The Great Dictator (15 October 1940)

Great 00

Release Date: 15 October 1940

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 124 minutes

With: Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Henry Daniell, Reginald Gardiner, Billy Gilbert, Maurice Moscovich

Story: A meek Jewish barber and dictator Adenoid Hinkel look so alike, they are able to unwittingly trade places…

Production: For a long time, Charlie Chaplin had avoided engaging directly with contemporary politics in his work. He had his views, and made them known to many of the great and the good he met during his world travels in the 1930s. His work had, inevitably, been influenced by issues of the day—poverty, homelessness, war, and violence—but he rarely took what might be considered sides or a party political viewpoint. All that changed with The Great Dictator—if nothing else, the resulting film tackling the rise of Adolph Hitler, proved Chaplin’s humanist credentials.

Great 02The odd similarity between the appearances of Chaplin and of Hitler was hard to ignore in the later 1930s. It had inspired a comic song by British performer Tommy Handley entitled ‘Who is That Man Who Looks Like Charlie Chaplin?’ and was often used by newspaper cartoonist to make satirical political points. The similarity was not simply in their appearance—Chaplin and Hitler had been born in the same April week in 1889. This was something Chaplin could not ignore, especially when in the wake of Modern Times the German authorities at the direction of Hitler began to ban his films.

In fact, director and producer Alexander Korda had suggested that Chaplin should make a film based around his similarity to Hitler as early as 1937. By the beginning of 1939, Chaplin had begun work on a screenplay simply titled The Dictator that aimed to satirize Hitler, a ‘story of a little fish in a shark-infested ocean’. This proved worrying to United Artists, who in keeping with most Hollywood studios (and, indeed, most international politicians at the time) was keen to appease Hitler rather than rile him. Hollywood, worried about losing the German market, bent over backwards not to make films that could be regarded as controversial by the new German Chancellor. Studios even went so far as to have their scripts approved by German authorities, notably German Consul to the US Georg Gyssling (who was conveniently based in Los Angeles), before entering production. Any criticism of Germany or of the Nazi party and Hitler in particular were verboten. Chaplin even received death threats during the making of The Great Dictator.

Much of this collaboration between Hollywood and the Nazis did not come to light until much later, but it was no doubt known to those involved or otherwise connected to filmmaking. It seems unlikely that Chaplin was unaware of this, and probably disapproving. This disapproval no doubt drove him forward in the face of the objections raised by United Artists and others in the industry to The Great Dictator.

Great 16Direct inspiration came from a viewing of the Leni Rienfenstahl German propaganda film The Triumph of the Will (1935). Chaplin saw the film with fellow director Rene Clair, who found it horrifying while Chaplin thought it a hilarious production, so ridiculously over-the-top was the propaganda element. Watching Hitler giving speeches, Chaplin began to see how he could imitate and so satirise Hitler’s mannerisms and movements, even his vocal inflections. He followed a viewing of the Rienfenstahl film with careful study of newsreels of Hitler’s speeches, and slowly developed his caricature of the dictator’s oratory. The core of The Great Dictator lay in this simple conceit.

By July 1939, Picturegoer magazine was reporting that Chaplin had begun work on his next film, set to co-star Paulette Goddard (Modern Times) once more, with the construction of a large European-influenced street set at the Chaplin studio. With a full script in hand (an unusual step for the filmmaker), Chaplin was arguably better prepared for making The Great Dictator than he ever had been for any of his films up to that point. Shop fronts on the set had signs written in the ‘international’ language of Esperanto, developed in the late-19th Century (used, perhaps, as Hitler had decried the language in Mein Kampf as a ‘plot to break down national difference’).

Set building was finished by mid-August, just one month before the outbreak of the Second World War. In October, Picturegoer was able to confirm the rumours that Chaplin was ‘frankly and unequivocally’ playing Hitler as well as ‘an unknown Jewish tailor in Berlin’. By the time the film was complete, the tailor had become a barber. Rather optimistically, Picturegoer concluded its reporting by speculating that ‘There is always the danger that by the time the picture is eventually completed and shown, we may all have forgotten who Hitler was.’ This, of course, may have been a dig at Chaplin’s tardy production habits where in the past it had taken him literally years to produce a finished film.

Great 17Shooting actually started just days after the war began and ran through until March 1940, a rather rapid production process in comparison to some of Chaplin’s past endeavours (but not as rapid as Hitler’s assault on the countries of Europe). His first drafts of the script are, at their core, remarkably similar to what was to finally end up onscreen, including a shorter version of the climatic speech. For the first time Chaplin deviated from his use of the regular supporting cast members he’d worked with over many years in favour of hiring several well-established acting names. Henry Daniell, with a reputation for playing villains, took on the Goebbels-like role of Garbitsch and played it rather straight in stark contrast to the comic acting going on around him, particularly from Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel and Jack Oakie as the Mussolini-equivalent, Benzino Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria. Billy Gilbert, familiar from his work with Laurel and Hardy especially in 1932’s Oscar-winning The Music Box, partnered Daniell by playing the Goering inspired character of Herring.

Having been beaten to the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939), Paulette Goddard was prepared to take the co-starring role in The Great Dictator despite the growing personal estrangement between her and Chaplin. The director had been annoyed at Goddard’s decision to take on roles for other directors, yet he continually criticised her in front of others (including his children) by claiming that she needed extra acting ‘coaching’.

Great 18Chaplin cast Goddard as Hannah (presumably deliberated named for his mother), the waif-like companion to the little barber, a role not a million miles away from that she had on Modern Times (except here she gets to speak!). The big difference with The Great Dictator is that there would be no sunset for the pair to walk off into at the end; the real world situation was too grave for that, as was the breakdown in relations between Goddard and Chaplin. Chaplin noted: ‘Although we were somewhat estranged we were friends and still married.’ They remained living together in Chaplin’s home during production, but the strain between them became obvious to many working on The Great Dictator. Chaplin’s writing assistant Dan James recalled that in the studio ‘You belonged to the Paulette faction or to the Charlie faction. You couldn’t be both.’

Great 19Chaplin’s detailed attempts to guide his wife’s performance didn’t help matters. Dan James noted: ‘There was some anger on both sides, but he worked very hard with her. Sometimes he would make 25 or 30 takes. He would stand in her place on the set and try and give her the tone and the gestures. It was a method he had been able to use in silent films; it could not work so well on a talking picture.’ Part of the problem for Chaplin was that filmmaking had changed, as had screen acting, but his infrequent filmmaking endeavours had not allowed him to keep up with the trends or further develop his art. Essentially, he wasn’t keeping up with the times, and was at least a decade behind everyone else in sound filmmaking techniques. Just as the events between the wars had bypassed the Jewish barber, so developments in modern 1930s filmmaking had bypassed Chaplin who worked as though it were still 1918.

As Chaplin relates in his autobiography: ‘It was inevitable that Paulette and I should separate. We both knew it long before The [Great] Dictator started … Now that it was complete, we were confronted with making a decision. … She returned to the Beverly Hills house, she did not stay, but packed up her things and left. She had gone to Mexico to get a divorce. The wrench naturally hurt, for it was hard cleaving eight years’ association from one’s life.’

Never one to give up on any bit of comedy ‘business’ that he considered a good idea, Chaplin again made efforts to work his long-in-gestation flea circus bit into The Great Dictator, as he had done on The Circus. Returning from the First World War, the barber takes up temporary residence in a dosshouse where another resident allows his fleas to escape from his miniature circus. This was among several bits dropped from The Great Dictator, but a form of the flea circus scene would finally see the light of a cinema projector when Chaplin as at last able to incorporate it into Limelight (1952).

Great 08There is some debate about whether Chaplin’s Jewish barber is the same Tramp figure he’d been playing since 1914. In his autobiography, Chaplin himself refers to the character as ‘the tramp’, and while he speaks it is rather infrequent and not at any length (until the climatic speech, when he is dressed as Hynkel), suggesting that the Jewish barber is perhaps a development of the Tramp figure rather than a simple reproduction (as in Modern Times). There is an argument that Chaplin’s barber is a more subdued and gentle version of the Tramp, with Hynkel representing the anarchic and wild side of Chaplin’s original wild-and-crazy Keystone Tramp.

Great 03

While reconciling himself to using sound—with The Great Dictator being his first true sound (all-talking) production, Chaplin does make at least once extremely clever joke that depends upon sound’s absence, when the ‘light infantry’ pass offscreen in complete silence. The most feted scene in the film is also mostly silent (only accompanied by some Wagner): Hynkel’s symbolic ballet with an inflated globe indicating his intended domination of the Earth, a scheme that is well-and-truly punctured by Chaplin.

Great 11Making a film with recorded sound was somewhat discomfiting to Chaplin, who had been used to the audible whirr of the camera equipment (Peter Ackroyd argues that Chaplin even used this audible rhythm to time some of his comedy) as well as the responsive laughter of the stagehands and others on the set. In fact, sound filmmaking required so many additional people that Chaplin was supposedly unsure of who some of them were and what they were doing (although this seems unlikely for a filmmaker who was at pains to control every aspect of his work, sound or no sound). According to some the always dictatorial Chaplin became even more so on set when dressed as and in character as Adenoid Hynkel. Wearing the costume and getting into character saw some of that fantasy dictator spill over into the real world of the filmmaking. According to his writing assistant Dan James, Chaplin had ‘in himself some of the qualities that Hitler had. He dominated his world. He created his world. And Chaplin’s world was not a democracy either. Charlie was the dictator of all those things.’

