Thursday, November 22, 2007

With Charlie in Bologna



I’m in Bologna, because that’s where the Charles Chaplin Archive is housed.
I’ve come to do some research on Stowaway, the film he planned in 1936 as a vehicle for his then-wife Paulette Goddard.
He scripted parts of it, but for whatever reason the project was abandoned, until it was taken out of mothballs in the sixties and re-jigged to form the basis of his final film, A Countess From Hong Kong.
It’s a project that’s always fascinated me, since it would have been his first all-talking film, and his first comedy vehicle for a star other than himself.

I had been forewarned that little original material survives on the venture, presumably because whole chunks had been taken and converted into the Countess script. I found far more than I was expecting to, however, and what I did find all pointed to it being a far more adventurous and provocative project as originally conceived than in its later incarnation as his generally dismissed swansong.

The original treatment is, like the remake, a farce comedy, but it aims far more than the later film to texture the comedy against a realistic backdrop of Shanghai and its underworld.
It deals frankly with prostitution, drug addiction, crime, corruption and politics; as with his squabbles over the working status of the Marilyn Nash character in Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin seems to be baiting the censor without even realising it, through his inability to accept that there is a prohibition against references to prostitutes. (There are prostitutes in life, why not in drama, seems to have always been his plaintive appeal.)
There is frank discussion, too, of communism (the Paulette character is a 'White Russian', fled to Shanghai to escape the Bolsheviks) and a great deal of the kind of philosophical conjecture of the sort to which he was addicted in life, but usually held in check in his screenplays.
What if any of this would have remained in the finished draft even before the intervention of the Breen office is of course a matter of pure conjecture, yet the more I struggled with the scattered fragments, scrawled in pencil on yellowing notepaper, the more I became convinced that this could have been the most ambitious departure of all his aborted projects.
Quite why he abandoned it is to some extent a mystery, and I'll speculate on the most likely alternatives in my forthcoming essay on the subject.
The simplest being usually the most satisfactory, it was probably a combination of Goddard’s blossoming career elsewhere and his mounting fascination with Hitler, soon to be the subject of The Great Dictator, the film that became his first all-talkie in Stowaway's stead.
.
What a critical essay cannot convey is the specific pleasure to be found in archival research. The working notes of one of the half dozen true masters of the cinema establish a bond between author and reader that is not to be found in transcripts or secondary accounts. It is the laying bare of the creative process that fascinates, which is why the passages that are crossed out or abandoned, or rewritten in variant forms, are often the most interesting sections of all.
His handwriting takes a lot of getting used to: you’re tempted to give it up as indecipherable at first, but over time you become accustomed to the shape and idiosyncrasies of it, and there is a rush of joy when a few words suddenly fall together as a sentence, and sentences fall together as paragraphs. The writing sprawls over pages, sometimes just a few words to the page, often rendered even more opaque by the frequent spelling mistakes that remind us again that this Hollywood millionaire, the world’s most famous man, began his days as an ill-educated Dickensian child in the poverty and squalor of Victorian London.
But this is all part and parcel of the energy of it, the sense of ideas falling over each other in the race to the page. This, too, is a whole new kind of discipline for Chaplin, who was accustomed to thinking of a story in visual terms, and developing it via on-set improvisation.
Here he seems to be doing with words what he once did with film stock: trying things out, seeing how they look, fine-tuning some, discarding others. For all his natural inclination toward pantomime as story-telling method, all accounts concur that he himself loved to talk and to expound ideas, and in these notes you can sense a excited infatuation with dialogue as a means of conveying them.

How well he succeeded at this divides even sympathetic commentators, and the general view of his sound films is that they are, at the very least, beneath the standard of his silents.
I’ve never really found them so; one must make major adjustments for the change of pace, but once locked into their rhythm they display that same combination of sophistication and naivety that made his earliest films so entrancing to the overwhelming majority of the cinemagoing world.
But whatever you make of them generally, I was left with the vivid impression that Stowaway was an absence from his filmography much to be regretted.
.Happily, our visit coincided with the final days of a major Chaplin exhibition in Bologna’s centre, a wonderful assembly of stills, posters, projected extracts and memorabilia, and it was heartening indeed to read so many expressions of affectionate enthusiasm in the visitors’ book, and hear the laughter of teenage girls in the screening rooms. It was the sound of rediscovery; the realisation that these are not merely museum pieces but comedies, put together by a man who knew what he was doing.
How would such an exhibition fare in London, I wonder?
.
The Cineteca, which houses the Chaplin archive, is not the only link between Bologna and cinema history. For it was a court in Bologna that first seized and banned Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, declaring it “characterised by an exasperating pan-sexualism for its own end, presented with obsessive self-indulgence”. The decision was of course soon overturned, and time has lessened the film's shock value to the point where it now even seems a little quaint, but the essential wisdom of that "obsessive self-indulgence" charge surely holds firm: I just didn't realise you could actually ban films on those grounds! 
Two reasons, then, why lovers of film should be grateful to this place.