Charlie’s London: from the archives to the airwaves

The Charlie Chaplin Archive, Bologna
Heaven for a Chaplin fan … the archive in Bologna

This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.

Welcome back for another edition of Charlie’s London. This week I am going to be talking about my debut appearance on the Silent London Podcast, as well as my recent trip to the thoroughly mindblowing Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, Italy

Being a Chaplin fan you are never short of on-screen comedy capers to keep you entertained, but when someone tells you you can visit the Charlie Chaplin Archive in Bologna, Italy should you be in the area, well you don’t really have to think twice. My partner Kieran and I took a 6am flight to Bologna so that I could visit the archive, but also so we could enjoy the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival too.

At the Cineteca in Bologna we registered for the archive and the festival. All around us everyone complained about the heat, but being half Turkish I didn’t really mind. No sooner had we sat down for a coffee, my phone began to ping, it was Jenny, a fellow festival-goer who had not only made the journey to Bologna but was also staying in the same hotel as us. Pretty soon we were all together, along with Mark, another friend and great supporter of Bristol Silents looking over the festival plan.

Ayse and Charlie
Ayse and Charlie

Initially I began to look over the schedule from Wednesday to Friday, because I was due to be in the archives Monday and Tuesday, but this turned out this was a pointless exercise. In the end, I was in the archive until Friday morning and in total saw only five films at the festival. The film that left the biggest impression on me was the new restoration of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Mark had told me many times before that it was a film I would enjoy, not only because I have a soft spot for Technicolor but because I have spent a lot of time researching the first and second world wars. He wasn’t wrong! It was a feast of restored beauty,  history and irony.

My biggest adventure came on Monday when I finally got to visit the Chaplin archives. Everything has been digitised to make viewing incredibly easy. The staff are so helpful and friendly, even with the busy festival under way in the grounds. Before I knew it I was engrossed, flicking through pages and pages of useful and exciting documents all relevant to a massive piece of research I am undertaking. Kate Guyonvarch, Kevin Brownlow and of course David Robinson all were there to give me a helping hand: their support was priceless. Imagine, as I have done, having read someone’s work since you were 11 years old, only to find them standing behind you in an archive and clarifying a sentence in one of their books that you want to quote in your research! That what David Robinson did, and he refreshed my memory on something I had a mental block on. After many cups of lovely Italian coffee and long chats I had more than 40 pages to take back to England: the tip of the iceberg had been scratched.

Bologna is a long way from South London! Charlie’s London had very much gone continental. Here is where my biggest conundrum lay – you can’t just take a bus to these archives. I knew I had so much I wanted to look at, but I was meant to be at a film festival, what was a girl to do? Luckily enough I have a very supportive partner who smiled and told me to book more time in the archives. So, what started as two days ended up being the whole week, and it was worth it! I discovered so much more about my hero.

Chaplin was the first major world celebrity; his star shone bright over a new and changing world. War raged in Europe and the mass media changed the public perception of image and status, allowing global news to become home news in one single edition. Sadlly, Chaplin fell foul of the very media machine that had created him.

Image dispute: which is the real Chaplin?
Image dispute: which is the real Chaplin?

I found many examples of this in the archives, reading letters and professional paperwork between the Chaplin brothers and their lawyer Nathan Burkan.  Never before on such a scale had someone not only had to protect their image or their creations, but also brand their entire existence in order to protect both their professional credibility and their income. This fascinated me. There were disputes with both Keystone and Essanay studios over reused and rejigged reels of unused footage, carved up to make supposed “New Chaplins” and plans for an unauthorised biography by Rose Wilder Lane. I realised my work had only just begun!

On my return, I had another exciting adventure to undertake, the recording of the Silent London podcast. I was championing Chaplin in a special comedy edition of the podcast – I’m always in his corner. As always with these things you find you think of brilliant things to say as soon you have left the studio, but I think I argued well for Chaplin and would have made him proud. I had never done anything like that before and the experience was absolutely amazing.

Chaplin is misunderstood! I realise this more and more everyday. His films are seen as sentimental and out of touch with a modern audience. He is recognised as a mega star, but he has fallen out of fashion. Just as David Robinson does, I feel that his work My Autobiography is a jewel of a book that has been sadly taken out of context by many readers.

Chaplin’s memory in 1964 when the book was first published was as sharp as it had ever been. He recalled childhood events and his early career in detail, most of which can be checked against the records and found to be accurate. Still, his book has been criticised by many Chaplin enthusiasts and historians for being a work of clever fiction. Personally I disagree. We need to read between the lines, look at why and how Chaplin wrote this book, see what is has to offer as an historical text against the backdrop of proven fact, and only then can we truly understand the mindset he was in as he sat down to write it. By never once mentioning Buster Keaton or Roland Totheroh, brushing over The Circus and mentioning Lita Grey in just one line, Chaplin says so much, while he reveals very little. More and more reason I believe Chaplin speaks volumes rather than just the whispers some people would have you believe. This was my fight, and just like the scene in City Lights, I hoped to sneak in a crafty punch!

Thanks for reading everyone! And if you want to get in touch with me about anything you read in these posts, you can now email me on charlies.london@gmail.com

Ayşe Behçet

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