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I Am Charlie: Art, Dissent and Censorship

Ed Rampell: Although Consul is to a certain extent fact-based, I suspect that what Morogiello did was conflate verifiable actuality with a dramatist’s imagination and technique to render a plausible “what if.”
Chaplin

Melanie Chartoff and Brian Stanton (Photo: Ed Krieger)

THE CONSUL, THE TRAMP AND AMERICA’S SWEETHEART Theater Review

It’s a great historical irony that a play about Charlie Chaplin’s battle with Nazi censorship premiered on the West Coast the same night Hamilton’s cast - and audience - collided with the incoming Trump administration on Broadway.

In John Morogiello’s great The Consul, The Tramp and America’s Sweetheart, Georg Gyssling (Shawn Savage), Germany’s L.A. diplomat, tries to squelch Charlie Chaplin’s (Brian Stanton) making of The Great Dictator by lobbying and browbeating actress/movie mogul Mary Pickford (Melanie Chartoff of the TV sketch comedy show Friday’s) in her Hollywood office (well-rendered by set designer Jeff G. Rack) at United Artists Studio. In 1919, Pickford, Chaplin, director D.W. Griffith and swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks formed UA as a distribution arm empowering independent filmmakers to exercise creative control over their work.

As a former movie star who became a motion picture industry titan, Pickford was one of the most powerful women in Hollywood history (and the play scores some feminist points about women in power). When Consul takes place in 1939, Pickford is depicted as the head of UA, which is why Gyssling barges into her office after reading a Hedda Hopper column about Chaplin’s new production - an anti-Hitler satire. As Gyssling confronts Pickford and then Chaplin, Consul follows some of those Aristotelian rules about drama’s classical unities of time, action and space, as the story largely unspools in real time.

However, Morogiello cleverly inserts some cinematic techniques - such as freeze frames and rewinding the action onstage, including the imaginings of Pickford’s secretary, Esther Hollombe (Laura Lee Walsh) - into the mise-en-scène.

Although Consul is to a certain extent fact-based, I suspect that what Morogiello did was conflate verifiable actuality with a dramatist’s imagination and technique to render a plausible “what if.”

Gyssling, a former Olympian athlete, actually did throw his weight around La-La-Land in an effort to influence how the Third Reich was portrayed onscreen. Thomas Doherty excellently documented this in his 2013 Hollywood and Hitler 1933-1939 (Columbia University Press).

The top notch, exhaustively researched film history book by a superb historian may have inspired Morogiello, who world premiered Consul at Vermont’s Oldcastle Theatre Company last Sept. 2, after the script “won first place in the 2015 Dayton Playhouse FutureFest and the 2015 Julie Harris Playwright Award Competition from the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild,” according to Oldcastle’s website. Although Consul is to a certain extent fact-based, I suspect that what Morogiello did was conflate verifiable actuality with a dramatist’s imagination and technique to render a plausible “what if.”

In saying this I’m not implying there’s anything wrong with this modus operandi, which novelists also use (such as Joyce Carol Oates in her Marilyn Monroe novel Blonde, which, by the way, also has an eyebrow-raising Chaplin connection). For instance, Rogue Machine presented Kemp Powers’ One Night in Miami… wherein the playwright “went” behind closed doors at a non-segregated Florida motel the night then-Cassius Clay won the heavyweight championship to “eavesdrop” on what the boxer, Malcolm X, athlete Jim brown and singer Sam Cooke said and did on Feb. 25, 1964. In doing so, Powers created one of L.A.’s best, most electrifying plays of 2013.

Chaplin

Shawn Savage, Melanie Chartoff, Brian Stanton, and Laura Lee Walsh (Photo: Ed Krieger)

Morogiello does likewise in Consul, using its famous - and infamous - dramatis personae to bring about another historically-based powerhouse of a play full of tension, ideas and yes, ideals. Should United Artists give in to Gyssling’s threats to ban UA from distributing its pictures throughout the Third Reich by ameliorating - if not altogether strangling - Chaplin’s anti-Nazi movie, then under production?

