An Atlantic Portrait
BY ALISTAIR COOKE
A GENERATION has come and gone since Chariot, Carlos, Carlitos, and Charlie became the most famous actor in the world. But Charlie Chaplin at fifty is essentially and physically the same dapper midget who first made the movies come to life for the western world. In the interim he has figured in some notable persona] feuds and has been linked to intellectual movements he cared little about. He was the first motion-picture millionaire. He has announced before each of his last two films that he was about to retire. But he has not yielded the crown he was the first to hold — as Will Rogers put it, ‘the Zulus know Chaplin better than Arkansas knows Garbo.'
More than talent contributed to Chaplin’s fame. He has had the luck, as well as the shrewd business sense, to play only one character. That character wore the same baggy pants, the same black hair and knotted suspenders, in a 1914 skating rink as it did on a 1936 assembly line. In the intervals between a score of pictures, the same cracked boots have been preserved in ether. Chaplin’s creation is a clown, and like that of all clowns his make-up is ageless. It is also a careful composite of styles familiar to Americans and Europeans but in line with no fashion and no era. In appearance he might have been a London insurance clerk around 1910. In England the character gains in reality what it loses in satire, for in England a derby hat is common and inconspicuous headgear, indicating no social rank other than that of one who works in an office six days a week. In other countries, in France and the United States especially, the derby and the cane, being vague symbols of elegance, give a satirical edge to a portrait that means to typify the world’s breadwinners. In any country the character is a tramp, a vagabond, a bum, a man who in England is always being wakened by farmers under hedges, in France is being jailed in small towns for failing to show his papers, in America is chased for riding the rods.
Psychologically, the character is a masterpiece. For the genteel clothes give a social sanction to rebellion, and conversely the respectable middle-class man is pictured as an independent spirit contemptuous of security, able to snap his fingers at big shots, tedious routine, and a cottage for two. Add a strain of gallantry, an instant bravery to defend everything that is feminine, everything also that is poor and slighted — and the world’s heart begins to bulge for this archetype of its own good intentions. The final detail is that pathos which critics have been so troubled to analyze. Quite possibly it is due to Chaplin’s lack of inches as much as to anything else. For a gesture of bravery which would appear perfunctory in Robert Taylor is brave and tragic in anybody just over five feet.
This character is no more like its creator than Disney’s mouse. In a Pasadena theatre a year or two ago, I overheard a young man say, ’Look, there’s Charlie Chaplin,’ as he nudged his girl. She turned round quickly, then whispered back, ‘You’re crazy; it doesn’t look anything like him.’ And as they walked away, the young man added irritatedly, ‘Well, you can’t expect anybody to go around looking like Charlie Chaplin.’
This is an obvious answer, but it occurs only as an afterthought. And so far Chaplin’s fame has depended on the fact that the afterthought rarely occurs. This year, however, may doom him to a sudden obscurity or may revive the old post-war idolatry. For at fifty the man behind the moustache proposes to play a new part and so to take for the first time the common risk of actors. He has started shooting The Great Dictator, in which he will play the serious lead as a Führer bearing the unmysterious name of Hinkel. For the joy of counterpoint (also possibly as a sort of reputation insurance) he will play the timeless clown with the cane and baggy pants, getting constantly arrested and humiliated for his close resemblance to the Führer. Behind that comic-strip eternity, the creator has grown through many phases of a personality as compelling and contradictory as any in the history of make-believe.
Nearly everybody who has met Charlie Chaplin seems to recall the moment vividly by the physical shock of taking his hand. You expect a small man to have a small hand; but it is not until you have doubted for a moment whether it was flesh you held or some ivory knickknack that you look at its grinning owner and say, to yourself, lie certainly is a tiny man. His feet are in scale, peeking out like mice from under highheld trousers. He is a little over five feet high, and his hair is piled like a melting snowball on a monumental, you might almost say huge, head. His hair has been graying since his midtwenties, and according to Henry Bergmann, his oldest actor friend and adviser (who has been in every film Chaplin himself has made), it turned white in a day and a night in 1928 when a crisis in the day’s shooting of The Circus coincided with the breakup of Chaplin’s second marriage. However that may be, it is white and thick now.
