The Big Screen

The Story of the Movies

by David Thomson

18 October 2012


The Watching is Rooted in Detachment

There was something else. He addressed the camera and the function of the film. He implied, “Look, it’s me!” The look was winsome and coy, not challenging, but it carried an endearing confidence. (It recognized that the audience was there, and it knew why: they wanted to think of being Charlie.) It said, You can trust me, you can like me. I’m so poor, but you know I’m rich. Every politician on television now strives for that specious intimacy with voters, and it’s one reason Chaplin would inevitably become a political figure, an example to the world.

He started at Keystone in 1914 at $175 a week, and his success was so rapid that in 1915 he joined Essanay for $5,000 a week. A year later he went to Mutual for $10,000 a week. He relished the money, but depended on another aspect of his contract: the right to make his movies without interference. Chaplin would never be a movie stylist, though he became expert at filming jokes, especially if they carried a kick of malice. Without years of training or hundreds of short films, Chaplin mastered simple movie storytelling and let his narcissism flow. There were many rival comics, but Charlie dared to say, it’s me! Only a few years earlier, the infant business had been taken aback when audiences asked, “Who is that girl?” on seeing a pretty girl in a bathing suit and wanting more.

This is not to be critical of Chaplin, for his ego was natural and heartfelt. He gave himself to the camera and the world of strangers. He is the light in his own films—though those movies often have a rich sense of place and sunlight, too. This stress on light is not to be underestimated. Time and again in American film—and this is true of Chaplin in the Sierra doing The Gold Rush and of John Ford in Monument Valley making Westerns—the light is like a gift, and the movie is constantly rewarding our plea “Show me!”

Show them something they have never seen. But beware if they ever decide they have seen everything.

American films film the light: it is their energy, their optimism, and their happiness. So Chaplin turned the snowy locations of Truckee (standing in for the Klondike) into a realm of threatening beauty. The discovery of gold had made Northern California; it was the model gambling coup, and gold has its own bright light. Chaplin was fascinated by stories of those miners, especially the tragedy of the Donner Party—that’s why food is such an obsession in the picture. The Gold Rush (1925) is a comedy, but it was made at almost the same moment as Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, in which the light and the Death Valley desert are metaphors for mania. Charlie stays cool and humble in The Gold Rush, but his gamble grossed $6 million (on a budget of over $900,000—or nine times the cost of The Birth of a Nation).

Chaplin was the most transforming star of early cinema and, by the early 1920s, the best-known image in the world. But his own reaction was ambivalent. For Chaplin did not look like Charlie. In life there was no mustache; he dressed fashionably; and his hair began to go white in the 1920s. He worked hard to erase his Cockney accent and make up on his education. He liked society parties and collected meetings with wise men, political leaders, distinguished writers—and women. Just as Louis B. Mayer courted Herbert Hoover, from secretary of commerce to president, Chaplin was a social climber.

There was some public resentment (and some amusement) that his pay was four times the combined income of the nine Supreme Court justices. He never applied for American citizenship. He took risks pursuing young women, yet many women wrote offering to take care of him. Something of the outsider remained, a need to defy the public that adored him. We love stars, for they tell us we can transform ourselves. But we envy their escape from anonymity, and with Chaplin, in time envy turned to hostility. From his point of view that split signaled a fickle, unpredictable public, a pressure that would help drive the richest tramp in the world out of America.

His unstoppable rise soon carried him into a diminishing run of feature-length films, pictures he labored over and hesitated with. Nothing reveals Chaplin’s authority or his economic power more than his waiting for days and weeks at a time until inspiration came along—while keeping his crew on salary. On City Lights (1931), shooting occurred on only 166 of 534 working days! Just when the film factory was insisting on tight scheduling and budgets, Chaplin behaved like Proust, brooding and experimenting until he had it “right.” But in the ending to City Lights, with its dynamic fusion of recovery and loss, Chaplin managed a moment that is piercing and eternal: his own face, a rose in his mouth, filled with joy and anguish in a ravishing close-up as beautiful as the most adoring shots of women. Charlie invited Einstein to the premiere and was proud to see the great man weeping.

These days we say “Chaplin and Keaton” in one breath, though the case is often made for Keaton as the finer clown, or the more soulful performer. Chaplin’s coyness, especially if it turns spiteful, can be grating. While Keaton’s stoic calm becomes more interesting as the years pass. He was a hit in his own lifetime, of course, and then a disaster, but Keaton nowadays looks like a poet. Is that view accurate or just a measure of our longing for poetry?

Joseph Frank Keaton was born in 1895 in Kansas, but it might have been anywhere, for his parents were traveling performers in vaudeville. The story goes that he was called Buster by Harry Houdini, who saw the infant fall down a flight of stairs without breaking a bone—and without crying. As a youngster, Buster was part of his father’s violent comedy routines in which the boy was the fall guy, or someone to be thrown around like a ball. Since the father was often drunk, the ball could be fumbled.

