Picture this: a dappled array of lavender wildflowers and golden poppies lie sweetly in the sun; thick green trees overwhelm the middle-ground and dot all the way back to mountains bathed in atmospheric hazy blue; white puffy clouds float lazily in the pristine sky. This scene belongs to that of a large painting, nestled in the corner of a room under its own spotlight. Entranced, I walked up to it, letting its vibrant color wash over me. I couldn’t help but feel a strange pull towards this specific painting. My eyes started wandering over to the equally-important placard, where it provided the scintillating information that the painter was deaf. I could feel my heart soaring high above the summertime pastoral scene.
In 1919, Granville Redmond painted the above Poppy Field with Oaks and Lupines en plein air, which is currently on display at the Huntington Library galleries. An east coast native, Redmond moved west and attended the California School for the Deaf, where his artistic talent flourished. He received a scholarship to study art in Paris, and returned afterwards to settle down in Los Angeles during the early 20th century. It was there and then that he met Charlie Chaplin, and the two started to form what would be a life-long friendship.
Being fluent in American Sign Language, Redmond taught signs and fingerspelling to the silent comedian (in the above photo, Chaplin is signing the letter d of the ASL manual alphabet), who then developed techniques for his films in order to effectively communicate to his audience in pantomime. While sign language varies in each country and region, there are enough universal signs and gestures for people—deaf or hearing—to understand. This is what I speculate Chaplin to have perfected in his work, as he was apparently drawn to the natural and distinct facial expressions that are an essential part of sign language. In my research, I also came across a couple of sources that mention how the iconic Oceana Roll Dance was supposedly inspired by Redmond himself.
Holding such a fond respect for his friend, Chaplin became an avid collector of Redmond’s artwork, allowing him to keep his own studio on the movie lot, and even casted him in several of his films. You can also find Redmond in The Three Musketeers (1921) and You’d Be Surprised (1926), in which the latter includes some signing and fingerspelling! It goes without saying that seeing formal sign language being used in a silent film is like finding my personal holy grail.
Chaplin is no stranger to households of deaf families, especially mine. Snippets of memories surface every now and then, and I’d remember watching his films on VHS with my dad when I was younger. My parents, who spent most of their childhood and adolescent years in schools for the deaf, recall watching the well-known silent clowns on a tiny television set during a time where closed-captioning did not exist yet. There is a reason why Chaplin is so popular with the Deaf community, and the answer lies somewhere within Granville Redmond. In a 1925 issue of The Silent Worker (an American journal written primarily by deaf people, for deaf people), Albert V. Ballin writes:
“The intimacy between Redmond and Chaplin is thick enough to influence the latter’s acting in moving pictures. It is quite apparent. Did you not notice that Chaplin makes many gestures resembling those of a deaf-mute, and never opens his mouth to mimic speaking words—words which cannot be heard or understood; and which, if important, would have to be repeated as sub-titles—a most boresome and wasteful method of explaining anything in motion pictures. It shows that Chaplin fully appreciates that in dumb pantomime every expression must be interpreted by gestures as far as practicable.” (90)
The realm of silent films and its connection to the Deaf world is one that I hold the utmost fascination towards, and to stumble upon a painter who has bridged that very gap is an enriching find indeed.