He is neat without being prim and moves with noticeable economy, more like a gymnast than an actor. Like a gymnast, he hops through a daily game of tennis which has given Fred Perry a reasonable workout. With this daily tennis nothing and nobody must interfere. Chaplin possesses excellent health, but is anxious about it all the time, and he has a gymnast’s sensitiveness to minor ailments.
When he is enjoying himself, which is mostly in his own home, he walks continuously around and between the furniture, flinging up his hands, throwing back his head in a mocking gesture, talking volubly, speculating about the President’s gold policy — whatever the cause, expressing dejection, expectancy, pathos, delight, and scorn. After several hours of this grueling tension, he will practically disappear into a big chair and begin to sip pints of cold water. In such breathing spells you can get a good look at the original face which few motion-picture fans can imagine without its surmounting mop of black ringlets, its square moustache, and its doughy complexion.
He has a well-modeled tanned face with small ears set almost flat against a stiff brush of hair, a small straight nose, the long convex clapper which is what most comedians seem to have for an upper lip, and a very firm, balancing chin. It is a large head, its bone structure massive for the body it rests on, but there is nothing heavy about the features. As in most mobile faces, the activity is all in the eyes and mouth. He has light gray eyes and a mouth that can do anything. In acting out some grim anecdote, he will freeze his eyes and look like a death mask. A second later the eyes are almonds, the mouth a curling semicircle, and he is Pan. Or he blinks warily, tugs nervously at his wrist inclines his head at an angle, licks an uncertain upper lip, and is a melancholy sketch of the Duke of Windsor. On his feet again, he will mimic any and all the people he has met and remembered; it may be a Japanese Cabinet Minister or Ramsay MacDonald, an inspired drunk, Roosevelt, or a current film star. Or he takes up a position with his arms outspread, waiting to receive a cape, slumps his firm shoulders, breathes heavily, and is suddenly the patrician buffalo which was Edward VII — whom he once saw in a newsreel and marveled at.
The month of April, 1889, was not a fateful one for Europe. For news there was speculation about the recent suicide of Prince Rudolf of Austria. The echo of that dreary affair across the Channel drifted into the London music halls, where baritones stressed the beauty of mother love. One of these had more right than most to grow sentimental. On the fifteenth of April his wife Hannah, a handsome half-French gypsy, was in labor in a back room of an East End theatrical boardinghouse. On the morning of the sixteenth she gave birth to Charles Spencer Chaplin. Four nights later, six hundred miles southeast as the stork flics, an Austrian peasant girl was safely delivered of Adolf Hitler.
Chaplin’s father made the circuit of music halls between Glasgow, London, and Paris. He was, one gathers, a wellmeaning, irresponsible man. Chaplin rarely talks about his childhood because he recalls it only as a routine of heartbreaking poverty. But to get any notion of him you have to know a little about it, for it has urged him into much of his fantasy and is the source of whatever sense of fact his pathetic comedy springs from. His mother had the spirit but not the health to work for the more abundant life. Naturally her son has not yet forgiven London for being the town in which she died in wretchedness of mind and body in the poorhouse.
For the first twenty years of Chaplin’s life he was as poor as it is possible to be. He was schooled wherever the itinerant singer could get a job. He went at various times to the public — that is, the elementary and board — schools of London and the Midlands and Manchester. There is still no word which carries a more enviable echo to him than the word ‘education.’ Till he was old enough to know it, he took his poverty cheerfully, as small children will. He had a normal curiosity and an abnormal gift of daydreaming. He pictured himself accurately in every stage of a career as a great artist, or an emperor, or somebody that thousands cheered. When he got to working with grown-up men, he jumped at the chance to live out some of these fantasies. At the age of fourteen he took a job with a printing press, and into the gaslit workroom filled with shambling men in shirt sleeves and shiny pants he came wearing a secondhand morning coat and a wavy black bow tie. He can still remember the merciless Cockneys stopping the presses and shouting for joy, ‘Morning, my lord! He thinks he’s a regular toff, and no mistyke.’ At such moments he learned a gambit he has not forgotten how to use. He was too proud to show his humiliation: he kept the workmen laughing by strutting out in pantomime the character he thought himself to be.
