Review

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

by John Wranovics



CHAPLIN AND AGEE is the story of a screenplay and, as a result, has
the right to be a little bit glamorous. Unfortunately, like a lot
of screenplays, it is a story about failure, disappointment and
heartache, but there's enough glamour along the way to compensate
for it.


You may know the story of Charlie Chaplin, even though his best
work is from the long-ago silent film era. CHAPLIN AND AGEE focuses
on the latter part of his career, in the 1950s, when he is best
known for his Communist political leanings, and the subsequent
hounding he took for them from Senator Joe McCarthy and his
followers. (Readers who are not convinced that McCarthy was the
darkest character in modern American political life will find
CHAPLIN AND AGEE slowgoing.) At this point, Chaplin is in the
process of leaving his "Little Tramp" character behind (the Tramp's
last appearance was in the 1940 classic The Great Dictator)
and moving on to different fare.


Chaplin's 1947 film, Monsieur Verdoux, plays an outsize role
in CHAPLIN AND AGEE as it never did in real life. The movie ---
Chaplin's second talking picture, after a career making silent
films --- is little-known or remembered today. It's a dark comedy
where he plays a charming serial killer --- not the sort of thing
that would resonate with postwar audiences. It is an utterly
unimportant film, except to the extent that it is discussed here,
and that is only because of its effect on novelist and film critic
James Agee.


The screenplay at the heart of CHAPLIN AND AGEE is Agee's, and Agee
was no slouch as a screenwriter. He did the screenplays for two of
the most enduring films of the 1950s --- The African Queen
and Night of the Hunter. As the book begins, the
multitalented Agee is splitting his time between being a reporter
for Time and doing movie reviews for The Nation.
While at Time, he got the assignment to write up the
magazine's report on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which
profoundly affected his worldview.


The result was The Tramp's New World, the screenplay that is
the basis of John Wranovics's book and that takes up the latter
third of the volume. The screenplay is for a Charlie Chaplin movie,
and Wranovics deftly details the lifelong admiration that Agee had
for Chaplin's work. The screenplay sets the Little Tramp in New
York --- but a New York that has been destroyed in a nuclear
explosion, leaving the Tramp the only survivor, exploring the
burned-out buildings and horrible silhouettes of the dead. It is a
screenplay that had been lost for years and only now has been
recovered, and Wranovics is to be credited for his
scholarship.


But the fascinating thing about The Tramp's New World is not
the screenplay itself. In fact, the screenplay is quite near
unreadable, with great masses of impenetrable
stream-of-consciousness dreck and some ham-handed political parody.
What's fascinating is the length that Agee went to bring it to
Chaplin's attention. (Chaplin, reasonably enough, seems never to
have given it any serious consideration.)


What Agee did, in his role as a film critic, is remarkable. He
wrote his initial review of Monsieur Verdoux for Time
magazine, and it was fairly noncommittal and unenthusiastic. But in
The Nation, he changed his tune sharply, arguing in three
different installments that Monsieur Verdoux was the best
movie of the year and one of the best that he had ever seen. The
Nation
reviews are treated uncritically by Wranovics, as
evidence of Agee's respect for Chaplin. But seen from a reviewer's
perspective, especially given that this reviewer was trying to sell
Chaplin a screenplay, they are embarrassing at best, horrifying at
worst. Wranovics obviously admires Agee, even as he chronicles his
slow descent into an alcoholic stupor. But CHAPLIN AND AGEE perhaps
ought to be a bit more skeptical about Agee's motives than it
is.


Wranovics does an excellent job of bringing Agee, and his times and
his politics, to life. Even those not particularly interested in
the novelist will find it an absorbing enough read. Those who are
interested in the era, and scholars of Agee and Chaplin, will find
the book to be a small treasure.


   
















Chaplin And Agee: The Untold Story of the Tramp, the Writer, and the Lost Screenplay
by John Wranovics

  • Publication Date: May 9, 2005
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
  • ISBN-10: 1403968667
  • ISBN-13: 9781403968661