Great 14Following the release of The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin had to face yet another plagiarism claim. This time, a writer named Konrad Bercovici (a friend of Chaplin’s since 1915) claimed he had originated the ideas behind The Great Dictator and had, in fact, discussed them at great length with Chaplin. He wanted to be paid $6 million for not only originating the core idea of Chaplin as Hitler, but also as the originator of such specific scenes as the globe balloon ballet sequence (although this dated back to a 1920’s party piece Chaplin performed, as home movies later revealed). The matter finally came to trial, where Bercovici testified he had written a five page outline for the proposed film and that he and Chaplin had discussed it for several hours. Chaplin was, Bercovici claimed, concerned that ‘the State Department says we cannot ridicule the heads of two states with which we are at peace’. For his part, Chaplin testified he had never seen Bercovici’s outline, despite their lengthy friendship. Bercovici had form in Hollywood; he was regarded as a radical writer (dislike by left and right almost equally) and his ‘Red Revolution’ novel The Volga Boatman had been turned into a film in 1926 by United Artists’ co-founder, D. W Griffith.

However, concerned over the impact the negative publicity could have on Chaplin at a time when he was already under great public scrutiny, the writer-director of The Great Dictator agreed to settle up with Bercovici for $95,000 out of court. If Bercovici’s action was a shakedown operation, it was successful. Oddly, Chaplin did not point to a film made in 1921 that had been directed by and featured his half-brother Sydney—King, Queen, Joker—in which he had played both a lowly barber and a dictator, who resemble one another, in a country in which revolution was brewing. Was this family-connected film actually the true source of the ideas behind The Great Dictator?

Great 07Encompassing 559 days of production, only 168 of which were actual shooting days, and costing over $2 million, The Great Dictator proved to be the most expensive Chaplin film yet. It was also one of his most successful, taking more at the box office (taking about $5 million) than any previous Chaplin release. The Great Dictator premiered in two New York theatres on 15 October 1940, a time when America was still equivocating when it came to taking action in the war and at a time when there was still a degree of Nazi support in the country. Chaplin had not only gone against United Artists (whose executives had predicted the film would be a disastrous flop)and the general Hollywood establishment (which was busy appeasing the Nazi party at every opportunity), but he’d also produced a picture that would not gain complete support from the American public, many of whom still felt that they should simply ‘stay out’ of European affairs, as they viewed the war at that stage. ‘More than ever now,’ said Chaplin, ‘the world needs to laugh.’

Nonetheless, some critics saw the timely nature of Chaplin’s scathing satire of those in power in fascist Germany and Italy. In the New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote: ‘[Chaplin directs] his superlative talent for ridicule against the most dangerously evil man alive.’ While he had some reservations, he called The Great Dictator ‘a truly superb accomplishment by a truly great artist, and—from one point of view—perhaps the most significant film ever produced.’

Great 09There was much concentration on the climatic speech, a clear call-to-action from Chaplin, that the UK’s The Daily Herald dubbed ‘electrifying’ while The Times saw the overall film as ‘a logical development of the mood of Modern Times’. The newspaper noted that the film included ‘a wealth of wit and invention … [and] brilliantly conceived and executed essays in caricature.’ While the film was being made, there had been a suggestion it might be banned in Britain, but that was before the country was at war with Germany. Released just as the Blitz kicked off, The Great Dictator was a very welcome fillip on the British home front (and a suggestion that there may be some support for the anti-Nazi cause in America after all).

As the German military advanced across Europe during the making of The Great Dictator, Chaplin was worried about his picture appearing out-of-date, but not quite in the way that Picturegoer had suggested. It was possible that with Hitler’s seemingly irresistible rise and his rapid military progress across the continent, there would be precious little to laugh about. He kept up with the news, through channels both official and unofficial, and worked in new developments into the film. A major deleted scene dealt with the touchy subject of concentration camps, which had by then become public knowledge, although the full extend of the horrors that transpired in those camps would not be widely known until towards the end of the conflict. The deleted scene features Chaplin and Reginald Gardiner as prisoners in just such a camp who attempt to escape by chewing their way through the barbed wire. This perhaps on-the-nose scene was dropped, and Chaplin admitted in retrospect that ‘had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator’.

Great 01According to Jerry Epstein, the main target of Chaplin’s caricature did see his film, with Hitler’s architect Albert Speer claiming that Chaplin’s Hynkel saw the comic come closer to impersonating Hitler than anyone else had managed. The story goes that despite his banning of Chaplin’s film, Hitler himself had a print of The Great Dictator smuggled into Germany from Portugal and watched it not once, but twice! He supposedly watched it alone, both times, so there is no eye-witness report of Der Fuhrer’s reaction to Chaplin’s ribbing of him and all he stood for. A defector from the Nazi Ministry of Culture apparently related the tale directly to Chaplin, with the filmmaker supposedly responding: ‘I’d give anything to know what he thought of it!’

Trivia: Charlie Chaplin was awarded the New York Film Critics Circle Best Actor award for 1940 for The Great Dictator, but he refused to accept it. It appears that Chaplin felt an award for simply acting (albeit in two contrasting comic roles) was to diminish his talents in other areas, such as writing and directing. He had his press agent Albert Margolies issue a churlish statement: ‘Many hurtful things have happened to Chaplin all through his life, many more than he deserved. But I doubt whether any caused him more pain than to be regarded as a mere actor.’

Charlie Says: ‘Another war was brewing and I was trying to write a story for Paulette; but I could make no progress. How could I throw myself into feminine whimsy or think of romance or the problems of love when madness was being stirred up by a hideous grotesque, Adolph Hitler? Alexander Korda in 1937 had suggested I should do a Hitler story based on mistaken identity, Hitler having the same moustache as the tramp: I could play both characters, he said. … As Hitler I could harangue the crowds in jargon and talk all I wanted to. And as the tramp I could remain more or less silent. A Hitler story was an opportunity for burlesque and pantomime.’—Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964

Verdict: Possibly slightly overlong at two hours, The Great Dictator was a much-needed film at the time, and the satire and polemic stand up surprisingly well, especially in the 21st Century when many of the same dark forces that the world faced in the 1930s and 1940s appear to be on the rise once more.

Brian J. Robb

Next: Monsieur Verdoux (11 April 1947)

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

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Modern Times (5 February 1936)

Times 00

Release Date: 5 February 1936

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 87 minutes

With: Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford, Chester Conklin

Story: Now an assembly line factory worker, the Tramp gets caught up in a workers’ demonstration and falls for a barefoot waif…

Production: For many, Modern Times is the final film appearance of the original Tramp figure created by Charlie Chaplin way back in 1914, while others consider the Jewish barber featured in The Great Dictator (1940), although he speaks, is a close enough analogue to be considered a continuation of that same character. As with City Lights, by 1936 Chaplin had to face up to the fact that the sound film had well and truly surpassed the silent—would he finally allow his Tramp to talk? Well, kinda.

Times 07Chaplin’s travels through Europe, particularly in support of the release of City Lights, had helped enlighten him to the plight of the poor, the working folk from whom he’d originated. The ‘great depression’ had made a major impact in America and mechanisation was putting even more people out of work. The world of work was changing as factory jobs replaced rural employment, jobs were being eliminated, and there was social unrest among the workforce whose pay and conditions were being undermined. These elements would all feed into Chaplin’s next film, Modern Times.

For the first time Chaplin utilised a fully developed shooting script. Previously he’d worked from the vaguest of scenarios, developing comedy sequences as he went along, especially in his earlier knockabout shorts. As his work grew in depth and length, Chaplin found he had to become more organised in his approach to filmmaking. Although he still resisted using a full screenplay, for his most recent features—The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights—he’d drawn upon longer and more developed documents outlining the stories and breaking the films down into their component scenes. That didn’t mean he couldn’t alter course, and he still retained the habit of shooting many more takes than he’d ever need. Chaplin felt it was important he remain open to the possibility of finding fresh comedy in the moment.

Partly, the use of a script was prompted by lessons learned on The Circus and City Lights, especially in relation to the now very much required soundtrack. No longer would there be live accompaniment to Chaplin’s films. Instead, he created a soundtrack for Modern Times that incorporated speech, mostly from other characters than the Tramp, such as through television screens, radio broadcasts, records, and singing waiters. He didn’t allow his main characters to talk, relying as always on inter-titles to convey the narrative, a by-now rather old fashioned practice.

Times 12At the climax of the film, Chaplin’s Tramp did indeed ‘talk’ in a delightful and surprising sequence. While responding to all the calls in the media for the Tramp to finally speak, Chaplin undermined these requests by responding with a gibberish song sung by the Tramp as a singing waiter. It is a sly and clever move, and the performance itself is a delightful treat, one of the highlights of Chaplin’s entire oeuvre… yet the Tramp doesn’t actually speak in any real sense. Critic James Agee noted: ‘Half the secret of that wistful Tramp, that pilgrim of eternity … lies in the fact that he has walked the silent screen guessed at by all the world, yet never wholly revealed.’

Chaplin shot Modern Times across a ten month period beginning in October 1934. The ever reliable Henry Bergman was Chaplin’s assistant director on this project, joined by vaudeville veteran Carter De Haven (who later acted in The Great Dictator). The factory set where the classic production line sequence takes placed cost an estimated $14,000 to construct, while a further $11,000 was spent upon building three streets on the San Pedro waterfront (where Chaplin had filmed some of A Busy Day. Up to 400 people (with many bussed in to the Chaplin studio) were used in the cafe scenes that make up the climax of the film and for the opening crowd shot.