Was it a result of this treatment that Buster never had an ego like Chaplin’s? Is that why his best films are more surreal than sentimental? He had a spell in the army at the end of the Great War—Chaplin claimed he could not return to Britain to serve in the war because his picture contract forbade it (and because he was so valuable selling war bonds in the United States). Then Keaton became a supporting player to Roscoe Arbuckle, a star of comic films who was hurrying toward his date with manslaughter charges in San Francisco in 1921.

The matter of ego is significant. Keaton seldom had sole credit as a director on his features—Our Hospitality (1923), Three Ages (1923), The Navigator (1924), and The General (1926) co-credit him and a professional functionary. As a businessman, he was dominated by Joseph Schenck, his brother-in-law. (Buster married Natalie Talmadge in 1921 and Schenck was married to her sister, Norma.) He never profited from his work on the enormous scale that Chaplin enjoyed, because he never invested his own money. Yet the films—including the sublime Sherlock Jr. (1924), a forty-five-minute dream in which he is the official director—have a beguiling stylistic consistency. It entails a detached camera and elaborate physical routines (which rise above the violence and the malicious glee in Chaplin) and a lot of slapstick, all sustained by Buster’s delicate deadpan presence. We have to watch Buster, instead of identify with him. It is as if he expected failure and trusted disaster—but would not cry. This is the reserve that leaves Keaton mysterious still, as well as beyond funny. He had some instinct—vital in the history of film acting—to do less. Chaplin was desperate to move us, while Keaton understood something about cinema that was ahead of his time: that the emotional connection being advertised was indirect and a mirage. The watching is rooted in detachment.

So he never believed in being in control, and his career fell apart. Natalie divorced him. Schenck sold him to M-G-M, with a drastic loss of creative input. He followed the family line into booze and breakdown. By the late thirties he was washed up. Later, with some condescension, Chaplin offered him a cameo in Limelight (1952). At the very end, in 1965, a year before his death, Keaton worked on Film, a short written by Samuel Beckett.

By the 1950s, Chaplin was a millionaire exile in Switzerland, with a new family and a last bride, Oona O’Neill (she was eighteen and he was fifty-four when they married), and the stain of “Communist” on him. Charlie liked to be thought of as a man of the people: in The Immigrant (1917) he had celebrated the coming to America of the most humble hard-luck cases. But he was an elitist and a millionaire, too. Keaton was an uncomplaining wreck and a classic Hollywood failure—the kind of star who slipped away from glory. Chaplin had ignored sound for years before releasing his high, elocutionary voice in The Great Dictator (1940). Keaton sounded like a thick, ill-educated drunk when he spoke—and he knew sound crushed his persona. At M-G-M, Louis Mayer disapproved of Keaton’s womanizing and drinking. The clown became a reject, whereas Chaplin set his own terms. He returned at last on April 10, 1972, for an honorary Oscar, on one of the most emotional evenings ever known at the Academy. “Words are so futile, so feeble,” he said from the stage. But he stayed at the party afterward until 1:30 a.m., chatting up a storm.

Chaplin and Keaton are beyond equal, even if W. C. Fields and Groucho Marx may be the most interesting comics American film produced. But you have to hear those two (the dreamy grump and the chronic fraud), while Chaplin and Keaton were true mimes. It’s just that Chaplin made silence one more way of seeming above the world, while Keaton’s quiet is as stricken as ruined philosophy. So Chaplin is silently noisy with protestation and pleas for affection, and Keaton suspects the deepest things cannot be told or uttered.

Chaplin, Keaton, Griffith, Mayer, and Mary Pickford—these are giant figures from the golden age. But today, more than thirty years after her death, despite unprecedented video recovery, how many young people would recognize a picture of Mary Pickford? “America’s Sweetheart,” she was called, a mature ingénue delighting the public by playing parts half her real age, an automatic maker of hits—she was on $10,000 a week as early as 1916; she would be married to Douglas Fairbanks in the first “storybook” Hollywood union (it lasted fifteen years, better than average); and she was the most hardworking and fiscally astute partner in United Artists, the distribution company she formed with Fairbanks, Chaplin, and Griffith in 1919 to protect the work of “artists,” and to get them a fatter slice of the cake.

People still watch Chaplin and Keaton, Lon Chaney and Valentino. There are silent-film festivals that play to packed houses, with live music and restored prints. But the “perfect” couple from that great era, Doug and Mary, are in neglect, and they may not recover. It could be the aftermath of something Alistair Cooke noted of Fairbanks in a book he wrote in 1939 (one of the first on stardom): “‘Doug’ stood for the film industry’s total respectability. He was not merely inoffensive, which is what parents were looking for: he was a positive ideal worthy of any small fry’s adulation.” Cooke added that it was the best fun to see D’Artagnan and Robin Hood playing Doug.

