Chaplin : His Life & Art by David Robinson


by David Robinson

CHAPTER EIGHT – ESCAPE (His return to London 1921)

On the train journey to London he found everything different and irresistibly beautiful, the girls, the countryside – despite the parched grass and the new buildings – the crowds that waited at every station to see his train go by. As they approached Waterloo, the train passed through the streets of his boyhood; he could glimpse Uncle Spencer’s old pub, the Queen’s Head in Broad Street, Lambeth. the scenes that awaited him in London were astonishing. His homecoming was a triumph hardly paralleled in the twentieth century apart from a few great royal or national events. From Waterloo to the Ritz the streets were thronged with people all waiting for a glimpse of their idol and a chance to cheer.

‘I feel like doing something big. What an opportunity for a politician to say something and to do something big! Then we approach, the tide comes up towards the gates of the hotel. They have been kept locked to prevent the crowd from demolishing the buliding. I can see one intrepid motion-picture camera man at the door as the crowd srarts to swarm. He begins to edge in, and starts grinding his camera frantically as he is lifted into the whirlpool of humanity. But he keeps turning, and his camera and himself are gradually turned up to the sky, and his lens is registering nothing but clouds as he goes down turning – the most honourable fall a camera man can have, to go down grinding. I wonder if he really got any pictures.

In some way my body has been pushed, carried, lifted, and projected into the hotel. I can assure you that through no action of mine was that accomplished.’

The crowd insisted on his showing himself at the window of his suite, but the management of the Ritz asked him to desist from throwing flowers to the people below for fear of causing a riot.

Chaplin now felt a desperate urge to see places of his youth without delay. With Geraghty and Crisp he managed to make his way out of the service entrance of the hotel; then he left his companions, to go alone in a taxi to Kennington. From his own description there seems to have been a passionate hunger in this search for the scenes and impressions from his childhood. Much remained: an old, blind, bible-reading beggar under the arches by the Canterbury Music Hall; Christ Church, where Hannah (Chaplin’s mother) worshipped when religion took her; Baxter Hall, ‘where we used to see magic lantern shows for a penny…you could get a cup of coffee and a piece of cake there and see the Crucifixion of Christ all at the same time’; Kennington Police Station’ Kennington Baths, ‘reason for many a days hookey’; Kennington Cross. In Chester Street he recognized the shop where he had once worked as lather boy, though the barber had gone, and an old tub where he himself once used to wash in the morning. He saw himself in the children who played in the street. He thought them lovely and was thrilled to hear them speak. ‘They seem to talk from their souls.’ Proceeding to Lambeth Walk he met a girl who had been the servant in a cheap lodging house where he had once stayed, who, he recalled, had lost her job because she had ‘fallen’.

His clothes made him conspicuous in Lambeth Walk. He was recognized and a crowd began to follow him, though at a respectful distance. He felt ashamed after asking a policeman for help and the policeman reassured him, ‘That’s all right, Charlie. These people won’t hurt you.’ They called ‘Goodbye, Charlie. God bless you!’ as he drove off in his taxi. He drove to Kennington Gate, where he had had his rendezvous with Hetty, to the Horns, and to Kennington Cross, where as a boy he had heard the clarinettist play ‘The Honeysuckle and the Bee’, and ‘music first entered my soul’. He reflected that he was seeing all this ‘through other eyes. Age trying to look back through the eyes of youth.’ Yet, he was only thirty-two years old.

A couple of nights later he decided to return to Lambeth, this time in the company of Robinson, Geraghty and Kelly. He noticed Sharps the photographers in Westminster Bridge Road, and went in and asked of he could buy prints of some of the photographs they took of him when he was with Casey’s Circus. The assistant replied the negatives had been destroyed long ago. He pointed out that they had still a photograph of Dan Leno, who had died seventeen years before, in the window.

‘Have you destroyed Mr.Leno’s negative?’ I asked him.

‘No’, was the reply, ‘but Mr Leno is a famous comedian.’

