Sunnyside IV: The Phenomenon of Fame

by robert_hanks on May 27, 2011

One of the snags with really great artists is that they feed the illusion that the past is comprehensible: reading Jane Austen or listening to Beethoven, I can register a different set of manners and assumptions without feeling that there’s something utterly alien going on. (Critics generally settle for the adjective “timeless”.) Watching Charlie Chaplin, on the other hand, I’m always conscious of the chasm between then and now, how different modern times are from anything that went before. I don’t think this sense of strangeness has much to do with the question of whether we find him funny or not (the idea that Chaplin isn’t funny has fallen out of fashion in recent years, and I think it’s generally recognised that some of the time he’s very funny). But leaving aside Chaplin’s astoundingly deft comic shtick, the whole emotional world of the films seems primitive and impenetrable; I have trouble swallowing the Little Tramp himself as a sympathetic character, though the audiences a century back don’t seem to have felt any ambivalence.

I’m leading up to a proposition: that Chaplin has slipped out of our grasp. We have an idea that he is a figure of importance – world-historical importance, even: his Oscar in 1972 was for “the incalculable effect he has had on making motion pictures the art form of this century” – but we don’t really know why that is. So in Have You Seen…?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (2008), David Thomson, reviewing Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Chaplin’s late and little-liked comedy about a modern Bluebeard, writes: “It has to be seen, just as Chaplin has to be esteemed as the crucial figure in film history.” Not just a crucial figure, but the crucial figure: but as to why he is crucial, the article doesn’t offer so much as a clue. A clue is precisely what the chapter on “Charlie” in Thomson’s The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood (2004) does give: among a lot of detail about his financial dealings and the founding of United Artists (admittedly, a not insignificant aspect of his career) Chaplin is described as “a leading imaginary force in the world” – the phrase is more suggestive than informative. Peter Conrad devotes an entire chapter of Modern Times, Modern Places (1998) to Chaplin’s place in modernism; but while his commentary on several of Chaplin’s comic routines is acute and his catalogue of Chaplin references in the art and writings of the avant-garde is extensive, his efforts to show common cause, or causation, don’t come off. Conrad’s most explicit claim is that “Chaplin’s comedy is about the damage suffered by humanity in modern times”, which I think attributes to him a purpose and coherence the films (aside from Modern Times itself) don’t show; but even if you accept that’s what Chaplin’s up to, he’s working from a decidedly old-fashioned standpoint, harping on the pathos of the deserving poor. The medium may be new, but the message is Victorian. Again, we’re left with the message that Chaplin was vastly important, but no clear sense of why.

We know Charlie is important, then, but how? I’ve come across two modern commentaries that, if they don’t give a definitive answer, seem to point in the right direction. One is by David Thomson, redeeming himself, in the Biographical Dictionary of Film (4th edition, 2002) – a throwaway line from the entry on Chaplin: “I believe Chaplin understood years before anyone else the way in which audiences might identify with a star.”  The other is Sunnyside. Declaration of interest, or rather lack of it: I found Sunnyside unsatisfactory as a novel. The three main narratives didn’t fit together; it has a succession of striking incidents that don’t cohere into a plot; and likewise, while I was poleaxed by the depth of Glen David Gold’s research, I didn’t think his portrait of Chaplin cohered into a real person (then again, Chaplin barely was a real person: reading his autobiography, you come away with the impression of a hollow man, somebody who sees his own emotions at a distance, as something to be observed and reproduced). As an imaginative essay on Chaplin as a phenomenon, though, Sunnyside

We’re used to the idea of celebrity now, but that just makes it harder for us to comprehend the unprecedented nature of Chaplin’s stardom. To be famous before Chaplin was to be known as a name, a picture in a newspaper; and such fame was mostly local – even if people had heard of Jenny Lind or Buffalo Bill in Persia or Nyasaland, they wouldn’t have much idea of what they looked like; they wouldn’t have seen them doing the thing they were famous for. Chaplin’s fame abolished distance: people in every corner of the world knew his face, the twitch of his moustache, how he walked; he penetrated their imaginations in a way that had been inconceivable even five years earlier. The Memphis Tennessee Appeal of 17 June 1917 commented on the way children reacted to his films: “Boys speak to Charlie like he had for years been a companion in arms …  They bid him goodnight as though he was present in person. His astral body does the same work on the screen that his physical personality is expected to do.” I know Glen David Gold read that, because it’s quoted in David Robinson’s Chaplin: His Life and Art, which he cites – in fact, it’s on the same page where Robinson describes the event that opens Sunnyside, the day in November 1916 when Chaplin was paged at 800 hotels across America. That may have been a prank or a publicity stunt; for the purposes of fiction, Gold leans more towards the idea of a “psycho-pathological phenomenon”, a bizarre manifestation of Chaplin’s pull on the nation’s psyche.

