Monday, May 30, 2016

"It might be the head of a criminal, mightn't it?"


In early November 1921, shortly after his return from Europe, British writer and sculptor, Clare Sheridan, a cousin of Winston Churchill, spent three days creating a bust of Chaplin at his home.

Sheridan was on a tour of America with her young son, Dickie. She met Chaplin the evening of his return to Los Angeles (October 31st) at a small dinner party at the home of Goldwyn studio vice president, Abraham Lehr. They struck up an instant friendship. The next day, she and her son were invited to the Chaplin Studio where he screened for them his most recent film, The Kid.


But it was during the dinner party at the Lehrs that they discussed Sheridan's work and the idea of her creating a bust of Chaplin. In her memoir, My American Diary, she described their conversation:
When he asked me about my work in this country, I explained that the United States had made of me a writer instead of a sculptor, and I told him my view of the American man who is so modest that he thinks it is a vanity to have his bust done.
"He does not mind having his portrait painted" I said, "he has grown accustomed to the idea. But he exaggerates the importance of a portrait bust. In fact he is quite un-simple, in his point of view, almost self-conscious—" and Charlie, looking at me half shyly, half humorously, as he sat tucked away in the sofa corner, under the light of the lamp: "I'm vain!" he said. "Thank goodness!" I said. And so we fixed it right away--that I will linger here until his bust is done.
So on the morning of November 3rd, Clare arrived at Chaplin's home to begin work. At this time, he was living in a rented house on Temple Hill Drive, which she remembered as being "moorish and fantastic in design, the tortuous unsimplicity of which disturbs Charlie. But he loves the quiet of it and the isolation on a hill top with the panorama of the town extending for miles below to the sea."

She recalled her first day working on the bust and how Chaplin's moods changed depending on the color of his dressing gown:1
I have worked the whole day on Charlie's head, worked at his house. Today is Thursday and it has to be finished on Saturday because he wants to go to Catalina and fish.
It was a very peaceful day, and though the lovely Claire Windsor2 was there when I arrived, no one disturbed us during the remainder of the day. His moods varied with the hours. He started the morning in a brown silk dressing gown, and was serious. After having sat pretty quiet for some time, he jumped off the revolving stand and walked round the room playing the violin. Having thus dispelled his sober mood he went upstairs, changed his dressing-gown and reappeared in an orange and primrose one, and we went on with the work. He is perfectly right, one's desire for color depends entirely on one's mood.
Now and then we stopped for a cup of tea, for a tune on the piano, for a breath of air, on the sunbathed balcony and Charlie with his wild hair standing on end, and his orange gown dazzling against the white wall of his moorish house, would either philosophise or impersonate. He told me that when he was a young man in London, he longed to know people, but that now he knew so many and he felt lonelier than ever, and it is no use, he said, for artists to hope to be anything else. He then put on a gramophone record and conducted an imaginary band. It was a very entertaining day, and the work got on awfully well.
Sheridan snaps Charlie in his dressing gown.

After three days, the bust was finished and Sheridan felt the "elation of a girl out of school." Friends were amazed that Chaplin stayed still for so long for they knew his "restless and capricious nature." But Sheridan had a plan...
I was fortunate of course in meeting him immediately in his return, before he was re-engulfed in work. Moreover, with some perception, I planted myself with my materials in his house, and as I wanted him bare throated I begged him not to dress. A man in pajamas and dressing-gown does not suddenly get a notion to order his motor and go off to some place. I had him fairly anchored. Nevertheless he has been difficult to do. There is so much subtlety in the face, and sensitiveness, and all his varying personalities arrayed themselves before me, and had to be embodied into one interpretation.

Sheridan remembered that "Charlie was pleased" with the bust.
[He] would get down from the model stand and observe the progress through half closed eyes. Once he said: "I wish this was not me, so that I could admire it as I please. I find him very interesting, this fellow you have made!" and then, after a close examination from all angles he added:
"It might be the head of a criminal, mightn't it — ?" and proceeded to elaborate a sudden born theory that criminals and artists were psychologically akin. On reflection we all have a flame. A burning flame of impulse, a vision, a side tracked mind, a deep sense of unlawfulness.
Later, as I was finishing, the Comte de Limur 3 arrived. He is a young Frenchman who is studying the moving picture work, for France. He looked at the bust, and then at Charlie, and then slyly at me: "I see, it is Pan..." and added with a chuckle: "one can never deceive a woman!"
Sheridan's bust is now on display at the Chaplin's World museum in Switzerland.
 www.charliechaplin.com

1And on his film sets--the color of his suits.
2Windsor was one of Charlie's girlfriends at the time.
3de Limur was a collaborator on A Woman Of Paris (1923)

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