Such is fame.

There were other landmarks he remembered: an old bottle-nose tomato seller, ten years more decrepit; the coffee stall at Elephant and Castle which was the focus of the night life of the neighbouring streets, and where Chaplin noticed among the loungers a number of men maimed by the war. Then Chaplin took his friends to 3 Pownall Terrace. Mrs. Reynolds, the aging widow who now lived in the Chaplin’s former garret, was astonished to be got out of bed at 10.30p.m. by the celebrity of the moment, but not nonplussed:

‘The place was darkness…and when I heard a scuffling outside, I shouted,

‘Who is there!’

‘It is Charlie Chaplin,’ I heard a voice say.

Never dreaming it was really Mr Chaplin, I shouted from the bed, ‘Oh, don’t you try and play any joke on me. Charlie won’t come at this hour.’

But the knocking went on, so I got out of bed. I had to take a picture away before I could open the door, as it had no key and I have to wedge it up. Then I saw four gentlemen on the stairs, and one of them, slightly built and wearing a grey lounge suit, said in a gentle voice, ‘I really am Charlie Chaplin. Were you asleep? he asked, and I said, ‘No’ as I had been listening to the (news) boys calling the results of the great fight.

‘Oh,’ said Charlie, ‘I was supposed to be there.’

Then he looked round the room – I was very glad that the sheets on the bed were clean..and said, ‘This is my old room, I have bumped my head many times on that ceiling’ – pointing to the slope above the bed – ”and got thrashed for it. I should like to sleep here again for a night.’

I said, ‘It’s not like your hotel here,’ and he answered merrily, ‘Never you mind about my hotel. This is my old room, and I am much more interested in that than my Hotel.’

Having had their fill of drabness for the night (Chaplin quickly recovered from his urge to sleep in his old room), the friends went back to Park Lane to visit the American film director, George Fitzmaurice. There Chaplin quarrelled with another guest, an American actor who had gone sightseeing in Limehouse in search of the tough and highly coloured world of Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights, and was disappointed that nobody there wanted to pick a fight.

‘That was enough. It annoyed. I told him that it was very fine for well-fed, overpaid actors flaunting toughness at these deprived people, who are gentle and nice and, if ever tough, only so because of environment.. I asked him just how tough he would be if he were living the life that some of these unfortunate families must live. How easy for him with five meals a day beneath that thrust out chest with his muscles trained and perfect, trying to start something with these people, Of course they were not tough, but when it comes to four years of war, when it comes to losing an arm or a leg, then they are tough. But they are not going around looking for fights unless there is a reason.

It rather broke up the party, but I was feeling so disgusted that I did not care.’

On the way back to the Ritz they fell into conversation with three prostitutes; Chaplin was rather sad that having gaily hailed them, ‘Hello boys’, as soon as they recognized him the girls became solemn and respectful and called him ‘Mr Chaplin’. They helped a driver, on his way to Covent Garden with a load of apples, to push his wagon up a slippery street, and Chaplin was touched that the man ‘did not belay the tired animal with a whip and curse and swear at him in his helplessness. He saw the animal was up against it, and instead of beating him he got out and put his shoulder to the wheel, never for the moment doubting that the horse was doing his best.’

The derelicts huddled at night under the arches of the Ritz, the newest and most glamorous hotel in London at that time, seemed to symbolize the two poles of Chaplin’s life: the privations of boyhood and the triumph of this homecoming. Chaplin woke the sleepers to give them money. He never ceased observing behavour: ‘There was an old woman about seventy. I gave her something. She woke up, or stirred in her sleep, took the money without a word of thanks – took it as though it was her ration from the bread line and no thanks were expected, huddled herself up in a tighter knot than before, and continued her slumber. The inertia of poverty had long since claimed her.’