Sunnyside is partly about Chaplin’s own developing imagination, partly about the basic fact of his fame; but it is more profoundly about the shift that his fame implied in human imagination, “the way in which audiences might identify with a star”. The nature of this shift is embodied in the protagonists of the two narratives running parallel to Chaplin’s. Hugo Black, dispatched to northern Russia as part of America’s anti-Bolshevik expeditionary force in late 1918, is bourgeois, an engineer by training; he has an old-style imagination, mechanical, rule-bound. Even when he is romantic, it is in conventional terms – meeting three sisters in a castle he casts them as princesses in a fairy-tale, himself as the prince who will rescue them. Lee Duncan, an aircraft mechanic on the western front, is a chancer, a waster, a lothario – a 20th-century man. He’s a dedicated film fan, who projects himself constantly into the narratives he sees on screen; I would guess he’s one of those boys who bid Charlie goodnight. The gulfs of class and education between Black and Duncan are nothing beside the fundamental difference between their ways of imagining themselves and their place in the world. I found myself dreaming of a new book by Harold Bloom – Chaplin: The Invention of the Human.

Or maybe Glen David Gold was just writing a story. In which case, oops.

Robert Hanks used to write about books and such for the Independent, and is now a solo gunslinger in the world of cultural criticism.

What’s this all about? See the introduction to the Sunnyside book event here.



Walt 05.27.11 at 11:49 am

Maybe this is something weird with my browser, but this post is in a distinctly smaller font than the other posts.


hidflect 05.27.11 at 4:35 pm

It’s an asian font, I believe. MSMincho or Japanese MSGothic, or something.

(poor Chaplin… he doesn’t even get a comment)


Cheez Whiz 05.27.11 at 5:46 pm

I’ll chime in, then. This is all about novels vs. movies. Chaplin is important mainly (and probably only) because he was the first global movie star. His work is sentimental and Victorian because the world was sentimental and Victorian at the time. The stagecraft that moved people to tears in 1916 inspires snickering in this post-post-ironic world. Critics and other professional thinkers have to assign some reason to justify Chaplin’s success, so its easy to transform his combination of skill, luck, and timing into a transformative vision of a new artform. People would be writing novels about D.W. Griffith if he acted in his movies. Heck, people would be writing novels about Elvis if he acted in his movies. There’s another guy who has been fitted with the clothes of a genius because of skill, luck, and timing.


bridget 05.27.11 at 9:48 pm

It’s possible young(er) people have a harder time relating to Chaplin because people in those days had to be a lot tougher in so many more ways than today. You could starve in America rather easily. The Civil War was as near to them as Vietnam is to us. Being homeless, wearing rags, uneducated, mentally sick, physically sick was so much more serious at that time because so many health & social advances like education had not been advanced as they are today. I think parents of those days and the children of parents in those day really tried hard to press their decendents into paying attention – time flies, don’t waste time, get it done now, work, work, work and their message seemed to be taken as one of fear, when it was one of trying to impart courage and spine to recent generations being what amounted to “coddled” in their eyes. People in Chaplin’s time were totally o.k. with getting seriously injured making movies. People put their lives on the line often in many lines of work. It seems we’re getting closer to those times again than the utopia so many people worked for for their children, so perhaps Chaplin will be better understood by the generations coming up than the people dissecting him now. It’s not just about understanding hard times. You have to understand them well enough to understand the humor and the empathy and the cruelty of Chaplin’s time that Chaplin so skillfully portrayed.


John Holbo 05.28.11 at 12:24 am

I just took the liberty of going in and deleting the obviously stray span tags. If, in the process, I deleted anything else, then, sir, the fault is mine and I’ll take the consequences.


maidhc 05.28.11 at 12:42 am

Chaplin was an international star, but in the US Mary Pickford was at a similar level of popularity. Her films were not groundbreaking as films, though.

Chaplin realized that film was a different medium from everything that had come before, and he spent a lot of time working out his approach. He would do the same scene 40 or 50 times before he was happy with it. Since he was directing himself, he would film all his concepts and watch them as he went. This was time-consuming, because they would have to develop the film in the middle of shooting (he would have loved digital video). But that means some of the intermediate versions are still around, and you can watch him develop a scene.

Chaplin also used techniques of varying the cranking speed of the camera to enhance action scenes. In the days of the hand-cranked silent film camera, a skilled cameraman could make a huge difference to the pace of a scene. Chaplin wasn’t the only person to use this technique, but he used it very skillfully. There are a few of his scenes in which the camera was actually cranked backwards.

There was a lot of hard technical work to his films as well as his own talent as a performer. That’s why I think a lot of his work still holds up, when Mary Pickford’s doesn’t.

I would compare Chaplin in some ways to Louis Armstrong. Someone who was one of the true pioneers in developing an artform, but was later derided for being old-fashioned and not keeping up with the way that that artform he did so much to create was developing.


Ian Woodke 05.28.11 at 3:30 am

Most of what I wanted to say has been covered in previous comments here, but I don’t think it’s accurate that younger people are untouched by Chaplin films. I’m nineteen years old and several of my friends and I have been moved to tears by his films, particularly the final scene of City Lights. That scene is unquestionably one of the most beautiful in all of cinema. With that said, most younger people may not be touched by his films, but most young people also dismiss the vast majority of serious art, especially that which they didn’t grow up with. Sure, he didn’t have the craft of Buster Keaton or King Vidor, but he was truly a master of pathos and I think it’s inaccurate to suggest that young people are unable to experience his films emotionally.


E. Keith Owens 05.28.11 at 11:07 am

……………The life of Charles Chaplin is the worlds greatest rags to riches story. But the fact is that Chaplin could have been as big a star as he liked on stage and we would probably know him now as well as say Dan Leno or Henry Irving. This is why Chaplin continues to be an important figure for us in Britain.


John Quiggin 05.28.11 at 11:39 am

Sort of related is a comment I once read by Trotsky about the mixture of medieval and modern illustrated by movie actresses who consult astrologers. Nowadays, I’d be mildly encouraged to find a movie actor of any gender who rejects astrology, and nothing surprising in the opposite but for Trotsky, the technological innovation associated with movies carried over, in some sense, to expectations about the participants.


tomslee 05.28.11 at 2:22 pm

Chaplin is far enough away that I’d never have picked up Sunnyside if it wasn’t recommended here. A book about Chaplin (not that it is just that of course, but you know what I mean) doesn’t immediately sing to me. Not close enough to be relevant, not far away enough to be romantic.

So far (I’m about 2/3 of the way through) it’s the Chaplin thread that I find most absorbing, partly because it does bring to life a period and place about which I know nothing save the names. Screens are such a part of our daily existence that this retelling of the transition between a world without screens and a world with screens opens up a whole set of questions that are new to me, and quite fascinating as well as entertaining.


glen_david_gold 05.28.11 at 3:32 pm

You will soon hear more from me than any human can bear on the topic of Chaplin, but about Pickford, @maidhc (or do you prefer #maidhc?), I found myself a little hamstrung when trying to judge her actual work. For some reason, unlike Fairbanks or Chaplin, only the really schmaltzy Pickford was on DVD (at least this was true circa 2006). It was stuff that even the contemporary critics said was more sentimental (as in “unearned sentiment”) than genuinely engaging. That might not be true as of 2011. I have a hunch that, like Chaplin, it could be hard to really know what impact Pickford has unless you’re in a theater with an audience.

On the other hand, I agree about her technical side. She didn’t innovate there, except in her understanding that if the third movie you release that year is terrible, people will still show up for the fourth, just to spend time with the familiar.

And @John Q: had I that Trotsky quotation at hand a few years ago, I would have used it in the book, and lovingly.


Bruce Wilder 05.28.11 at 7:03 pm

maidhc: “There are a few of his scenes in which the camera was actually cranked backwards.”

I’m having a lot of time even imagining what that could possibly mean — that he double-exposed film?


polyorchnid octopunch 05.28.11 at 11:09 pm

Wilder @12: I’d imagine it was the only way to film something backwards in those days.


bob mcmanus 05.29.11 at 4:28 pm

12,13: I’m with Wilder. Unexposed film has a direction?


belle le triste 05.29.11 at 5:07 pm

Well, spools have a direction–film is either winding onto one, or off it. I’m guessing perhaps that the camera had a little motor that only went one way, so to get reverse movement you had to hand-crank in the other direction….


Doctor Slack 05.29.11 at 6:12 pm

I would compare Chaplin in some ways to Louis Armstrong. Someone who was one of the true pioneers in developing an artform, but was later derided for being old-fashioned and not keeping up with the way that that artform he did so much to create was developing.

Armstrong was later derided for being (supposedly) an Uncle Tom and pandering to white audiences in exchange for privilege, not so much for being old-fashioned. His later career was as a pop music juggernaut rather than a jazz innovator, but that wasn’t directly related to the status that caused all the resentment (which came earlier).


Hob 05.30.11 at 6:58 am

I don’t know how to get past this bit: “the whole emotional world of the films seems primitive and impenetrable.”

