Comic timings: Chaplin as Calvero in the 1952 film Limelight. Photo: Magnum
Show Hide image

Tears of a clown: Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin's previously unpublished novella and a new biography show the makings of his melancholy genius

Charlie Chaplin 
Peter Ackroyd
Chatto & Windus, 272pp, £14.99


Footlights 
Charles Chaplin
Cineteca di Bologna, 226pp, £25

 

Liking Chaplin will probably never be cool. For the Sight and Sound-reading, suck-on-a-lemon-and-think-of-Bresson cineaste, Buster Keaton will always be their man, with his whitened deadpan and letter-box smile, his meta-movie conceits and collaboration with Samuel Beckett – those two stoics together, craggy and forlorn, staring down the headwinds of the 20th century like Easter Island statues. Then there is Chaplin with his touchiness about class, his walk, his mesmeric effect on kids and – dear, oh dear – his sentimentality. “For a century or more, sentimentality has been the cardinal aesthetic sin,” writes Carl Wilson in his recently republished book about taste, Let’s Talk About Love. “To be sentimental is to be kitsch, phoney, exaggerated, manipulative, self-indulgent, hypocritical, cheap and clichéd.”

The critical aversion to sentimentality – so often a disguise for squeamishness about emotion of any kind – quarantines us from the power of cinema’s early pioneers, who would no sooner have turned down the opportunity to wring an audience for tears than have declined an opportunity to make them rocket out of their seats with fright or laughter. It would be like designing a new automobile and keeping it under wraps in the garage. “Keep it wistful,” advised Fred Karno, the head of the comedy troupe that first brought Chaplin to America. When you hit a man, it’s funnier if you then kiss him on the head. The early Keystone shorts were crammed with people, props and gags; the actors were wind-up toys, uninflected by emotions such as fear or greed or passion, who simply ran and ran until they met immovable objects or dropped from exhaustion – a roundelay of constant motion, or “arse-kicking”, as Chaplin put it.

He did things differently. Emptying out the frame, Chaplin anchored the camera in the middle distance, the better to take in a full human figure, feet included, drawing audiences in with a single gesture – a smile, a half-tear, a look. “He had those eyes that absolutely forced you to look at them,” said Stan Laurel, another Karno regular who also travelled over on the same ship in 1910.

Within four months of arriving in the US, Chaplin was famous and soon became the first truly global icon, a hero of the Dadaists and an inspiration to Fernand Léger and Marcel Proust (who for a while trimmed his moustache in the Chaplin style). “He has escaped . . . from the realism of the cinema and invented a rhythm,” wrote T S Eliot, one of many highbrows swanning around the pages of Peter Ackroyd’s new biography. That Chaplin has attracted the attention of Dickens’s biographer is telling. In later life, according to his son, Chaplin read and reread Oliver Twist, “as if in that novel he had found the key to his own past”, Ackroyd writes. Both Dickens and Chaplin came from poverty and childhood neglect and achieved fame in their mid-twenties. Both produced urban fables that mixed farce with sentiment; melodrama with pantomime; comedy and pathos with poetry.

“Chaplin was Dickens’s true successor,” Ackroyd writes, “just as Modern Times is a successor to Hard Times.” Coming in at a slim 272 pages, his book has no ambition to supplant David Robinson’s definitive 1985 account of the comedian’s life, Chaplin: His Life and Art, and nor does it; but, aided by his novelistic appetites, Ackroyd has turned in the best account of Chaplin’s formation beneath the teetering chimney stacks of Victorian London, fragrant with the odour of “vinegar, and of dog dung, and of smoke, and of beer”. Boy, is he big on whiffs, from the delicate bouquet of “oranges, beer, of unwashed bodies and tobacco” that clings to the theatres where Chaplin, a seven-year-old in knickerbockers, first learned how to turn corners with a one-legged skid, to the lodgings on Pownall Terrace, “foul with the stale slops and old clothes”, where he lived with his mother before she was institutionalised for what seems likely to have been late-stage syphilitic madness, contracted from work as a prostitute.

“She died there,” Chaplin liked to tell people once he was safely ensconced in Hollywood but, Ackroyd writes, “This was perhaps less than fair to his mother, who was still very much alive in Peckham House hospital,” where she remained, with intermittent periods of lucidity, for another 17 years. The dryness of “perhaps less than fair” proves that Ackroyd is just the man to puncture the whoppers with which Chaplin embroidered his past, without being too much of a scold.