Published by Penguin Books 2001 (revised edition)


Night of the Demon (1957)




Dana Andrews / Peggy Cummins / Niall MacGinnis / Maurice Denham / Athene Seyler / Liam Redmond / Reginald Beckwith / Ewan Roberts / Peter Elliott / Rosamund Greenwood / Brian Wilde / Richard leech / ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK Clifton Parker / PRODUCTION DESIGN Ken Adam / CINEMATOGRAPHY Edward Scaife / EDITOR Michael Gordon / PRODUCER Frank Bevis & Hal E. Chester / DIRECTOR Jacques Tourneur

‘It has been written, since the beginning of time – even unto these ancient stones – that evil, supernatural creatures exist in a world of darkness..’

“All this sex and violence.. I get enough of that at home!”, exclaims a bewildered Baldrick to Blackadder when confronted with the depravities of Georgian Theatre. The modern Horror-meisters seem similarly incapable of seperating the two, spiking their brews with liberal quantities of the old ultra-violence and sado-masochistic mysogyny. Working out of a shared rule book, culling it’s philosophy from somewhere between Hitchcock’s iconic ‘Psycho’ and the flourish of lowbudget 70’s & 80’s slasher films that grew from Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ success. In recent years though, the influx of J-Horror from such auteurs as Hideo Nakata & Takashi Shimizu has sent western horror cinema into spasms of downright nastiness. Japanese & Korean horror is a clearly defined artform, a cine-folklore, both alegorical and rich in cultural history, but it is an enclosed reality.. not at all comfortably transferred to a western setting. The remakes are fairly straightforward, and are mostly helmed by their original Japanese Directors, but it’s those inspired young Westeners who go all loopy and misunderstanding the genre, spiral out of control.

Ghosts in Japan are traditionally female and are usually associated with water (wells, springs etc.), the horror  generally centred around a terrifying duality between beauty (the luring Siren) and hideous ugliness (the decaying loss of beauty), clashing and grating on the Eastern feminine ideal. These spirits are wronged souls seeking vengeance and release from torment. Western mythology in contrast, has ghosts and monsters that are generally male in nature, and are more often than not confused, lost or mischievous entities. Combine the fetishism inherent in Japanese & Korean creative culture, with threatening male entities in Western stories and you get an unsettling amalgum. The strong female spirit of the Oriental revenge tale is now flesh and blood victim of raving, sexually abusive male creatures. This all sounds a bit strong, but consider such peculiar recent films as ‘Captive’, ‘Wolf Creek’ and ‘Creep’, with their all too disturbing slasher /  torture and rampages. Horny madmen as protagonist and perhaps viewer alike.

Anyway.. what’s all this got to do with ‘Night of the Demon’? Well, it’s quite simply that there’s not a trace of sexuality to be found anywhere about it’s person. There’s a mild hint of a romance, but that’s about it. The victims are all male, the Demon of the title has no specific gender, the protagonist is male, our heroine is  neither vamp nor shrew (a schoolteacher yes, but played by the exceedingly pretty Peggy Cummins).. and yet, ‘Night of the Demon’ is recognized as one of the finest Horror films of it’s generation. It’s origins lie with the short story ‘The Casting of the Runes’ written in the early 1920’s by Etonian mediaeval Scholar and lecturer M.R.James. James began his literary career after gaining a notoriety for terrifying his students with ghost stories by the fireside at Christmas Eve.. stories suitably gruesome, but without too many references to sex or women in general to upset the Headmaster. Think of John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’, with it’s old Sea Captain telling his ghostie story huddled round a campfire at midnight, and you can glimpse the Jamesian tradition..

