24 April, 2013
It was originally eight hours long.
Let me explain.
My dear Diana and I had the pleasure over the last two weekends to view (on the first Saturday) Richard Attenborough’s classic Chaplin and (on the very next Saturday) Chaplin’s classic The Kid. And viewing them like that – the first, of course, being the biopic of the previous genius’ life; the second being one of the genius’ classics – was profound. To see them “together” like that was –
Sorry, I did say they were both in the theatre, right? We aren’t talking a DVD on the couch with laundry going in the background. This was how they were meant to be seen. Uninterrupted, great print, great sound, with an audience; and great crowds, both (natch, these were fans), but – talk about how they were meant to be seen – Kid even had live piano accompaniment. You revisit these two like that? A week apart? Well, you can’t help but argue how good Chaplin was.
And argue isn’t even a fair word. Obviously so much has been written about him; the good and the bad. His work in front of and behind the camera, the marriages, the kids, his relationships with Fairbanks and Pickford, Smile and his own mad family. So even as good a biopic as Chaplin is – and it is; if you haven’t seen it, or haven’t seen it in a while, I stand by how well it holds up – all you really have to do is watch one of his and there’s indeed no argument.
I’ve seen Chaplin several times, own it, championing it is easy. But I hadn’t seen The Kid in years so I was looking forward to seeing how well it held up. Sure, we’ve all seen that famous shot of Chaplin and Jackie Coogan reunited in the car, remember the bit of The Kid helping The Tramp “fix” the windows, The Dream Sequence, but it was the little stuff I found so refreshing. The bookends with The Mother, the early stuff with The Tramp and The Baby, the bits with The Cop and The Bully Brother. How funny it was. (Diana and I saw Kid at The Billy Wilder Theatre in Westwood, part of that wonderful program’s Children Series, so there were kids in the audience – young kids, four or five – and they laughed. Pun not necessarily intended, Chaplin’s Kid is so good that kids today were enthralled.)
But back to that other great movie we saw, Chaplin. Hike up to the Hollywood sign; yep, it’s really there. Drive up La Brea in Hollywood; yep, his Studio is still there (now under Kermit The Frog’s wonderful eyes). Oh, and you’ve heard of that little company United Artists? Yep, really devised by Chaplin, Fairbanks and Pickford (and that other little what’s-his-name D.W. Griffith). Los Angeles has so little history – real history – that I can’t help but revel in her movie versions. (Those of you that know my relationship to Lone Pine know this.) Well, there are a few wonderful places still left in L.A. from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Find them. Revel in them yourself. You won’t be disappointed. But I … well, didn’t digress just there, but … diverted. Anyway …
We’re at the Chaplin screening -- at Grauman’s still beautiful Egyptian in Hollywood where Diana’s own film Citlalli’s Prayer premiered, thank you -- and there’s a wonderful Q&A beforehand, in which I learned that Chaplin was originally an eight hour miniseries through Universal. Attenborough & Co were all set, ready to go. We’re talking Mr. Downey Jr. cast – and this quick article won’t even touch on his genius, nor Mr. Barry’s unarguably perfect Score – the sets had been built, they’re a week from shooting.
And Universal pulls the plug.
Well, Attenborough can’t let go and goes shopping, finally landing with the prescient TriStar (and Carolco and Canal+; yep, it takes the three of them to pickup the project). Problem is the idea – subtitle that the budget – for the eight hour miniseries is out the window. It has to be a cut down to a feature. Eight hours to two? Attenborough & Co go back to the drawing board. (Beautiful moment here is, remember, they already had the sets and cast and crew waiting. So what’s Attenborough do? Personally pays to keep everything in a holding pattern. You read that, right? He personally paid for it. Yeah, that’s passion for a project.)
Okay, mini series has to become a movie. So that old slouch William Goldman is brought in for rewrites. (And if you’re just in from distant lands, “slouch” is a little sarcasm there. He only has two Academy Awards.) So what’s he do? In his invaluable book Which Lie Did I Tell? Mr. Goldman says it thus: “When Richard Attenborough asked me to come in and help with Chaplin, I read several books about the man. And I thought it might make a terrific flick. Because of his childhood. Charlie had one of those lives even Dickens wouldn’t have dared dream up. Poverty, sure, lots of that. Love, nope, none of that. But a lot of people are poor and unloved, no big deal. It was the madness that rocked me. Chaplin had madness in his family. His mother was insane. And when he was a teenager, he had to put her in a lunatic asylum. Chaplin’s horrible early life stayed with him as he performed and came to America and got to Hollywood and – this is true now – for reasons no one will ever know, he was doing a movie and wandered into a prop-and-costume shack, tried this on, that on – and exited as The Tramp. Arguably the most famous image in the first century of film was born full-blown that day. He went in as Charlie, came out a little later with the shoes and the hat and the cane, and stood there blinking in the sunlight. That’s how I wanted to end the movie. This unknown little guy, blinking and maybe experimentally waving his cane around and walking that most famous of all walks. My logic was the audience knew what happened to The Tramp. Let’s leave before that. Attenborough, a very bright man, understood my point. He had a different problem. He loved the childhood, yes, but he was just as moved by the end of Charlie’s life, when, ancient and infirm, he was at last allowed back to Hollywood for his honorary Oscar in 1977. If you have seen that real footage, you know how moving it was. If you haven’t, try and find it somewhere. It will rock you.”
