Charlie Chaplin's only novel published for the first time

February 06, 2014 12:00 am | Updated May 18, 2016 06:14 am IST

The only work of prose fiction ever written by Charlie Chaplin, a dark, nostalgic novella which was the root of his great film Limelight and which has languished unpublished for over 60 years, is being made public for the first time.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 aging, 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 the Chaplin family.

The novella, said Cecilia Cenciarelli, co-director of the Cineteca’s Chaplin project, “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 Chaplin’s 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 very 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 openly 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, “works 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 featuring Robinson and Bloom, to whom the book is dedicated. The book will be available from the publisher’s website, and from Amazon, although it does not as 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.”

— © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014

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