Here’s an interesting piece I’ve been wanting to share! It’s from a book called The Legend of Charlie Chaplin, compiled by Peter Haines. This is a collection of essays and interviews by Chaplin’s friends, fellow actors, and other contemporaries, recalling their experiences with him. They’re essentially reprints from hard-to-find publications, the dates ranging from the 1910s-1970s. And we’re talking pieces by greats like Mary Pickford, Mack Sennett, Stan Laurel, etc. I can’t recall hearing anyone discuss this book–although I suppose it was printed back in the early ’80s–and I got it off Amazon a few years ago on a whim (where it’s still available at surprisingly reasonable prices, by the way).
One of the pieces is an interview given by our Buster Keaton to the French magazine Arts in October 1952, during the time when Limelight (1952) was being publicized. It’s, err, clearly translated from French, which was already translated from English, resulting in an oddly formal tone for the salt-of-the-earth Buster. But here and there you can decipher a very Buster-ish phrase or two.
Important context: this interview was taken not long after Chaplin and his family left the U.S. for the premiere of Limelight in London. Chaplin had long been suspected of communist sympathies, this being the McCarthy era, and as a result he was forbidden to re-enter the U.S. As you can imagine, this was a widespread scandal. Buster does comment on the situation a bit below. Take a look!
MY FRIEND CHARLIE
“I have known Charlie since 1912 and our friendship today is as close as ever. This constancy of affection is, perhaps, one of the truest characters of the man who is, to everyone, just Charlie.
“However, so much has been said about his impulsive, unstable character; about his pessimism, his sadness and his unkindness. The simple explanation for these quite wrong ideas is that people do not easily forgive a genius for being only a man. Perhaps, too, we want to make him pay the penalty for being so dazzlingly superior.
“Legend requires that clowns–once they have left the arena where they have just given enormous amusement–should return to their sorrow and bitterness in their dressing rooms. It is a great pity for such a touching and romantic image that I have to say that Charlie, in private, is the gayest of companions and the most delightful, kind and brilliant conversationalist I know.
“In truth, it is at work that he is least funny, if I may say so! Then, calm, cold, lucid and watchful, he pursues his love of perfection with the same attention to detail as a collector handling the wings of a butterfly.
“There are no minor sequences in a film for Charlie. Each image is prepared with meticulous care. And the so called ‘classicism’ of Chaplin is nothing but his love of work well done.
“Moreover, we can never admire enough his grasp of detail, the clockwork precision which each of his films represents, and which is perhaps the essence of his genius–an element even more important than his art of the gag. For by this perfect precision his comic sense is molded into an eternal kind of material; into almost human flesh itself. Chaplin was able to put more substance into his walking-stick than there were electrons in the Hiroshima Bomb.
“Charlie knows what he wants, and like all great enthusiasts he creates his own time. That is why his films now take five years to make. He commits himself utterly to each one, and risks his reputation, his talent, his health and his fortune all at once. No price is too high to pay. He is a great artist, always ready to cast aside everything for the sake of his work.
“However, let there be no misunderstanding about Chaplin’s passionate attitude. I remember twenty years ago he was asked if he was a Bolshevik. Today he is questioned about communism. To tell the truth, I believe that Charlie does not know what a political party is–only that he has voted to serve Art.
“But he has always been on the side of those who suffer against those who have everything. He is for those who think that everyone should have enough to eat, and can sympathize with anyone who has been hungry and can remember.
“Still, I digress too far from the point. Making Limelight with Charlie was a great pleasure for me. Not only because it meant working for an old friend, but because doing anything with him is marvelous.
“He had prepared and written everything in advance. But once in the studio he improvised within the framework he had drawn.
“To my mind he is the greatest director of comic actors there is. Roscoe Arbuckle, who worked with Charlie, was perhaps the only other great director of comedians.
“I recall that on many occasions I was summoned to the studio by Charlie, only to be told when I got there to come back the next day as he had changed his plan of work and was engrossed in something else. His is the only studio in Hollywood where work is done like that. The rest are just factories!
“Finally, I must just mention the ‘Chaplin Affair.’ Why shouldn’t he be allowed to return to the United States? He has done nothing illegal. There is nothing he can be blamed for. He pays his taxes and keeps the peace.
“Surely he has the right to a make a six-month visit to Europe? Isn’t he an English subject, after all?
“No, the arguments against him do not hold good! Let him return, I say, no one has the right to do what these people are doing to Charlie Chaplin!”
Genius talking about genius–fascinating. Note his fond memories of working on Limelight, the name-dropping of Roscoe Arbuckle (awesome) and this heck of a quote: “Chaplin was able to put more substance into his walking-stick than there were electrons in the Hiroshima Bomb.”
In regards to Chaplin’s political kerfuffles, it looks like Buster’s opinion was pretty consistent through the years–he thought that deep down, Chaplin didn’t know much more about politics than he did (Buster was contentedly apolitical). To illustrate this point, here’s a useful excerpt from Buster’s 1960 autobiography.
So one night back in 1920, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were hanging out in Buster’s kitchen drinking beer and discussing communism (I can never pass up the opportunity to say that):
He was going on at a great rate about something called communism which he had just heard about. He said that communism was going to change everything, abolish poverty. The well would help the sick, the rich would help the poor.
“What I want,” he said, banging the table, “is that every child should have enough to eat, shoes on his feet, and a roof over his head!”
Naturally, this amazed me, and I asked, after thinking about it a minute or two, “But, Charlie, do you know anyone who doesn’t want that?”
Charlie looked startled. Then his face broke into that wonderful smile of his, and he began to laugh at himself. I myself have gone through life almost unaware of politics, and I only wish my old friend had done the same. He must know by now that communism, wherever it has been practiced, bears not the slightest resemblance to the benign system he described to me forty years ago.
I do not really think Charlie knows much more about politics, history, or economics than I do. Like myself he was hit by a make-up towel almost before he was out of diapers. Neither of us had time while growing up to study anything but show business. But Charlie is a stubborn man, and when his right to talk favorably about communism was challenged he simply got bullheaded about it.
As this was written there were rumors that Charlie would like to get back to America. I hope he makes it. Even more I hope he keeps his promise to start making pictures again.
In both of these excerpts, but especially the one from The Legend of Charlie Chaplin, I found Buster’s warm descriptions of Charlie to be both fascinating and a good counter to the persistent rumors that the two were somehow bitter rivals. Perhaps the truth is less dramatic…and even rather heartwarming.
The Legend of Charlie Chaplin, ed. Peter Haining. Secaucus, New Jersey: Castle, 1982.
Keaton, Buster, with Samuels, Charles. My Wonderful World of Slapstick. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1960.