The Little Tramp, His Four Wives, Eight Children, Five Film Companies and Even J. Edgar Hoover Conquer the Stage in "Chaplin"
Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Actor Charlie Chaplin, "the Little Tramp," was one of the most famous entertainers in history. With his round black hat, cane, tiny moustache, oversized shoes, sad eyes and odd walk, he shuffled his way through dozens of hit silent movies, earned close to a million dollars a year in the 1920s, helped found the hugely successful United Artists film company and thrilled audiences all over the world.
The Little Tramp is back again in the musical Chaplin, which opened last week in New York. The play is not only a good show but a searing look into American history during the McCarthy era in the early 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy and his henchmen used congressional committees to hunt down entertainers and others with any ties to the Communist Party and tried to ruin them.
The play stars off slowly, but the mercurial Rob McClure, the star of Chaplin, gets better and better as it goes on. He has spent an enormous amount of time getting Chaplin’s historic shuffle and physical movements down pat and is a marvelous Charlie. He appears in the play after about fifteen minutes, when the story of Chaplin’s mentally ill mother and the family’s poverty is England is told.
The play soars when Chaplin arrives at his first film studio in America in 1916 and invents his "little tramp" character. He becomes a star and is gobbled up by studio after studio, for more and more money, until he is the highest paid entertainer in Hollywood, eventually founding his own production company. He makes numerous hits, including classics such as The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus and City Lights.
Chaplin falls prey to a lifelong lust for young girls, though, and his marriages to teenagers, and expensive divorces, become the grist for gossip columnists from coast to coast. His first bride is Mildred Harris, 17, who tells him they have to get married because she is pregnant, but she is not. Then there is Lita Grey and Paulette Goddard.
Despite his romantic woes, Charlie’s film career booms. He brings his brother Sydney over from London to serve as his business manager, buddy Alf Reeves as his personal stage manager and, finally, his aging mom, Hannah, who is put into a home and rarely visited by Charlie.
Christopher Curtis, music and lyrics, and Thomas Meehan, the book writer, with director/choreographer Warren Carlyle, do a fine job of giving the audience a solid look at the early history of the movies. They use a lot of actual footage of Chaplin films and other movies, plus films of street scenes and neighborhoods. You learn how the success of the movies was doubted by many, how they conquered America and how many performers’ careers ended when the movies switched over to sound. You learn, most of all, how a character such as The Tramp could flourish in the silent era, when physical comedy, not dialogue, was everything.
Carlyle did a monumental job of directing Chaplin, a play whose story was quite complicated, and he wrung masterful performances from McClure, who is very good as Chaplin, and Christiane Noll as Hannah, Wayne Alan Wilcox as Sydney, Jim Borstelman as Alf, Michael McCormick as Mack Sennett, Jenn Colella as Hedda Hopper (she’s a gem) and Erin Mackey as Oona O’Neill.
Chaplin has its problems, though. The first twenty minutes of the show is interminably slow and it does not light up until Charlie becomes the Little Tramp. The show has a deliberately dark appearance and specially designed costumes to give it a black and white look, like Charlie’s black and white films. It is clever, but it gives the play too gloomy a feel. There are two or three good songs, such as ‘Wha’cha Gonne Do?” and “Life Can Be Like the Movies” but most of the tunes are very forgettable.
All of that disappears, though, when act two starts. It is almost a different play. Now the history of the era kicks in and we find Charlie as an egomaniacal superstar who must, simply must, get involved in world politics. Big mistake.
Chaplin decides to produce The Great Dictator, a parody of Hitler, whom he charges stole his tiny tramp moustache, and the film is a great success. Emboldened by the box office receipts, Chaplin then plunges into politics. He delivers speeches to large communist groups in front of large crowds in order to protest conditions in the world. Everyone warned him to stop because of bad publicity, but he continued. In the play, show biz gossip columnist Hedda Hopper leads a drive to ruin Chaplin because of his communist sympathies and scandalous private life. She gets the head of the FBI involved (guess who?). The second half is a torrid historical look at Hoover and the Red Scare. You learn a lot about the era and its politics and the story is gripping.
Here, though, the history gets a bit muddled. It is suggested that in the late 1930s Chaplin’s speeches to communist groups, combined with a paternity suit against him by actress Joan Barry, caused the U.S. government to actually ban him, boot him out of the country and ruin his career.
Chaplin’s public reputation was shredded by a series a court hearings and paternity trials brought by Barry, who accused him of being the father of her child. In the end, Chaplin was acquitted, but his career had suffered a serious blow. Shortly after that Chaplin, notorious for his lust for young girls, married 18-year-old Oona O’Neill, the daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill, in 1943. Then, after the war, at the height of the McCarthy era, J. Edgar Hoover began an investigation of Chaplin. The probe did not turn up much, but Hoover charged that Chaplin’s speeches and communist associations made him un-American. Chaplin left for a vacation in England with his wife in 1952, and right after he arrived in Great Britain Hoover voided his re-entry papers and the actor was stuck across the pond. Charlie moved to Switzerland, where he and O’Neill lived in a large home and raised eight children. He returned to America in 1972 to accept a special Oscar and enjoyed a few years of redemption before his death in 1977.
Chaplin is a solid saga about the history of U.S. entertainment, a bold look at the McCarthy era, the federal government’s witch hunters and a fickle public, that loved and then left Charlie. The show has its slow moments, but it is a rich history play. At the very end, in a clever use of film and stage, Charlie dressed as the Little Tramp and shuffled off, big smile on his face, down a highway, and into history.
PRODUCTION: Produced by Rich Entertainment, John and Claire Caudwell, Roy Gabay, others. Sets: Beowulf Boritt, Costumes: Amy Clark, Martin Pakledinaz, Lighting: Ken Billington, Sound: Scott Lehrer, Drew levy, Video Projection Design: John Driscoll, Make Up: Angelina Avallone. The play is directed by Warren Carlyle.
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