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 writer’s 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 (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men). As a warm-up, Agee aficionados and cinema buffs can feast on John Wranovics’s 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Untold Story of the Tramp, the Writer, and the Lost Screenplay, a marvelous new book that brings to light a previously unpublished (and largely unknown) 80-page film treatment that Agee wrote in the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing with the hope of convincing Charles Chaplin to direct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.
Agee’s startling script idea was to place Chaplin’s 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 screenplay’s most intriguing passages is a description of the community’s utopian social politics encouraging “free love, menages � trois, and racial inbreeding.” Conflict arises when a second group of survivors emerges from the rubble—a band of scientists living in an underground bunker. Before long, the scientists—whom Agee describes as representing “the extreme opposite to individualism”—entice the Tramp’s 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.”
Wranovics’s 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 Agee’s overly enthusiastic review in The Nation of Chaplin’s 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. Agee’s uncompromising reverence for Chaplin, however, was a blind spot. Wranovics quotes the writer’s friend and fellow film critic Dwight MacDonald: “I suspect that Agee’s 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 Chaplin’s work so assiduously over the years that the screenplay he wrote for the Tramp character is filled with uncanny simulacrums of Chaplin’s pantomime style and gag construction.
It was likely na�ve to believe that a self-consumed filmmaker like Chaplin—who clearly preferred writing his own material, as well as starring in and directing (and composing the music for) the movies he made—would have the slightest interest in someone else’s screenplay. In fact, the Chaplin Studios were adamant about returning unsolicited manuscripts, which is initially what happened to Agee’s script. How it eventually landed in Chaplin’s 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 Agee’s 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