Have you ever wished you could wind back the clock, or start life over? Have you ever felt like an insignificant cog in the wheel? Have you had the chance to risk everything, then chickened out? Have you ever dreamed of a better world: a place of security, harmony and peace?
If “yes” to any or all of the above, then John Wranovics’Chaplin and Agee, The Untold Story of the Tramp, the Writer and the Lost Screenplay must find its way onto your library’s shelves.
In the first part of the book, arguably, the world’s funniest man and the conscience of print journalism shadow each other during the ‘40s and ‘50s: initially as the accused and the defender (the infamous April 12, 1947 press conference where Chaplin’s newest film—Monsieur Verdoux—is virtually ignored in favour of a media witch hunt about his political and moral beliefs (e.g., “You seem to like the Communists”). Film critic Agee—desperate to have Chaplin read his screenplay that would bring back the Tramp as the sole survivor of Obnoxia’s (fictional country) successful Armageddon—attended. He was the only supportive voice to be heard amongst the nation’s finest scribblers (hello there Ed Sullivan). In concert with Charles Ives before him (cross-reference below), the oft-married writer posed the question that was heard around the world: “How does it feel to be an artist who has enriched the world with so much happiness and understanding of little people, and to be derided and held up to hate and scorn by the so-called representatives of the American press?” Like his early films, Chaplin was speechless.
Through mutual friends (e.g., producer Frank E. Taylor) and Agee’s ability to convince his Life editors to send him to Hollywood (Where better to do in-depth articles?—particularly a three-part series on director John Huston, which led to numerous drinking binges, a script assignment for The African Queen, and a debilitating heart attack).
The origin of the Part II script (author-entitled The Tramp’s New World) was the Hiroshima bomb and Agee’s assignment to write the “U.S. reaction”—a cover story for Time. Being no stranger to socialist doctrine and having many friends beyond Chaplin (e.g., composer Hanns Eisler) who were undergoing government-led persecutions of their own, Agee felt certain that the Little Tramp would be the perfect recreator of humanity once science had had its final triumph and obliterated every human being except the child-loving funny man from the planet. (Still the notion that “Chaplin plays poor; lives rich,” is included, adding further depth to the personalities of both men.)
But in Agee’s script (published for the first time as part of the book), it turns out that others have survived the ultimate revenge-fuck of the unidentifiable rogue state. Always prepared—due to their gift of rationalization—the scientists have made it through, but are nearly paralyzed with fear trying to open a can of food without an available watt of electricity: a common trog has to show them the way. The Tramp also discovers a mother and her baby, protects and feeds them in New York City (the descriptions of the fictional result of the attack and the reality of 9/11 are beyond eerie—soothsayer indeed), only to be shunned when a more attractive man comes her way.
Happily, music is everywhere. Agee was a fair-to-middling pianist (Schubert’s sonatas are personal favourites), choosing to use the theme and first variation of Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio—Cortot-Thibault-Casals’ performance (cross-reference below)—to underscore the hitherto unknown value of art to the Tramp and his disenfranchised (but alive!) child bearer. Many other musical references pervade Agee’s over-detailed but compelling script of Götterdämmerung U.S. style.
It’s not hard to understand why Chaplin never took the bait: The Tramp would have to speak (akin to Marcel Marceau); Chaplin, by then, did not have the physique to portray his most brilliant alter ego; but, perhaps most importantly, Agee’s rough-and-ready masterpiece (many sections admit “I haven’t yet worked out any ideas”) was beyond even Chaplin’s creative genius.
Yet, this truly terrifying—sadly, in our present day U.S.-Knows-Best/smaller countries’ power envy, totally believable—filmneeds to be made before its vision comes to a theatre of war near you.
Awkward and uneven in spots, Wranovics’ passion and big-picture savvy permeate the book portion of this marvellous publication, which should be required reading for all world “actors” no matter what their role on today’s global stage. JWR