When his father was in a job and playing some provincial town, young Chaplin used to stand in the wings, and from there he got a pretty intimate idea of what heaven might be like. He left the printing press and hung around backstage, learning to tumble, soon picking up the patter, the songs, the cordial gags of the music-hall clowns and hoofers of that time. He was personable and a ready learner. One of his first parts was with Lyn Harding, as Billy, the page boy, in a Sherlock Holmes play. Later he was in vaudeville with a team of dancing comics known as the Lancashire Lads. His mother dead, and his father periodically missing, his home became any dingy double room he could share with a member of the act.
One day in 1912 there dropped into his routine world the bombshell in an entertainer’s life which was later known as ‘an American offer.’ The act he was touring with was called ‘A Night with an English Music Hall.’ It came to the United States, and while he was appearing somewhere in the East people began to notice this slim and melancholy little fellow who acted as a sort of one-man chorus of facial comment on the plot and dialogue of the other actors. It was not a speaking part, but he was also allowed a number of his own, a drunk who took his exit at a tangent with his feet turned out. Americans liked the show but seemed to remember best the little guy who leaned up against the proscenium in pantomime. People came to see him, including those who had gone into the mysterious game known as the cinematograph.
Chaplin was then earning possibly fifteen or twenty dollars a week. The movie impresarios offered him sixty to go to the Coast. He knew the money was a bribe and would never last. He declined. They came to him a year later and offered him a hundred. Thoroughly scared, he took it. He took with him his doubts about the nature of money. He collected it sadly and lived in a small room. He started to make a movie a week; it was usually improvised one day and shot against a backcloth the next, using a couple of city blocks for street scenes. The producers paid him more and more, and the money began to accumulate. Chaplin thought the best way to enjoy it was to pretend it didn’t exist. One day he quietly hopped a train east. By the next train, rival producers were in pursuit with blank checks. In a cheerful daze, which is the outward mask of an acute business instinct, Chaplin signed in 1917 the first — and, as it turned out, the only — contract in motion-picture history offering one million dollars a year, and the next year constructed his own studio and went permanently to work for himself.
It took him years to get the habit of wealth. He enjoyed the scramble to earn the money, but he banked it and lived in a bed-sitting-room at the Hollywood Athletic Club. Privately he still had his doubts about the permanence of the movie fad. He went on vaguely assuming that movies were being shown up and down the Pacific Coast and perhaps in a few of the capitals of the world. He was skeptical when friends showed him headlines proving that the world and his wife knew about Charlie Chaplin in Denmark and Shanghai, in Ireland and Spain. By this time the character known as Charlie Chaplin was as unreal to him as the money it brought in. It was a comedy convention, a drawing board come to life, a character that had lately trimmed its large moustache and shaved its beard and become formalized in a curly head, a cane, and a derby hat. It was a different person from the bewildered vaudeville comedian who might still wake up and have to go looking for a job in London. So Chaplin had his checks paid into the bank and often meditated over material things it would be nice to have.
In the first year or two in California, when he was still living thriftily at the Athletic Club, his brother, who had followed him and was making a modest success in the early comedies, took matters into his own hands and said, ‘It’s crazy for you to walk down the road and look for a cab. You’re a rich man. Buy yourself a car.’ Chaplin argued that he was doing very well as he was. In the end they went along to an automobile showroom and the first thing Charlie saw was a large, high sedan. He asked if it was a good car. The salesman started and replied, ‘Why, yes, as good as they come.’ Chaplin steeled himself. ‘I’ll take it,’ he said. The salesman began to arrange for delivery. But Chaplin had felt a novel emotion. He had commanded something and the sun was still shining. He climbed in, hired a chauffeur on the spot, and chuckled his way home.
It took his brother another year to get Charlie to leave the Athletic Club and buy a house. This he had steadily refused to do. His brother wearily put on his coat and persuaded Charlie to go downtown and consult his bank balance. Charlie was appalled to discover he had upwards of nine hundred thousand dollars. ‘You see,’ roared Sidney, ‘you can buy yourself a home.’ He bought himself a home.
He has since subdued but never relaxed his fear of being poor again. Being a philosophical person, he gets along by taking pains in his business affairs and remembering that to-morrow is another day. He now regards money as a nuisance and a necessity. Personally generous, he will spend it freely on people he likes, provided the expenses can be settled through his manager. For money you can touch and see he has an actual loathing. When he is lunching with his manager or any others of his staff, which he does daily when a new film is under way, the bill is never presented to him. One of the staff quietly pays it and reimburses himself later.