During his travels in the early-1930s, Charlie Chaplin visited Switzerland, little realising than in just under 25 years it would become his permanent home. His first impressions didn’t suggest the country might be where he would eventually settle after exile from the US in the middle-1950s. ‘I have never been intrigued by Switzerland,’ wrote Chaplin in his account of his travels, A Comedian Sees the World. ‘Personally, I dislike all mountainous country. I feel hemmed in and isolated from the rest of the world.’ A trip around the Far East in the company of his brother, Sydney, followed.

Times 08Chaplin met Paulette Goddard, then doing mere bit parts for comedy producer Hal Roach, shortly after his return to the US when he was invited to spend some time aboard Joseph Schenck’s yacht. Goddard had been born Marion Levy in New York in 1910 (she often claimed a birth year of 1915, however), was a child fashion model and stage performer before becoming a teenaged Ziegfeld girl in the late-1920s. Her stage work brought her to Hollywood, where she played bit parts in a handful of Roach’s Laurel and Hardy shorts (she can be spotted in 1929’s Berth Marks and 1932’s Pack Up Your Troubles). She’d been briefly married for two years from 1927, and had won a $375,000 divorce settlement. She continued appearing in minor films during the early-1930s, but all her roles were uncredited.

Chaplin and Goddard quickly struck up a relationship beginning in 1932, despite their 22 year age difference (she was just 22—although significantly older than most of Chaplin’s partners—and he was 44. Peter Ackroyd suggests that Goddard initially told Chaplin she was only aged 17). Chaplin found in Goddard a woman who could match him in wit and intelligence, something lacking in his previous liaisons. He bought out her contract with Roach and began to give Goddard intensive acting lessons. Goddard also found herself playing a role in the life of Chaplin’s two young sons, Sydney and Charlie Jr. Moving into Chaplin’s mansion home, she found herself playing weekend mother to the boys, and both Chaplin children appear to have responded well to her presence in their lives. According to one of Chaplin’s biographers, even Chaplin’s previous wife Lita Grey liked Paulette Goddard, describing her as ‘utterly without affectation or guile’. Chaplin saw in Goddard’s seemingly gamine naivety a possible partner for his Little Tramp figure, a female compliment to his wandering seeker.

Times 10The opening title card of Modern Times describes the film about to unfold as a ‘story of industry, of individual enterprise—humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness’. Chaplin’s awareness of the increasing mechanisation of the world of employment was the driving force behind the film, but he also had a personal nightmare from his childhood that he drew upon in relation to the fear of all-devouring machines. Aged just 12 in 1901, Chaplin had a temporary position working as a ‘printer’s devil’ in a printing plant where he had to tend a huge (from his diminutive youthful perspective) Wharfdale printing machine. To work the equipment, the young lad had to scale a five foot high platform and wait as his foreman sparked the machine to life. Unearthly noises emerged from the machine’s mysterious innards, as its gears ground round and its mechanical protuberances sprang into action. ‘I thought it was going to devour me,’ claimed Chaplin of the demonic device. A lot of Modern Times’ assembly line sequence and the Tramp’s tackling various machines came from that nightmare experience.

For Chaplin, Modern Times ‘started from an abstract idea, an impulse to say something about the way life was being standardised and channelised, and men turned into machines.’ Chaplin had definite feelings about the machine age. ‘Machinery should benefit mankind. It should not spell tragedy and throw it out of work,’ he said. ‘Labour-saving devices and other modern inventions were not really made for profit, but to help humanity in the pursuit of happiness.’ His aim with Modern Times was to make an amusing film about these issues, not a didactic tract that laid out his world view. ‘I am always suspicious of a picture with a message,’ he said in a 1931 interview just as he was beginning to consider the ideas that would lead to Modern Times.

Early titles for the project include the blunt likes of The Masses and Commonwealth, while Chaplin initially seems to have thought of the film as a way of conveying the economic theories he’d been developing and talking to world leaders about during his grand tour in the early-1930s. Thankfully, this concept got lost as he began to focus on what really mattered—comedy. There was such concern about Chaplin’s seeming political turn expressed in the popular press that he felt he needed to issue a statement. His new film was to be ‘a comedy picture with no endeavour to comment or satirise on social or political affairs’. That wasn’t strictly true, either, as lurking beneath the comedy, Modern Times would contain a certain degree of social and industrial satire.

With the Chaplin studio modernised to sound film standards (the formerly open air stages were finally fully enclosed and soundproofed), Chaplin was ready to begin shooting Modern Times on the specially-built factory set. Work on the film would take place between October 1934 and August 1935, with an additional huge street set (that was simply too large for the Chaplin studio to accommodate) built on four acres of rented land in Wilmington.

Times 01There is something of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) in the early factory scenes of Modern Times, with its seemingly pointless labour and all-pervasive surveillance by the boss. It was, however, this sequence’s similarity to scenes in another film that was to get Chaplin into hot water. Chaplin was sued by the French producers of Rene Clair’s A Nous la Liberte (1931) on the grounds that Modern Times had plagiarised the production line sequence. Chaplin maintained that neither he nor anyone else involved in making Modern Times at the Chaplin studio had ever seen Clair’s film. Clair himself joined the debate, noting that if Chaplin had indeed ‘borrowed’ from him and his work he was in fact honoured and flattered, not furious. After all, Clair concluded, ‘I have certainly borrowed enough from him.’ The case was quietly dropped with a settlement, but only after the conclusion of the Second World War.

Times 04Encoded within Modern Times’ theme of technology and obsolescence is a reflection of Chaplin’s growing antipathy to sound filmmaking and his own fear of redundancy. Given the new filmmaking technology, that he was largely ignoring, and the audience expectation that characters in films, including comedies, should talk, Chaplin was growing ever more fearful about his own obsolescence and that of his character of the Tramp. ‘I was obsessed by a depressing fear of being old-fashioned,’ he said. ‘Dialogue does not have a place in the sort of comedies I make … I cannot use dialogue.’ Although Chaplin shot sound tests of himself and Paulette Goddard for Modern Times, he ultimately decided to restrict the use of sound to simple sound effects, noises off, and—ultimately—to his nonsense song at the climax.

Times 02Modern Times opened on 5 February 1936 at the Rivoli Theatre in New York, five years after the release of City Lights. The New York Times correspondent Frank Nugent noted Chaplin’s return to the screen after ‘an undue absence’. He highlighted the film’s social themes, but contended they didn’t dominate the picture as it contained ‘rousing, rib-tickling, gag-bestrewn jest’. Some were not as taken by the new Chaplin, however, with Upton Sinclair writing that ‘the part about the factory was very interesting, and charming, but the rest just repeats Charlie’s old material’. A criticism laid against Modern Times concerned its episodic nature and its echoes of several of Chaplin’s old shorts. There may be something to that criticism, with the roller skate and escalator sequences, as well as the presence of comedy waiters, suggest. However, another way of looking at Modern Times is that it is a justified ‘greatest hits’ package as it is the last film to feature a true representation of Chaplin’s 1914 Tramp character, so is therefore largely forgivable. The iris out at the end of Modern Times is the only time a film concludes with the Tramp walking away to further adventures with someone else—Paulette Goddard’s ‘gamine’ is still on his arm come the end of this particular story.

Times 06He and Goddard would be together until 1942, and she would feature in his next film The Great Dictator, making this one of his longest lasting relationships (second only to that with his final wife, Oona O’Neil). Immediately after the release of Modern Times, Chaplin and Goddard embarked upon a five month long around the world trip. They sailed to Honolulu in February 1936 on the SS Coolidge, and according to Chaplin they were married while in Canton. Goddard recalled: ‘We got married and travelled … Bali, Indochina, China, those sorts of places.’ There appears to be no paperwork to confirm this supposed marriage, though, and it may have simply been seen by the pair as an expedient story to tell upon their return in order to quieten some of their more vocal moralistic Hollywood critics.

Within a couple of years, however, the relationship between Chaplin and Goddard had cooled somewhat. By 1938 they were spending as much time apart as together, often due to work reasons; Goddard was now in demand and had been considered for the much coveted role of Scarlet O’Hara in the movie of Gone with the Wind (1939). She appeared in several other films at this time, perhaps most notable as one of the ensemble cast of The Women (1939) alongside such star names as Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and Rosalind Russell and in her role opposite Bob Hope in both The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940).

Times 13Chaplin, meanwhile, had revived his idea of filming a life of Napoleon, perhaps with Goddard as Josephine. He went so far as to acquire the film right to a book about Napoleon’s life and times, and developed potential scripts with both Alistair Cooke and John Strachey. He was also developing an idea he’d come up with during his travels for a story about a stowaway (revealed to be poor Russian countess) who falls in love with a rich America while travelling on a luxury liner. The film would later emerge much later as Chaplin’s final project, A Countess From Hong Kong (1967). Eventually, he and Goddard would reunite professionally and personally to make The Great Dictator (1940), but it wouldn’t last. They separated in an amicable manner, more than could be aid for Chaplin’s past romantic exploits, and were divorced (giving credence to the marriage claim) in 1942 in Mexico, with Chaplin paying what has been described as ‘a generous settlement’.

