LONDON LETTER

LONDON LETTER

ALAS POOR CHARLIE!

Beverly Baxter January 1 1953
LONDON LETTER

LONDON LETTER

ALAS POOR CHARLIE!

Beverly Baxter January 1 1953

LONDON LETTER

Beverly Baxter

ALAS POOR CHARLIE!

NOT SINCE Tiberius entered Rome at Nuremberg has there been suc On the stage was a Guards’ ban fanfare as Princess Margaret and her section reserved for them.

And then the great man himself, strolled to his seat in the front row of t ments to the cheering crowds. Wbedown to look at the first presentation he was the director, author, compose My wife and I also settled down ii guineas each, for the great event was London is something of a village v about us—Noel Coward, Douglas F Outside the cinema the milling crow cared. It was an event!

My presence was not basicalb to support a worthy charity. I apt to make a short personal statement to the narrative. Some months dramatic critic of Lord Beaverbroo! ard because it was impossible to

Hitler mounted the rostrum a reception for a celebrity. whose trumpets sounded a arty took their seats in the

oking like a genial dictator, circle and bowed acknowledg pon Mr. Charles Chaplin sat the film Limelight, of which (inancier and star. ir seats which had cost fifteen aid of a splendid charity. As aw the usual inhabitants all banks, and the rest of them. held up the traffic and no one

ue to curiosity or to a desire ize for having `L it is essential I resigned as vening Stand away, except

occasionally, from the House of Cno...^,rnmons at night.

The narrowness of our majority • p( demands eternal vigilance and readiness to meet ai>me attack. After a lapse of time, however, Beaverbrookch suggested I should write each week in the Sunday E.in ; press on just one play or one film or one opera. Ip: 'stead of covering the week’s offerings it was left to in me to choose the most interesting or the most impo.sicrtant (not always the same thing) and devote my whole space to it. -ojThe Chaplin film was an automatic choice. Hk;

You will recall that, with a mxclaladroitness difficult to understand, the American authorities announe ced that having granted Chaplin (who has remained a British subjntect) a return permit they were not certain he would be allowed to creome back to America.

In Britain there was an immey iiate and almost hysterical reaction. It would seem that Charlie wat tfe the most beloved member of our family. It is true he did not comeda to us in our war troubles, or entertain our troops, or send us any bundVyies, but what of that? He had made us laugh and he had made us cipfy.

If America didn’t want Chaipilie we would take him to our hearts

our and even kill tl Lie not very fatted calf for him. We would put the x> candle in the window and keep the teapot brewing a on the hearth. Like Shakespeare and Herbert Morri-oson he had once lived on the South Bank of LondlTon and we would acclaim him as a favorite son. >^But what about his alleged sympathy srn? We couldn’t be bothered about

man arrived with his attractive young 3, en, and Sidney, his son by a former icy were given an uproarious welcome was duly slaughtered. Now, we were e of his genius. People told each other that Limelight would revo>k lionize the modern film.

Our interest was enhance ->d by the fact that he had selected a young English actress, Claire Blo om, as his leading lady. Since acting in Limelight she had conquered .London as Juliet in the Old Vic production of that most exqV'iisifle of Shakespeare’s plays. In fact we acclaimed her the Juliet of thG century. I went to the first night and can never remember bein;g s ; moved as by her exquisite tenderness in the balcony scene.

The first showing of Tight was to the critics, together with

an invited audience fron film and newspaper world. We read

next day that at the end íe performance the critics stood up and cheered the great little si Haired star as he walked out. This was

something. Most of our xitics take a very dyspeptic view of new

films but apparently ‘ e had momentarily bicarbonated the critical stomach.

Continued on page 40

London Letter

CONTINUED EROM PAGE 3

They were not, however, unanimous in their verdicts when they put pen to paper. Some acclaimed Limelight as a masterpiece and confessed that they had wept tears of sadness and tears of laughter. Others declared it too long, and one or two thought the philosophy of the piece was somewhat banal, but on the whole it was an enthusiastic reception.

'Therefore on the morning of the gala première I was full of curiosity and expectancy, and was delighted when a note arrived from Lord Strabolgi inviting me to a private dinner at the House of Lords in honor of Chaplin on the next Monday night. Strabolgi used to sit as a Liberal in the Commons as Commander Kenworthy but when his father died he went to the Lords and became a socialist. It was he who organized the gala night charity and, as one left winger to another, he probably wanted to pay tribute to Charlie in the citadel of pomp and privilege—the Upper House. T looked forward to meeting the great little man from Hollywood.

Now for the film as it was revealed to us on the gala night. As the lights dimmed 1 saw that my handkerchief was at the ready for, like most people, I enjoy a good cry in the theatre. The air was tense with excitement.

