“Without the Cane & Derby”

In 1921, Carl Sandburg1 wrote a profile of Chaplin for the Chicago Daily News called “A Visit With Chaplin.” Within the piece he describes a pantomime Chaplin put on for his friends during an after-dinner game of charades:

Charades is a favorite game when there is company in the house. After the Japanese cook and waiters have served “everything there is,” the guests go in for pantomimes, sketches, travesties, what they will.

Charlie was paired with a young woman who has done remarkable work in art photography “stills.”2 All lights went out, both in the drawing room where the spectators sat and in the dining room, which was the improvised stage. 

A door opened. Here was Charlie in a gray shirt, candle in his right hand, lighting his face and throwing shadows about the room. He stepped to a table with a white sheet over it. He drew back the sheet. A woman’s head of hair, then a woman’s face appeared. He slipped his hand down under the sheet and drew out his fingers full of pearls of a necklace into his pocket, covered the face and head, picked up the candle and started for the door. 

Then came a knocking, louder, lower, a knocking in about the timebeat of the human heartbeat. The man in the gray shirt set down the candle, leaped toward the white sheet, put his fingers at the throat and executed three slow, fierce motions of strangling. Then he started for the door, listening. He stepped out. The door closed. All was dark. 

The guests were glad the lights were thrown on, glad to give their applause to the mocking, smiling, friendly host. 

At the dinner Charlie mentioned how he was once riding with Douglas Fairbanks in a cab past some crowded street corner. And one of them said in a voice the passing crowds could not hear: “Ah, you do know who is passing: it is the marvelous urchin, the little genius of the screen.”

The ineffable mockery that Charlie Chaplin can throw into this little sentence is worth hearing. He holds the clues to the wisdom and humility of his way. 

Every once in a while, at some proper moment, he would ejaculate, “The marvelous urchin, the little genius of the screen.” with an up-and-down slide of the voice on the words, “little genius” and “marvelous urchin.”

Fame and pride play tricks with men. Charlie Chaplin is one not caught in the webs of miasma.3 

A year later, in 1922, Sandburg reworked this article into a poem called “Without the Cane and Derby” which was published in his book Slabs of the Sunburnt West” and dedicated it “For C.C.” It was also published in Vanity Fair. Here is the poem:

Vanity Fair, May 1922 (click to enlarge)

1Incidentally, Sandburg was the brother-in-law of Edward Steichen who took the famous portrait of Chaplin as himself with the Tramp in shadow behind him.

2 The artist was probably Margrethe Mather a friend of Florence Deshon‘s. Chaplin had been introduced to her through Deshon and her companion, Max Eastman, in 1919. Eastman wrote in his book, Love & Revolution, that it was a “nightly habit” during this time for the foursome (Eastman, Deshon, Mather, and Chaplin) along with other friends from the movie colony to come together for a game of charades.

3The Movies Are: Carl Sandburg’s Film Reviews and Essays, 1920-1928, Lake Claremont Press, 2000

1 Comment

  1. I don't get it. He steals the pearls from a corpse, hears knocking, goes back, strangles the corpse – end of charade? What am I missing?? Sandburg's poem put a complexity upon it that even makes it less understandable. What am I missing??

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