Tramping with Charlie: Michael Jackson’s walk with Chaplin (part 2)

What would you buy Michael Jackson for his birthday if he was still alive? A ticket to the Charlie Chaplin Museum opening in 2016. The late King of Pop loved the Little Tramp with his iconic cane, bowler hat and oversized shoes. Having studied Chaplin’s work in detail, Jackson befriended the Chaplin family in the late 1980s and recorded a cover of the Chaplin evergreen ‘Smile’. Jackson would have been delighted to see the Chaplin Museum open its doors in the Swiss manor where he once had supper with the Chaplin family, played on the lawn with the Chaplin kids, and explored the treasures of Chaplin’s personal film archive.

Michael Jackson dressed up as Charlie Chaplin, London 1979 (photo: Tony Prime)
Michael Jackson dressed up as Charlie Chaplin, London 1979 (photo: Tony Prime)

This article is the sequel to: Tramping with Charlie (part 1)

Visiting the Chaplins in Corsier-sur-Vevey

Jackson’s detailed knowledge of Chaplin’s work became evident when he first visited the Chaplin family in Corsier-sur-Vevey. Guided by Rolf Knie, a respected Swiss artist and Chaplin family friend, Jackson made a tour of the manor on June 17, 1988.

“We talked and discussed and went to Charlie Chaplin’s office. We looked at Charlie’s awards and Oscars and took photos with the awards in our hands. It was a relaxed atmosphere and I asked Oona whether I could go down into the archives with Michael. We went to the archives and looked at the original film reels of the Chaplin films, books, and posters. I rarely saw someone who was so beside himself as Jackson. He began to dance and almost flipped out. He knew just about every book and every movie. He said: ‘Look at these books… most books have been written about him (ed. Chaplin). During his lifetime he was seven times better known than Jesus Christ.’ He simply knew everything”, Knie told the Swiss Michael Jackson Community in April 2014.

Chaplin’s daughter Geraldine also remembers Jackson’s visit to the manor, as she told Vanity Fair’s Spanish magazine in 2013: “Yes, Michael Jackson came to the house because he wished to see where Charles Chaplin had lived. My father had already passed away at the time. And he fell in love with my mother! She was delighted; it was like having a butterfly in your garden! I also remember that the first time I saw him was in Madrid, at his concert, and years later he invited us all for his birthday at his home in Los Angeles, to an incredible party for which he paid all our airline tickets.”

Jackson also met other members of the Chaplin family. “I had the chance to meet him several times,” Kiera Chaplin – one of Chaplin’s granddaughters – recalls. “The first time is when he came to see my grandmother at Manoir de Ban in Vevey, Switzerland. I lived next door, I must have been seven years old. During the summer I went to the pool of the manor every day. That day, I saw a helicopter in the garden. My grandmother began to call me from the terrace. I went to have a closer look: my idol was there. Michael put me on his lap. I had my Michael Jackson doll with me and he told me he was going to send me another one (which he did). I was so shy that I didn’t say a word. I looked at the ground the whole time. I shall never forget how kind he was”, she wrote in the preface to Michael Jackson, la véritable histoire (2014).

Michael Jackson, Oona Chaplin and Rolf Knie at Manoir de Ban
Michael Jackson, Oona Chaplin and Rolf Knie at Manoir de Ban in 1988. Jackson is holding Chaplin’s 1972 honorary Oscar and his 1973 Oscar for ‘Best Original Score’ for ‘Limelight’. Oona Chaplin is holding Chaplin’s 1929 honorary Oscar for ‘The Circus’. Rolf Knie is holding Chaplin’s 1976 BAFTA Fellowship Award  (photo: Rolf Knie)

A relaxed, decent and likeable man

The impression Jackson left was favourable to all present during his visit. “I remember the extreme politeness of Michael, his calmness, his shyness. I remember the way he waited for Oona Chaplin to sit down before doing the same, how he did not dare to ask for a Pepsi at first. It is these details that denote someone. It was just normal”, Rolf Knie told Swiss magazine l’Illustré in 2009.

Knie’s son Gregory, who joined his father at the manor during Jackson’s first visit, shared his memories with Swiss newspaper Blick in 2009: “It was of course huge for me when I, as a ten-year-old, was able to personally meet Michael Jackson in Vevey in 1988. He came without bodyguards, only with his manager, in a normal Opel. He was totally easy, impressively relaxed, highly decent, a likeable man who was happy and felt honoured to be a guest at the home of his idol Charlie Chaplin. He knew everything about him. He invited me to his concert and jested whether I was allowed to go to such a big concert. When I told him I had already experienced a Prince concert, he laughed and said: ‘Then it’s high time that you come to my concert.’”