Here you go, class --
Goldman continues, “So Dickie loved the childhood, yes, but he also loved the old man’s return. The movie had to include both. Problem: movies don’t [condense time] well. Because it’s not just the makeup that bothers you in time passing. [You get a line like] “Charlie Chaplin, my Lord, it’s been ten years since we last saw each other, back in London it was, when my daughter played the ingénue in that West End revival of The Importance Of Being Earnest and you liked her and we met backstage. This was just before you got her pregnant.” Yeah, it was clunky. Sir Dickie wanted me to come in and somehow, to use his word, “declunk” it. I came up with the Tony Hopkins part. I decided that since Chaplin wrote an autobiography, and since he was a famous man living in Switzerland, it would not be ridiculous if his book editor came from London to discuss final revisions. The editor could ask whatever questions we wanted to get us to the next dramatic sequence. And could also, if possible, shoulder some of the dreaded exposition that infiltrated the story.”
(It's interesting that coming up with the Editor character so they could "jump to the good parts" is the same as Goldman's own technique in 'The Princess Bride.' But stealing from oneself is for another article; in which I'll steal great bits from here.) Goldman's work is a brilliant declunking, sure, but then he says this – which indeed rocked me because I love the movie. “Chaplin was a worldwide commercial flop. What was [my input] worth? You decide.”
You see, as much as I love the movie, as much as I love Chaplin – his work, but I indeed have a soft spot for the man himself – I’d forgotten that the movie somehow “didn’t work” (yes, they really say that). Why? I don’t know. As I wrote in the beginning, “I stand by how well it holds up.” So why did people “not get it?” (Yes, they really say that too.)
I think because of time.
Not that time hasn’t been kind to The Tramp – and God this is such a bullshit Hollywood thing to say – but when the movie came out. (Sadly, it’s true how important that is.) People just weren’t ready for it. Why? I don’t know again. Figure that out and you own the world. (Point in fact, you think someone knew to release Star Wars in the Summer of ’77? Just to give you an idea of some of the movies leading up to it, how about Taxi Driver, All The President’s Men, Network, Carrie and Marathon Man? Now I picked those because of how good they are. But people were suddenly in the mood for Flash Gordon. Why? I still don’t know. But it happens.
So Chaplin comes out and not so much. I don’t really want to go on and on here, but there’s an old adage that if you have a good script and cast it well, the heavy lifting is done. We don’t have to talk about The Kid here, do we? Natch to both. But just between us, does Chaplin have both: a good script and is it cast well? For me, natch again. So why did it flop? Only one reason. Money. It just didn’t make enough when it was released.
Aw, and you thought it had something to do with story.
In that great clip of Mr. Chaplin accepting his honorary Oscar, we hear Daniel Taradash (President of The Academy at the time, but he also wrote a little movie called From Here To Eternity) say that Chaplin once said, “My only enemy is time. Well, we respectfully disagree … time is Charlie Chaplin’s dearest and eternal friend.”
I’m a writer, and I don’t think too shabby, but I’m sitting there in the theatre – at The Kid – and thinking, "Here’s a guy that came up with this wonderful story – and remember he Wrote It, Acts In It and Directed It – AND IT DOESN’T HAVE ANY DIALOGUE." Sure, there are the occasional cards that give us time and place and necessary lines – the necessary bits of information – but there’s no conversation. And keep in mind, I’m one of the great champions of Woody Allen and Aaron Sorkin who shine in their conversation. Well – as Diana pointed out so well – just look at Chaplin’s and Coogan’s and Purviance’s eyes in this. What’s more to be said?
But then, as an opening card of The Kid reads, “A comedy with a smile -- and perhaps a tear.”
If I could only be mad enough to write a line as well as that.
Could any of us that write words for a living …