His personal living is about as extravagant as that of the average feature reporter. He gets up, eats, mooches around the piano, hits off a theme he fancies for his next film, reads for an hour or so, wanders round the garden, reads a lot more and plays tennis, has two or possibly three people he likes in to dinner. His living room — and when he’s alone it’s the only one he uses — is a homely thing. It is not subjected to periodical style changes and has rarely seen anything so formal as even the rambling kind of cocktail party that writers give — nothing remotely like the celebrity parties thrown by foreign correspondents, for example. It is a lived-in room. You have no misgivings about mauling the cushions; they have been well creased. The sofas have been sat on through many an all-night talk. The piano is open and slightly out of tune.
He is very English in his desire when a job is done to stretch his toes out in the acres of leisure over the hill. Security has come to mean the right to eat when he chooses and to have room to wander around, humming old tangos, playing a piano accordion; it means not being bothered by a calendar or Hollywood’s strident ‘personalities.’ He has difficulties here. Newer stars arc often piqued at Chaplin’s indifference to their fame or their parties. lie goes to the movies possibly once a month and knows the names of fewer film stars than any sodajerker in the country. He assumes another privilege that has brought him a lot of angry criticism: he does not care about time and the responsibilities set by a clock. If he is due at a party or a concert and is interrupted by a book or a friend, the odds are he will settle down with either and the engagement will never see him. At midnight he’ll go out in search of food.
As the years have gone by he has kept a few close friends and grown tired of saluting the other great and near-great. There was a time when he particularly envied artists and writers what he supposed to be their special and civilized life. He wanted to meet famous men — Einstein, II. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Chaliapin. He met them, and Wells became and has remained a good friend. His other friends are a doctor, a movie director, a sea captain, and one or two journalists. From his present wife he has had a companionship he never had before, and since she happens to be an extremely able hostess he thankfully leaves the mechanics of the household to her. When he gets depressed about anything, he likes to worry his bone in private. Mrs. Chaplin has the sense to leave him alone when he is in that mood.
His matrimonial troubles were spread across the nation’s front pages, not because they were more tangled than other unsuccessful marriages, but because, being an idealist, once a marriage had failed he had neither the heart nor the patience to see it briskly disposed of. He shares the Englishman’s moony quest for an ideal relationship; he also shares the national distaste for admitting failure and has balked, as the English still do, at the unsentimental practicality of the divorce court.
He enjoys as much as anybody else the woven contradictions of his own personality, and will talk frankly about his feelings and his prejudices and attentively listen to suggestions about why he has them. He suffers fools with cheerful patience. He probably would be as intolerant as anybody else if he did not know that he has this ability. At fifty he is at the age to savor not so much what he has done with his life but the foolish things he knows how to avoid. ‘There’s nothing so enjoyable as discretion,’ he once said to me. ‘When you get to be over forty, it’s the great virtue.’ He admires reckless crusading in others and he takes naturally to men with a grouch. But, if it’s all the same with you, he checked out of evangelism more than a decade ago. He is amused now by the thought that twenty years ago he was officially listed as a dangerous radical. The telegram from the Soviet on his recent birthday, lauding his artistic chores in behalf of the revolution, was greeted laughingly by a Charlie Chaplin who is a determined democrat, an antiroyalist, a good business man, and no longer as earnest as he used to be.
He hates night clubs and jazz, is bored by streamlining and efficiency experts. He has never bothered to search out for his staff rising young cameramen, film editors, or ambitious graduates from major studios. During the interval of two or three years between films, his studio, a large rambling lot with a few bungalows and a small office, is quiet as a tomb. He keeps on full pay a halfdozen studio employees — his manager, a stenographer, his projectionist, a cutter, a janitor. If they can bear the monotony of loafing around the studio for a year or two they are free to play billiards, talk, smoke, do a little carpentry perhaps, and occasionally project an old film. But they know their time will come. They are kept in reserve like the National Guard, leading a peaceable community life in the pleasant intervals bet ween wars. There comes a day when Mr. Chaplin drops in to inspect the general staff. He wanders through the crumbling streets that made a town in an old film. He stops to examine the disrepair of the window frames of the houses. He gazes down into the arid cement basin which was his suicide’s intended grave as long ago as City Lights. He pokes around the dismembered hull of a ship in Modern Times and sits down to rest on the stony bosom of the City Lights statue, lying now on a broken plaster elbow. He starts to envisage where new streets will be built and where the interiors will be shot. He is ready to collect the dividend from the energy his staff have been storing all that time. They must be on hand now night and day for the next two or three months, for though life may still go on outside the gates of the Chaplin studio it can have no further meaning for them until a new film has been shot, recorded, and packed away in cans for the New York première.
