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Chaplin and Agee: The Untold Story
of the Tramp, the Writer, and the Lost Screenplay
Any lingering doubt as to the
literary stature of James Agee (1909-1955) should be dispelled later this year when the
prestigious Library of America publishes two volumes devoted to the writers work,
which includes screenplays, film criticism, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (A
Death in the Family), and a masterpiece of New Journalism years ahead of its time
Us Now Praise Famous Men). As a warm-up, Agee aficionados and cinema buffs can
feast on John Wranovicss Chaplin and Agee: The Untold Story of the Tramp, the
Writer, and the Lost Screenplay, a marvelous new book that brings to light a
previously unpublished (and largely unknown) 80-page film treatment that Agee wrote in the
aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing with the hope of convincing Charles Chaplin to direct
and star in the project.
Agees startling script idea was to place Chaplins Little Tramp character in a crumbling New York City following an atomic blast. Envisioned as a silent film with music and sound effects, the darkly comic story casts the Tramp as the benevolent leader of a ragtag society of survivors. Among the screenplays most intriguing passages is a description of the communitys utopian social politics encouraging free love, menages à trois, and racial inbreeding. Conflict arises when a second group of survivors emerges from the rubblea band of scientists living in an underground bunker. Before long, the scientistswhom Agee describes as representing the extreme opposite to individualismentice the Tramps community with laborsaving gadgets and a HAL-like supercomputer that becomes dangerously neurotic after a mouse crawls inside its machinery. Ostracized and alone at the end of the film, the Tramp shuffles off toward the horizon, his expression a blend of indestructible hope with irreducible disillusion.
Wranovicss extensive introductory chapters provide a trove of historical and biographical context, mixing established sources with a good deal of fresh archival material. Particularly illuminating is an examination of the rough-draft notes for Agees overly enthusiastic review in The Nation of Chaplins 1947 box-office failure Monsieur Verdoux. A black comedy with political overtones in which the comedian plays a serial wife-murderer, the controversial film has had few wholehearted defenders over the years. Agees uncompromising reverence for Chaplin, however, was a blind spot. Wranovics quotes the writers friend and fellow film critic Dwight MacDonald: I suspect that Agees response is an example of his chief weakness as a critic: his directorial imagination which sometimes remade the movie inside his head as he watched it, so that what came out on his page was often more exciting than what had appeared on the screen. On the other hand, Agee had studied Chaplins work so assiduously over the years that the screenplay he wrote for the Tramp character is filled with uncanny simulacrums of Chaplins pantomime style and gag construction.
It was likely naïve to believe that a self-consumed filmmaker like Chaplinwho clearly preferred writing his own material, as well as starring in and directing (and composing the music for) the movies he madewould have the slightest interest in someone elses screenplay. In fact, the Chaplin Studios were adamant about returning unsolicited manuscripts, which is initially what happened to Agees script. How it eventually landed in Chaplins hands, and the ensuing friendship between the two men, makes for a rich and compelling narrative. It was a friendship destined to be cut short not only by Agees untimely death, but also by the State Department, who barred Chaplin from re-entering the U.S. in 1952 on trumped-up McCarthy-era charges. Writing Agee from exile in Switzerland, Chaplin lambasted America as that stink-pot country of yours. Wranovics paints a dispirited portrait of Agee in New York, his health broken, confessing to an actress with whom he was having an affair: I am a drunk.
- Bob Wake