The politics of Modern Times certainly struck a chord in Nazi Germany where the film was banned outright, which was quite a contrast to the reception accorded City Lights several years before when crowds lined the snow-covered streets cheering Chaplin on. The German government, led by the new Chancellor Adolf Hitler (elected in 1933), had begun to doubt Chaplin’s ‘Aryan purity’ and so had decided not to continue the programme of re-issues of his short films. There was speculation that the case brought against Chaplin over the Rene Clair film A Nous la Liberte was a German plot to discredit the comic—the production company on the Clair film was the German outfit Tobis-Tonbild Syndikat.

According to a contemporary report in the Manchester Guardian, German satirists and clowns who imitated Chaplin’s Tramp were instructed to drop the character from their acts or face penalties. The German censor identified ‘Communist tendencies’ in Modern Times that made the film unacceptable for release in Nazi Germany. For the Daily Telegraph, the German ban on Chaplin’s film was a result of a misunderstanding thanks to the widespread belief that Chaplin was Jewish (Chaplin himself often added to the confusion over this issue). For the Daily Herald the ban was more personal, with the toothbrush moustachioed Hitler taking a dislike to Chaplin as he sported similar facial hair… Ever the Fascist lapdog, Mussolini soon followed Hitler’s lead and banned the film in Italy, even though it had previously been cleared for release. Chaplin would get his revenge on both Hitler and Mussolini with his next film, The Great Dictator (1940).

Times 11Trivia: Bizarrely, but perhaps in an effort to abide by the Hays Code, the Hollywood censorship regime that was being imposed stronger than before in the middle-1930s, Chaplin originally intended to conclude Modern Times with the gamine becoming a nun! Throughout the film she was to have been in awe of and inspired by nun figures that appear randomly. However, the finale would see her ‘inner spirit’, attired as she was throughout the picture, slip out of the nun’s body and pursue the Tramp as he leaves, alone again. As production stills show, this sequence was shot but Chaplin never edited it, having already thought better of the idea. Thankfully, that ending was abandoned in favour of the existing, more hopeful, one in which they leave together. Given his evident concern with the Hays Code, it is surprising that he managed to slip the jail ‘nose powder’ cocaine scene past the vigilant censors…

Charlie Says: ‘Hollywood was going through a change … Most of the silent screen stars had disappeared—only a few of us were left. Now that the talkies had taken hold, the charm and insouciance of Hollywood were gone. Sound technicians were renovating studios and building elaborate sound devices. Cameras the size of a room lumbered about the stage like juggernauts. … Men, geared like warriors from Mars, sat with earphones while the actors performed, with microphones hovering above them like fishing rods. It was all very complicated and depressing. How could anyone be creative with all that junk around them? I hated the whole idea of it.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography (1964).

Times 03‘[I was told] a harrowing story of big industry luring healthy young men off the farms who, after four or five years at the [factory] belt system, became nervous wrecks. It was that conversation that gave me the idea for Modern Times. I used a feeding machine as a time-saving device, so that the workers could continue working during lunch time. The factory sequence itself revolved around the Tramp having a nervous breakdown. … The theme is about two nondescripts trying to get along in modern times. They are involved in the Depression, strikes, riots, and unemployment. … Before the opening of Modern Times a few columnists wrote that they had heard rumours that the picture was Communistic. … However, the liberal reviewers wrote that it was neither for nor against Communism and that metaphorically I had sat on the fence…’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography (1964).

Times 14Verdict: Chaplin’s finest and funniest film, Modern Times is a politically-engaged 1930s satire that doesn’t forget to deal with character and comedy. It flows from classic sequence to classic sequence: the production line, the food machine, the street demonstration, the jail ‘nose powder’, the fantasy home, the department store, the shack, and the Chester Conklin bit. Everything culminates in the Tramp’s delightful nonsense song, my absolute favourite Chaplin bit, and such a clever response to the whole should-the-Tramp-talk dilemma. It is Chaplin’s finest work, perhaps second only to The Great Dictator.

Brian J. Robb

Next: The Great Dictator (15 October 1940)

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

City Lights (30 January 1931)

USA Charlie Chaplin

Release Date: 30 January 1931

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 87 minutes

With: Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Meyers, Allan Garcia, Joe Van Meter, Albert Austin, Hank Mann, Eddie Baker

Story: The Tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl while also pursuing a complicated friendship with a rich alcoholic friend who never remembers him when sober…

City11Production: Even before the public had even seen The Circus, and certainly long before Charlie Chaplin received his special Oscar for the film, the writer-director-performer had moved on to his next project, his fourth full-length feature film and his 75th film overall since 1914. This was highly unusual for Chaplin, who liked to take his own good time developing and reworking potential film material (financial pressures, from his recent divorce and tax troubles, may have been a motivator). Since he’d completed work on The Circus, he now also had to contend with significant changes in the film business—the long mooted possibility of sound cinema had come to pass. His brother, Sydney, had already appeared in a Warner Bros. Vitaphone sound short in 1926 entitled The Better ‘Ole, so the Chaplin brothers were only too aware of the implications of these major industry developments. How would the greatest silent comedian of them all react to this new direction? In typical Chaplin style, he virtually chose to ignore it altogether.

‘They are spoiling the oldest art in the world, the art of pantomime,’ complained Chaplin of the headlong drive of the industry to implement sound. From the debut of The Jazz Singer in 1927, nothing would ever be the same, even though that was not a ‘true’ sound film as it just featured elements of music and dialogue. The first full sound film was 1928’s Lights of New York, driving cinemas across the US (and then the world) to rapidly install sound equipment. ‘They are ruining the great beauty of silence,’ lamented Chaplin. ‘They are deafening the meaning of the screen.’ Chaplin feared the cinema sound revolution would be ‘fatal’ for his comic movies.

One of the greatest benefits of the silence of Chaplin’s Tramp was the character’s effortless appeal internationally. His was the language of mime, of pantomime, not words. His physicality and his face revealed his emotions. His actions spoke louder than any words could—and they were understood in any and all languages across the globe. The Tramp was an international ‘everyman’ representing humanity the world over. If he were to speak, would that not change forever his essential nature?

City Lights (1931)Chaplin had many things to think about. Would the arrival and dominance of sound cinema mean the end of silent movies? Would his past work suddenly become passée, old fashioned, out of tune with the times? Could he still make films in this brave new world he was so fearful of? If the Tramp were to speak, what would he sound like? Chaplin’s own speaking voice featured a soft, cultured, English accent—surely that’s not what his huge audience of American (and international) filmgoers thought the character they’d loved on screen for so many years would sound like. It was certainly a conundrum, one that threatened Chaplin’s very abilities as an entertainer.

There was much speculation about Chaplin’s options. In September 1929 Film Weekly ran a story headlined ‘Will Chaplin Talk?’, asking the question that was on everyone’s mind. Chaplin’s lawyer Nathan Burkan said: ‘It is still undecided whether or not this film will be a talkie’, suggesting that Chaplin was keeping his options open. ‘Charlie’s attitude to “talkies” at the present time is that they are interesting, but that he does not consider that speech is in any way essential to screen art,’ said Burkan, further suggesting that Chaplin saw his silent ‘art’ as being something quite separate to the mainstream direction movies were taking. ‘The script of City Lights contains dialogue,’ confirmed Burkan, ‘and it is almost certain the film will contain some speech, but whether Charlie will break his silence is an open question…’

City01The ideas for what would become City Lights (‘A Comedy Romance in Pantomime’, according to a title card) had come to Chaplin during the production of The Circus, so he’d set about developing the film in the traditional way, giving little thought to the advent of sound. He had three characters—the Tramp, a blind flower seller, and a millionaire, whom he saves from a drunken suicide attempt. Around these he would build his drama. When the millionaire was in his cups, the Tramp would be his best pal, but when sober he would refuse to even recognise him (in an interview, Chaplin called the character a ‘Jekyll and Hyde inebriate’). Confusion as to who is who causes the blind girl to think of the kindly Tramp as her benefactor, when it is in fact the rich millionaire. It is his money that buys her the operation she needs to restore her sight, yet when she can see she doesn’t initially recognise the Tramp. The moment of dawning realisation that makes up the climax of City Lights is considered one of the greatest scenes in all cinema.

Chaplin discovered his newest leading lady in the audience of a boxing match he was attending (Chaplin gives a different, even less likely account of their first meeting in his autobiography). Virginia Cherrill was aged 20 (too old to attract Chaplin’s romantic interest, perhaps?) and not an actress, but she had the right, almost ethereal looks that Chaplin knew he needed for the blind flower seller. He had considered using Georgia Hale (from The Gold Rush), but his motivation here seems to have been more lustful than professional. Merna Kennedy (the star of The Circus) was listed in early Chaplin Studio production records for City Lights, but she is not known to have actively participated in the making of the film.

Lack of acting experience for Chaplin was always better, as it allowed him to mould her performance precisely to his needs without challenge. Cherrill, for her part, was apparently divorced and happy to swan about society living off her alimony payments. Invited to star in a movie, she simply looked upon it as another jolly wheeze to be pursued for as long as it amused her.

City02Cherrill’s first scene, in which she offers a flower up to the Tramp, became legendary not so much for its content but for the reputed 342 takes that Chaplin indulged in to get exactly what he wanted. Even though the film was silent, he insisted that she say her line ‘A flower, sir?’ just so. If her expression did not touch him, he would take the scene again. Sometimes it was her gesturing that was off, or the way she looked at him, or looked past him. Little details obsessed Chaplin, and this repeated striving to get Cherrill to do exactly what he wanted was the inevitable downside of his dependence on an actress he openly called ‘an amateur’.

