Picks and Pans Review: Remembering Charlie
Epstein, for 30 years a production aide to Charlie Chaplin and an intimate of the Chaplin household, offers this "pictorial biography" to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the man he calls "the cinema's greatest artist."
Its more than 300 photographs—snapshots by Epstein, by Charlie, by Chaplin's wife, Oona, plus filler from studio and museum archives—are no great shakes taken one at a time, but en masse they provide an engaging family album-like record of the aging genius at work, at play, as a doting husband, above all as the adoring parent of 10 startlingly handsome children.
Epstein's text is less rewarding. He dwells on his own non-Chaplin-connected career (its highlights include being road manager for the Andrews Sisters), overworks the less-rewarding final years of Chaplin's life, has a tin ear for an anecdote and seems often not to understand what he observed. Can he believe that the plodding A Countess from Hong Kong, the 1967 Chaplin-directed film starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, failed in America because a New York Times critic, denied a private screening, savaged it in revenge? And of Chaplin's direction of Brando, who is perhaps the world's most instinctive actor, Epstein writes, "Charlie told Marlon where to stand, how many steps to take and how many beats to count before turning," but hears no irony in Brando's comment, "This is the easiest picture I've ever made.... Charlie's doing it all!"
Epstein also doesn't seem to see any peculiarity in a conversation he had with Oona, who had told a stranger that her husband was Jewish. Startled, Epstein says, "But Charlie told me he wasn't." Oona explains her attitude and Charlie's: "You must always say 'Yes' if people ask you...otherwise you could be playing into the hands of anti-Semites. Anyway, he was part Jewish, wasn't he? Oh, I really don't know.... What does it matter?"
It does matter that Chaplin never stopped thinking, living, breathing film. Even at 85, he still hoped to make The Freak, his original story about a girl born with wings and able to fly. However much Epstein's prose might dull the senses, details like this, and the glimpses of Charlie with his children, enliven the heart. (Doubleday, $30)