All Photographs and Copy are Coryright MEL BIRNKRANT
Some of the imagery is Copyright The Walt Disney Company
THE MEL BIRNKRANT COLLECTION
A Guided Tour of
One thing I always found fascinating about Charlie Chaplin was how with the simplest of means, a bowler hat, a cane, big shoes, baggy pants, and a small greasepaint mustache, he transformed himself into a Comic Character. And thus, Chaplin became “The Little Tramp” an iconic image of such power that it could withstand a thousand variations of representation, from realistic to abstract, and still maintain its instantly recognizable identity.
And the images poured forth, in toys, dolls, games, figurines, and novelties from every country. Charlie was immensely popular in England, France, Spain, Italy and Germany. And they all created great Chaplin merchandise. The hat, the cane, the mustache, was all it took to render an acceptable likeness of “The Tramp” or “Charlot,” as he was known in France. Almost all the Charlie Chaplin items I’ve amassed were manufactured overseas. Many of them were intended for that market only. I never collected Chaplin avidly. Nonetheless, many great images came my way, and most of them ended up in this single case.
And the favorites, size permitting, settled in the center. The one that I like best is the tin Squeeze toy in the middle. Here Charlie is totally stylized. He has become a full-fledged Comic Character. When the lever behind him is squeezed, he does an uncharacteristic jumping jack motion. His eyes open. The toy is in slightly rough condition. I saw no need to touch it up. He told me he was happy as he was.
Just as Charlie had a handful of recognizable and unmistakable visual traits, he also had a repertoire of signature “moves” that he did, time and again. And all of them lent themselves to being easily reproduced in windup toys. So, every windup toy one saw would, most likely, do one of the following things: walk the Charlie Chaplin walk, tip his hat, or twirl his cane! The Most characteristic Chaplin toy, and also the most realistic is the windup to the right, it is very naturalistic in form, and captures his signature walk. The second most prevalent Charlie windup toy is the felt covered one by Schuco at the far right end of the case. He twirls his cane.
One curiosity that takes center stage, is “Mathews’ Palace of mirth and Merriment”. This is a toy theater that features Charlie Chaplin. Although, it was made in England, judging by the stars and stripes emblem above the stage, it was aiming for the American market. What is interesting, here, apart from its pleasant appearance, is the fact that among the cast of generic characters, all of whom are in full color, Charlie Chaplin, alone, is rendered in Black and White. Once again, as in early Mickey, black and white signifies that he is in “the movies”.
Among these up front items are two tin figures; one tips his hat, the other operates some sort of yoyo! In the middle, is a hat tipping statue made of pot metal, that also cleverly twirls his cane. Here, too, a little hard to see, is a beautifully sculpted silver salt shaker. To the far right, is a bell ringing toy that tips his hat, while speaking on the latest of modern telephones. The cylinder before him is a highly stylized perfume bottle, and next to that is just his head, which is a pencil sharpener. On the left, are two tin toys; one dances on a platform, the other bangs a symbol, while holding a cat?
On the far left of the case, is a small collection of Harold Lloyd items. Marx made a large walking figure that, although, unlicensed, was intended to be mistaken for Harold Lloyd. Once a common toy, I haven’t seen one in years, including my own, which is buried in a solid cube of windup toys that stands in the corner of the room, and has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared. Hardly photogenic, I don’t know how I will deal with it here.
Here too are 100 Charlie Chaplin razor blades. Not as strange, perhaps, as the fact that there were Mickey Mouse and Popeye razor blades, as well. Comic Characters weren't just for the little shavers.
The objects below run the gamut, from realistic, as in the the large Royal Dalton mug, and a Swiss ball jointed figure by Bucherer, looking rather glum, to the abstract, such as the windup clown that, if not for the twirling cane and mustache, might not be recognized as Chaplin. Moving into the surreal, we see Charlie sitting down with bare Charlie Chaplin feet, identifiable by a face and small mustache, on each.
The single most extraordinary Chaplin item in the collection is this fabulous carved figure from a Belgian carousel. It is one of those objects that needs no argument or explanation to qualify as a work of art. Across the room is a figure of Popeye that was, quite possibly, from the same carousel, and made by the same carver. One can’t help wondering what other characters were represented there. Because these figures were carved by hand, they are, essentially, one of a kind. Both have one other thing in common, their expression is a little bit sardonic. Although, Charlie appears rather charming and debonair, at the same time, he is also somewhat sinister. These figures have a mind of their own, an inner life.
There are several more Chaplin icons in a group showcase upstairs, along with the images of other personalities who appeared on the radio and in the movies. They all have one thing in common, a persona so unique that it became iconic. I will take you up there now, and call the next page “Hollywood”.
Here is a curious object. Apparently it is some kind of target. It has been adapted, rather elaborately, from the back panel of a game that is also included in the showcase above. The mechanism is quite complex and professional. The cigarette shaped switch that turns on Charlie’s eyes is made of brass. When the cigarette is pressed, Charlie’s eyes light up. The cigarette must be pulled out to turn them off again. This adaptation was all done by hand, a long time ago.
This Whitman Punch Out book was published in 1931, “Movie Masks of Ten Famous Comedy Stars,” headed up by Charlie Chaplin. The book contains the once familiar faces of ten stars who became “famous,” in Silent movie days. The cover illustrates how little it takes to capture an image, recognizable as Charlie Chaplin.
Charlot is gratuitously included in this French horse race game. His cane becomes the marker that decides the race. He is not mentioned on the box.