David Robinson, expert on Charles Chaplin, talks to Insight about the man, his world view and his only novella

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Insight is delighted to have the opportunity talk to David Robinson, to learn more about Charles Chaplin, an iconic figure in the film industry in the silent era and beyond, up to the time of his death in 1977.

Recently, Chaplin expert, biographer and author David Robinson has pieced together and published Footlights, a novella that tells the story later filmed as Limelight, within his book Footlights with the World of Limelight.  Footlights tells the story of a ballerina and a clown that has its roots in a life-changing meeting in 1916 between Chaplin and Vaslav Nijinsky, the world-famous Russian dancer and choreographer.Book jacket, big

The manuscript has remained undiscovered in the Charlie Chaplin archive at the Cineteca di Bologna in Italy until now. David Robinson has cut this diamond from a collection of typed and handwritten versions of the manuscript. Although never meant for publication, the novella and its companion piece, Calvero’s Story, were published for the first time in January 2014.

Footlights: the novella

Footlights was written by Chaplin as a personal project in 1948, well before the film Limelight was conceived although it tells the same story. The prose version expands on the themes of the film, providing a unique opportunity to understand Chaplin, the man, at this point in his life. The novella, and its wrap-around works, are published by the Cineteca di Bologna, an Italian film restoration institute that has been engaged by the Chaplin Estate to digitise the great man’s work.

In an interview with the Guardian (4 February 2014) conducted for the launch of the book , Cecilia Cenciarelli, co-director of the Cineteca’s Chaplin project, said:

[Footlights] has shadows. It’s the story of a comedian who has lost his public, by a comedian who at that time had lost his public, who was referred to in the press of the time as a ‘former comedian’, a ‘former successful film maker’…

It is a prequel of sorts to the film, in that it fleshes  out why Calvero has nightmares, why he is so disenchanted with his career, with the public. The book deals a little more with the relationship of the artist to his audience, with the meaning of art [than Limelight].

Limelight: the filmChaplin_bbc

This film was the last movie that Chaplin made for Hollywood before his exile from the USA on account of his supposed, Communist political affiliation. Set in London in 1914, before the outbreak of the Great War, Chaplin plays the part of Calvero, a clown on the downward slope of his career with an addiction to drink. Despite his personal demons, Calvero saves a young ballerina, Thereza Ambrose (Terry, played by Claire Bloom) from suicide, and so redeems his own life before its tragic end.

Claire Bloom talked about Limelight and her experience of working with Charles Chaplin at a screening of the film at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to mark the 60th anniversary of its 1952 release date (04.21):

Footlights with the World of Limelight: the book

Insight talks to David Robinson, Chaplin’s foremost biographer and world-renowned expert on the actor and filmmaker, about Robinson’s discovery of a previously unknown manuscript in the Chaplin project archive.

Insight: Where did your interest in silent film stem from?

David: I would guess from joining a film society when I was 16 – that was around 68 years ago.  Seeing silent films was a different experience then – mostly scratched 126mm prints, viewed in silence, disturned only by the whir of the projector. No music. But the magic of that rich, though wordless, expressiveness took hold.

Insight: When did you become interested in Charles Chaplin?

David: There was no escaping him. My father had seen the very first Chaplin films as a child – before Chaplin was even recognised by a name: the boys called him ‘dummy’ and passed the word around that ‘There’s another Dummy picture on at the Corn Exchange this week’.

Insight: Where in your view does Chaplin sit in the pantheon of influential actors and filmmakers?

David: Every actor (even the self-esteeming Laurence Olivier) acknowledges Chaplin’s supreme gifts as an actor. But his skills are distincive and inimitable, so his influence is not really perceptible.

Equally, as a filmmaker, his aim was essentially to make a stage for himself. This he did with great skill, although over the years critics mistook his single-minded concentration and restraint for a lack of technical sophistication. So, he was not really an influence on filmmakers either.

But he was a massive influence on the industry and the art of film. The huge success of the first [credited] Chaplin film first revealed the possibility of a worldwide international market: in his case it was virtually universal! And, very fast, he forced on serious critics the idea that film – including popular film and comedy – could be considered as art.

Insight: What do you think about the Richard Attenborough biopic Chaplin, with Robert Downey, Jr in the lead role?

David: I was very much involved with the entire production (and actually share a ‘based on’ credit title with Chaplin [with My Autobiography] ). It was a very serious and responsible attempt to get the life story right (Attenborough worships Chaplin). But the script never came right… the last-minute revisions and introduction of a narrator only partially saved the day. Nevertheless I think it looks great, both in design and camerawork. Also, the casting is interesting; and Robert Downey, though he was personally very erratic during the shooting, has some fine moments.

Insight: How private was Chaplin, the man? Did he have a religious faith or personal philosophy? Did he see filmmaking as a kind of therapy?

David: He recalled with great affection and happiness his mother’s Christian faith and the Bible stories she told him and his brother as children, but there is no evidence at all of any pursuit of formal religion, or expression of any faith in his adult years. Total silence. He was, of course, a supreme humanist in his work and opinions.