Michael Jackson and Gregory Knie at Manoir de Ban
Michael Jackson and Gregory Knie at Manoir de Ban, June 1988 (photo: Rolf Knie)

Jackson’s friendship with the Chaplins and Knies lasted many years. In gratitude, Knie painted a picture for Jackson on an old tent canvas. It measured two by two meters, had a motif of the film The Kid, and was signed by the Chaplin family. Jackson loved it. After Jackson’s death in 2009, Knie also painted a portrait of Jackson’s chimp Bubbles – a choice of topic that he based on having had conversations with Jackson about the fact that they both held chimps as pets.

Rolf Knie's painting of 'The Kid', signed by the Chaplin family for Michael Jackson
Rolf Knie in front of his painting of ‘The Kid’, signed by the Chaplin family (photo: Rolf Knie)

Recording the Chaplin evergreen ‘Smile’

In 1995, nearly seven years after his first visit to the Chaplins in Switzerland, Jackson continued his walk with Chaplin at the Hit Factory studios in New York. On March 29, he recorded ‘Childhood’ and ‘Smile’ for his album HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book I (1995).

The melody of ‘Smile’ was the instrumental theme that Chaplin had composed for his film Modern Times (1936). The title and lyrics were added nearly twenty years later by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons. Jackson was not the first to record the evergreen. Legendary singers such as Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand – to name but a few – already recorded it many years before Jackson did.

Yet despite the fact that the song wasn’t new, Jackson wished to create his own version and did so with a live studio orchestra. According to Jackson’s sound engineer Bruce Swedien, Jackson sang a perfect first take. “During the recording, the entire orchestra had been listening to Michael sing through their individual headphones. When Michael walked out into the studio to meet the orchestra, they gave him a standing ovation! Every member of the 50-piece orchestra stood up and tapped their music stands with their bows, as loud as they could,” Swedien recalls in his book In the Studio With Michael Jackson.

Jackson’s idea was to have the song accompanied by a short film featuring Jackson as the Little Tramp in recreated scenes from The Kid. Producer David Foster, who worked with Jackson on the recording, told LA Times Magazine in 2009: “Michael often told me that ‘Smile’ was one of his favorite recordings. I remember we were in the studio, and I came up with the idea at the end of the song to have the piano sound old, like in an old movie theater, with the sound slowly disappearing. Michael told me it would work magically with the short film he had planned for the song. He would walk away from the camera just like Charlie Chaplin did at the end of his movies. He loved Chaplin, said he saw a lot of himself in him.”

'Smile' as sheet music and Nat King Cole's recording
‘Smile’ as sheet music and the Nat King Cole recording

Sony and the Chaplin Estate

Jackson’s tribute to his longtime hero, however, was not to become a reality. Record company Sony Music was reluctant to invest the required 2 million dollars in Jackson’s short film. With the HIStory album being well over two years old at the time, Sony argued that any profits were unlikely to cover the expenses. The song would only be released as a single if the video was a low-cost live registration of a Jackson performance or concert.

Stubbornly, Jackson ignored the directive. Instead, he asked photographer Steve Whitsitt to help him shoot the material he needed. “After a few minutes of chatting Michael got down to business. ‘Steve do you know the song Smile?’ he said. ‘I think so Michael, but I’m not sure…’ ‘Here, I’ll just sing it for you.’ (…) It wasn’t just the fact that he was singing for me, it was the absolute stunning clarity of his acapella voice, the hair on my arms stood up, I was moved almost to tears. The whole thing lasted only a couple of minutes”, Whitsitt recalls in The Official Michael Jackson Opus (2009).

“When we had finished, Michael asked me if I knew anything about the history of the song. I took a couple of seconds to catch my breath and mumble some sort of response. For the next few hours, Michael educated me on Charlie Chaplin, and specifically his film The Kid, and about Jackie Coogan, the child actor who played opposite Chaplin in the film, and how Jackie’s experiences led to all of the laws that now exist protecting child performers. Michael was a wealth of information”, according to Whitsitt.

Chaplin's original photo for 'The Kid' (left) and Jackson's version
Chaplin’s original photo for ‘The Kid’ (left) and Jackson’s version (right, photo: Steve Whitsitt)

Although Jackson insisted on proceeding with the visual material needed for ‘Smile’, the project eventually fell through. The Chaplin Estate did not favour a new interpretation of The Kid and did not grant permission to use the film materials. Eventually, lacking an alternative video to accompany the commercial release of the song, Sony pulled the plug on ‘Smile’ in January 1988. As the distribution of the song had already started in the Netherlands, Germany and South Africa, however, these copies became rare and valuable collector’s items.

Footage of the ‘Smile’ photoshoot did not see the light of day until 2003, when Jackson included a few snippets in his Private Home Videos. He never sang the song live, except for a few lines while walking to his car in the Bashir documentary Living With Michael Jackson which was broadcast earlier that same year. It wasn’t until Jackson had passed away that a selection of the ‘Smile’ photo’s were published in The Official Michael Jackson Opus. The song itself was sung by his brother Jermaine at Jackson’s memorial concert in the Staples Center in Los Angeles in 2009.


