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Chaplin and Agee: The Untold Story of the Tramp, the Writer, and the Lost Screenplay Hardcover – April 14, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
A historical curio that links two cultural titans, James Agee's 1949 script for Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp sounds like an American Studies scholar's dream. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, the untitled screenplay (dubbed The Tramp's New World) delves into Agee's atomic-age fears and glorifies a socially radical cinematic hero during an era of conservative politics. However, the document itself-which, in truth, is simply an early film treatment-has less historical significance than the subtitle of this book would suggest. It was quickly passed over by Chaplin and actually had little to do with the duo's eventual friendship, which was more significantly catalyzed by Agee's positive 1947 review of Chaplin's otherwise maligned drama Monsieur Verdeaux-a point that Wranovics, a marketing executive for an electronics and computing manufacturer, fails to clearly elucidate. More a dual biography than a close analysis of a literary document, Wranovics's account is a deft profile of two artists he clearly admires, and he takes care to underscore the surrounding social and political concerns. (HUAC, supplemented by Commie-haters like Ed Sullivan, was just beginning its assault on left-leaning artists in Hollywood at the time.) But while the book is well-researched, it's bogged down by dry prose, out-of-place commentaries (in the final chapter, Wranovics accuses Lost in Translation director Sofia Coppola of ripping off Chaplin's A King in New York), and lengthy asides. More seriously, Wranovics fails to present an illuminating argument about the two men's friendship, admitting, "to what extent, if any, Agee's ideas served as an influence on Chaplin is impossible to say." But while the novice historian's thesis could be sharper, there's no denying the cultural significance of his study.
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“John Wranovics has written an amazing book! It is certainly by far the best biographical work about James Agee that has yet been done. It is highly readable and full of fascinating, little-known detail...dug deeply and synthesized beautifully. Most importantly, Chaplin and Agee not only brings to light a deeply significant episode in our nation's literary, cinematic and political history, it gives us a brand-new, rough-hewn, dazzling masterpiece by James Agee to contemplate and enjoy.” ―Ross Spears, Director of Agee and To Render a Life: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and the Documentary Vision
“Here is high art and high drama given the flesh of knowing, skillful story-telling: two wonderfully talented individuals come together for today's readers as they once did in life-and the result is a brilliantly telling account of an era's breakthrough achievements of mind and heart.” ―Robert Coles, author of Pulitzer prize-winning series Children of Crisis
“Wranovics weaves personal, historical, and cultural threads into a true page-turner as he outlines Agee's efforts to become Chaplin's close friend and overcome his own psychological demons enough to craft what may be his most ambitious and deeply felt project. The screenplay itself is a riveting document of progressive 20th-century thought.” ―David Sterritt, Film Critic, The Christian Science Monitor
“Much more than a footnote, Chaplin and Agee is a real addition to film culture (and the culture of the Cold War), complete with the treatment for an unmade movie so vivid that it practically sears the mind's eye.” ―J. Hoberman, film critic, Village Voice
“The untold story of a collaborative medium's least likely collaboration: James Agee, the Ivy League poet who lived like a mountain man, and Charles Chaplin, the slum kid who became a sophisticated artist. In bringing these men's friendship to life, though, author John Wranovics revives something more -- a whole lost age, full of emigre intellectuals, hard-drinking Greenwich Village authors and a number of quite surprising villains (you may never think of Ed Sullivan in quite the same way again).” ―Stephen Whitty, Senior Film Critic, Star-Ledger and Newhouse Newspapers
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Top Customer Reviews
James Agee is my favourite secular writer, though I do feel he touched the spiritual in so much of he wrote so maybe that is not the best word to use.
Regardless, with that in mind, I was happy with this book for 2 reasons:
a) It contained a copy of the screenplay. Any new material is welcomed and this was quite a treat; it never fails to amaze me how Agee can get at the heart of something. I am not sure I would ever want anyone to actually make it into a film because I am not sure there is anyone who can create all that Agee envisioned it to be. (But that could be my personal bias talking..)
b) There is so little personal information in print about Agee nowadays. (I can only think of Letters to Father Flye, at the moment.) This book has wonderful anecdotes about him so one may get a sense of him.
You may know the story of Charlie Chaplin, even though his best work is from the long-ago silent film era. CHAPLIN AND AGEE focuses on the latter part of his career, in the 1950s, when he is best known for his Communist political leanings, and the subsequent hounding he took for them from Senator Joe McCarthy and his followers. (Readers who are not convinced that McCarthy was the darkest character in modern American political life will find CHAPLIN AND AGEE slowgoing.) At this point, Chaplin is in the process of leaving his "Little Tramp" character behind (the Tramp's last appearance was in the 1940 classic The Great Dictator) and moving on to different fare.