Insight: Tell us about Monsieur Verdoux. How did the alleged ‘poor reception’ to the film affect Chaplin’s professional standing and personal world view?

David: It depends what you mean by ‘a poor reception’.  In terms of serious criticism the film was extremely well received internationally. The bad reception was political – this was the period of the Cold War, [Senator Joseph] McCarthy and HUAC [House Un-American Activities Committee] and Chaplin was a great target for them. Verdoux, though set in 1930s Paris, could easily be seen as ‘un-American’.  It really is a long and complex story: I’d like to recommend my own book Chaplin: His Life and Art (just reprinted by Penguin), which gives a detailed account of this episode.  The great critic, James Agee, responded to the political attacks by devoting three successive monthly columns in The Nation to enthusiastic writing on Verdoux.

Insight: In Limelight, Chaplin cast members of his family in the film. What does this show about his feelings about the importance of ‘family’?

David: I don’t think there is any matter of family feeling – it was convenient that the ones he chose  were conveniently near at hand and appropriate for the parts. He had been surprised and impressed to see his son Sydney on stage with the Circle Theatre, and chose him for that reason. His odd step-brother Wheeler Dryden provided good type-casting for the Doctor and the Pantaloon. And since he wanted children for the street scene, why not his own? Remember, in the old days [1914] he had formed his stock company; I think preferred to work with people he knew, rather than newcomers to whom he had to accustom himself.

Insight: Was Chaplin a sad clown, a melancholy man? Or does Limelight simply catch a moment in time in his life?

David: I don’t think he was melancholy.  He clearly was emotional, and responded to the moment.  And life in the Cold War era was far from comfortable for him.

Insight: Where do you think Chaplin felt he belonged? Britain, USA, Switzerland, the World, or nowhere?

David: He liked to call himself a ‘citizen of the world’, ‘a cosmopolitan’. In fact, he was such a unique and larger-than-life figure that I don’t think he had to fit into any society and place. I think he was at home wherever in the world he found himself, so long (in the later years) as he had his family with him – most of all his wife, Oona.

Insight: How did Chaplin feel about the boycott of Limelight in the USA?

David: It was obviously a very uncomfortable situation both commercially and personally when the political attacks were specifically aimed at the distribution of his films. He must have been very much distressed and angered by the situation, though he was physically distanced from it – he left the USA before the premiere of Limelight, and never returned.

Insight: This year marks the centenary of the first appearance of Chaplin’s ‘Little Tramp’ character on screen. How did the character develop – a story-arc meta-narrative across many films – from its debut in Kid Auto Races at Venice to Limelight, and beyond?GB_Stamp

David: By all accounts the costume (and with it the character to an extent) were assembled very quickly and casually from elements in the Keystone Studios wardrobe shed.  He said only that he was looking for contrasts  tight jacket, baggy trousers; little hat, big boots  and a moustache to make him look older than his 25 years.  It’s important to note that the character was not conceived as a tramp.  In all the 36 films he made at Keystone in his first year, he plays working men, family men, strollers in search of a woman or a drink…. It was not until 1915, after more than a year in pictures, that he specifically played a tramp (in The Tramp).  In the early films the character was not particularly defined.

Insight: How did Chaplin develop from an ‘unschooled’ child to a prolific screenwriter  and debut prose writer?

David: He was a tireless autodidact  for instance, for many years he kept a dictionary beside him and set himself to task of learning a new word every day. He would use words he liked with great enthusiasm and often some inaccuracy. And he never could spell very well. However, as with his filmmaking, when writing he would work and work, try and try, revise and revise  until it came right.  And I think a part of his genius, in whatever he undertook, was that he had an instinctive and impeccable taste: he knew when it came right.

Insight: How does Footlights redraw our understanding of the ‘Little Tramp’ and of Chaplin, the man?

David: I don’t think it redraws anything. Every film was a progression. He had left the Tramp figure behind in 1936, and the protagonists of his subsequent films are each new and different creations.  They are linked only by Chaplin’s acting gifts, his unique blend of drama, humour, sentiment and tragedy.

Insight: How did Chaplin cope with the changing demands and practice of filmmaking in Hollywood? (Kid Auto Races at Venice would have been produced quickly; Limelight was around three years in the making.)

David: His first films at Keystone were made very fast: Kid Auto Races was probably shot in less than an hour.  After this period he strove constantly for independence, to work at his own pace and cost.  In the silent days he ‘wrote in the camera’, making endless takes of every shot and visual gag until it came right. With the coming of dialogue films he had to do a lot of this experimental, trial-and-error work in the writing of a script. During World War II, with rising costs, film rationing and much stricter union restrictions, he had to economise a lot. And even more work had to be done in the preparatory writing stages. Limelight took two and a half years for writing and preparation, but only 55 days to shoot. You can find comparative figures for all his other films in my book, Chaplin: His Life and Art.