This, arguably, is the stuff of great drama, redolent with conflict (not to mention yuuuge Hollywood egos), and I urge theatergoers to experience the 90-ish minute one-acter, presented without intermission. Having said all that, I do wonder about whether or not some of the play’s points and dialogue are indeed factual. There is no account of Pickford’s meeting with Gyssling re: The Great Dictator in Hollywood and Hitler. Although the onetime American sweetheart is depicted as being wishy-washy - if not submissive - to the German vice-consul and his demands, Doherty quotes Pickford as publicly denouncing der Führer and fascism in 1938 - a year before Consul’s tête-à-tête in her office supposedly took place.

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And while Consul’s Chaplin claims he has no screenplay for Dictator, wall text displayed at Lausanne, Switzerland’s Le Musée de l’Elysée 2014 exhibition “Chaplin, Between Wars and Peace (1914-1940)” stated: “the script for Charlie’s first talkie [Dictator] originally had 300 pages.”

Chaplin

Brian Stanton and Melanie Chartoff (Photo: Ed Krieger)

Morogiello, of course, was writing a dramedy, not making a documentary, and is entitled to poetic license. However, UA co-founder D.W. Griffith (an offstage presence) is made out to be anti-Semitic and votes in favor of Gyssling’s maneuvers against Chaplin’s proceeding with Dictator. This is problematic: By 1924, Griffith reportedly had left United Artists - a full 15 years before Consul is set.

And while the director of 1915’s reprehensible The Birth of a Nation was definitely racist towards Blacks, I had never heard that Griffith hated Jews, whom he blames for his demise in Consul. Rather, once the talkies arrived, the silent screen helmer had fallen out of fashion and behind the times - indeed, Chaplin was the only UA co-founder who continued starring/directing/writing films well into the sound era (1967, to be precise).

While Griffith deserves to be rebuked for his anti-Black racism, unless there is strong documentation that he was also an anti-Semite, for the preceding reasons it’s my opinion that this dialogue may be unfair, and if so, should be removed. However, if I am wrong and the historical record proves Griffith was indeed a Jew hater, I stand corrected. Speaking of which, as Consul indicates, when Chaplin was “accused” of being Jewish (as if that’s some sort of crime!!!) the actor who portrayed the Jewish Barber in The Great Dictator would not publicly deny it.

Why? It’s true that Charlie’s half-brother was Jewish and according to his son, Michael Chaplin, his father was Roma (Gypsy), another minority despised and persecuted by the Nazis. While these may have been contributing factors, I believe that Chaplin, the most famous, beloved man in the world, wanted to bestow his prestige upon what were then the most oppressed people on Earth: Jews during the Holocaust. (Thanks, Charlie!) Brian Stanton brings the Little Tramp to life with an outstanding performance that deserves accolades and steals the limelight once he takes the stage.

Like the bioplay Stoneface starring French Stewart as Charlie’s rival, silent screen comic Buster Keaton, Consul very appropriately incorporates sight gags, slapstick and vaudevillian flourishes worthy of the character Stanton brilliantly, drolly depicts.

Chaplin

The Chaplins' mansion at Vevey, Switzerland that is now part of the Chaplin's World movie museum. (Photo: Ed Rampell)

(BTW, what was Chaplin’s reward for warning America and the world against fascism in Dictator? The “premature anti-fascist” was kicked out of the Land of the Free in 1952 and went on to live in exile at Vevey, Switzerland, where his former mansion above Lake Geneva became part of a splendid movie museum last April. See: http://www.chaplinsworld.com/en/charlie-chaplin-museum.) Stanton’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. Despite an ending that could have used more pizzazz and my historical reservations, Consul - adeptly directed by multiple award winner Jules Aaron - is a superb, well-acted play that dares deal with the big ideas in a highly entertaining way. It gives a whole new meaning to the Charlie Hebdo-related slogan: “I am Charlie.”

While Trump - who comes across like Jack Oakie playing Mussolini in The Great Dictator - tweets menacing comments about Hamilton, Saturday Night Live and the news media, Morogiello and company have rather presciently rendered a rousing play about artists’ struggle against censorship for free expression. As Karl Marx wrote in 1852’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

The Consul, The Tramp and America’s Sweetheart is being performed Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through Dec. 18 in Theatre 40 in the Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 S. Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills, CA 90212. This is on the campus of Beverly Hills High School; there is free parking in a garage beneath the theatre. For info: (310)364-0535; www.theatre40.org.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell