In 1910, Charlie Chaplin first glimpsed America from a boat carrying him and others in Fred Karno’s troupe of actors, all hoping to encounter more success — and money — than they’d be able to in England. One of the other members of Karno’s group was Stan Laurel. He and Chaplin were just hitting their twenties, approaching the threshold to the new world. Laurel recalls:
We were all on deck straining our eyes to get a first glimpse of the country. Charles was just as nervous as the rest of us, although he tried to cover it up with a show of unconcern. As we saw land, the sun came out for a few minutes. Charles put his foot up on the rail of the boat, swung his arm landward in one of his burlesque dramatic gestures, and declared, “American, I am coming to conquer you! Every man, woman and child shall have my name on their lips — Charles Spencer Chaplin!” We all booed him affectionately, and he bowed to us formally and sat down again.
Chaplin couldn’t have known just how right he was. And he certainly had no idea of the means. At the time, cinema was in its infancy, and even when Chaplin and Keystone got in touch in 1913, Chaplin thought cinema a passing fad. Mostly, he was interested in making some extra money so he could focus on other things. Of course, on that count, Chaplin was wrong, though he was right about conquering America: within the decade Chaplin would reach unseen heights of fame due to the movies. Even today, 100 years later, I’d be surprised if any movie star’s image is better known throughout the world and throughout generations.
And I hope that continues, though sometimes I fear we’ll forget. I want us to remember, and not just because Chaplin was among the first but also, and more importantly, because he is still among the very best. I sometimes hope that by sharing his work with my young children that they’ll somehow be inoculated to the crass and simple humor we see so often today, that they’ll see that comedy can do much more than entertain, as wonderful as that is: it can also enliven and enlighten. And even that sometimes the person doling out the inspiration can be much less than perfect. Chaplin’s life and work are important. One of my most anticipated books of the year measures up to the importance of its subject: Taschen’s The Charlie Chaplin Archives, edited by Paul Duncan.
In anticipation of the book’s publication, I’ve spent the past several months going through much of Chaplin’s work, from his first days on the lot to his final films. I’ve posted here about some of the best home video releases we have out there: Flicker Alley’s Chaplin at Keystone and Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies and The Criterion Collection’s The Gold Rush and City Lights; my posts will continue with Modern Times, The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux, and Limelight, as well as Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies, which comes out in November.
I acknowledge that lately I have been effusive in my praise about many books and home video releases, but it would be hard for me to overstate just how incredible The Charlie Chaplin Archives is, both for its content and for its presentation. It is gigantic, first of all. It’s 560 extra large (16.2″ x 11.8″) glossy pages weigh in at fourteen pounds. They cover every single film, whether short or feature, that Chaplin made. It’s loaded with photographs, stills, posters, comic strips, letters, scripts, storyboards, including scripts and design ideas for unmade films. The black and white pictures are particularly striking because they are crisp and have a silver sheen to them, making it feel like you’re actually watching them flicker on the silver screen.
The text that accompanies the abundant visual material is a compilation of statements primarily from those who were there, Chaplin first and foremost, who has the first words:
This is not a rags to riches story or about the virtue of a poor boy’s perseverance, or that one can make good if one has the drive. There is no virtue in rising from poverty, only the pity and waste of energy it involves. Poverty should not be laughed off bravely as something undignified to mention, or that in treating it lightly one rises above it. That is a phony attitude. Poverty is a degrading business that should be outlawed and abolished in every nation. I am not proud of having risen from it. I write of it as a criticism of the times in which, as a boy, I lived.
And then we go through Chaplin’s earliest days by reading statements from Chaplin and others who were there. Ellen Cheshire, who put this chapter together, appears frequently to give us some context and continuity, with such things, to keep returning to Stan Laurel: “In January 1910, Stanley Jefferson (later known as Stan Laurel) joined Karno in Liverpool to play in Mumming Birds.”
The Chaplin Archives, then, is not a typical biography with one centralized voice of the biographer. It’s more like a nicely edited oral history.
As I mentioned above, the book goes through about everything I could ever think it should or could go through in 15 chapters, one for his pre-film days, and then one for each studio he worked for before he started his feature filmmaking career in 1923 with A Woman in Paris. Just to give an idea of how much time it spends on even his earliest shorts, Chapter 6 on A Woman in Paris starts on page 212. Naturally, the features get even more time, each taking between 30 to 40 pages (the longest chapter, at around 44 pages, is dedicated to The Great Dictator, taking plenty of time to examine the context of World War II).
The book closes with an Appendix that includes a chronology, index, bibliography, among other closing material. However, the most intriguing piece of the Appendix is the section by Cecilia Cenciarelli called “Charlie Chaplin’s Unmade Films.” Here we get the inception, ideas, and story behind several of Chaplin’s unmade projects.
To make The Chaplin Archives, the editors had access to the actual Charlie Chaplin archives. Often when this is the case the guardians of the archives want to condition access on a promise to keep the project focused only on the good things and pretending the bad does not exist. Admirably for all involved, that doesn’t seem to have been the case here. While the chapters are focused on the films at hand, they are chronological and take the opportunity to go into detail about Chaplin’s various scandals and vices, in particular his relationships with young women, some under the age of consent, as well as his various attempts to avoid negative publicity or even outright responsibility.
Chaplin took a fall from grace in the late 1940s, and it was only in part due to political prejudice, though such political prejudices are certainly responsible for Chaplin’s ultimate exile from the United States. In 1952, when Chaplin was in London for the premier of Limelight, his reentry permit was revoked. We’ll look at more of this when I reach that timeline in my trek through Chaplin’s work.
Now, a final note. My wife has long been a big fan of Taschen’s books, and I try to pick up one for her every now and again on a special occasion. I already knew the production and content of The Charlie Chaplin Archives would be amazing, which is one of the reasons I was so excited for it. Still, nothing prepared me for the actual book. It’s beautiful, thorough, and just plain magnificent. I’ll be using it heavily when I return to my posts on Chaplin with a new look at Modern Times. From there we’ll hit Chaplin’s World War II comedy The Great Dictator, his controversial black comedy Monsieur Verdoux, and his touching reflection Limelight. There are many riches to explore and re-explore, and this treasure of a book is the perfect companion.