You may recall that the picture opened with a promising situation. In a shabby London boarding house about the year 1912 Claire Bloom, an out-ofwork dancer, had tried to commit suicide because she thought that her legs were paralyzed. To this house, where he also lived, came Charlie as an old out-of-work clown. He was drunk, so that his legs were pretty well paralyzed, too. We learn that he was the great clown Calvero, once the rage of London, now fallen on evil days.

Drunk as he was he managed to carry the girl up to his room, and there begins the sad little love story of spring with late autumn. Whereupon Charlie starts to talk.

There is no reason why a comic should talk in private life as he does on the stage, but should he have a voice and a vocabulary which is something between that of a chairman of a bank and a professor of psychiatry?

He lectures the poor little dancer on the philosophy of life as if she were a class at Yale. The one thing that matters is desire—the desire to live, to be, to conquer. Look at the trees how they grow, look at the roses achieving beauty and form, look at the rocks with their design.

As her legs were paralyzed—or at least she thought they were—there was no escape. Calvero had found an audience that could not walk out on him, and he made the most of it.

If he had only faltered for a word or stumbled into an occasional incoherency it would not have been so bad. But he gave the impression that he would have addressed the combined houses of parliament without an extra tremor of the heart. It was only when he stopped talking that we saw Chaplin’s genius is still alive. The scene where he returns to a third-rate music hall and gives us the seedy indomitable tramp once more is superbly done.

I wrote at length about it in the Sunday Express under the heading: Alas Poor Charlie! To me the picture had been boring, the philosophy juvenile, the music and ballet dancing no more than adequate, and the only genius recognizable was when Chaplin reverted to the clown of other days. It is only fair to say that the crowd

at the cinema gave him a great ovation at the finish.

On balance the Sunday film critics were enthusiastic. Only the wretched fellow in the Sunday Express had said that it was a poor thing. Yet on the following evening at Strabolgi’s dinner I would have to meet citizen Chaplin face to face.

Fortunately, by agreement with my host, I arrived twenty minutes late, having had to deliver a speech at a Tory recruiting meeting in North Paddington. The dinner was a big affair of about forty people and, with a bit of luck, 1 could get away without the embarrassment of a personal talk with the guest of honor.

True to his colors Lord Strabolgi had chosen his guests (and therefore their wives) from the hierarchy of the Labour Party. Herbert Morrison was in good form; Hugh Gaitskell looked, as he always does, like a diffident David Copperfield; Arthur Greenwood was as full of sound and wisdom as Polonius; Lord Jowitt looked more like a Tory than John Bull himself; Sir Hartley Shawcross gave a special elegance to the scene. Searlet-tunicked waiters supplied the final climax of pageantry.

It was not exactly what the Tolpuddle Martyrs, or Keir Hardie, would have visualized but modern British socialists see no reason why tradition and elegance should belong solely to the Tories. They are quite right.

When the dinner was finished Strabolgi called on Morrison to propose Chaplin’s health. It was a theme after Morrison’s cockney heart for, as I have said, both he and Charlie knew abject poverty on the wrong side of London’s river. As he neared the finish of his eulogy he was putting Charlie rather above the immortal William himself, when my attention was distracted by

the arrival of a note from our host: “I am calling on you next.’’

That was all, but it was enough. I don’t know how Herbert’s speech ended because I was trying to think how mine would begin. No matter how much I could poke a bit of fun at the socialist hierarchy present I would have to come eventually to the guest of honor.

So the moment arrived when I had to say my say about Charlie to Mr. Chaplin. As far as I remember it went something like this: “Charlie—for 1 refuse to call you Charles, in spite of Herbert’s example — I want to say something about critics. We critics see so many things that perhaps unknown to ourselves our appetite lessens and our palate grows more keen. So we are inclined to become fastidious in our taste and therefore removed from public taste. We cannot forget what you were in the days of the silent film when you carried the art of miming to such heights.

“The unconquerable courage of your bowler-hatted clown carrying his stick like a rapier, captured the heart and the imagination of the world. You were a ridiculous figure with a dignity of your own. You were an absurdity that became an expression of sanity in a mad world. But in those days you expressed a world of meaning by a mere shrug of the shoulder, or the raising of your hat.

“You did not need words. That is what hurt us in your new film. Where once you explained everything by what you left unsaid, now you have descended to the level of politicians who say everything and continue to do so even when they have nothing more to say. We welcome you as you are, but we miss what you used to be.’’

• • •

Well that is the end of the story. I have since learned that he has cut nearly half an hour from the film but he must cut more than that before I would sit through it again.

Finally, what is he like as a man? He is a gentle soul with a hatred of war and a passionate belief that the peoples of the world should live in amity together. By Hollywood standards he is an intellectual but the processes of his mind are young rather than sage.

But as an artist I cannot believe that he has anything significant to bring to the cinema now. He won our hearts as the silent clown and, if he had been wise, he would have said, like Hamlet, “The rest is silence!” -AT