Cherrill was flighty, and in no way as committed to the making of the film as Chaplin inevitably was. One day she walked off the set, declaring she had to attend an appointment with her hairdresser. Chaplin flew into a rage, and then retreated to his bed for three days, unable to face the work, or—perhaps—his leading lady, who had disappointed him so. They did not get on personally, and more than once Chaplin fired his star, only to realise that he couldn’t face the prospect of starting all over again with someone new.

A witness to Chaplin’s tried and tested directing method, in which he acted out all the parts as a guide for his actors, was child actor Robert Parrish, who lated grew up to become a director himself. Writing in his memoir, he recalled: ‘[Chaplin] became a kind of dervish, playing all the parts, using all the props, seeing and cane-twirling as the Tramp, not seeing and grateful as the blind girl, pea-shooting as the newsboys. [We] watched as Charlie did his show. Finally, he had it all worked out and reluctantly gave us back our parts. I felt that he would much rather have played all of them himself.’ Virginia Cherrill too recalled Chaplin’s approach to directing her: ‘It seemed that the times you thought it was good, he’d hate it, and the other times when you felt flat and forced, he’d say it was great. If he enjoyed something, he’d do it forever until he was bored.’

A huge new city street set was constructed in the Chaplin studio for City Lights. It was built in a ‘T’ shape, thus allowing for deep street views, and populated with crowds of extras and plenty of vehicles to give the feel of a bustling city. A mix of the world’s greatest cities—New York, London, Paris—Chaplin’s fantasy conurbation included a theatre and a cabaret, an art store, and the monument seen at the film’s opening, as well as the flower store of the climax.

It has been suggested that rising star Jean Harlow was among the City Lights extras during a restaurant scene. If she was, it seems likely her scene was reshot without her as she is not readily visible in the film. According to Glenn Mitchell, Chaplin had cast Henry Clive as the millionaire but found him difficult to work with. The actor was fired and the part recast with Harry Meyers, meaning all the scenes featuring the millionaire had to be re-taken. It is likely that if she was originally in the film at all, Harlow may have appeared in one of the now replaced scenes with Henry Clive. Before City Lights was released in 1931, Jean Harlow would anyway go on to find fame on her own. It was to be short lived, as she died in 1937 aged just 26.

City03Also fired during production was Chaplin’s assistant Harry Crocker, who’d played the tightrope walker Rex in Chaplin’s preceding film, The Circus. Behind the scenes candid film footage released as part of the indispensable Unknown Chaplin (1983) documentary shows Chaplin becoming frustrated with Crocker on the set of City Lights. As a result of their differences on this production (which remain a mystery; Chaplin biographer David Robinson suggests it was something ‘extremely personal’), Crocker was let go. He and Chaplin later reconciled and Crocker again worked for the comic prior to Chaplin’s departure from the United States in 1952.

Chaplin lost the month of March 1929 to illness, but returned to the set at the beginning of April with renewed vigour and commitment to work positively with Cherrill and get his film finished. The break from filming had been useful, as a major operation had been undertaken to move the La Brea studio frontage (mainly offices) back 15 feet as mandated by the city’s desire to widen the road. The construction work was interfering with the making of City Lights, even though the film was defiantly silent. Production on the film was essentially halted through July and August, the summer of 1929, until the building work in the studio was done.

City13Chaplin wrapped filming in the autumn of 1930 (after many stop-start delays), and then decided that his only concession to the demands of sound cinema would be an original score of his own composition. It was a new delay to the completion of the picture, and a new, artistic and creative distraction for Chaplin himself. It was also the start of a slippery slope, because having decided to add music, he then considered working in some spot sound effects and even little bits of gibberish dialogue for crowd scenes. In fact, his use of a kazoo sound for the speech of the dignitaries was both a dig at such pompous people but also at talking films themselves. He made clever use of a whistle sound, having the Tramp swallow one and so almost ‘talk’ through it. These were all compromises with the way the art of cinema was going, and each of them no doubt struck at Chaplin’s heart, but he was fearful that if he did nothing and simply presented City Lights as a ‘true’ silent picture that audiences, now used to the new world of sound, would simply reject it outright.

Finally, in January 1931, Charlie Chaplin had to put City Lights before the public, and see what would happen. To Henry Bergman he expressed his doubts about the film: ‘I don’t know so much about that picture. I’m not sure.’ All through the making of the film right up to its premiere, Chaplin had been concerned about releasing what was essentially a silent film in the era of sound. Despite his bravado and his bold decision to stick to his artistic guns—silent film was what he knew how to do—there was a worry at the back of his mind that this could be the last film he might ever make.

Chaplin needn’t have worried—the debut screenings of City Lights in Los Angeles (attended by Chaplin’s guest, Albert Einstein) and New York were greeted by standing ovations from appreciative crowds. For many, this new film reminded them of what was possibly being lost in the headlong rush into sound. The filmic art of silent movies was being diminished by the need to put the visuals second to the needs of recorded sound, complete with bulky, immobile cameras that were incapable (initially, at least) of producing the kind of gliding camerawork that featured in F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) just a few years before.

City12What Chaplin had achieved with City Lights was a successful combination of some of his most successful shorts (such as The Rounders, 1914, A Night Out, 1915, The Champion, 1915, and The Count, 1916; even, perhaps, 1921’s The Idle Class) with the greater scope of the sort of emotional drama that needed to be central to a feature film. For The New Republic, City Lights was a masterpiece that ‘gave the impression of being created before your eyes, with this extraordinary result.’ For Mordaunt Hall in The New York Times, Chaplin had ‘proved the eloquence of silence’, while for essayist Alexander Woollcott, City Lights was nothing less than ‘a gauntlet thrown down to the rest of Hollywood’ and he labelled Chaplin’s Tramp ‘the finest gentleman of our time’. Variety saw no problem with Chaplin continuing to plow the furrow of silent movies as he was in the unique position of having ‘talent, time, and means’ to produce his films exactly the way he wanted to. For The Record, ‘Nobody in the world but Charlie Chaplin could have done it. He is the only person that has that peculiar something called “audience appeal” in sufficient quantity to defy the popular penchant for pictures that talk. City Lights is the exception that proves the rule.’

In Britain, Observer critic C. A. Lejeune felt that Chaplin’s work stood tall against the best that European cinema had to offer, citing the work of Rene Clair as comparable. ‘The two directors,’ noted Lejeune of Chaplin and Clair, ‘are almost alone in their power of pure film thinking, without translation through literary or sociological or dramatic idea; they are quite alone in their comic psychology, their sense of the right movement, or pause to reveal the whole mockable nature of man’s soul. Chaplin is the surer artist, giving what Clair has never quite succeeded in suggesting, the sense of frustration behind the laughter; there is always at the back of Chaplin’s work that emotion without logic which first carried him beyond Sennett and the Keystone comedies to be the world’s first clown.’ For critic James Agee (writing in 1950 when the film was re-released), the final scene of City Lights was simply cinematic perfection: ‘The greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.’

EGmagCity Lights cost Chaplin over $1.5 million to make, a huge sum for a near-silent movie under 90 minutes in length and without any big stars besides Chaplin himself. The average Hollywood feature film in 1930 cost $375,000, suggesting that City Lights cost a whopping four times as much as the average feature. Chaplin’s efforts to recover this expenditure led him into a conflict with United Artists. D. W. Griffith, one of the four original founders, was long gone and the business was now being run by Joseph Schenck, who’d come from the exhibition side into production largely through his wife, actress Norma Talmadge (he would later be a founder of Twentieth Century Pictures and would engineer the merger with the Fox Film Corporation to create 20th Century Fox in 1935). Schenck used United Artist as a vehicle to produce films for his extended family, including wife Norma Talmadge, sister-in-law Constance Talmadge, and brother-in-law Buster Keaton (whom he’d later bring to MGM).

City07Chaplin demanded that United Artists pay him fifty per cent of the gross takings of City Lights, a deal far in excess of that offered to any other filmmaker. United Artist’s management were already concerned that Chaplin was putting out an essentially silent movie, when even Fairbanks and Pickford had released a ‘talkie’ film of The Taming of the Shrew in 1929. When they refused his demands, Chaplin decided to distribute City Lights through a ‘roadshow’ method, and charged a higher than usual ticket price of $1.50 (15c higher than regular prices for the new sound films). The film—which took 190 filming days spread over a period of two years and eight months to complete—would go on the gross in excess of $2 million in the US, easily returning Chaplin’s investment; overseas distribution brought in an additional $3 million, making for an overall worldwide gross of $5 million. City Lights remains one of his most successful and most appreciated feature films, and it was Chaplin’s own personal favourite.

Having succeeded with City Lights, conquering his own fears and bringing his audience along with him, Charlie Chaplin took a break before the next challenge. He left on the ship Mauretania, intending to take time out to visit the London of his boyhood once more. Sitting in his cabin, however, he was plagued with one thought: ‘What am I going do next?’

Trivia: In 1991, the US Library of Congress selected Chaplin’s City Lights for preservation in the National Film Registry, recognising it as ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’. It is not the only Chaplin film to be so preserved—The Kid (1921), selected in 2011; The Gold Rush (1925), selected in 1992; Modern Times (1936), selected in 1989; and The Great Dictator (1940), selected in 1997, would also make the list.