Insight: In your new book, Footlights with the World of Limelight, how do the previously unseen photographs affect our understanding of Chaplin?

David: I don’t think they do.  The photographs simply reinforce and illustrate his complete dedication and involvement in the work  but we already knew that from previously published images and texts.

Insight: How did Chaplin’s declining stardom affect him personally?

David: I don’t think there was a sense of declining stardom  his fame remained.  It was rather that the efforts of the FBI and the McCarthyists, and their press supporters, succeeded in smearing him politically and morally  and that eroded his popularity with a lot of Middle America. This was certainly pretty shocking for him, and no doubt has something to do with making the hero of Limelight an old comedian who has lost his audience.

Insight: Are there any significant differences in Footlights and Limelight in plot or mood? How does Footlights affect our understanding and interpretation of Limelight?

David: No: the changes between the two texts are generally structural  shortening and tidying the plot.  Footlights gives Chaplin the opportunity to explore his characters with words. These explorations came to fruition in the transfer to the screen.

Insight: How close to Chaplin’s original work and intentions is the manuscript you collated from the notes and scrapbooks in the archive?

David: It is 100 per cent Chaplin. The task in examining all the various drafts was to try to be sure that we had found his final and definitive version.

Insight: If Chaplin loved to hear audiences laugh, how did he deal with their indifference and/or hostility?

David: I don’t think audiences became hostile or ceased laughing (when laughter was the appropriate reaction).  The hostility took the form of staying away from the films, with the McCarthyists and the media persuading the public to do so.

Insight: The name Calvero is a close homophone of Calvary, the site of Christ’s Crucifixion. Did Chaplin feel persecuted and ‘found guilty’ unjustly?

David: I don’t think so. It’s just a coincidence.

Insight: What were the strongest influences on his life from his childhood in London? How do these influences frame Limelight?

David: A little document discovered after the book was finished is titled ‘The Childhood of Calvero’. It describes a childhood very like Chaplin’s own, with some fictional additions like the idea that the young Calvero worked with a troupe of child acrobats which, as far as we know, Chaplin never did.

Insight: Was Chaplin class conscious? Did he see himself as working class? How did world fame and financial success affect his view of himself within society?

David: His origins were in the poorest part of South London  though his parents worked as music-hall performers, with variable success. Chaplin was conscious of his poor origins and lack of education, and specifically mentions this as a factor in the life of Calvero. But I think after he became rich and successful in Hollywood, he did not think of himself in terms of class. Although his creative work  at least while he was still personifying the ‘Tramp’ figure  depended on his staying in touch with his roots.  Whenever he came back to London (in 1921, 1931 and after 1952) he regularly went off alone to revisit the poor streets of his childhood.

For a more detailed understanding of Charles Chaplin, read David Robinson’s comprehensive biography Chaplin: His Life and Art (1985, 2001, 2014): see also, links to online booksellers below.

Honorary Oscar awarded in 1972: the legacy (video: 05.09)

The warmth of the audience’s reception for Chaplin at the 44th Academy Awards, after a lengthy and fulsome introduction, is overwhelming. A standing ovation and universal cheering seems to move Chaplin visibly at this moment of reconciliation with the American film industry.

Product links: Sir Charles Chaplin (UK only)

Film: Charles Chaplin, Limelight (1952), DVD issue 2013, Charles Chaplin, Claire Bloom, Buster Keaton
Film: Richard Attenborough, Chaplin (1992), DVD issue 2008, Robert Downey Jr, Geraldine Chaplin, Paul Rhys, Dan Akroyd
Film: Charles Chaplin, Monsieur Verdoux (1947), DVD issue 2003, Charles Chaplin, Mady Correll, Allison Roddan
Film: Henry Lehrman, Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), Internet, Internet Archive, Silent Film issue in public domain, under Creative Commons licence , Charles Chaplin
Film: Charles Chaplin, The Tramp (1915), DVD issue 2008, Charles Chaplin, Billy Armstrong, Lloyd Bacon, Edna Purviance, Ernest van Piet

Book: David Robinson, Footlights and the World of Limelight (2014), hardback 2014, Cinteca di Bologna, Italy (English language) – purchase directly from Cineteca di Bologna’s website
Book: David Robinson, Chaplin: His Life And Art (1985), 3rd edition paperback 2013, Penguin
Book: Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography (1964) paperback 2003, Penguin Classics

Note: These links lead to product pages at Amazon.co.uk. Six per cent of any sales made via these links is paid to the Insight Film Festival.

If you prefer to buy book titles from UK independent bookshops, please use the My Local Bookshop search engine hosted online by The Booksellers Association.

Insight’s guest interview policy

The Insight Film Festival publishes interviews on our blog from guests of interest on an ad hoc basis. The Festival is delighted to publish a range of interview pieces on the themes of film and faith, and other subjects, but the personal views expressed in such articles do not reflect the views and opinions of the Insight Film Festival itself, which is an organisation that comprises individuals of many different faiths and none, all of whom have their own personal views and opinions on films, faith and other subjects.