The Rest Is Silence: Chaplin’s trip abroad

Henry Giardina in The Paris Review:

Mytripabroad05chapialaIn the fall of 1921, journalists were clamoring to know if Charlie Chaplin intended to play Hamlet. They asked him in Chicago at the Blackstone Hotel. They cornered him at the Ritz. His response each time was coy and evasive: “Why, I don’t know.” Of all the unlikely questions they tended to ask him at this point in his career—“Are you a Bolshevik?” “What do you do with your old mustaches?”—the Hamlet question seems most out of place. Why would an actor known for his comedy and silence take on a famously verbose and tragic role? Hamlet, with his hemming and hawing, didn’t seem a natural fit for an actor in Chaplin’s position. But then, no actor had ever been in Chaplin’s position before.

In 1921, Chaplin was the most famous man in the world, famous in a way that hadn’t been possible since the birth of cinema a mere twenty-odd years earlier. He’d just put out The Kid, his most ambitious film, and the first feature-length film comedy. There had been other attempts, mainly accidents: Harold Lloyd’s A Sailor-Made Man, which ran over its three intended reels into a fourth, and Chaplin’s earlier Tillie’s Punctured Romance had the length but lacked the architecture. The Kid was different. It merged tragedy and comedy into a third, fluid form. Chaplin wanted to wring out of audiences every single emotion at once without losing any narrative cohesion. The result was a high emotional realism not yet seen in the short history of the cinema. This was, before 1921, unheard of—inadvisable, even. People thought Chaplin too ambitious, especially for his medium. “It won’t work,” his friend Gouverneur Morris told him. “The form must be pure, either slapstick or drama; you cannot mix them, otherwise one element of your story will fail.” But Chaplin understood something of the complicated response he produced in his audience, a response belonging neither to pure joy nor pure sadness. In 1914, an actress had approached him with tears in her eyes after watching him film a two-reel comedy. “I know it’s supposed to be funny,” she said, “but you just make me weep.”

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