'Sunnyside: A Novel'

Tramping through history with Charlie Chaplin

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It didn't take long for Americans to embrace the movies once they moved out of the peep show to the Nickelodeons.

Glen David Gold embraces the magic of those early "flickers" in his ambitious historical novel that opens with Charlie Chaplin mania and closes with the arrival of Rin Tin Tin, the first four-footed movie star.

"Sunnyside: A Novel"
By Glen David Gold
Knopf ($26.95)

Stars were born and vanished in the flickering world of the early silent-film days, but Chaplin came to dominate the movie business then like no other.

The Hollywood legend frames this ambitious, lengthy and often wordy commentary about American life in World War I.

Gold has researched the period with the earnestness of a historian and the eye of a filmmaker. For him, the movies of that era symbolized the jarring mix of America's 1917 innocence and its heartless brand of capitalism. Chaplin understood and exploited both.

It's largely a forgotten period in our history, including the foolhardy intervention of Allied troops, Americans among them, in the Russian Revolution. Gold's version of that doomed mission, led by the intrepid and real Gen. Edmund Ironside, is among the best sections in this 555-page sprawler.

The characters are so numerous in fact, that Gold produces a page and a half of their names and roles. Readers should be grateful for the guide as the novelist moves his cast of characters from Los Angeles to the western front in France to the far reaches of Russia.

Summing up the emotional power of the movies is a closing scene in a peasant church there, a scene taken directly from the Preston Sturges' 1941 comedy, "Sullivan's Travels."

But, he returns again and again to Chaplin. "Sunnyside" was the title of one of his few film fizzles, one of 66 movies he made in five years. In Gold's retelling, the movie, with its near death of the Little Tramp, reveals the star's doubts about his talent and purpose.

Gold spent eight years on this novel, following his 2001 "Carter Beats the Devil." It's a wonderful book for lovers of history and movies, a workout for casual readers.

But, I think it's worth it watching such an enthusiastic and inventive writer weave his own brand of magic.

Contact Bob Hoover at 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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