January 17, 2018

Chaplin and Women: Dream Scenes and Dancehall Girls

By Stuart Mitchner

In his 1915-1936 prime, Charlie Chaplin, who died 40 years ago this past Christmas, wasn’t just the most celebrated film personality of his time, he was an international icon. With his derby, his mustache, his baggy pants, and his cane, the Tramp became a secular deity; the sainted spirit of laughter; comedy and humanity incarnate. He was also exposed to a tabloid-driven version of the Hollywood dynamic of sex and power that surfaced last fall with the Harvey Weinstein revelations. 

My subject isn’t Chaplin’s sexual magnetism, nor the fact that he was famously partial to young girls, marrying Mildred Harris in 1918 when he was 29 and she 16, and seven years later “making an honest woman” of 16-year-old Lita (for Lolita) Gray, who gave birth to his first two sons. The pulpy publicity of shotgun weddings engineered by worldly mothers was a mere drop in the ocean of his fame. To have subjected a figure of his magnitude to anything like the post-Weinstein firestorm of blame would be like consigning Shakespeare to eternal damnation because he groped a child actor during a rehearsal of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Chaplin reached the pinnacle of his career with City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936). After that he had the audacity to link the Tramp character with his mass-murderering double in The Great Dictator (1940) and then dropped the Tramp altogether to play a foppish Bluebeard in Monsieur Verdoux (1947), his last American film and first box-office failure. In the space of a decade he had gone from film genius/beloved everyman to a politically suspect outsider put on trial for allegedly violating the Mann Act. Conservative columnists called him an anti-American and questioned why he had lived in the U.S. for 40 years without ever becoming a citizen. According to Peter Ackroyd’s 2014 biography, Chaplin was “a libertarian with tendencies toward anarchism” who had “demanded, and gained, freedom for himself” to the point of refusing “to be told what day of the week it was.” For all the speculation about his political beliefs, he based his life on “passionate individualism.”

What interests me at the moment is that the most luminous scenes in Chaplin’s films are shared with, inspired by, and devoted to women. Arguably the most remarkable and unlikely male/female encounter in his work occurs in Monsieur Verdoux and consists of a dialogue between a serial killer of women and the girl he’s picked up and is planning to poison. In that scene it’s as if Chaplin is revealing his demon, the creative genius capable of abusing his power over women even as he adores them. In James Agee’s lengthy essay on Monsieur Verdoux, a film he expected “to be the last word is misogyny,” he makes particular mention of the encounter with the nameless girl, “the one human being” with whom Verdoux “holds in common everything he regards as most important.”

Time and Art

The idea that certain virulent strains of Weinstein fever could end or blight careers and devalue works of art put me in mind of William Faulkner’s famous assertion that Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is “worth any number of old ladies,” stated after he tells an interviewer that the artist is “a creature driven by demons” and “completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.” In fact, Chaplin’s Verdoux cites Keats shortly before doing away with one of the widowed old ladies who are his chosen victims. Staring out the window at a full moon, Verdoux says “How beautiful, this pale Endymion hour.” When the doomed woman asks him what he’s talking about, he says, “A beautiful youth possessed by the moon.”

Keats’s “unravished” Grecian urn is itself embellished with images of sexual power, its “men” and “maidens” held in the perspective of time and art, truth and beauty that transcends “mad pursuit,” “struggle to escape,” “wild ecstasy,” and “human passion.”

In the “unheard melodies” of Chaplin’s silent films, the “happy melodist” director/star is “For ever piping songs, and for ever young,” as in the dream sequence from Sunnyside (1919) where the Tramp frolics with a living frieze of comely, flowers-in-flowing hair, toga-clad barefoot girls, all of whom would be known for little else but this Chaplinesque romp. With his first marriage on the rocks (his lover and leading lady of the time, Edna Purviance, is also in the film), Chaplin may well have been tempted to take advantage of the dancing maidens, but none of that nearly century-old “human passion” matters next to the joyous burlesque of classic Greek dance and Ballet Russe, the Tramp cavorting amid the nymphs like Nijinksy’s faun until he does a backwards tumble on a cactus that has him clutching at his behind, a slapstick touch that brings the idyll down to earth.

