How did Joyce get entangled with Charlie Chaplin?

A Feature on the scripting of ‘The Reel James Joyce’ for Bloomsday 2015

by Frances Devlin-Glass, in conversation with Di Silber


Charlie Chaplin encounters Joyce in ‘The Reel James Joyce’ – Photo by Bernard Peasley

Charlie Chaplin was born at the end of the 19th century into the hardship and poverty of working class London. His father was absent, his mother committed to a mental asylum, and he spent two periods of his childhood in the workhouse.

Like other talented but impoverished children (New Yorker Irving Berlin was another), Chaplin became a juvenile performer in vaudeville, in his case on the English music hall stage. Chaplin’s talent as a singer, dancer and comedian was noticed by a famous American theatre impresario, who took him back to the US. He was spotted by Hollywood, and contracted to Keystone Studios in 1914.

His subsequent silent film career became a vital element in the early development of the Hollywood film industry.

In 1918, a juvenile song and dance duo, consisting of a 10-year-old boy and his 8–year-old sister, was spotted by Melbourne talent scouts touring South Gippsland, and offered a contract with the Tivoli Circuit theatrical organization. The children’s parents were of pioneering stock and life had been harsh on a poor selection, with only intermittent work available in the timber and building industries. Any money earned by their children was more than welcome.

Gordon Duo 1921 (orig

The Gordon Duo, 1921

For the following three years, Gordon Hancock and his sister Daisy were featured regularly as The Gordon Duo on the vaudeville stages of the Tivoli and Bijou theatres in Melbourne. They performed popular sentimental and light classical songs from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and contemporary songs from Tin Pan Alley and the English Music Hall.

Like Charlie Chaplin, as moving pictures gained in popularity, Gordon and Daisy found their stage career became entwined with cinema. They were employed by the Hoyts Picture Theatre chain, which was building cinemas throughout the Melbourne suburbs. The duo performed during the intermissions between short silent feature films.

The children were popular performers and the intention was for their career to continue, but at 13 Gordon suffered a haemorrhage when his vocal chords were strained by too much unamplified singing in the vast theatres.

Unlike Charlie Chaplin, the young duo was forced to retire.

Di Silber, who led The Reel James Joyce team of writers into Chaplin and Joyce’s interconnected and shared world of music hall and cinema, grew up singing songs of the Victorian and Edwardian eras and the 1920s accompanied on piano by her father, Gordon, and listening to his stories of the short but exciting career of The Gordon Duo. Di’s family also often retold the stories of Chaplin’s silent films with accompanying impersonations of his comical antics.

James Joyce was fascinated by Music Hall. Cinema, too. His wider musical repertoire of the time, so integral to Ulysses, was very similar to that of Gordon and his mother, Emma May, who played for her children in theatres when an orchestra was not on duty. Music and song was to become one of Di’s pathways into Ulysses.

All grist to a writer’s mill as this year’s Bloomsday scriptwriters, led by Di,  dived into a ‘What If?’ play set in the opportunistic and glamorous world of 1920s silent-film-making.

In 2014, Bloomsday in Melbourne wrote and produced Ulysses Prestissimo, which was an attempt to turn Joyce’s Ulysses into a stage play. It was a ferociously difficult undertaking.

Di started to wonder how much more difficult it would have been when Ulysses was first published (1922), for even for the most famous actor and film director of the times, to have attempted to make a silent film of one of the wordiest novels ever written?

In 1924, when Ulysses was making scandalous waves across the Anglophone world, Joyce was living in Paris and beginning to write Finnegans Wake. By this time, he had been deeply influenced by the fast-developing technical language of film.

Can Chaplin convince Joyce to make a silent film of Ulysses? Photo by Bernard Peasley

Can Chaplin convince Joyce to make a silent film of Ulysses? Photo by Bernard Peasley

What if Charles Chaplin had visited Paris in 1924 when he, too, was in artistic trouble? His film, A Woman of Paris, had failed dismally at the box office in the United States. He had already withdrawn it. But it was released in Paris in 1924 as L’opinion publique.

What if Chaplin and Joyce, an inveterate consumer of cinema, had met by chance at a screening of L’opinion publique? What if Chaplin had absorbed enough from the scandal of Ulysses and the doings of Joyce’s Leopold Bloom to imagine there was something of himself and his Little Tramp in Bloom?

By this stage of his career, Chaplin was a superstar and director of silent comic films – the mushrooming medium of popular culture. He had already established his own studio in an attempt to preserve his artistic and financial independence. He wanted very much to start making serious films. A Woman of Paris, his first attempt, had been a disheartening flop.

What if, in meeting Joyce, his spirits had revived as he became ‘inspired’ opportunistically to hitch his wagon to the rising star of the high culture literary world?

Although it is entirely conjectural that Chaplin might have wanted to make a film of Ulysses, apparently he has been at various times mooted by film-makers as a possible Leopold Bloom. This connection, whether true, apocryphal or just highly exaggerated, staggered us as we read into 1920s cinema and Chaplin. It is also fact that both Eisenstein and Warner Brothers sought the rights to film the novel even before the pornography ban was lifted in 1933.

As is well known, Chaplin went on to make his longed-for serious films (think The Great Dictator), eventually moving into sound. This happened well after The Reel James Joyce ends.

Further, it is certain knowledge not only that Joyce was utterly infatuated with all aspects of modernity (Bloomsday created a gig around this theme at The Museum of Victoria in 2007), especially film, having been the entrepreneur who opened the first cinema in Dublin. These were research findings that fed into The Reel James Joyce.

The scripters also thought there was much merit in setting a fictional encounter between Joyce and Chaplin in Paris in the ’twenties between the wars, it being the home of both French and ex-pat literary bohemians, intellectuals and artists, many of whom were fleeing from censorship in their native countries. John Birmingham’s important scholarly work, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, demonstrates that the British and American censors did it differently. But there is no doubt at all that Joyce’s work would never have seen publication in England, Ireland or the United States, such was the power of the purity-snoopers.

In previous brainstorming sessions, Bloomsday scripters had often thought of working on the Paris years of the last stages of Ulysses and the beginnings of Finnegans Wake (known as Work in Progress until publication in 1939).

The 1920s era provides a lot to work with: Méliès down on his luck after a career in illusionistic, innovative movie-making; the strange world of composer Erik Satie, on the edge of death but making extraordinary films and musical sound-tracks for ballet interludes; the edgy and deeply ambitious couturier, ‘Coco’ Chanel, who would eventually take her elegant designs to Sam Goldwyn’s studios in Hollywood. Ernest Hemingway, a drinking companion of Joyce but a very different prose stylist, was part of the artistic furniture, and Gertrude Stein belonged to the circle that included Hemingway, and Joyce’s long-suffering saviour and publisher Sylvia Beach.

Because of Joyce’s radicalism on sexuality and gender, selecting women stars of stage and cinema who might audition for Chaplin was also amusing. A scene based on one of these, Josephine Baker, who moved from New York to Paris in the mid-20s and became famous for her ‘banana’ dance, unhappily hit the cutting-room floor for lack of a suitable actor. Baker’s outrageousness and career as an exotic dancer in Parisian clubs and the Folies Bergère, and her possible suitability for the Circe scenes in our play, meant that she was a great loss to us.

 Mae West in Paramount Pictures. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Mae West in Paramount Pictures. Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

But Mae West came to the rescue. In 1924, West was still working as a writer/actor on Broadway, trying hard to break into movies and building a reputation as the quintessential wise-cracking Broadway dame who was not afraid to write and star in sexually taboo-breaking plays and shows. Her clear interest in the spectre of censorship meant that she simply had to be ‘auditioned’ for The Reel James Joyce, and she landed the role to play herself.

We subsequently discovered that in 1925 Mae did go on to write a deliberately provocative Broadway play she called Sex, which landed her in jail!

Unlike Josephine Baker, Theda Bara, a super-star of silent screen romances and historical epics (think Cleopatra) but who did not survive into ‘talkies’, did survive her audition as a character in The Reel James Joyce. As an aspiring Molly Bloom, she crosses the Atlantic and ‘auditions’ herself. Bara was physically a good match for Molly. Dark and voluptuous, she became the sex-goddess of the silent screen and earned the appellation ‘The Vamp’. Bara was an intelligent, educated woman, who might well have identified with Molly’s free-spirited earthiness.

Getting Bara to Paris to demand the role of Molly was always going to be a problem, but the restored and re-commissioned Mauretania’s ability to ply the new four-day passage by 1924 made this possible.

In these ways, the scripting of The Reel James Joyce aimed to incorporate the what-if scenario with historical fact. The scriptwriters beg audience indulgence of any ‘factual’ glitches that may have escaped us.

The focus of The Reel James Joyce, of course, is not just on the romantic free-spirits who worked on the Left Bank, or silent film-making for its own sake, but takes the form of an investigation of the modernist Joyce’s fascination with the techniques of film, especially montage and its capacity for irony, the flashback (think Penelope), the creation of phantasms and psychological states (and close-ups), and voice-overs.

Most Joyceans are quite disappointed by the existing films of Ulysses. Only one film based on Joyce’s fiction wins almost universal approval – John Huston’s last film, based on Joyce’s The Dead. A low-budget film based on Finnegans Wake has cult status, but is rarely seen.

So, The Reel James Joyce, to be directed by Wayne Pearn, asks the question: how realizable in film is Joyce’s novel? What advantages does film offer? What do you lose in film? How many directors would you need to realize its panoply of styles – from realism to the epic and phantasmagoria? The play is also, of course, a vehicle for showcasing Joyce’s radical inventiveness and we hope it will also prove very user-friendly for novice readers of Joyce because it stages key scenes.

This year’s Bloomsday is particularly rich. As always, the play has inspired a seminar on the subject of Joyce and Cinema: Philip Harvey and Steve Carey will give papers on Joyce’s cinematic qualities and on the films that already exist.

It also seemed right for us to try to kick-start thinking about doing Joyce and film better and differently, and to draw on the talent of young film-makers around the world, but especially those in Melbourne. So we have also created a Showcase inviting very short films based on Ulysses. The hope is that Melbourne’s sizeable community of Joyceans will work with young film-makers, many a part of the international Filmonik movement, on the weekend of 6 and 7 June, to bring their creativity to what Bloomsday would argue very strenuously is the greatest novel of modernity.

For more information….

Frances Devlin-Glass has been the director of Bloomsday in Melbourne since 1994. Di Silber has had a long association with Bloomsday originally as an organiser and often as a script-writer.