Charlie Chaplin is my hero, and I’ve read an awful lot about him over the years. Imagine how excited I was to discover new information and observations from a pair of books—one brand new, the other just a few years old. They both deal with his most fruitful creative period, when he produced twelve exceptional comedy shorts for the Mutual company in 1916 -17. He later referred to this as the happiest time of his life, and it shows in his work: films like Easy Street, The Immigrant, The Rink, and The Adventurer will never grow old.
CHARLIE CHAPLIN’S RED LETTER DAYS: AT WORK WITH THE COMIC GENIUS (Rowman and Littlefield) was written one hundred years ago by Charlie’s colleague Fred Goodwins as a series of articles for a British magazine called Red Letter. Only one complete set of these pieces is known to exist. Luckily for us these columns have now been collected and—just as important—edited by David James and annotated by Dan Kamin. Goodwins was hired primarily as a publicist but also worked as a supporting actor in a number of the Chaplin Mutuals, and offers immediate, first-hand reportage about life on the Chaplin set. He is unabashedly worshipful of his boss, but understandably so: there was no one more popular or creative in the world of comedy at that time (or, arguably, since).
The author’s prose is quaint and I wouldn’t take every word he says as gospel, but the picture he paints of waiting for the great man to think up new ideas every day is vivid and credible. It’s also fascinating how dependent the troupe was on California weather. A downpour would drench their sets, which were covered only by a muslin “roof” to defuse the sunlight. Production of Behind the Screen was interrupted until the sun could dry the backdrops.
Goodwins spends a great deal of time telling his readers about his boss’ highly-publicized contract negotiations and how his brother Syd helped him become a millionaire. But perhaps the most interesting takeaway is Charlie’s ambition to imbue his films with substance, to give audiences something more than a mere parade of rapid-fire gags. This is a running theme throughout the articles and offers an insight into Chaplin’s thought process as he made the Mutual shorts.
Dan Kamin’s annotations throughout the book are crucially important and set each diary-like entry into a larger context—citing Charlie’s weakness for fellow British ex-pats and his proclivity for repurposing material he and Syd performed on stage when they were with the Fred Karno music-hall troupe.
The text is accompanied by rare illustrations and some additional articles published around the same time as Goodwins’ stories. I consider this a must for every Chaplin buff.
CHAPLIN’S VINTAGE YEAR; THE HISTORY OF THE MUTUAL CHAPLIN SPECIALS (BearManor Media) by Michael J. Hayde somehow slipped by me when it was published in 2013—but it’s never too late to spread the word about a volume as valuable as this. I have never read, or expected to encounter, such a knowledgeable and detailed chronicle of the Mutual Film Company and the “golden dozen” two-reelers Chaplin made for that short-lived firm. Hayde has left no stone unturned in his search for primary materials about their production and distribution, including how they were received at the time—by the trade press, theater owners, critics, and customers.
The author goes into great detail about the way Charlie’s previous employer, Essanay, retooled leftover footage into “new” Chaplin releases, and how both Charlie and Mutual—as well as Essanay itself—went after pirates who peddled bogus Chaplin movies to willing exhibitors.
He then traces the fascinating and complex way these precious films were kept alive by a variety of companies and individuals over the years, after Mutual bowed out of the picture. (He gives due credit to the late David Shepard, who spent decades diligently tracking down the best available negatives to share with collectors.)
This is a magnificent piece of scholarship, and its text is punctuated by fascinating newspaper clippings, advertisements, and cartoons. No Chaplin library is complete without Chaplin’s Vintage Year. It’s not just a reference guide; if you’re a Chaplin aficionado like me you’ll want to read every word.
Finally, in organizing flotsam and jetsam from my own garage I came upon a book I didn’t remember I owned!
THE SHADOW CUT-OUT BOOK by G.F. Scotson-Clark was published in 1926 and proclaims itself “an entirely new idea in children’s books.” It consists of twenty-four silhouette caricatures of famous people, meant to be held up to a wall with the aid of a flashlight. Of all the people the publisher could have highlighted on the front cover it’s obvious why they chose Charlie Chaplin, the most famous man in the world. It’s a novelty item worth looking for; other silhouettes include George Washington, Rin-Tin-Tin, and Rudolph Valentino. If one were to attempt to catalogue all the Chaplin merchandise (licensed and otherwise) produced during the silent-film era one could never make a definitive list. His fame endures more than a century after his screen debut…while researchers continue to unearth new material about this uniquely gifted man.