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5.0 out of 5 stars A Wealth of Different Perspectives, November 17, 2008
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This review is from: The Essential Chaplin: Perspectives on the Life and Art of the Great Comedian (Paperback)
Richard Schickel has assembled, organized, edited, and provided an Introduction to 33 essays about one of the greatest film actors, Charles Chaplin (April 16, 1889 - December 25, 1977). Their authors' diverse perspectives on his life and career provide an excellent supplement to Stephen Weissman's recently published Chaplin: A Life in Film as well as to Charlie Chaplin's Own Story (as told to Rose Wilder Lane) and Chaplin's My Autobiography as well as David Robinson's Chaplin: His Life and Art.

Weissman is among the contributors to The Essential Chaplin and in his essay, "Charlie Chaplin's Film Heroines," he observes: "It was the loss [of Chaplin's mother] and the scars it left that later shaped Chaplin's development of an alter-ego screen character whose core identity (in the feature length films) was the rescue and repair of damaged and fallen women. And of all his rescue films it was The Gold Rush which Chaplin later said was the one picture by which he most wanted to be remembered by posterity." (Page 66)

Note: In the "Afterword" to his biography, Weissman provides an especially interesting discussion of contradictory opinions about the legitimacy of Chaplin's Own Story that appeared in a series of 29 installments in the San Francisco Bulletin from July 5 to August 4, 1915. Weissman believes that Lane transcribed Chaplin's comments as accurately as she could. Robinson dismisses Own Story as "romantic and misleading nonsense." Weissman acknowledges that "Neither Robinson's theory nor mine is provable" and suggests that his reader take her or his choice.

Here are other brief excerpts from The Essential Chaplin.

"So far one man, and only one, has shown that he entirely understands the new art of the cinema. Only one man has shown that he knows how to use this art as if it were a keyboard where all the elements of sense and feeling that determine the attitude and firm of things merge and convey in one cinematic expression the complex revelation of their inner life and quality...In him the human drama possesses an instrument of expression of which people hitherto have had no suspicion, an instrument which, in the future, will be the most powerful of all - namely: a screen upon which falls a shaft of light; our eyes toward s it; and behind the eyes the heart." (From Elie Faure's The Art of Cineplastics, 1923, Page 77 in The Essential Chaplin)

Chaplin's "impatience to have done with the adulation - which he once significantly remarked `is given, after all, to the little fellow, not me' - brought him unfairly the reputation of a misanthrope. Simply, but hopelessly, he discovered, after the first return to New York, that he could enjoy no such luxury of choice as Nat Goodwin recommended: `Pick out one or two friends and be satisfied to imagine the rest." (Alistair Cooke, Six Men, 1956, Page 127 in The Essential Chaplin)

Chaplin "is the only comic star in the movies who does not employ a gag-writer: he makes everything up himself; so that, instead of the stereotyped humor of even the best of his competitors, most of whose tricks could be interchanged among them without anyone knowing the difference, he gives us jokes that, however crude, have an unmistakable quality of personal fancy. Furthermore, he has made it a practice to use his gags as points of departure for genuine comic situations." (Edmund Wilson, "The New Chaplin Comedy," 1925, Page 171 in The Essential Chaplin)

"Destiny shifts us here and there upon the checkerboard of life, and we know not the purpose behind the moves. His father's death brought a safe, comfortable world crashing down about Charlie Chaplin's head, and plunged his mother, his brother and himself into poverty. But poverty is not a life sentence. It is a challenge. To some it is more - an opportunity. So it was to the child of the theater. In the kaleidoscopic life of London's mean streets he found tragedy and comedy - and learned that their springs lie side by side...So we need not regret the shadows that fell over Charlie Chaplin's life. Without them his gifts might have shone less brightly, and the whole world would have been the poorer. Genius is essentially a hardy plant. It thrives in the east wind. It withers in a hothouse." (Winston Churchill, "Everybody's Language," Collier's magazine, 1935, Pages 206 and 207 in The Essential Chaplin)

The appeal and value of these and other essays will, of course, depend on what each reader seeks to understand about Chaplin, an immensely complicated person who was (as Schickel explains) "driven by his relentless ego, by his helpless need for an audience to dominate, to lead. All the tragedies of his life stemmed from those drives and needs." To Schickel's credit, he has selected essays that (together) trace the key influences on Chaplin's development throughout childhood and adolescence as well as during his early success on stage, his subsequent career in films, the controversies associated with his later years, and the period of recognition and awards he enjoyed just prior to his death.

Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out Weissman's aforementioned biography, Chaplin: A Life in Film, and Robinson's Chaplin: His Life and Art as well as Charlie Chaplin's Own Story (as told to Rose Wilder Lane) and Chaplin's My Autobiography.
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