City04Charlie Says: ‘Overnight, every theatre began wiring for sound. That was the twilight of silent films. It was a pity, for they were beginning to improve. Murnau, the German director, had used the medium effectively, and some of our American directors were beginning to do the same. A good silent picture had universal appeal both to the intellectual and the rank and file. Now it was all to be lost. I was determined to continue to make silent films, for I believed there was room for all types of entertainment. Besides, I was a pantomimist, and in that medium I was unique and, without false modesty, a master. So I continued with the production of another silent picture, City Lights.’—Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964.

‘[A] difficulty was to find a girl who could look blind without detracting from her beauty. Virginia Cherrill I had met before … after making one or two tests with other actresses, in sheer desperation I called her up. To my surprise she had the faculty of looking blind. I instructed her to look at me but to look inward and to not see me, and she could do it. Miss Cherrill was beautiful and photogenic, but she had little acting experience. This is sometimes an advantage, especially in silent pictures where technique is all important. Those with less experience are more apt to adapt themselves to the mechanics.’—Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964.

Verdict: Somewhat episodic and made up of moments Chaplin had explored before in some of his earlier shorts, City Lights is nonetheless a cohesive whole that merges theme and character successfully. Although widely beloved, it’s not my favourite (come back next month for that), but it is easy to appreciate its artistry.

Brian J. Robb

Next: Modern Times (5 February 1936)

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

The Circus (6 January 1928)

Circus00

Release Date: 6 January 1928

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 70 minutes

With: Allan Garcia, Merna Kennedy, Henry Bergman, Harry Crocker, George Davis, Tiny Sandford, John Rand, Steve Murphy

Story: Hired as a clown by the ring master of a circus, the Tramp discovers he can only be funny unintentionally…

Production: Charlie Chaplin’s trip to The Circus (1928) is often overlooked, coming as it does between two bona fide classics—The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931). Immediately after The Gold Rush Chaplin reached a new level of fame (or, perhaps, notoriety). He’d spent months in New York, playing at being part of ‘high society’, while his wife and newborn son remained in Los Angeles. He’d embarked upon a short-lived affair with a pre-Pandora’s Box (1929) Louise Brooks, who was then best known for her W. C. Fields films; she would shortly marry Chaplin’s assistant director Edward Sutherland. Many of those who met Chaplin during this period came away with the peculiar feeling that they’d in fact experienced a ‘performance’ of ‘Charlie Chaplin’ and had not actually engaged with the real man. ‘Enjoy any Charlie Chaplin you happen to encounter,’ said Max Eastman, ‘but don’t try to link them up to anything you can grasp. There are too many of them.’

Circus11In 1920 Chaplin had claimed: ‘My greatest ambition is to make a film about a clown.’ The ideas that eventually formed into The Circus had been running around in Chaplin’s head for a number of years. The making of the film would fulfil that ambition, but it would also cover a period of intense personal turmoil for Chaplin that included a major fire at his studio, estrangement and eventually divorce from Lita Grey, and demands from the Internal Revenue Service for unpaid back taxes. Through all the delays and distractions, Chaplin soldiered on in the making of a film that is often overlooked as part of his overall filmography. The Circus may not be an acclaimed classic, but it is still a great Chaplin film and deserves greater attention.

Prior to working on the new film Chaplin had hired 30-year-old Harry Crocker as his new assistant, replacing Eddie Sutherland. Born in 1893, Crocker was a journalist working for the Los Angeles Examiner. As well as working as Chaplin’s personal assistant through The Circus and City Lights, Crocker began an onscreen career, including his appearance as Rex the tightrope walker in The Circus and taking in such films as The Big Parade (1925), Tillie the Toiler (1927, opposite Marion Davies who was romantically connected both to Chaplin and William Randolph Hearst), right through to Chaplin’s Limelight (1952). Crocker came from a wealthy San Francisco family whose fortune had come from the railroads, but he was attracted by the film business, initially working as an entertainment reporter for Hearst (ironically a great enemy of Chaplin, thanks to his dalliance with Davies). Cocker’s long-running column ‘Behind the Make-up’ ignored the kind of gossip peddled by Louella Parsons and focused instead on the business of filmmaking. He’d write several books on Hollywood, including an unpublished biography of Chaplin. Crocker and Chaplin would clash and fall out during the making of City Lights, but they would quickly reconcile and their friendship extended right through to Limelight and Monsieur Verdoux (1947; he worked as a publicist on both films) and Chaplin’s eventual exile in Europe. Crocker died in 1958, aged 64.

Chaplin and Crocker developed the basics of what would become The Circus during a 10-day working trip in November 1925 to a Monterey luxury resort known as Del Monte. It was reported that Chaplin monologue the outline of the film to Crocker (who took notes) for 28 hours non-stop, although there was as much politics and philosophy in Chaplin’s stream-of-consciousness outpouring as plot developments. Chaplin also spoke of the other roles he wanted to play in subsequent films, including Napoleon (in a long considered but ultimately unmade movie) and even Jesus Christ (a provocation to critics, no doubt; it seems unlikely that Chaplin would dare to take on that role). He’d also looked into filming Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Suicide Club (which had previously been filmed four times in the US, Germany, and Britain, and would go on to be re-adapted many times over).

Circus06Chaplin had already hired a new leading lady for his next picture, 20-year old red head Merna Kennedy. Born to Maude Kahler in 1908 in Kankakee, Illinois, Kennedy was one of Lita Grey’s best friends. Her family background was troubled, with a parental divorce and much moving around, before settling in California where her mother remarried. Despite Kennedy’s friendship with his wife (or perhaps because of the taboo), Chaplin embarked upon an affair with her. She was an athletic dancer, ideal for the role of the bareback rider in The Circus, although at the time she had no acting experience beyond some limited stage vaudeville (it was Chaplin’s habit to pick co-stars with little experience he could shape as he wanted). She would go on to a series of minor roles in silents (Broadway, 1929) and into the talkies (King of Jazz, 1930; Son of a Sailor, 1933), only to retire in 1934 and marry choreography Busby Berkeley. That only lasted a year and the pair divorced in 1935, although Kennedy appears to have been economically independent following the divorce (there is no evidence of subsequent stage or film work). Later, in 1944, she would marry Master Sergeant Forrest Brayton in Las Vegas (having waited three years for him to complete his service in the Pacific), only to drop dead of a heart attack four days later. Merna Kennedy was only 36 years old.

Based upon Chaplin’s discussions with Crocker, production designer Danny Hall began sketching circus environments within which the action could take place and provide what today would be considered ‘storyboards’ of key sequences. Chaplin himself drew upon some elements of his Mutual short The Vagabond (1916), essentially the idea of a romantic triangle that in The Circus sets the Tramp up against Kennedy’s horse rider and Crocker’s tightrope walker. The cruel ringmaster (Garcia), who employs the Tramp, is Kennedy’s stepfather and recalls the cruel gypsy chief of The Vagabond. Chaplin also drew upon some of the comedy ideas of French comic Max Linder, who died in October 1925, for some elements of The Circus including Linder’s final film The King of the Circus.

Circus04On the run from the law (as he ever was), the Tramp stumbles into a circus tent mid-performance and proves to be the most popular clown with the audience. Hired to entertain the crowds, the tramp simply cannot get the hang of the gag routines. He’s fired, but retained as a prop man. Once more, he accidentally interrupts a performance while carrying a stack of dishes, and once more proves a hit. The wily circus owner keeps the Tramp around and manipulates him to enter the ring and inadvertently perform. He becomes the hit of the show (which was on its last legs), but is entirely unaware of this until the ringmaster’s daughter, the bareback rider (Kennedy), tells him. In between, there is comic business with lions, donkeys, and monkeys. Now the actual star of the circus (with his own dressing room) the Tramp romances the horse rider, only to face competition in the shape of new arrival, Rex the tightrope walker. The Tramp feels he can only compete by being as daring as Rex and so prepares to walk the tightrope. In the end, he realises that Rex and the girl belong together, and the circus leaves town without him.

Prior to the planned beginning of filming in January 1926, a full size circus tent was erected within the Chaplin studios, only to be blown away by an unexpected storm in early December 1925. The making of The Circus was off to an inauspicious start. Chaplin decided he must learn to properly walk the tight rope for the film to be convincing, so he dedicated weeks to the effort (he was supposedly taught this skill by Henry Bergman, an unlikely thought). A month into filming that included completion of the sequence where the monkeys attack Chaplin as he is walking the tightrope, it was discovered that a significant and noticeable scratch marred the negative for all the footage shot so far, meaning that much of the material had to be reshot, including Chaplin’s hard-won tightrope walking scenes.

During the period he was making The Circus, Charlie Chaplin was beset by several personal tragedies and problems. On 28 August 1928, his mother Hannah Chaplin died at the age of 61. She had been briefly ill, but Chaplin had every expectation that she would recover. Earlier, in September 1926 a major fire at the Chaplin studio destroyed the tent used on The Circus (again!) and many of the props required for the film. A famous photograph shows a disconsolate Chaplin amid the ruins of his circus set. His cameraman Rollie Totheroh also shot some dramatic footage of the aftermath of the fire. The fire was a major blow, compounded by a communication from the Internal Revenue Service that Chaplin was under investigation for non-payment of over $1 million in tax that could amount to criminal fraud. Initially related to his ownership of United Artists stock, as one of the co-founders of the company, the inquiry broadened out beyond that to cover much of Chaplin’s personal financial arrangements. Work on The Circus all but ceased and Chaplin retreated to the personal bungalow he’d had built on the studio property.