Fairbanks was adored in his own time. Didn’t that define stardom? Yet Louise Brooks, playing bad girls, and behaving like them, and far less successful at the time, would become a byword in our cultural appreciation of ourselves.

Brooks was born in Cherryvale, Kansas, in 1906, the child of a lawyer. At fifteen she was a dancer with Denishawn Dancers, Ruth St. Denis’s company, and then in the Ziegfeld Follies. She was as smart as she was pretty, and even in the age of the flapper and the jazz baby, that was more than many men could tolerate. She had a wild affair with Chaplin just after he made The Gold Rush; she adored his cheerfulness, and the way he studied the dictionary while he shaved. She had made a few films, one of them, A Girl in Every Port, directed by Howard Hawks, in which she was so modern and sly that few audiences got her. She was a Paramount contract player, on $750 a week when the studio star Clara Bow was getting $7,500. She went in to see the boss, B. P. Schulberg, and took it for granted in her casual way that she’d get a raise—up to $1,000 a week. But Schulberg said no. It was stick with $750 or nothing—or was she rash enough to answer the letter from a German director, G. W. Pabst, who wanted her at $1,000 a week for Pandora’s Box?

Such a mission went against the flow of traffic. Ernst Lubitsch had come from Germany to direct Mary Pickford in 1923. His star in Germany, Pola Negri, followed later the same year. Another director, F. W. Murnau, was about to start Sunrise in America. Erich Stroheim had left Austria before the Great War (and before the “von” in his name) and been an assistant to Griffith on The Birth of a Nation. The director Mauritz Stiller and his actress Greta Garbo had been imported from Sweden by Louis B. Mayer. In April 1930, Marlene Dietrich sailed on the Bremen to New York to join the director who had picked her out for The Blue Angel, Josef von Sternberg. She was put under contract at the same Paramount at $1,750 a week.

Derived from works by the German playwright Frank Wedekind, Pandora’s Box is the story of Lulu, a prostitute and a reckless spirit in the German gloom. There is no daylight in the film, yet Lulu’s white body glows like a bulb with the energy that fights her fate. She is a wanton who abandons conquests as a bored lion leaves one carcass for another. The film carries her all the way from the authority figure of Dr. Schon to a pale Jack the Ripper, who rids her of her life.

Although she spoke no German, and had little idea what the film was about, Brooks is riveting—sensual, funny, tragic, all at the same time. She would say later that Pabst (with whom she had a one-night stand) dismissed sex as a myth. “It was sexual hate that engrossed his whole being with its flaming reality.” You may read the film now as a feminist statement, but who knew that at the time? What is most striking is that this is a film—impossible to be made in America because of its psychological candor and pessimism—that says, Look, look at her, look at the light on her flesh, and see this great beauty destroyed. In 1929, Pabst believed Pandora’s Box needed the spontaneity of an American actress who didn’t give a fuck for the careerism that had driven Mary Pickford.

Pandora’s Box is now regarded as one of the great silent films, deserving a place in the pantheon. As with Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), we hardly notice the lack of sound because the film’s inward life is so intense. The sensuality is its intimacy. Falconetti’s Joan is a “good girl,” but the screen presence of the two women is not so far apart. They insist on our entering their heads and their dreams. So Louise Brooks, for one film, is among the immortals because, in an age of widespread romantic posing, her very look asks, “Isn’t this about sex?”

Yet she did not even see the picture until the 1950s. She stayed in Germany for one more film with Pabst, and then limped back to America. When Pandora’s Box opened in New York late in 1929 (cut by nearly a third, with a tacked-on “happy” ending), Variety declared, “Better for Louise Brooks had she been contented exhibiting that supple form in two-reel comedies or light Paramount features.” Behave yourself!

Another review spoke of her “passive decorativeness,” which leaves one marveling at how some eyes and nervous systems malfunction. Brooks would estimate in the late 1950s that she had earned barely $100,000 from all her movies. By then she was the backstairs mistress to powerful men, a charity case, and a budding writer, ending up in Rochester, New York, alone in a small apartment, uncertain whether a new generation would rediscover her. The vexed Pabst (he wanted more than one night but was horrified by all her other lovers) had warned her she would end up like Lulu.

The director couldn’t grasp his own point. But you can see Pandora’s Box any day, and its glow is damp still, as if Lulu has just had sex. She looks at the camera in her insolent way—existing, not acting—and she guesses we’re there and what furtive, naughty dreamers we are in our dark. Amid the birth of a nation and a medium, a business and even an art, that’s why people were going to the movies: to be voyeurs in the dark beholding an orgy of their own desires burning on the screen.

Photo (partial) by © Lucy Gray

Photo (partial) by © Lucy Gray

David Thomson, renowned as one of the great living authorities on the movies, is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, now in its fifth edition. His recent books include a biography of Nicole Kidman and The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. Thomson’s latest work is the acclaimed “Have You Seen…?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films. Born in London in 1941, he now lives in San Francisco.

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