Chaplin’s work — a particularly high point is his examination of City Lights as an opportunity for Chaplin to, at last, redeem both his mother and his father.  But what’s important is that Weissman isn’t trying to tell us that Chaplin did all these things as an act of psychic cleansing; rather, he’s helping us see where life experience has influenced some of the artistic decisions Chaplin made.

Further he doesn’t get you in the weeds on psychobabble; Weissman’s language is real, and readable — no long ramblings on Freud or lectures on id suppression or whatever.  His themes are larger than that, which is why you’ll find them more thought provoking — and even where you don’t agree, he hasn’t become so mind-numbingly technical that you think he’s overreaching.  Weissman’s so agreeable, in fact, that it’s like watching Chaplin’s movies with a good friend who’s got a particular insight into a film and doesn’t mind at all if you disagree with him.  Enjoy the film anyway, Weissman would probably say.

In a lively afterword, Weissman also does something no other Chaplin biographer has yet done: he’s dared to accept an extended 1915 interview — later published as Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story before being squashed and disavowed by Chaplin — as a reliable text.  It’s a primary source detective story, and Weissman will tell you convincingly why he believes biographers, and readers, can believe it . . . even when Chaplin himself tries to tell you otherwise.

As usual, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that you can read more at Dr. Weissman’s website at www.chaplinalife.com — along with lots of interesting essays, photos, and bits of film.

The Chaplin Revue

Congratulations to my colleague at Arcade, Dr. Stephen Weismann, for a pair of stellar advance reviews for his book Chaplin: A Life. Publisher’s Weekly called it an “engaging…portrait of how a cinema artist is created and how he practices his craft,” while the rock ’em, sock ’em Kirkus says it’s “a fresh entry in the evergreen field of works devoted to Charlie Chaplin,” as well as a “perceptive, literate take on the great screen clown.” Awesome.

I’ve begged, borrowed, and cajoled my way into getting an advance copy of the book, and I’ll let you know my thoughts on it, right here, as soon as possible. If you’re even a casual reader of this blog, you know that Chaplin is one of my Very Favorite People Ever, and I’m really looking forward to reading this book.

Just for fun, here’s four-and-a-half minutes of Chaplin doing what he does best, from my all-time favorite film of his, The Circus:


I absolutely love Charlie Chaplin. I love watching his movies, I love reading anything about him, and I love that I’ve been able to share his films with my daughter Madi, who’s been watching and laughing at his movies with me for six of her twelve years. The other evening, she and I were watching Richard Attenborough’s biopic Chaplin, and when we reached the point in the movie where Chaplin starts grumbling that he can’t figure out how to make a blind girl mistakenly believe the Tramp is a millionaire, Madi brightened and said, “Hey, he’s talking about the scene from City Lights!”

I love that she knows that.

Plenty has been written, and is continuing to be written, about Chaplin’s life and work (in fact, one of my colleagues at Arcade has just written a new one, due in late 2008, which you can see right here). But if you’re interested in getting to know a little more about One of My All-Time Favorites and don’t know quite where to start, I’m here to help.

First up, of course, are Chaplin’s films, many of which were recently released on DVD by Warner Home Video in two gorgeous boxed sets. The prints are beautiful, and each set is loaded with extra goodies and bonus features.

Naturally, I’d advise you to invest in both sets, but if you really have to choose only one, I lean toward set two. Sure, set one offers Modern Times and The Great Dictator, but set two offers what I consider to be Chaplin’s funniest film (The Circus), his best film (City Lights) and his biggest weepy (The Kid). It also offers The Chaplin Revue, a collection of six of his best shorter films, including A Dog’s Life and Shoulder Arms.

Next is David Robinson’s 1985 biography Chaplin: His Life and Art. Written with the cooperation of the Chaplin family, who allowed Robinson access to the family archives in Switzerland, Robinson’s book does a good job discussing Chaplin’s films, and takes a clear-eyed approach to Chaplin’s complicated personal life. It’s still the best biography available — it’s the book the film Chaplin is based on — and Robinson covers a remarkable amount of ground while still keeping the book to a manageable size.

If Robinson’s even-handed treatment of Chaplin’s tumultuous personal life leaves you wanting more dirt, Joyce Milton is more than happy to provide it in her 1998 biography Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin. In the past, I’ve characterized this book as mean spirited — and looking through it again, I still think it takes a bit too much relish in kicking Chaplin when he’s down. But it certainly does a thorough job of digging into Chaplin’s troubles with women and politics — a completely fair and valid focus, especially when Chaplin hands biographers both issues, neatly wrapped, on a platter.

But if you’re looking for Chaplin to dish any of the dirt himself in his My Autobiography, you’re out of luck. Chaplin certainly doesn’t portray himself as a saint — he’s always more than willing to acknowledge his own shortcomings — but he’s generally respectful towards those he lived and worked with. Where My Autobiography shines is in Chaplin’s stories of growing up poor in London, his experiences in the early days of film making, his friendships with Douglas Fairbanks, William Randolph Hearst and H.G. Wells, and his general humility when it comes to his work on humanitarian causes. Plus, it’s always fascinating to see what people think are the most important or interesting parts of their lives — it’s not always the elements that we might choose as fans!

Finally, there’s Kenneth Lynn’s hefty 1997 Charlie Chaplin and His Times, a book reviled by fans but admired by many critics. I’m mixed on it. Lynn definitely takes his task as a deep-driller and debunker seriously, working to paint Chaplin’s childhood as not quite as poverty-stricken as Chaplin has led us to believe, and analzying Chaplin’s relationship with, and embarassment over, his mentally ill mother. It’s fascinating stuff and the amount of detailed research is appreciated, if often head-spinning. Lynn’s most valuable contribution to the Chaplin story, however, is in his discussion of Chaplin’s politics. Was Chaplin a Marxist? Perhaps — but Lynn will help you put it all in context of his times.

Oh, and let me add one more interesting item to this list: Charles Chaplin: Film Music, a collection of music composed by Chaplin for use in his films. Besides acting and directing, Chaplin also wrote terrific music for his movies — his most famous piece is probably the hummable tune “Smile” from Modern Times, which Nat King Cole turned into a standard. More than mere incidental music, Chaplin uses music as mood; I defy you to listen to “Kidnap” from The Kid without choking up a bit. The music of Modern Times brings the album to an appropriate close, with the refrain from “Smile” fading out as the final fanfare swells — fittingly enough, it was this music that played as The Tramp (with the girl finally on his arm) walked off into the sunset (or sunrise, in this case) in the final scene of what would be his last truly “silent” film.

There. I hope that helps. And for any Chaplin fans out there, what do you think? What books do you recommend?