Circus07Early in January 1927, Lita Grey finally filed for divorce, recognising that the breakdown in relations between her and Chaplin was beyond saving. She left the family home taking their two children with her (by this point, she had given birth to a second son, Sydney). A major part of the allegation against Chaplin made by Grey concerned repeated attempts by him to pressure her into an abortion that included boasts that several women had done this for him, one of them twice (widely believed to have been Edna Purviance). Even more salaciously, Grey accused Chaplin of making her perform acts in service of his ‘abnormal, unnatural, perverted and degenerate sexual desires’. The complaint ran for 52 pages (at the time such documents were more usually only three or four pages) and made for sensational headlines in the press just at a time when Chaplin was at his lowest ebb. A statement was issued that the filmmaker had suffered ‘a serious nervous breakdown’ that had led to a suicide attempt in New York when he’d tried to jump out of a hotel bedroom window. At one point, Chaplin and his brother Sydney plotted a move to England, where Chaplin could resume his work unmolested.

Eventually, Chaplin turned a corner. His lawyers came to a settlement with the IRS, and similarly, a settlement for divorce was hashed out with Lita Grey’s representatives (including her lawyer uncle). In August 1927, Grey was awarded $625,000 and a $200,000 trust fund was established for the two Chaplin children. She agreed to withdraw all the charges in her lengthy complaint and settle on the basis of just one: ‘cruelty’. It was, at the time, the largest divorce settlement in American history. It also severely damaged Chaplin’s reputation, but worse was to come in the following years…

Circus10Although the majority of The Circus had been completed by November 1926, Chaplin returned to the film at the end of August 1927 to finish it (after a delay of eight months) a changed man—his black hair had turned almost completely silver/white nearly overnight. ‘I was shocked, profoundly shocked,’ said Henry Bergman in response to Chaplin’s changed appearance. ‘If anybody ever wanted proof of what Charlie had been through, that was it.’ Chaplin worked hard to achieve the right feeling for the final scene of the film that shows him alone where the circus ring had been, everyone else having left. It was first shot in Glendale, then a suburb of Los Angeles, but Chaplin kept revisiting it and reshooting it. Watching dallies of the scene, he repeatedly found things to criticise, from his own performance to the lighting, to the way the Tramp was wearing his hat. Nothing was quite right, but in the end he had to pick a final shot, as the film was mere months from opening.

Recognising the growing importance of music in filmmaking, Chaplin decided to commission a special score for The Circus. He enlisted Arthur Kay to replace the temporary music used on previews of the film in Glendale and Los Angeles with a bespoke score. Always interested in composing, Chaplin worked closely with Kay in devising the music for the film.

The release of The Circus had been significantly delayed by the ongoing litigation in the divorce from Lita Grey, with Chaplin fearing among his latest film would be seized as part of his sequestrated assets, recalling the situation that affected the completion of The Kid several years before. The film finally premiered in New York on 6 January 1928, two years after production had begun. By this time, the era of the silent movie was coming to an end (The Jazz Singer, 1927, had been released just a few months earlier), but Chaplin stuck to his guns as a silent filmmaker. It would be an issue that would dominate his next few films as he faced the challenge of either adapting to sound filmmaking or refusing—instead, he chose a kind of equivocal middle ground.

Circus02Chaplin was somewhat wary of the reception his latest film might get from a critical press that had reported every development in his divorce from Lita Grey with some glee. He was also aware that the acclaim that had followed The Gold Rush was unlikely to be repeated—perhaps critics were ready for Chaplin to fail? In the event, he need not have worried. Billed by Chaplin as ‘a low-brow comedy for high brows’, he claimed that The Circus makes ‘no attempt at great drama but [is] intended purely and simply as a laugh provoker.’ This over cautious defensive stance was not necessary as The Circus was largely met with positive reviews.

The New York Times said that The Circus was ‘likely to please intensely those who found something slightly wanting in The Gold Rush, but at the same time it will prove a little disappointing to those who revelled in the poetry and fine humour of his previous adventure.’ The Nation said that The Circus saw Chaplin giving a ‘solo performance’ with the supporting cast ‘not more than competent’ (a sideswipe at Kennedy and Crocker, no doubt). Variety labelled The Circus ‘a corker’ and claimed it was his best picture to that point.

In the first year of their existence, Charlie Chaplin found himself unexpectedly nominated in a quartet of awards in the new Academy Awards (soon to become known as the Oscars). The Circus was nominated as Outstanding Picture (today’s Best Film category), and Chaplin himself was nominated as Best Director, Comedy Picture; as Best Actor; and for Best Writing (Original Story). As it was, Chaplin would not face the horror of a ‘popularity contest’, as he saw it.

Instead, Chaplin found himself withdrawn from the competition and awarded a special Academy Award for 1927-28. The citation accompanying the award read: ‘For his versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing The Circus.’ The celebratory banquet for the Oscar ceremony at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on 16 May 1929 was the first ever held by the Academy. Feeling that competitive awards for filmmaking was an inherently silly idea, Chaplin declined to attend. He did, however, treasure the special Oscar he was awarded despite this.

Circus09Career and personal analogies abound in The Circus. Produced during one of Chaplin’s most troubled times, the film can be read as reflecting (consciously or unconsciously) what was going on in his world during its creation. He returns the Tramp figure to his roots, on the street but becoming intrigued by the circus that has come to town. Some comic business with a pick-pocket sees the innocent Tramp and the guilty thief alike on the run from the police. This flight brings him into the circus’s hall of mirrors, where he confronts several distorted versions of himself.

Spanish writer Fernando Vela wrote (in 1928) of The Circus, referring specifically to the hall of mirrors scene: ‘Chaplin is a tramp who has lost his way in the world. He lived in a different world, but one day, without realising it, he half-opened a door and fell, making a famous clown’s entrance, into a world with fewer dimensions, where the mirrors cannot be stepped through, where every step is a stumble.’

Cleverly shot (it had to be to keep Totheroh’s camera out of sight), the hall of mirrors sequence tips off the viewer that this film is holding up a mirror to Chaplin’s life. Hired as a clown, he finds it difficult to be funny ‘on demand’ and doesn’t understand the basic slapstick elements of comedy. That both routines—William Tell and the Barbershop Bit—are old vaudeville efforts suggests that Chaplin is dissecting his own past and perhaps passing comment on his earliest films, primarily those made at Keystone and Essanay, when he was finding his feet in a new medium.

Circus05Later, walking on the tightrope, the Tramp is assailed by monkeys that proceed to steal his trousers. Supposedly drawn from a dream or a nightmare Chaplin had (according to Henry Bergman), this could be seen as reflecting his battle with Lita Grey, the fear that she’d have the shirt off his back (or his trousers) by attaching his film to her divorce complaint and so upset his ability to make a living. Or, alternatively, it could just be a bit of comedy business with some monkeys…

Vela’s comment that Chaplin had become a clown without realising it is also reflected in the overall storyline of the Tramp not realising (at first) that he is the comic hit of the circus and is being taken advantage of by his employer (this was Chaplin’s view of some of his earlier studio employers, like Keystone and Essanay). This also alludes to Chaplin’s own working methods as they had developed over the past 15 years of his career. He could not just ‘be funny’ on demand, but had to work at, developing bits of business into longer scenes. All this took time, hence the increasing gaps between movie releases. It is possible to see much in The Circus, but at its heart it was a further exploration of the character of Chaplin’s Tramp, who continued to make his way through life no matter the obstacles. At the film’s conclusion, the Tramp tosses away the paper star from the circus perhaps symbolic of Chaplin finally outgrowing Hollywood’s own star system.

Trivia: This is perhaps the oddest trivia item yet in the history of Chaplin: Film by Film. Is there a time traveller from the future hiding in a promotional film covering the premiere of The Circus? In 2017 an avid viewer pointed out what they believed to be a mobile phone user in the background of a scene from the premiere. Clearly, that couldn’t be the case as such technology simply didn’t exist in 1926-28 when the film was in production. The woman in question, who appears to be in the position of holding a phone to her ear while walking along, could be listening to a radio—although in the clip in question (which is on the DVD of The Circus) seems to show the woman talking at the same time. Obviously, this is a visual/psychological trick where a modern interpretation had been put on old footage, but it makes for great speculation, and anything that highlights Chaplin’s work is worthwhile…

Chaplin’s personal life throughout the period of the making of The Circus has also been seen as the inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel Lolita (note the similarity to the name of Chaplin’s wife: Lillita MacMurray/Lita Grey).

Version Control: In 1971, Chaplin revisited The Circus and re-cut it for re-issue. The changes were not as drastic as those made to The Gold Rush, but did include the addition of a new song ‘Swing, Little Girl’ over the opening credits, composed and sung by Chaplin himself (then in his late-70s). Beyond that, the film is substantially the same as that released in 1928. Current releases on DVD and Blu-ray include a deleted scene shot during downtime when the studio sets were being rebuilt following the fire. Chaplin took his two leads, Merna Kennedy and Henry Crocker, to Sunset Boulevard to shoot a sequence in which the Tramp, thinking he’s on a date ends up having to include Rex in the party. Some business with twin prizefighters (actually played by a single actor through camera trickery) fills out the scene. Some other material from the making of The Circus can be seen in the indispensable Unknown Chaplin documentary series.

Charlie Says: ‘Hearst could be extremely naïve. When we were going to a premiere of one of Marion’s pictures, he would invite me to drive with them, and before arriving at the entrance of the theatre he would get out so as not to be seen arriving with Marion…’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964

Verdict: Often overlooked, The Circus contains some of Chaplin’s best stuff. The opening 20 minutes or so function as a standalone two-reeler, while the chaos in The Circus is entertaining. Perhaps not top notch Chaplin, but worth watching.

