Sometimes it’s best to crack open a book rather than just watch a film.
That’s how I felt after reading a couple of recently published books on diverse filmmakers. Both Charles Chaplin and Norman Jewison found success in the American film industry although each was from a different English-language-speaking country.
Wes D. Gehring’s “Charlie Chaplin and ‘A Woman of Paris’ (The Genesis of a Misunderstood Masterpiece)” tracks Chaplin’s destiny in the early 1920s and the first film he directed where he was also absent as an actor. “A Woman of Paris” became the template of the modern art film.
Gehring specializes in analysis drawn from newspaper coverage, film production documents and period sources that paint a detailed picture of the silent era and innovative directors like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. His latest book takes the reader on a journey following Chaplin’s movies leading up to “A Woman of Paris,” like “The Kid” and “The Pilgrim” the latter a delightful satire of religion as the Tramp impersonates the new priest in a small town. Gehring delves into some of the supporting players in that comedy including the bratty kid Dean Riesner who would continue acting and writing and eventually contribute to Hollywood lore as a screenwriter with credits on several action dramas like “Dirty Harry” and “Charlie Varrick.”
Both “Pilgrim” and “A Woman of Paris” featured Edna Purviance, a constant companion yet never a wife of Chaplin. Gehring reveals that Chaplin kept Purviance on salary for the rest of her life. Using Lita Grey’s autobiography and Louise Brooks’ writings as sources Gehring suggests Purviance underwent two abortions.
Gehring provides review quotes from publications as geographically distant as that era would allow like Variety and The El Paso Times while at the same time tracking Chaplin’s international travels (Ireland, U. K., Russia, Germany). Chaplin even wrote a book titled “My Travels Abroad.” Some of the women he dated in Europe are profiled as character material for the eventual role of Paris’s femme Marie St. Clair.
(Chaplin was instrumental in raising millions in war bonds at the end of WWI, as Gehring starts his path to “Woman” several years earlier during Chaplin’s “Shoulder Arms” period. So it’s ironic that a few decades later Chaplin would be refused re-entry to America after being branded a traitor.)
Gehring considers “Shoulder Arms” a prototype black comedy (the type emulated by Kubrick with “Dr. Strangelove”) and creates a trail that leads to the creation of a new kind of film experience – the art film.
The year 1923 would see the creation of “A Woman in Paris: A Drama of Fate” along with T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Virginia Woolf beginning “Mrs. Dalloway.” Gehring’s cosmology understands that art doesn’t evolve in a vacuum.
The book closes with close examinations of reactions to the film’s release and its re-release (and rediscovery) in the 1970s.
Whether you realize it or not all comedy you see today has its roots in the antics of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character. But “A Woman of Paris” traded laughs for tears and the Tramp for drama. There may be an unintentional laugh to release tension like when Marie tosses a valuable necklace out the window only to go chasing a dog that picks it up and runs away. The bittersweet ending leaves no doubt as to Chaplin’s tragic trajectory.
“Charlie Chaplin and ‘A Woman of Paris’ (The Genesis of a Misunderstood Masterpiece)” was published by McFarland Books in 2021.
The Films Not Made
Ira Wells’ “Norman Jewison: A Director’s Life” breaks down a career in film with a detailed account of how a Canadian working in a staid 1950s television environment parlayed a couple of lucky breaks and ended up directing distinguished television specials in New York starring Harry Belafonte and Judy Garland.
The rest was a cakewalk transition to directing movies filled with land mines of friendships gained and lost and films big and small. Jewison has himself written an autobiography (“This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me”) but that was an elliptical tale. Wells concentrates on linear events tracking Jewison from his first Doris Day vehicle to his last film, “The Statement” in 2003. Jewison celebrated his 95th birthday last month.
The content is well researched with a few passages from an unfinished biography by another writer who passed away before completion. My particular curiosity was piqued by projects that were never made.
Jewison hit home runs after transitioning from the early 1960s equivalent of romcoms with unique and successful hits like “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” and “In the Heat of the Night,” both films netting him Oscar® noms. “Russians” resonates to this day for the way it worked the dramedy (part-drama part-comedy) genre overtime. Parts felt like the wackness from “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” expertly juxtaposed with trademarks of underplayed comedy that would later appear in the cinema of the Coen Brothers or Bill Forsyth two decades later in the 1980s.
There’s other important production info from various films that Wells slips in along with the difficult to describe relation Jewison had with Hal Ashby.
However, the sections that deal with unfinished projects are astounding in their implications for this history of cinema. After the Oscar® winning success of “Night” Jewison was working on an adaption of “The Confessions of Nat Turner” a 1967 award winning book by William Styron based on the now familiar 1831 slave rebellion. The project never came to fruition.
Likewise in the 1980s, and at the height of both of their careers, Jewison was developing a remake of “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” with Richard Pryor attached. The original British film from 1937 starred Roland Young in a fantasy about the ultimate in wish fulfillment. At one point the Young stops the Earth from revolving, which only leads to the total destruction of the world as the atmosphere keeps spinning.
At his best Jewison was a hurricane force director.
“Norman Jewison: A Director’s Life” was published by Sutherland Books in 2021.