- - Wednesday, November 4, 2015



Edited by Paul Duncan

Taschen, $200, 560 pages

Many of Charlie Chaplin’s films, including “The Kid” (1921), “The Gold Rush” (1925), “Modern Times” (1936), “The Great Dictator” (1940) and “Limelight” (1952), are regarded as masterpieces. He co-founded the distribution company United Artists with D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. He cavorted with beautiful women, including some rather young ones. He was accused of being a communist sympathizer, banned from the United States in 1952, and lived in exile in Europe until his death in 1977.

There’s no question that many Hollywood stars have dreamt of achieving what Chaplin did in his legendary career. Few of them will ever reach a fraction of those heights, however.

Film historian Paul Duncan’s new book, “The Charlie Chaplin Archives,” explores every conceivable nook and cranny of the genius behind “The Tramp.” It was created in collaboration with the Chaplin Family and film archivist Cineteca di Bologna, and published by Taschen, which has released some of the world’s finest art books. The result is a stunning volume complete with 900 illuminating images, primary and supplemental interviews, and an oral history by the comic actor himself.

In Mr. Duncan’s introduction, he writes that “Chaplin was a private, introverted man who worked long and hard trying to find a story, character, or gag, but often had no idea where they could be found.” So, he followed a straightforward pattern: “He shot film, he choreographed slapstick situations, he talked for hours with his collaborators, waiting for the moment that he intuitively, spontaneously, knew ‘it’ — whatever ‘it’ was — had been captured on film.” Once he was done, “he would be off in pursuit of the next ‘it.’ “

What was Chaplin’s primary pursuit? According to Mr. Duncan, “In a word — ‘beauty.’ ” The legendary actor “had a concept of beauty that he could not fully describe or define, but it was a feeling that he tried to capture in his films. It was both funny and tragic, both elusive and overpowering.”

The end result was a lifetime of films that could easily be described as beautiful.

In Chaplin’s words, “Comedy must be true to life. There must be realism in comedy. It is even more necessary than in drama … . If the act does not accord with the character, if it is forced, then it merely appears absurd and fails to be funny.”

His early films, including “A Night Out,” “The Champion” and “The Tramp” (all released in 1915), certainly had this sense of realism. His left-wing worldview, which included championing the underdog, difficult socio-economic conditions, extreme poverty, identifying the working-class perspective, and thumbing your nose at authority, were all evident on the silver screen.

This pattern continued well into his classic films. “The Gold Rush” sees the Tramp fight poverty, starvation and bloodthirsty rivals in the race to get rich quick. In “City Lights,” he falls in love with a poor blind girl, and prevents an alcoholic millionaire from committing suicide. “Modern Times” is the ultimate critique of big business, capitalism and the Age of Industrialization. In “The Great Dictator,” a powerful attack against fascism, anti-Semitism and the Nazis, Chaplin memorably said he “played Napoleon, Hitler, and the mad Czar Paul rolled into one.”

Chaplin described his protagonist as “a shabby man who tries his best to act the part of a gentleman, and my character is always on the defensive. By that I mean that he is always quick to do things for his own protection and he is clever in dodging brickbats and rebuffs of others and sliding adverse conditions off on some other fellow. He does not care who falls so long as he gets out safe and sound.”

Indeed, there was always something endearing about Chaplin’s everyman. The Tramp could be generous, kind, mischievous, scheming, criminal, throw caution to the wind, or be simply clever to a fault. Above all else, this slightly schizophrenic character had real honor — and often ended up doing the right thing.

Mr. Duncan’s book is a testament to the skills, talent and brilliance of Charlie Chaplin. There will likely never be another one like him, but at least we can laugh, cry and admire the legacy — and beauty — that he left us.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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