When, aged 38, his father drank himself to death, Chaplin, “with black crape on his sleeve, sold narcissi in the local public houses, lamenting in a whispered voice the death of his father. Who could fail to be moved by the grieving boy?” The vibrato swell lets us know Ackroyd is on to him and his habit of self-dramatisation – the sense of being always “on”, void of any experience that isn’t witnessed by another – that made for a performer of genius and also, in the words of a reporter for the New York Times, “the unhappiest and shyest human being I have met”. Or as another writer put it, even more bluntly, “The bulk of him is ice.”

A lifelong reader of Schopenhauer and “the gloomier philosophers”, Chaplin was a creature of pure will and wisp. On-screen, the Tramp was indomitable, endlessly resourceful and adaptive, impeded but never defeated, bowed but not broken, raising his arms in the final scene of Police in Christlike exaltation, as if to say: “Look, I have come through.” His Favourite Pastime paired him with Fatty Arbuckle, only to confirm how fully he was a solo performer, going over or around the heads of his fellow actors to commune directly with the audience, making eyes at them from within that expanse of white make-up.

Ackroyd picks up on the solipsism of all this. Protected by the bubble wrap of the audience’s attention, Chaplin is haughty with anyone who brushes his sense of dignity. He collects resentments like moss. From the spectacle in One AM, in which Chaplin gets into an argument with a bed and the pendulum of a grandfather clock, to the grand panoply of Modern Times, he seemed intent on taking the entire world personally.

Is it any surprise that in his private life he proceeded to do the same? The book tails off in its second half; all Chaplin bio­graphies do. His life tailed off, a dying fall to echo those in his comedy. Ackroyd’s account takes it at a canter – the coming of sound, the failure of the 1947 film Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin’s entanglement with the House Un-American Activities Committee, the teenage brides and paternity suits – and in the final furlong achieves a steady gallop of just under a year per page.

For those wishing for a more thorough spelunking of Chaplin’s psyche at this point, help is at hand in the form of Footlights, a recently unearthed prose work, published with an accompanying essay by David Robinson and presented as Chaplin’s first and only novella. It isn’t really: it’s more like a 34,000-word extended treatment for Limelight (1952), the last film he made in the US before his exile in Switzerland, about the platonic romance between an old clown named Calvero and Terry, a beautiful young ballet dancer troubled by a psychosomatic illness whom he nurses back to the stage.

That Chaplin felt impelled to flesh this out in prose form is indicative of his maudlin frame of mind at the time. Heavy with backstory, the book recounts first Terry’s plaintive history, then Calvero’s – as booze, women and a nervous breakdown curtail his career, leaving him sour with the fickleness of audiences: “a motley confusion of cross-purposes, like a monster without a head”, he rails. “They’re guinea pigs! They react to whatever injection you give them!” She responds: “You talk like a lover who’s quarrelled.” Potentially, this was promising material. When popular performers misfire, the collapse is total and baffling, the tender ministrations with which the performer once unlocked his audience now recalibrated as loathsome presumptions, a form of artistic rape.

The trick, as Jerry Lewis showed us in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, is to have the courage of your misanthropy and to let the mask slip completely. But the one note missing from the mauve-and-violet prose effects of Footlights is that of honest and accurate self-appraisal. The prevailing tone is of self-pity; the overall impression is that of gloom leavened with froth, as Calvero invokes “the elegant melancholy of twilight” and “dinners under saffron skies on a balcony overlooking the Thames” to get Terry on her feet and dancing again. Who could have guessed that when one of the great clowns of the silent era finally spoke up, he would come out sounding so much like Barbara Taylor Bradford?

Words were never Chaplin’s medium. He knew next to nothing about the Tramp, not even his name (he referred to him as “the little fellow”). His art was one of radical attenuation, Euclidean subtraction, the winnowing and carving out of gags from thin air – “shaking the tree”, he called it – to reveal the form hanging there like dust motes in sunlight. He worked tirelessly to secure the audience’s sympathy, our pity for him freeing him from the bother of feeling it for himself. When Chaplin exits the final reel of The Tramp, he walks dejectedly down the road before perking up with that little jig and quickstep of his, ready once again for the adventure of life. “His little dance upon the road is a form of self-definition,” writes Ackroyd. “He is free.” Iris in, fade out. 

Tom Shone’s new book, “Scorsese: a Retrospective”, will be published by Thames & Hudson in September

 

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

GETTY
Show Hide image

Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser