by Alison Flood)
The only work of fiction ever written by Charlie Chaplin, a dark, nostalgic novella which was the root of his great film Limelight and which has lain unpublished for over 60 years, is being made public for the first time.
Footlights, which runs to 34,000 words, traces the same story as Chaplin's valedictory film Limelight – that of an ageing, alcoholic clown Calvero and the ballerina he saves from suicide.
The film, in which Chaplin played Calvero and Claire Bloom the ballerina, was the final American movie Chaplin made before he was banned from the country for alleged communist sympathies. The novella, which Chaplin wrote in 1948, before the film script, widens and deepens the story, giving an insight into the author's state of mind at the time.
It has lain in Chaplin's archive for decades, but has now been pieced together from a mix of handwritten and typed scripts by Chaplin's biographer David Robinson. It is published by the Cineteca di Bologna, an Italian film restoration institute which has been digitising the Chaplin archive for his family.
Cecilia Cenciarelli, co-director of the Cineteca's Chaplin project, said the novella "has shadows. It's the story of a comedian who has lost his public, by a comedian who at that time had lost his public, who was referred to in the press of the time as a 'former comedian', a 'former successful film maker'".
It is a prequel of sorts to the film, in that it fleshes out "why Calvero has nightmares, why he is so disenchanted with his career, with the public", she said. "The book deals a little more with the relationship of the artist to his audience, with the meaning of art."
"I know I'm funny," says Calvero in the novella, "but the managers think I'm through … a has-been. God! It would be wonderful to make them eat their words. That's what I hate about getting old – the contempt and indifference they show you. They think I'm useless … That's why it would be wonderful to make a comeback! … I mean sensational! To rock them with laughter like I used to … to hear that roar go up … waves of laughter coming at you, lifting you off your feet … what a tonic! You want to laugh with them, but you hold back and laugh inside … God, there's nothing like it! As much as I hate those lousy – I love to hear them laugh!"
Chaplin was going through a bad time in America when he wrote the novella, said Robinson. "He was a big target for J Edgar Hoover … which was effective to the extent that a great deal of middle America turned against him. This was a shock to him, who had been the best loved man in the world for 30 years." These feelings, said Robinson, "work themselves out in the story of Calvero".
Footlights, complete with Robinson's commentary and description of the story's evolution, is being launched by the Cineteca this week, with an event at the British Film Institute Southbank, London, featuring Robinson and Bloom, to whom the book is dedicated. The book will be available from the publisher's website and Amazon, although it does not yet have a British or American publisher – something Cenciarelli is hoping will change.
"It is astonishing that this man who went to school for six months in his life managed to become a writer," she said. "The reason it has never been published before is because the family has been a little protective … but eventually they were convinced this would be a good thing to do."
"He never meant it for publication," said Robinson. "It was something absolutely private … he wrote it for himself."
In his commentary, Robinson writes that Chaplin "can move without warning from the baldly colloquial to dazzling yet apparently effortless imagery, as when the crushed Calvero gazes 'wearily into the secretive river, gliding phantom-like in a life of its own … smiling satanically at him as it flecked myriad lights from the moon and from the lamps along the embankment'".
Chaplin's childhood in south London can be seen, he writes, in a child character's "aversion to parks – 'the dreary, forlorn patches of green, and the people who sat about them, were the living graveyards of the hopeless and the destitute'". The novella also shows "the delight in fine or strange words of the self-confessed autodidact, who kept a dictionary beside him and set out to learn a new word every day: brattled, selenic, efflorescing, fanfaronading and – to the end of his life his all-purpose favourite – ineffable."
"Once he'd got a word he liked to use it, even if it was not quite right for the situation," Robinson said. "Nevertheless he does write amazingly. With his films he worked and worked until it came right, and it is the same with this book. It's a good read. Strange, but good."
Pamela Hutchinson, who blogs about silent film at www.silentlondon.co.uk, called the publication "very exciting".
"There is always tremendous interest in Chaplin – and when so much has been written about him over the years the chance to read his own words, especially ones we haven't heard before, is refreshing," she said. "One of the things that is really wonderful about Limelight is that it shows Chaplin returning to the London of his youth: the tenements and music halls that he knew.
"To read what he was writing about this world in the 40s confirms our fondly-held belief that Chaplin never forgot his British roots throughout his successes in the States.
"The subject matter of Limelight – poverty, mental health and the variety stage – as well as its London setting, could have been plucked straight from his childhood. The drafts of this novella confirm that these things were still playing on his mind late in his life."