Friday, August 9, 2013

World Tour Revisited: "Charlot At A Bullfight"

Illustration from "A Comedian Sees The World," A Woman's Home Companion, 1933.
Drawing by Robert Gellert.

On August 9th, 1931, Chaplin, May Reeves, & Harry d'Arrast motored from Biarritz to San Sebastian to attend a bullfight--Chaplin's first. It was something he had originally wanted to do during his 1921 trip abroad. “Several days before the corrida he practiced with me,” wrote May in her memoir. “He had learned all the passes and all the finesses from bullfighters passing through Hollywood. I was the bull, and, using my two index fingers for horns, I rushed at Charlie while he waved a red handcape, which was only a tablecloth, around his body. I admired his dancer’s svelteness, his feminine grace.”

But once the day of the bullfight arrived and Charlie entered the arena, he became agitated. “The first bullfighter bowed to him, made a fiery speech, and tossed him his hat and his mantle, which we displayed on the balustrade. Since the crowd was almost more interested in Chaplin than in the bullfight, he began to act in a film, ‘Charlot At A Bullfight.' Gradually the playacting became serious, however, for he can scarcely bear to see an animal suffer.”1

A matador tosses his hat to Charlie.
Charlie waves to the crowd. Harry d'Arrast and May Reeves are seated next to him.

“A most beautiful yet revolting afternoon was spent at a bull fight in San Sebastian," Chaplin wrote in "A Comedian Sees The World." For thrills and drama it excels any sport I’ve seen. On the other hand it’s sanguine brutality disgusts one.”

“As the picadors plunged their lances into the bull and tore out scraps of bleeding flesh, Charlie lost his composure and covered his eyes in horror," May remembered. "When the bull, attracted by the cape, lunged at his adversary, he cried, ‘Help, Help!’ Then he turned his face away and asked me, ‘Is he gored?’ When two banderillas were lodged into the neck of the bull, Charlie cried, ‘Help, I’m going to faint!’
Finally the bullfighter exchanged his red cape for the muleta which concealed the sword of death. During some difficult passes, Charlie turned to me and asked in a pleading tone, ‘Is the bull finally dead? Is he still alive? May, why don’t they kill him?’”2

Charlie observes the bulls before the fight.

Charlie's description of the execution was a little less graphic: “That afternoon I saw a dramatic killing. The beast had been courageous and had given a wonderful performance—a perfect foil for the artistry of the matador. The man had made the fatal plunge and everyone held his breath. But the animal did not fall immediately. He stood motionless, looking into the eyes of his slayer. There seemed to be an exchange, a questioning….An assistant attempted to go forward, but the matador stopped him with a gesture of authority knowing his thrust was fatal….The attitude of the matador seemed one of triumph, yet regret—a pity for the dying animal.
In the silence of the arena one heard a wagon passing outside. As the sound died away the beast crumpled to the ground and thirty thousand people broke spontaneously into wild enthusiasm and applause.”3

At the bullring El Chofre

Chaplin saw eight bulls killed that day. One of the matadors honored him by presenting him with an ear from one of the bulls he had killed.  As the matador approached, Chaplin shot a quick, despairing look at Harry d'Arrast. Bowing and smiling "he accepted the tribute of the ear--still warm with life--and held it, between thumb and forefinger, extended before him. But out of the corner of his mouth, he was muttering, over and over again, 'What'll I do with it? What'll I do?'"4

As a gesture of appreciation, Chaplin offered each of the matadors a silver cigarette case.

When the spectacle was over, he tried to leave the arena unnoticed, but hundreds of fans and autograph seekers blocked his way. When a reporter asked him whether he had enjoyed the bullfight, he replied courteously, “I would rather say nothing.”5

“All that night, he couldn’t sleep peacefully," wrote May. "In his dreams he cried, ‘Help! Help!’”6


1May Reeves, The Intimate Charlie Chaplin, trans. by Constance Kuriyama, McFarland 2001
3Charles Chaplin, "A Comedian Sees The World Part 4," A Woman's Home Companion, Dec. 1933
4Quote from Harry d'Arrast, Los Angeles Times, August 14, 1932
5New York Times, August 10th, 1931
6Reeves, Intimate Charlie Chaplin

1 comment:

  1. This sounds very much like Charlie to me - admires the pageantry, but not the brutal realism.