A few weeks ago I had a phone conversation with Red Smith’s biographer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Ira Berkow. He told me:
Walter Matthau once told me that his idea of good writing is that you have to come in on a slant. You want the reader to pause for a moment before it hits them. It’s telling a good joke.
I’ll give you an example. Matthau’s wife was good friends with Oona O’Neill who was Charlie Chaplin’s wife. When Chaplin finally came back to America Mathau and his wife gave them at a party at Matthau’s Palisades house in New Jersey. Matthau went out onto the lawn with Chaplin and they overlooked the Atlantic Ocean which was dotted with sail boats. Chaplin looked out over the ocean from Matthau’s backyard and said, “Must have cost you a fortune.”
Matthau told his wife the line and weeks later they’re driving on a hill near their home and they see the same scene–gorgeous view of the ocean. His wife said something like, “After you bought all those boats it must have cost you a lot of money.” And Matthau said to her, “That’s not good writing. You have to come in on the slant.”
Red did that kind of thing.
The Film Forum is showing a beautiful new 35 mm print of Chaplin’s classic, “The Gold Rush” through this Thursday. If you’ve never seen it on the big screen and you have the time, step to this.
Mr. Verdoux, I presume?
In a bomb-proof concrete vault beneath one of the more moneyed stretches of Switzerland lies something better than bullion. Here, behind blast doors and security screens, are stored the remains of one of the greatest figures of the 20th century. You might wonder what more there is to know about Charles Spencer Chaplin. Born in London in 1889; survivor of a tough workhouse childhood; the embodiment of screen comedy; fugitive from J Edgar Hoover; the presiding genius of The Kid and The Gold Rush and The Great Dictator. His signature character, the Little Tramp, was once so fiercely present in the global consciousness that commentators studied its effects like a branch of epidemiology. In 1915, “Chaplinitis” was identified as a global affliction. On 12 November 1916, a bizarre outbreak of mass hysteria produced 800 simultaneous sightings of Chaplin across America.
Though the virus is less contagious today, Chaplin’s face is still one of the most widely recognised images on the planet. And yet, in that Montruex vault, there is a wealth of material that has barely been touched. There are letters that evoke his bitter estrangement from America in the 1950s. There are reel-to-reel recordings of him improvising at the piano (“I’m so depressed,” he trills, groping his way towards a tune that rings right). A cache of press cuttings details the British Army’s banning of the Chaplin moustache from the trenches of the first world war. Other clippings indicate that, in the early 1930s, he considered returning to his homeland and entering politics.
There’s no shortage of good boxing movies. We’ve talked about that in the past. But what about laughs? Welp, dig these two funny boxing scenes from the masters: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Watching them again, they are a decent example of how different Chaplin and Keaton were stylistically.
First, from City Lights:
And from one of Keaton’s lesser features, The Battling Butler: