Adam Scheffler, the manager/art director of the Silent Cinema in Galway, has pointed out to me that I was perhaps a little harsh towards Charlie Chaplin – as a man, not as a comedian -- in the review of John Connolly’s book on Laurel and Hardy, He. And, of course, he’s correct, even though I would stick by what I said.
Still, in the spirit of the season of goodwill just gone, it is perhaps only just to add that this is simply one man’s opinion. So, in order to balance things a little, here are a few comments from an admirer who was a contemporary – and a most unexpected admirer at that.
The 20th century's greatest horror writer was that strange Pale Prince from Providence, H. P. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937). Stephen King has said of him that every writer of horror stories has to first understand that he walks in Lovecraft’s gigantic shadow. And that is for sure. Indeed, he single-handedly redefined the genre.
I’ve always found it hard to imagine the prim and rather priggish figure of Lovecraft sitting in the shadows of a darkened 1920s cinema. He claimed to hold the then-emerging art form in disdain. And yet a reading of his collected letters from throughout his life shows something quite different. With our easy access to all forms of film today it is easy to forget that they were not always so accessible.
In a 1926 letter to his correspondent August Derleth, he laments that he never got to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921), though he had tried to track it down. “Too bad we both missed Dr. Caligari, for it was by all accounts the best fantastic cinema ever produced.”
One expects a man of Lovecraft’s tastes to be enthused by such fare; and his letter concerning the 1925 The Phantom of the Opera, which he saw during his two soul-destroying years in New York City, is intriguing:
“…what a spectacle it was! It was about a presence haunting the great Paris opera house… but was developed so slowly that I actually fell asleep several times during the first part. Then the second part began – horror lifted its grisly visage - & I could not have been made drowsy by all the opiates under heaven! Ugh!!! The face that was revealed when the mask was pulled off… and the nameless legion of things that cloudily appeared beside & behind the owner of that face when the crowd chased him into the river at last!”
One expects this of Lovecraft, but more intriguing to me is his admiration for the comedy of Charlie Chaplin, not only comparing the acting merits of Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks but in 1915 actually writing what amounts to a fan letter in the form of a poem called ‘To Charlie of the Comics’, which I’ll now read:
You trip and tumble o’er the sheet
That holds your life-like image.
You shuffle your prodigious feet
Thro’ love scene, chase or scrimmage.
As gazing on each comic act
I stare at your perfection
I find it hard to face the fact that you’re a mere projection.
I’ve seen you as an artist rare,
With brush and paint-smear’d palette;
I’ve seen you fan the empty air
With ill-intentioned mallet.
I’ve watched you woo a winsome fay
(You must a dream to her be),
But ne’er have caught you in a play
Without that cane and derby!
Dear lad, I trust your happiness
May be like that you give us,
And since ripe years the mirthful bless,
That you may long outlive us.
May you the smiles of Fortune see,
Nor know what want of cash is;
And may your times of trouble be
As short as your mustaches!
I’d like to meet you, Charles, old chap,
Tho’ vast the space dividing;
Yet I must merely sit and clap
At your fantastic gliding.
But tho’ you’re far away, we know,
You still have pow’r to rouse us:
Your films can pack a picture-show
That’s roomy as your trousers!
His wish that Chaplin’s charisma would outlive us is something that I find almost unbearably poignant, given that they both will be studied and admired long after I – and indeed most of us – are long gone.
Yet I can’t help but be warmed at the thought of H.P. Lovecraft of all people, that grim figure who for almost all of his life lived in miserable conditions of genteel poverty, sitting alone in a darkened cinema, chuckling and often laughing outright at the comic figure of the man who was to become known as the Little Tramp.
I guess, Adam, that anyone who could make Lovecraft smile wasn’t all bad.