A Letter to Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin

Dear Charlie,

I discovered you because I was making my own movies. When I wasn’t making silly little movies with my Super 8 camera, I was borrowing films from the public library.  I had a projector and I didn’t like it sitting dark and still. So I watched movies when I was not making my own. My memory is a little fuzzy, but if it serves me in the slightest I recall watching abridged versions of King Kong and Gorgo (yes indeed) and short films from the Mack Sennett and Hal Roach library. This was how I was introduced to your genius.

Wouldn’t it be swell if I could tell you which one of your films was the first that I ran through my projector? I am so sorry! I have absolutely no idea. This is probably due to the fact that once I saw my first Chaplin short, I had to see immediately everything I could get my hands on. In the span of a few weeks I must have seen twenty or thirty of your early works. My goodness, do you have any idea what that did to me?

I think you do. And that’s because you knew the effect your work had on audiences. Maybe you never were quite certain if you were good enough, but Charlie, you measured yourself against your own yardstick. You did know that you had a singular and majestic gift. I know this.

Mr. Chaplin, you reached me. You reached me the same way you reached millions upon millions. You reached me with your heart and your art and with the truth. You never lied to me, Charlie. There is a quote attributed to Fred Karno in Richard Attenborough’s film Chaplin (I know! A film was made about your life.) He says to you in the film, “Do you know what comedy is? Knowing who you are and where you come from.”

You knew where you came from and you never forgot it. And you made sure we never forgot. You made sure we understood what poverty tasted like (The Gold Rush), what beauty sounded like (City Lights), what the future moved like (Modern Times), and what true ugliness looked like (The Great Dictator), even as you made us laugh harder than anyone except for maybe Buster Keaton. (Sorry, but I do need to give him his due. He was dreadfully funny.)

Charlie. I want to go on and on, but in honor of your finest short films, I think I’ll keep it short and sweet. I love you, Charles. I love you because you worked harder than anyone working in cinema. I love you because you loved your family. I love you because you fought the Red Scare and lost, but brother did you fight. They threw you out of the land you loved and owed everything to because they were cowards and you, Sir Chaplin, were not. They didn’t understand that their actions broke your heart and that you would never recover. If I could do anything to make up for it, I would. You know this!

Charlie, I need to share a couple of crazy facts with you before I go. When I moved to Hollywood after graduating from UCLA, I took an apartment in a legendary apartment building on Franklin Avenue where stars like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope had lived. Do you know who the landlady was? Paulette Goddard! Not your Paulette, of course, but how about that for fate slapping you in the face with a fresh mackerel. You died on Christmas Day. Do you know how much more meaningful Christmas became for me when I found out that fact? One more thing before you go. The person whom I adore more than anyone else in the entire universe (excluding my son) performed as you for Halloween this year. I am not sure where she got the idea. I don’t think she and I ever discussed you. But I do forget a lot, so who knows? Perhaps it was fate again. Goodness knows that fate has been good to me.

And most of all, I love you because you have the biggest fattest heart I have ever encountered in all my years of watching flickering images. You laid yourself bare, my friend, and if I didn’t learn that gift from you, Charlie, you sure let me know it was okay to have a big fat heart in a cold world. You gave me permission to be silly and to be a big old sap. Thank you for that, Charlie. Thank you for more than I can ever mention.


Timothy Caldwell

P.S. Charlie, I probably don’t need to tell you this, but we all know that the kid you rescued at the end of The Kid was you. What you might not know is that the kid was me, too. Thank you.


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