Only in the last two films has he ever worked from a script prepared beforehand, preferring always before then to shoot ‘off the cuff’ — that is, by improvising on the set from a general idea or a situation roughly imagined. With the coming of sound films, this became a ruinously expensive procedure. Silent film was expensive enough, and Chaplin had been accustomed to waste several thousand feet of it on the hard way up to a perfect scene. But nowadays to waste a thousand feet is to waste about twelve minutes of sound recording, high voltage, and the mounting expense of a necessarily larger crew. So now Chaplin produces a shooting script first, like anybody else. This entails a delay of about nine months in shooting. But it also means that the legendary nervous tension which formerly ate up the weeks and months of unlucky actors on the set is now transferred to the ramshackle one-room bungalow, in a corner of the studio, where Chaplin works with two script writers. The shooting is quicker and smoother, and most of the temper is taken out on himself.
When he starts to write a script he goes on a schedule that never falters until the film is finished. At a quarter of ten every morning, his car rolls into the studio. Out from it jumps a nervous Chaplin in a cap, white slacks, and an angora sweater. He walks off rapidly to the bungalow and greets the writer he has employed for the film, his assistant director (this time his brother, snatched after a long exile from the Riviera), and the massive old friend, spiritual uncle and adviser, Henry Bergmann. The room they work in reflects Chaplin’s deep distrust of elegant surroundings whenever there is anything serious to be done. If it was ever wallpapered, the paper has expired into mildew. It is a small room containing three wooden chairs, an old table, about a half-dozen books with peeling backs, and an ancient upright terribly out of tune. It has a window, an assortment, of ash trays, and worn oilcloth on the floor. It is probably about as luxurious as any of the rooms Chaplin rented in the boardinghouses of pre-war England.
Here they stay till early evening, late evening, or midnight. A scene may be sketched out in an hour or a week. Days go by as they thrash over a detail, and a sentence scribbled hopefully on Monday morning is still unfinished by Friday. In these days of deadlock, Chaplin is liable to pick up the script, curse the studio and the bungalow, pack his assistants into a car, and take them all back home. He has been known to regard lunch as a devil’s device to break the continuity of all good human work. The point of retreating into the mountains is to come to grips with a crisis and slay it. To this end he will lock himself up with the writer and director and give his Japanese servant stern orders that he is home to nobody and will not answer the phone. He calls his studio and tells his faithful and wiry little manager Alf Reeves, who managed him in the early vaudeville days, that he is out to anybody who may write, call, or cable. The next day Reeves tells a friend, or a stockholder in New York, once a United Artists’ director phoning from a corporation meeting in London: ‘He can’t see you, and he can’t talk to you.’ Alf puts down the telephone, shrugs his shoulders as he has done in the Chaplin employ for thirty years, and remarks, ‘I’m on the black list, too.’
When Chaplin started to brood over the script of his present film (to be called The Great Dictator) the Los Angeles police were ineffectively using all the routine methods they knew to get in touch with him. They had a little matter of a subpoena to discuss. One Michael Kustoff was optimistically claiming that Chaplin had used his story in Modern Times. The process servers started by walking up to the front door. The Japanese servant shook his head and politely slammed the door. They tried going in with the laundry; they posed as doctors and Western Union boys. Finally, in February of this year, the federal courts gave up. Judge McCormick ruefully signed an order to allow the subpœna to be served by publication.
Meanwhile Chaplin sat in his living room slowly composing pages of script. Last month he finished it, and this month will begin the second stage of the stormand-stress period that precedes his films. He will begin the shooting. And it is on the studio floor surrounded by a milling cast that you can appreciate what his work means to him, and why, by ordinary studio standards, it is so slow in being born.