It’d be one thing if it more clearly referred to this particular author’s opinion of the films, but here it’s put in contrast to the response of “audiences a century back,” so apparently you’re saying that all or most modern viewers share this opinion and, like you, “have trouble swallowing the Little Tramp himself as a sympathetic character.” That’s quite an assertion. Neither I nor literally anyone I’ve ever met who’s seen the films (including people who don’t even like Chaplin) had any trouble seeing the Tramp as a sympathetic character. That’s admittedly anecdotal, but at least I’m generalizing from a sample size larger than one.

Also, what does “primitive and impenetrable” mean in this context? “Primitive” is often a loaded word but I find it just confusing here. In reference to the emotional content of a story, I would’ve imagined that “primitive” content would be more accessible, rather than impenetrable. But that aside, I can’t imagine what you think is so alien about the emotional content of stories about looking for food and money and work, falling in love, getting drunk, having unreliable friends, and running away from policemen. Not enough blogging maybe?


bob 05.31.11 at 8:49 pm

Although “born” 14 years after Chaplin’s first film, the comedy in Mickey Mouse cartoons has always eluded me (Mickey seems to be related to Chaplin, or at least Disney claimed “We wanted something appealing, and we thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin — a little fellow trying to do the best he could.”) I’m sure I’ve never laughed, and probably never even grinned at a Mickey Mouse cartoon. But I have often laughed at Chaplin films.


Robert Hanks 06.01.11 at 2:27 pm

Hi gang, sorry I’m late. Did I miss anything?

Bob @18 – I’m with you on Mickey; but re: Chaplin, what interests me is not whether we find him funny (as I said, I think the idea that he isn’t is going out of fashion) but whether he can touch us emotionally.

I’m not sure where Hob @17 gets the idea that I’m generalizing purely from my own opinions: perhaps I should have made it clearer that I was generalizing from reading, from many conversations with friends, and from a couple of attempts to interest my now teenage children in Chaplin. Hob says he can’t imagine what I think is so alien about “the emotional content of stories about looking for food and money and work, falling in love, getting drunk, having unreliable friends, and running away from policemen”. But in what sense is a Chaplin film ever about “falling in love” in any sense that an adult can recognize? He sees a pretty girl, tips his hat, smiles, minces, gives her flowers, perhaps tries to kiss her: it’s a ritual of courtship, or a child’s idea of what falling in love might involve, but not something you expect to find in an entertainment aimed at adults, not in the 20th century. That is what I mean by calling it “primitive”; and I find that sort of emotional world impenetrable, too – that is, I get the surface, I can see what it’s meant to be, but I can’t see anything beneath that; I can’t identify with it at all. Similarly, while it’s evident that we’re meant to sympathise with the Little Tramp, he is frequently hysterical, vindictive, petty, deceitful. He’s also curiously deracinated, existing outside any recognisable social structures – with some exceptions (notably City Lights and Modern Times), the tramp persona sets Chaplin up as a pure isolated comic ego rather than as an Everyman.

The comparison with Armstrong @6 is really interesting: I don’t think its true, btw, that he was patronized purely as an Uncle Tom; there was a definite disdain for his brand of music round about the mid-century, and an ignorance of just how much he had innovated.


glen_david_gold 06.01.11 at 5:10 pm

Glen Gold, Marx Brothers fan here. And Louis Armstrong. Not so much the Mouse.

I think where Chaplin falls down (and not in a good way, as in on top of a birthday cake or something) is in portraying the complexity of primary relationships (parent/child) and secondary ones (what happens after the courtship?). When people credit him with full-on emotion, it’s often in context of The Kid. And that film does indeed have a pretty engaging father/son relationship. However, the mother/son stuff isn’t just ham-handed but embarrassing. Edna shows up and the Stations of the Cross are superimposed over her, as if Chaplin doesn’t trust that her situation is already something we can get behind. And the many romances in his films are generic, to the extent that Edna Purviance played the love interest something like 48 times. When you see a Chaplin, you don’t really feel the surging blood of lust as you do with Keaton.

But even as I say that, I have to ask if anyone else has watched A Woman of Paris? It has a very sophisticated view of the man/woman thing, and, perhaps significantly, Chaplin ain’t in it. I suppose Monsieur Verdoux also lacks sentimentality, but it’s a nasty film to try to watch. Chaplin could definitely go outside that sweetness zone, but it’s not like Edith Wharton’s pornography — you aren’t necessarily happy with him as an artist for having done so.

And Elvis: it’s worth reading Peter Guralnik’s two-volume biography, in that you really understand that combination of luck, timing and skill. Also, that “genius” question is difficult — I know he wasn’t intellectual, but Elvis had a different relationship with the materials than anyone else did. In other words, there were a lot of people with access to the same songs and same knowledge, but he’s the only one who could synthesize them. So it’s something more than skill.

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