Chaplin's 1947 film, Monsieur Verdoux, plays an outsize role in CHAPLIN AND AGEE as it never did in real life. The movie --- Chaplin's second talking picture, after a career making silent films --- is little-known or remembered today. It's a dark comedy where he plays a charming serial killer --- not the sort of thing that would resonate with postwar audiences. It is an utterly unimportant film, except to the extent that it is discussed here, and that is only because of its effect on novelist and film critic James Agee.
The screenplay at the heart of CHAPLIN AND AGEE is Agee's, and Agee was no slouch as a screenwriter. He did the screenplays for two of the most enduring films of the 1950s --- The African Queen and Night of the Hunter. As the book begins, the multitalented Agee is splitting his time between being a reporter for Time and doing movie reviews for The Nation. While at Time, he got the assignment to write up the magazine's report on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which profoundly affected his worldview.
The result was The Tramp's New World, the screenplay that is the basis of John Wranovics's book and that takes up the latter third of the volume. The screenplay is for a Charlie Chaplin movie, and Wranovics deftly details the lifelong admiration that Agee had for Chaplin's work. The screenplay sets the Little Tramp in New York --- but a New York that has been destroyed in a nuclear explosion, leaving the Tramp the only survivor, exploring the burned-out buildings and horrible silhouettes of the dead. It is a screenplay that had been lost for years and only now has been recovered, and Wranovics is to be credited for his scholarship.
But the fascinating thing about The Tramp's New World is not the screenplay itself. In fact, the screenplay is quite near unreadable, with great masses of impenetrable stream-of-consciousness dreck and some ham-handed political parody. What's fascinating is the length that Agee went to bring it to Chaplin's attention. (Chaplin, reasonably enough, seems never to have given it any serious consideration.)
What Agee did, in his role as a film critic, is remarkable. He wrote his initial review of Monsieur Verdoux for Time magazine, and it was fairly noncommittal and unenthusiastic. But in The Nation, he changed his tune sharply, arguing in three different installments that Monsieur Verdoux was the best movie of the year and one of the best that he had ever seen. The Nation reviews are treated uncritically by Wranovics, as evidence of Agee's respect for Chaplin. But seen from a reviewer's perspective, especially given that this reviewer was trying to sell Chaplin a screenplay, they are embarrassing at best, horrifying at worst. Wranovics obviously admires Agee, even as he chronicles his slow descent into an alcoholic stupor. But CHAPLIN AND AGEE perhaps ought to be a bit more skeptical about Agee's motives than it is.
Wranovics does an excellent job of bringing Agee, and his times and his politics, to life. Even those not particularly interested in the novelist will find it an absorbing enough read. Those who are interested in the era, and scholars of Agee and Chaplin, will find the book to be a small treasure.
--- Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds, who writes movie reviews at TXreviews.com.
Those 'facts' I could have lived without knowing. Now, there is a group in Los Angeles called the 'Society of Singers' who help retired and elderly members of the movie world (Agee was part of that in a big way.)-- those destitute and in need. Chuck Southcott and Wink Martindale are members. As is fact, Agee died in May of 1955.
In the end, his life "was bookended by his admiration of Chaplain." The Tramp was his inspiration to his art and life from his earliest remembered childhood until the last days of his life. In the movie, that dad took Rufus to the Roxy theater across the L&N viaduct from the neighborhood where they lived, to see and laugh at Chaplain's "Tramp' silent features.
Agee's talent and his love for the poetic art of silent comedy films is shown in Part Two of this book. His previously unpublished screenplay was untitled when he died that fateful May, but here they call it 'The Tramp's New World.' He finished it in 1949, but no one ever considered making it. The premise was that only the innocence of childish adults could survive the Bomb. The scientists were safe in their underground shelters, but they have no real feelings or common sense. Its "timeless message of respect for humanity and the dignity of the individual are needed now more than ever."
Agee claimed to one and all that writing his autobiographical novel "was killing him." Sometimes it is best not to remember, or at least have a selective memory. It was named after his death and edited quickly, leaving much material on the wayside, to be published in an expedient way so as to use the publicity of his death. It won the Pulitzer Prize, a well-deserved reward for his work and hardship at the end.
I marvel at how the majority of people tend to think about the sordid or bad things which happened to an important person after they are gone instead of remembering the good they had achieved during their peak years. The same happened to my friend, Bob Lobertini. Helen Gee, in her memoir of Limelight, the photraphy gallery she founded and named after the Chaplain film, was one to dwell on the 'unmentionables.'
Agee was a native Knoxvillian, though he did not spend much time here after his mother remarried and moved up Northeast, and there is a marker on Cumberland with his name and history, a park named after him as well as one of the streets on the UT campus. He is remembered here as a 'native son' who did good out in Hollywood.