An ambitious, intelligent, overstuffed novel about three years in the life of Charlie Chaplin
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Gold instead goes in for spectacular set pieces that would have D.W. Griffith running for his camera: a dinner hosted by princesses in an abandoned Russian monastery; a Wild West show performed before Kaiser Wilhelm on the eve of World War I; a battle featuring a runaway train; a Hollywood party complete with tableaux vivants and dead trees planted on the beach for scenery and moral instruction.Skip to next paragraph
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“Griffith knew how to create the most ornate spectacles ... hours of swinging braziers and slaves banging on gongs, chariots pulled by butterflies, and the audience was fooled into embracing it simply because of its size,” Chaplin thinks before heading off to the party. “Where was the small moment, the flirtatious smile not returned, the cuckold discovering a cuff link and saying nothing, the smile of a baby that somehow chills the bones? This was the hardest way to make things.”
With 576 pages, Gold finds time to fit in some small moments as well, and he’s got the last item on that list in spades.
Not unusually for a novel set largely on battlefields, the female characters do not get equal billing. Girl Scout/teenage confidence trickster Rebecca Golod, who’s a witness to the Beaumont riot and subsequently shows up in San Francisco and L.A., never gets more than a few pages at a stretch.
Screenwriter and journalist Frances Marion has one evening to spar verbally with Chaplin, enchanting both him and the reader. But she heads off to France to report on the war, while he pursues teenage ingénue Mildred Harris. (This is not a fault of Gold’s plotting: Chaplin married several teenagers, and Mildred was the first.)
Decades after his death, Chaplin’s image is still iconic, but Gold isn’t content to ride on the Tramp’s coattails. He painstakingly re-creates the elaborate and expensive process of creating genius – whether it involves letting 21 dogs run loose in the studio for weeks or Chaplin calling for angels and stringing actresses up (literally – on telephone poles) for hours until they pass out – before deciding that he doesn’t need them in the scene after all.
And after the muses and harpists and museum sets, there’s a plaintive realization: “I just want something small.” Gold also captures Chaplin’s intelligence, personal darkness, self-centeredness, and the intense focus that led him to make 65 films before the age of 30.
“The theory of humor that no one else seems to understand,” Chaplin lectures an exhausted Zasu Pitts after a grueling day in which the then-unknown actress was forced to wear nothing but body paint, “you don’t just throw a pie. No, you have me attempt to throw a pie at an enemy ... and instead on the wind-up, it drops behind me, and I slip on it, and it shoots like a watermelon seed to hit a passerby, who knocks his glass of water over on my enemy, which causes them to engage in a fistfight.”
In an era when comedies are more likely to fling fecal matter than baked goods, that’s a lesson worth repeating.
“All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman, and a pretty girl,” Chaplin once remarked. There were times when I wished Gold had taken more of his character’s advice on creating art, and “Sunnyside” definitely suffers from overabundance. But it’s full of intelligence, ambition, and generosity – and there aren’t too many novels that are so stuffed with those that they bulge at the seams.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.