Dinner with the Chaplins

In January 1997, Jackson returned to Switzerland. Using the break between the first and second leg of his HIStory World Tour, Jackson went to the Mountain Studios in Montreux to finish his Blood on the Dance Floor album. During these two weeks at the Swiss Riviera, he was invited to dinner at the Chaplin manor. Accepting the invitation, Jackson used his trip to Corsier-sur-Vevey to visit the graves of Charles and Oona Chaplin and pay his respects.

Laura Chaplin, a daughter of Chaplin’s son Eugene, was present when Jackson arrived at the manor. “When I was 9, my father invited Michael to the house. He was crazy about my grandfather. He landed in a helicopter in the garden and was wearing a mask. I’ll always remember his shyness. In fact, he stayed with us, the kids, more than with the adults. He played with us and did pirouettes. He even invited my brother Spencer and I to join him on stage in Geneva (ed. probably Jackson’s Swiss concert in Lausanne on June 20, 1997), where he said ‘I love you’ to me in front of the audience. For some time he used to ring me up every night to chat. And every year on my birthday he’d send me a present, either a toy or a Disney t-shirt”, she told Swiss newspaper 24heures in 2013.

Dolores Chaplin, also a granddaughter of Chaplin, shared some of her memories of Jackson’s visit with Vanity Fair’s Spanish magazine in 2015: “He became a very good friend of my mother. He often came to eat at the manor and had great chats. Sometimes he called early in the morning because it was a mess with his jet lag. I remember picking up the phone at three o’clock in the morning and hearing his soft voice: ‘May I speak to your mother?’ I hung up thinking: ‘This is very crazy. I just talked to Michael Jackson.’”

The Chaplin family and Michael Jackson at Manoir de Ban, 1997
The Chaplin family and Michael Jackson at Manoir de Ban, 1997 (photo: Chaplin Family)

Friendship in times of adversity

Jackson’s carefree visit to the Chaplins was a warm memory to hold onto when he was faced with accusations of child abuse seven years later. During these dark months in Jackson’s life, the Chaplins continued to show their love. Patricia Chaplin, one of Chaplin’s daughters-in-law, was in Los Angeles when the allegations broke in 2004. Calling Jackson’s personal assistant twice, she left messages of encouragement, offering help, love and unconditional support on behalf of the Chaplin family. After all, the Chaplins knew from experience that friendship proves its worth in times of adversity.

Kiera Chaplin, one of the Chaplin grandchildren whom Jackson had spent time with during his visit, also rose to his defense. Talking to America’s NIGHT magazine in 2005, she insisted on Jackson’s innocence, stating: “I remember him as being very sweet, very kind, very gentle. He was very shy, very quiet, very polite. I don’t think he had sex with those kids. I don’t think he seems like a sexual person. I think it was a little bit inappropriate for kids to come over and sleep at his house for so long, but I don’t think he did anything bad.”

Pursuing a dream

After Jackson’s premature death in 2009, the question remains if and how Jackson would have further expressed his lifelong passion for all things Chaplin. Without a doubt, he would have explored the Chaplin Museum in Vevey. He would have admired the creative presentation of Chaplin’s cinematographic art and the innovative technology highlighting the Little Tramp’s adventures. Perhaps he would have found traces of his own history with the Chaplin family, while walking down the corridors of the manor.

Most interesting, however, is the question if the museum would have inspired Jackson to pursue his own lifelong dream of filmmaking. As early as 1982, Jackson expressed his view on the  power of creative expression in film. Talking to Interview magazine, Jackson explained what he considered the essence of Chaplin’s work: “I just like jumping in other people’s lives and exploring. Like Charlie Chaplin. I just love him to death. The little tramp, the whole gear and everything, and his heart—everything he portrayed on the screen was a truism. It was his whole life. He was born in London, and his father died an alcoholic when he was six. He roamed the streets of England, begging, poor, hungry. All this reflects on the screen and that’s what I like to do, to bring all of those truths out.”

michael_jackson_filmmaker
Michael Jackson pursuing his dream of filmmaking in 1987 (left) and in 2009 (right) – (photos: video stills)

Perhaps Jackson would have found a kindred spirit in Jason Allin, a professional filmmaker, actor and playwright, also known as ‘The Chaplin Guy’. In his 2015 silent film production Start Something, Allin illustrates the unmistakable bond between Jackson and Chaplin. Halfway through the short film, Jackson walks past the sleeping Tramp, leaving him his white sequined glove. When the Tramp wakes up, the glove inspires him to dance Chaplinesque to Jackson’s ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. If there is any such thing as a perfect tribute to Charlie Chaplin, this may well be it.


© Annemarie Latour

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6 thoughts on “Tramping with Charlie: Michael Jackson’s walk with Chaplin (part 2)”

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