Tales of Charlie and the dream factory

Chaplin and Agee
January 27, 2006

James Agee was passionate about many things, such as boozing, womanising and honing an image of the writer as hard-living bohemian. But these were momentary desires. Far deeper was his passion for the films of Charlie Chaplin, which sustained him from childhood (his posthumously published novel A Death in the Family centrally interweaves a youthful viewing of a Chaplin film with his father's unexpected demise) to the end of his career, when the fast living finally got to him and his body gave out.

In the late 1940s, Agee was virtually the only journalist to protest when Chaplin became a target of the Red Scare. A press conference in 1947 for Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux was becoming a veritable inquisition when Agee interrupted to salute Chaplin as a beleaguered artist.

Agee would go on to write extensively in Monsieur Verdoux's defence, and Chaplin came to welcome the critic into his circle of friends. Even when Chaplin had to reject a screenplay that Agee had lovingly crafted for him, the mutual admiration persisted. Poignantly, Agee attempted to see Chaplin off on the voyage that became his exile from the US, but Chaplin could not get his cabin window open, so the two friends missed each other.

Relying on sharp archival research, John Wranovics offers a fascinating account of Agee and Chaplin's friendship. Importantly, the book's second half reproduces Agee's unfilmed Chaplin script, here published for the first time. Agee chronicled the adventures of the Tramp after a nuclear holocaust has wreaked havoc, and a few survivors try to rebuild society, both materially and emotionally.

It is easy to see why Chaplin demurred at his new friend's offering; Agee's script is often verbose, suggesting a production way beyond the temporal limits of the standard feature film.

But it is fascinating to wonder what might have been. Indeed, the script exhibits moments of great, if terrifying, beauty. For example, Agee imagined people seared by the nuclear blast into images on buildings and pavements, so the Tramp could wander among veritable snapshots of ordinary citizens frozen in revealing bits of behaviour, from the comic to the poignant to the scandalous. And in a later, sublime, moment the camera was to lift up from a campfire, where the Tramp reposes with a woman and baby he has found, to a God's-eye view of the vast, post-holocaust landscape, dotted here and there with other such fires, suggesting furtive traces of isolated existence within the seeming emptiness.

Despite its title, Wranovics's book recounts more than just one friendship.

Agee's friendship with Chaplin was his passport to a broader society of Hollywood intellectuals, and it almost seems as if he compensated for his failure to interest Chaplin in his screenplay by the cultivation of other film friendships that did occasion screen-writing success. Thus, just as he had written ardently about Chaplin as a way (in part) of promoting himself to the director, so too did he devote laudatory criticism to director John Huston, who would eventually hire him as writer for The African Queen .

While the inclusion of Agee's screenplay for Chaplin certainly focuses attention on the one Hollywood friendship that most mattered to him, Wranovics's book also contributes broadly to ongoing research on Agee's encounter with cinema.

Important recent publications such as the Library of America edition of his major fiction and non-fiction have brought Agee into new critical prominence, and Wranovics's compelling narrative fills in an essential part of the writer's artistic trajectory.

Dana Polan is professor of cinema studies, New York University.

Chaplin and Agee: The Untold Story of the Tramp, the Writer, and the Lost Screenplay

Author - John Wranovics
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 256
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 1 4039 6866 7

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