The average movie director rehearses painstakingly enough up to the moment of the ‘first take.’ He may shoot a scene as many as three times, and only one take will be used in the version the public sees. The average director may think of art in his whimsical moments, but he has also to think about the studio overhead. It is perhaps unfortunate for Chaplin’s productivity that he pays his own bills and is doggedly prepared to waste thousands of dollars to get a scene the way he wants it. When the rehearsals are over — and a tiny scene has taken an hour or a day — the cast soon learns that this is only half the battle. For, with lights burning and cameras grinding and electricity sputtering away at a fearful price, he will still shoot a difficult scene as many as twenty times. It was estimated that during the actual shooting of Modern Times he was spending about a thousand dollars an hour. The final version constituted about a fifth of the total footage. The original length of City Lights, as a mere stretch of celluloid, would have reached from Hollywood somewhere into the Mohave Desert, if that would have helped. Chaplin hacked it down to one tenth its original size.
Many critics will say he could have blotted out another thousand feet and lost little. But that is an artistic comment and is curiously irrelevant to Chaplin’s intentions, about which he is single-minded and immovable. His sole concern is with his own view of the Chaplin tramp character and what it can effectively do to an audience. Before Modern Times appeared almost any well-wisher might have begged him to delete those pre-war subtitles written in that strangely sentimental declamatory style: ‘Cured of a nervous breakdown but without a job he leaves the hospital to start life anew.’ But at the moment they were of a piece with his idea of Modern Times. Like many another artist, he turns out his best and his worst with equal zeal. It’s only a year or so after the film is out that he groans at the worst and is comically unmoved by the best which the Chaplin cultists are still clutching to their bosoms. Nothing can now induce him to see Modern Times: he regards it as a sorry botch. When a film has been screened, it is deader than last Sunday’s rotogravure. He accepts any amount of criticism of it for the reason that he is no longer interested. But while it is in the making it must be thought and dreamed about, lived with, played with, talked over, through, and around.
From the actors and the crew he requires a rock-like patience. If he spies an inattentive actor from his chair on a high ladder he will flare in terrible rage, and two minutes later turn with a tired, incredulous smile to his cameraman and say, ‘Can you imagine me, losing my temper like that?’ The moment he recovers his temper is a moment so warm and amiable that people who have sworn to leave his employ for good and all promise themselves, ‘Just this once.’ The intervening crises are about as tense as any in Hollywood.
It is an odd coincidence that the two Hollywood directors who discipline their working crew to the limit of exhaustion should be the old and the new reigning comics — Chaplin and Disney. There arc well-authenticated stories of artists in the Disney studio breaking down in tears before Disney’s merciless insistence that a certain animal should have a nose just off retroussé or that a kick in the pants must be drawn in twelve and not sixteen frames of film. If rightly drawn, this means to Disney an audience satisfied without strain. To the animators and draftsmen it means blood and tears. Chaplin is equally hard on actors, property men, and continuity girls, demanding that everybody should follow the inconsequent flight of his own ideas and hunches. But he is as hard on himself. If he gets an idea which he guesses will establish a character, he will produce novelettes of description and shooting script till the thing is clarified into a mere one or two shots.
A typical crisis, which took about three weeks to resolve, occurred in drafting City Lights.
He had a hazy but attractive idea of a blind flower girl sitting on the sidewalk selling a flower to a poor man whom she must mistake for a rich man. His assistants patched up sequences that suggested the general idea. They were shot, argued about, and destroyed. Chaplin strode all over the studio, working himself up to a pitch of anxiety which refused such homely details as food and rest. He tried every conceivable formula employing girl, flowers, sidewalk, rich man, poor man, five-dollar bill, expensive automobile. He shot these fumbling scenes and then wondered how the girl could be aware of the automobile. At the end of the third week, he suddenly conceived the vital detail — the slamming door of an automobile. In the finished movie, the incident flowed like water over a pebble, smooth and simple for all to see with no hint of the groaning pressure that had been applied. All that happened was that the poor man approached the girl, bought a flower, and gave her his last dollar bill. While he stood waiting for his change, and while she was fumbling for it, she heard an automobile door slam and the purr of a luxurious car. She hesitated, said, ‘Oh, thank you, sir,’ and the tramp, not wanting to break this pretty vision but sad about his vanished change, backed away on tiptoe.
Audiences recognize such expositions as ‘typical Chaplin’ magic, ways of mating plot and character into effortless quicksilver. Behind them, however, may be the story of a fired actor or script writer, distressed visits to the doctor, and the exhaustion of the Chaplin health and temper.
Many ambitious writers and directors have tactfully suggested that much of this clarifying process could be shared, but though Chaplin will listen carefully to theories of this and that about film making, first and last he trusts his own instinct and is careful to employ writers not noted for their personal style or invention. When a film is shot and he is running it over for editing, he will leap up in a split second to indicate exactly when a scene should end.
When he is choosing a theme or incidents for a projected film he will consider anybody’s ideas. He even becomes an enthusiastic convert. But only as long as the evening lasts. The next morning, as unsentimentally as an executioner, he snuffs out the beautiful idea. Once when he was considering producing a short film to precede his feature film, a friend told him the old French legend of ‘Our Lady and the Tumbler.’ It is a slight and tragic sketch of a mediæval tumbler who, on his way to the next village, rests in the shadows of a nunnery. He is awed by the sight of a nun counting her beads. The Mother Superior catches him and he is thrown into a cell. At night he escapes into the chapel and in gratitude falls on his knees before the Virgin’s image. He is ashamed to offer his ignorant prayers. So he decides to present, for the Virgin, the best show of his talent. He throws himself over and over. Wet and panting from going through all his tricks, he finally attempts the best and hardest tumble known to his time. He breaks his back and dies. And the Virgin comes down and blesses him in his death trance.
Chaplin read it and started one warm summer evening to sketch the script. It is an incidental of the trade he excels in — which was that of a clown before he was a film star — that he is an agile acrobat, can navigate the high wire, and skates w’ith professional grace. He started to act the first efforts of the poor tumbler’s gratitude. He mimed a whole scene of wonder at the ritual serenity not of this world, the half-comic realization that he was ignorant, the slow selfquestioning, then the quick flicker of ambition to show the only skill he knew. He was, for positively one evening only, every shape and name of humility.
The next morning he sucked his teeth and tossed away a newspaper. He said, ‘Yes, it’s a beautiful idea — for somebody else.’ He could not be persuaded out of the conviction that film fans do not pay their quarters and shillings and francs to see the experimental art of Charles Chaplin. ‘They come to see him,’he said, and ‘him’ to Chaplin means the little tramp. Ideas are good to play with, and especially ideas which can be visualized into acting. He plays with them as a violinist lingers over a cadenza, but he always knows where cadenzas belong and whether they can be played at all in the key of Charlie the tramp. He always thinks and talks of that shambling figure as he might of an absent friend in delicate health. ‘He’ must be coaxed and planned for and tended to give the best his admirers expect of him. It is Chaplin’s greatest fear that he may lose his acute sense of what an audience expects of him. To avoid that he will gladly sacrifice new conceptions and tear up painfully composed scripts which might turn into any other art than his.
And yet he is now spending all his fretful days and nights in composing the character of a dictator. Those who have seen him re-create scenes in the life of Napoleon have no fears for his popular reception as a dramatic actor as remarkable as he is as a comic. But his moment of trial will come the first time the new Chaplin face appears on the screen. If the audience accepts the new rôle, his dramatic career will not be threatened. If they clap the familiar moustache on to it and read the old slyness into the unfamiliar features, then the little tramp may seem an impertinence and the new character an impersonation that failed. He has taken three years to plan this tricky parallel. But The Great Dictator will be more than an artistic risk. As a business venture it has called for considerable daring. Chaplin has never minded losing the German and Italian revenue. He has scorned to publicize the simple error those countries make in identifying him as a Jew. This time his choice of theme almost certainly blights for him any prospect of showing the film in Poland and Portugal, in most of South America, in the admiring Soviet, and in Japan. Japan is problematical. It loves Chaplin and still on his birthday holds a ritual parade of a hundred Chaplin figures through the streets of Tokyo.
If, through some unforeseen quirk of British foreign policy, the word ‘appeasement’ should raise its haloed head again, Chaplin would resign himself to the possible British suppression and go right ahead with his double characterization of a dictator and a bum who gets mistaken for him. For at fifty he still has in abundance the obstinate passion to do exactly what he wants to do. And a film about dictators happens to be what he wants to do above everything else. This intractability is the mainspring of his artistic consistency. He may prize discretion now in his personal and social relations. But his work is in a world of fantasy where ideas must be wooed slowly and won for what they are worth. And when he wants to do something hard enough, the sight and sound of an emerging film are well worth to him the loss of his digestion, a friendship or two, a million dollars, or the blessing of the British Foreign Office.