“11:55, almost midnight. Enough time for one more story. One more story before 12:00, just to keep us warm. In five minutes, it will be the 21st of April. One hundred years ago on the 21st of April, out in the waters around Spivey Point, a small clipper ship drew toward land. Suddenly, out of the night, the fog rolled in. For a moment, they could see nothing, not a foot in front of them. Then, they saw a light. By God, it was a fire burning on the shore, strong enough to penetrate the swirling mist. They steered a course toward the light. But it was a campfire, like this one. The ship crashed against the rocks, the hull sheared in two, mast snapped like a twig. The wreckage sank, with all the men aboard. At the bottom of the sea, lay the Elizabeth Dane, with her crew, their lungs filled with salt water, their eyes open, staring to the darkness. And above, as suddenly as it had come, the fog lifted, receded back across the ocean and never came again. But it is told by the fishermen, and their fathers and grandfathers, that when the fog returns to Antonio Bay, the men at the bottom of the sea, out in the water by Spivey Point will rise up and search for the campfire that led them to their dark, icy death.”

THE FOG (1980)

Directed by Horror auteur Jacques Tourneur, ‘Night of the Demon’ was to be a last stab at the Horror genre, at least in a serious capacity, before the Director descended into a spate of minor melodramas, weak comedies and the occasional demotion into Tv (one highlight being his outstanding Twilight Zone episode ‘Night Call’ with an aged Gladys Cooper). Tourneur had made a name for himself with a string of stylish Film Noir Horror pieces who’s subtlety stood in stark contrast to the bland run of Frankenstein and Dracula sequals trotted out by a formulaic 40’s Hollywood. ‘Cat People’ with it’s alluringly feline, femme fatale Simone Simon stands as his finest offering. Unnerving it’s audience with shadowplay and the unspoken, rather than resorting to cheap sensationalistic thrills. Eroticism contributed to ‘the popularity of Cat People’ , but ‘Night of the Demon’ excelled in it’s humour and genuine downright oddness. The dusty old world of the Hollywood Horror flick is abandoned for the original darkness of the European folktales, mediaeval witchery, Victorian Spritualism, and the unseen terrors.

Now.. this is where I’m supposed to dissect the film and go all Sight & Sound on you, but I’m not going to. I’d just be rattling off the contents of this classic box of tricks, and frankly I don’t want to spoil it for those still to experience it. There’s a direct line of cine-descent to such films as ”The Omen’ ..’An American Werewolf in London’.. ‘The Ring’.. ‘The Grudge’..’The 9th gate’ .. Tv’s ‘The League of Gentlemen’.. ‘Doctor Who’.. and on, and on.. So, if you like those fine films, then you’ll undoubtedly love this too, and you don’t need me to go spoiling things for you.. Oh, and one last thing, the video at the bottom down there is for those who are already familiar with the film, and want to see some lovely interclips of the Kate Bush video that features the immortal lines ‘It’s in the trees! It’s coming!’.. so, no sneeky watching it beforehand, or I’ll send the Demon after you!

‘Joanna, let me tell you something about myself. When I was a kid, I used to walk down the street with the other kids and when we came to a ladder they’d all walk around it. I’d walk under it, just to see if anything would happen. Nothing ever did. When they’d see a black cat they’d run the other way to keep it from crossing their path. But I didn’t. And all this ever did for me is make me wonder why, why people get so panicky about absolutely nothing at all. I’ve made a career studying it. Maybe just to prove one thing. That I’m not a superstitious sucker like ninety per cent of humanity.’

‘He’s most dangerous when he’s being pleasant.’

‘But where does imagination end and reality begin? What is this twilight, this half world of the mind that you profess to know so much about? How can we differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind?’

‘Do I believe in witchcraft? What kind of witchcraft? The legendary witch that rides on the imaginary broom? The hex that tortures the thoughts of the victim? The pin stuck in the image that wastes away the mind and the body?’

‘Well, what do you expect me to do? Nobody’s free from fear. I have an imagination like anyone else. It’s easy to see a demon in every dark corner. But I refuse to let this thing take possession of my good senses. If this world is ruled by demons and monsters we may as well give up right now.’

‘Oh yes, I don’t think it would be too amusing for the youngsters if I conjured up a demon from hell for them.’

‘It’s in the trees! It’s coming!’

‘Those of us who believe that evil is good and good, evil. Who blaspheme and desecrate. In the joy of sin will mankind that is lost, find itself again.’