Dancehall Girls

Chaplin’s devotion to female beauty was at one with his devotion to cinema, which reaches the first of three pinnacles in another dream sequence, this one at the heart of The Gold Rush (1925). Creating a transport of comic momentum — the miner’s shack teetering on the abyss, Mack Swain’s ravenous Big Jim hallucinating the Tramp as a giant chicken, the eating of the boot as if it were a great delicacy — Chaplin sets us up for the emotional magic of the scene where Charlie prepares a New Year’s Eve dinner for some dancehall girls. On one level we’re watching a delusional loser going delicately about the task of lighting candles, spreading a newspaper for a tablecloth, putting presents and favors at each girl’s place while keeping an eye on the chicken roasting in the oven. On another level we’re aware of the charismatic genius disguised as “the Little Fellow” alone and forgotten, rebuffed by the revellers in the dance hall where everyone is singing “Auld Lang Syne” and Georgia (Georgia Hale), the girl he’s smitten with, is romancing another man.

While the dream in Sunnyside is the result of a fall, the Gold Rush fantasy at first actually seems to be happening, except that the Tramp has become the smiling all-powerful master of the scene, everything chiming with his conception, the girls having the time of their lives, wearing the favors he made for them, toasting him, adoring him, calling for a speech. Instead, he gives them (and the audience) the “Oceana Roll,” a piece of magic everyone should see at least once before they die. Performed by candlelight with two forks and two rolls, it has to be seen to be appreciated and can be accessed in an instant on YouTube, where you can find another Chaplin pinnacle, the look of wonderstruck recognition shared by the Tramp and the Flower Girl at the end of City Lights, which James Agee calls “the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.”

Verdoux and the Girl

Last week I disposed of hundreds of once precious VHS tapes, a painful but necessary downsizing. Of the few I saved one was Monsieur Verdoux, which I hadn’t seen since the 1ate 1980s. While this film seems clumsy and alien after the poetry of prime Chaplin, it contains a scene worthy of City Lights, a film it subtly alludes to, the director paying homage to the work closest to his heart. Courting a rich widow with a feast of flowers, Verdoux makes frequent visits to a florist’s shop that recalls the one in City Lights and employs a charming young woman reminiscent of the girl who shares that final “highest moment” with the Tramp. Soon after a visit to the shop, Verdoux spots a girl in a doorway (Marilyn Nash). He’s concocted a lethal mixture he needs to try out and decides she’ll do. As it’s a rainy evening, he offers to share his umbrella with her, inviting her to his apartment for something to eat.

As I already suggested, the scene that follows is worthy of Chaplin’s finest work. After preparing a simple meal for the girl and serving it with a glass of poisoned wine, he questions her about her lot in life, hoping that she’s alone in the world and will not be missed (she’s just out of prison for pawning a stolen typewriter); all the while he’s tensely anticipating the moment she drinks the wine.

As touching as Virginia Cherrill is as the girl in City Lights, she’s an actress. Marilyn Nash is clearly someone new to acting who seems to have walked in off the street. As the dialogue proceeds, Verdoux’s impatience (when will she drink the wine?) gives way to genuine curiosity (she’s reading Schopenhauer!) and shock when she reveals that she had a husband who recently died, having been crippled in the war, that caring for him had been like “a religion,” and that she would have killed for him. Verdoux, who has a crippled wife he’s been murdering rich widows to support, is stunned, and seeing that she’s about to drink the wine, he makes an excuse to take it back and hands her a fresh glass. Before she leaves, he gives her some money and she breaks down. As Agee notes, in sparing her, he has “betrayed his vocation,” and now “she threatens the very structure of his soul.” The next time they meet, by chance, she’s anxious to thank him and he rudely dismisses her, telling her to go on about her business.

The third time Verdoux sees the girl is after the war; she’s rich, having married a munitions manufacturer, while he’s lost everything; with the elegant veneer gone, he’s attained a certain pathos. When she calls to him from a limo, the hand motion she beckons him with evokes the gesture with which the girl in the florist shop beckons the Tramp in City Lights, and like the Tramp in that moment, Verdoux points to himself: “Me?” Now she’s the wealthy one, ready to return the favor. At the end she is in the courtroom, the one kind, caring face, as Verdoux is sentenced to death.

In Chaplin’s world, the female is the luminous, infinitely sympathetic audience. Without her the great artist’s power and poetry come to nothing.