Charlie Chaplin Cuts Capers in Odessa

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One evening in Odessa, Jenny and I wandered over to the City Food Market, a one-stop shop to satisfy any appetite. Housed in a glorious hollowed-out building on Rishelievska St., the Market, which opened in 2017, was entirely new to me, but it fit my sense of the city to a T. People eating, drinking, dancing — what could be more Odessan than that? And the Market’s slogan is just that: “Eat. Drink. Dance.”

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I can just hear Isaac Babel’s Benya Krik barking out those commands at his sister’s wedding. (Oh, and speaking of Benya, many thanks to Marina Sofia for a meaty new review of Odessa Stories — lip-smacking good!)

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That evening, as bevies of Odessans ate and drank, a little tramp got up to all sorts of antics above their heads. The Market was screening short films featuring Charlie Chaplin, and this brought back a flood of memories from my childhood. Chaplin’s character was a hero of the Soviet public; neither the highbrows nor the lowbrows could resist him. Owen Hatherley has analyzed the early Soviet avant-garde’s fascination with the Little Tramp in The Chaplin Machine (2016), which Tim Kohut reviewed for LARB, and Clare Cavanaugh has offered a brilliant reading of Osip Mandelstam’s two poems on Chaplin from 1937, among the last he ever wrote, in a chapter of Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition (1994).

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Of course, my little friends and I didn’t know thing one about Mandelstam’s poems in the late 1980s, when we were getting up to Chaplinesque antics of our own. We did know this little song, of unknown origin, that is sung to the tune of Léo Daniderff’s foxtrot “Je cherche après Titine,” which Chaplin immortalized as “The Nonsense Song” in Modern Times (1936).

What the Russian folk lyrics capture is the sad plight and universal charm of everyone’s favorite underdog, his infectious joie de vivre and his utterly inexplicable indomitability — what Mandelstam would call his “marvelous / astonished powers.”

The sailors on the deck
were smoking cigarettes —
poor little Charlie Chaplin
was picking up their butts.

They grabbed him by the neck and
gave him a real shellackin’ —
poor little Charlie Chaplin
got teary-eyed and said:

My upper lip is hairy,
I’ve got a big old belly —
I’ll eat the finest meal
but never pay the bill.

I’m little Charlie Chaplin,
I’m meant to keep off tipplin’ —
but for a shot of booze,
I’ll keep you all amused…

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На палубе матросы
Курили папиросы,
А бедный Чарли Чаплин
Окурки собирал.

Они его поймали,
По морде надавали,
А бедный Чарли Чаплин
Заплакал и сказал:

Я усики не брею,
Большой живот имею,
Хожу по ресторанам,
А денег не плачу.

Я бедный Чарли Чаплин,
Мне пить нельзя ни капли,
Налейте мне сто граммов,
Я песенку спою…

10 thoughts on “Charlie Chaplin Cuts Capers in Odessa

    1. I’m glad to introduce you to Mandelstam’s Chaplin poems, Kaggsy! Clare Cavanaugh is not only a scholar but also a terrific translator, and her version of the second poem (in which Chaplin is the central character) is very good.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Thank you for your kind mention. I remember hearing you speak about Babel and the challenges of translating him before the book was published. It has certainly made me want to explore Babel more. And I know the Black Sea Coast well (the Romanian side of it) – can feel a longing for Odessa growing in me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you again, Marina Sofia! I’m so honored to know that I’ve inspired an Odessan longing in your heart! Have you had a chance to look at Caroline Eden’s BLACK SEA?

      Like

  2. I had no idea Chaplin was a hit in Russia! I actually read the translated poem in English to the tune of The Nonsense Song and had a good giggle. After watching the video clip of course. That reminded me of the many Chaplain movies I watched when I lived in Switzerland. My boyfriend’s father was crazy about him and had many recordings of Chaplin’s films. He was also a polyglot and I was able to improve my French while reading both the French and English subtitles. He was and still is an icon tand there are statues throughout the Valais that are symbols of the Swiss’ continued devotion. Did you know that grave robbers made off with Chaplain’s remains as ransom? Thankfully they were caught and the remains reburied in a theft-proof coffin. Poor Charlie. That deserves a poem in itself. Thank you for this charming post as ever.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lois, what a great memory of watching Chaplin’s films in Switzerland! And yes, of course, you’re right about his posthumous fate — it’s a fine premise for a poem. Even in death, he was irrepressible…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Chaplin was a huge fixture of my childhood–we used to marathon his movies every New Year’s Eve. Have been planning to introduce my girlfriend to some of his longer films–I can’t resist the satire plus seriousness of The Great Dictator.

    Liked by 1 person

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