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Limelight

October 08, 2006|Marc Weingarten | Marc Weingarten is the author of "The Gang That Wouldn't Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion and the New Journalism Revolution."

ONE of the first great movie stars, Charlie Chaplin, becomes a cultural Rorschach test of sorts in "The Essential Chaplin" (Ivan R. Dee: 318 pp., $16.95 paper); the collection's contributors cast their gaze upon him and then come up with countless interpretations as to what they're seeing.

Mostly, they bear witness to genius. These essays and reviews fall roughly into two categories: cultural analysis and literary mash note. Many prominent writers have weighed in on Chaplin through the decades, and there's a lot of thoughtful, gushing praise from Graham Greene, James Agee, Andrew Sarris -- heck, even Winston Churchill in a piece that was written while the great world leader was hacking it out as a journalist. Overheated theorizing -- a favorite pastime of highbrow Chaplin watchers -- is provided by European thinkers Theodor W. Adorno and Elie Faure.

The best pieces in this collection edited by Richard Schickel, who reviews books for The Times, are the ones that leaven admiration with healthy cynicism. Film scholar David Thomson's scathing piece, "The Demon Tramp," is so contrary to the usual party line that it has the bracing impact of a slapstick bonk on the head, while the late and under-read critic Robert Warshow weighs in with an essay that examines with keen insight Chaplin's fraught and complex relationship with his audience throughout his 50-year career.

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-- Marc Weingarten

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