Brian J. Robb

Next: City Lights (30 January 1931)

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

The Gold Rush (26 June 1925)

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Release Date: 26 June 1925

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 95 minutes (original); 72 minutes (1942 re-release)

With: Charlie Chaplin, Georgia Hale, Mack Swain, Tom Murray, Malcolm Waite, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford

Story: The Little Tramp, now a lone gold prospector in the frozen north, gets lost in a blizzard. Finding a cabin for shelter, he encounters the wanted criminal Black Larsen (Tom Murray) and Big Jim (Mack Swain), who has just struck it rich. Weathering the storm, the Tramp later arrives at a nearby town and meets dance hall girl Georgia (Georgia Hale). Just as happiness looms, however, the Tramp is drawn back into the gold digging machinations of Big Jim.

Production: Although Charlie Chaplin had made many innovative films during his apprenticeship in filmmaking (right at the beginnings of the business as a popular art form, a full decade before The Gold Rush), it wasn’t until he embarked upon features that his true talents shone through. Several of his later First National films had verged on ‘feature length’ (they were described as such at the time), like Shoulder Arms (1918) and The Kid (1921). That latter film was as close as Chaplin came to making a true masterpiece—until The Gold Rush (1925). For Chaplin, it was the picture by which he wanted to be remembered.

There are scenes from The Gold Rush that many people will have seen without ever actually watching the entire film—the ‘dance of the bread rolls’, for example, is a staple in any show featuring clips from Chaplin’s work—while the antics in the beleaguered cabin of Chaplin eating his boot, Big Jim seeing the Tramp as a tasty giant chicken, and the cabin teetering on the edge of the cliff are all well known. What is perhaps less appreciated is The Gold Rush in its entirety at its original 95-minute length. It is a masterpiece of filmmaking and a serious step forward in Chaplin’s depiction of and use of his Little Tramp character, a part he felt trapped by (hence his making of A Woman of Paris, 1923, as his first true feature, rather than a Tramp film) but that he was now reconciled to continuing to feature in his work (at least for the immediate future).

Gold 03It was during a breakfast meeting at Pickfair, the home of Chaplin’s friends and business partners (in United Artists) Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, in the fall of 1923 when the inspiration for the film that would become The Gold Rush struck him. His partners were pressuring Chaplin to embark upon a new movie for United Artists, preferably one starring the Tramp. By 1924, Pickford had released 11 movies through United Artists, Fairbanks had put out seven, and the fourth partner D. W. Griffith had managed nine, all to Chaplin’s sole contribution (A Woman of Paris). Part of the morning saw Chaplin viewing stereoscopic (3D) slides that depicted authentic scenes from the Klondike ‘gold rush’ of 1898, an event less than 30 years in the past. This, it seemed to Chaplin, would be an ideal setting into which to pitch his Little Tramp—a character who was constantly out-of-his-element, yet strived to make the best of any situation he found himself in. Chaplin began reading further on the subject, encountering the tale of the Donner Party of 1846 who had resorted to cannibalism when stranded in the Sierra Nevada. Chaplin could see the comic, if macabre, mileage in such a scenario. ‘It is paradoxical,’ Chaplin wrote, ‘that tragedy stimulates the spirit of ridicule … ridicule, I suppose, is an attitude of defiance; we must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature—or go insane.’

Oddly, Chaplin’s first take on the material was in the form of a play, completed in December 1923 under the title The Lucky Strike, which he deposited in the copyright library. In January 1924, Chaplin began formal work on what he was calling ‘the Northern story’, further researching the time period and setting, delegating some of the work to assistants such as Eddie Sutherland, Chuck Riesner, and Henry Bergman. Others at his studio began work building the kind of props and costumes a Klondike-set film would likely require, from furs to sleds. A massive backdrop of a snowbound mountain scene was painted in the studio with a ‘real’ layer of snow deposited in front of it (the ‘snow’ was actually salt mixed with flour). A prospectors’ hut was built—as much of the opening action of the film would take place here. It was constructed on a kind of primitive gimbal, a rocking system controlled through a set of easily entangled pulleys so the entire edifice could be rocked back-and-forth for the scene where the hut hangs over the edge of a ravine. All through this busy work, Chaplin continued to develop his story—although The Gold Rush would, as usual, begin production without a ‘proper’ script (despite the existence of The Lucky Strike), Chaplin had a better handle on the twists-and-turns of the story than he’d sometimes shown in the past.

Gold 01 Lita SignsWith Edna Purviance not under serious consideration (although Chaplin continued to pay her a ‘salary’ until her death) for the leading female part of the dance hall girl that the Tramp falls for, Chaplin began looking elsewhere. While shooting tests of the rocking hut and the blizzard effects, Chaplin and studio manager Alf Reeves filmed tests of various actresses. Lobbying for the role was Lillita McMurray (Lita Grey, as would be), who had appeared in the dream sequence of The Kid and was a maid (alongside her mother) in The Idle Class. Against the advice of others in the studio, Chaplin signed the then 15-year-old McMurray to be his leading lady in The Gold Rush, changing her name to ‘Lita Grey’, for $75 per week. Lita’s casting was given the full press treatment, with a photo of The Gold Rush team at Lita’s contract signing issued in March 1924.

Writing in his 1927 biography Charlie Chaplin: His Real Life Story, Jim Tully noted: ‘Chaplin’s selection of Lita Grey to play the role of the leading lady in The Gold Rush was quite romantic. Many young women of great beauty had applied for the position. Charlie, never quite certain as to which type he wanted, found his selection almost hopeless until the young schoolgirl appeared at the studio. [Told she was hired] the young girl, not yet 16, jumped up and down with joy. Had she been able to read the future she might have jumped over the moon, for within a short time Lita became not only leading woman for the most famous man in the world but also his wife.’ Many news reports claimed Lita’s age to be a more acceptable 19.

Gold 07Filming on The Gold Rush had begun the previous month, February 1924, with some of the cabin scenes and the opening sequence of the Tramp getting lost in the blizzard were efficiently captured (some of the scenes featured a genuine large brown bear). Later in the month, Chaplin and his colleagues embarked upon a location scouting trip to Truckee, near Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada, 400 miles north of Hollywood, where they hoped to shoot some genuine snow-laden scenes. This was part of a misguided quest for authenticity on Chaplin’s part, driven by his jealousy of the achievement of Erich von Stroheim’s shot-on-location Greed (1924). Back in the studio, after the recce north, Chaplin returned to shooting the cabin scenes featuring Mack Swain as Big Jim. Three days and 63 takes were spent on shooting the scenes in which the Tramp, suffering great pangs of hunger, meticulously prepares and eats his boot. Through each of those days, the director refined his comic material, increasing the comedy by increments, such as transforming a rusty nail into a wishbone. For the filming, the boot and laces were made of liquorice. By mid-March, Chaplin had developed the scene in which Big Jim imagines the Tramp to be a chicken. Initially, this was no more than a vision of a roast chicken on the cabin table, but inspiration struck leading to Chaplin to obtain a full-size chicken suit he could wear. The effect was achieved in a near faultless cross-fade carried out ‘in camera’ rather than through a post-production optical effect (as would become standard later for such scenes).

It was several weeks before Chaplin was ready to shoot Lita Grey’s first scenes. This was intended as part of the cabin scenes, with the Tramp asleep but dreaming as a beautiful woman brings him a plate of succulent roast turkey. That was shot on Saturday, 22 March 1924. By the Monday, Chaplin had a new idea and reshot the scene with strawberry shortcake replacing the turkey. In the dream, she proceeds to feed him strawberries and it ends with him getting the cake in his face and awakening. Neither scene was ultimately to appear anywhere in either version of The Gold Rush.

By April, the cast and crew were in cold Truckee (Lita accompanied by her mother) to shoot the scenes in and around the gold rush town. Material to build out the opening scene of the film (to be combined with the earlier shot studio material) was first to be captured. Hundreds of extras, many ‘hobos’ drafted in from Sacramento, played the long line of prospectors making their way through the snow, Chaplin’s Tramp initially among them (before he gets lost). The lengthy path was created with the help of the Truckee Ski Club. Many members of the filming crew also appeared in the scene to boost the numbers, including assistant director Eddie Sutherland and (somewhere among the crowd) Lita Grey. A genuine snowstorm hit the location, and Sutherland was quick to grab shots of Tom Murray fighting his way through the blizzard (Chaplin was—conveniently–ill at this moment). By the end of April, filming on location for The Gold Rush had wrapped.

Gold 02Having been efficient in production on the film thus far, things soon ground to a halt on The Gold Rush with the studio lying idle throughout May and June, much to the annoyance of Chaplin’s associates. While Chaplin worked on further ‘story material’, a recreation of the location mountain range was built in studio while Lita Grey posed for photographs in a variety of diverse costumes. People were kept busy, but they weren’t actually making the movie. The cameras turned again at the start of July, filming more (ultimately unused) cabin scenes between Chaplin and Swain (who struggled under the heavy furs in the Californian heat). Work then moved to the cabin on the ravine edge scenes, achieved with a mix of the full-size hut and cleverly made miniature models.

At the end of June all work on The Gold Rush suddenly stopped. Although it was not known to his co-workers, Chaplin had been hit by what biographer David Robinson called a ‘bombshell’: Lita Grey announced she was pregnant. No doubt he was hit by flashbacks to events with Mildred Harris, but there was an added complication—Lita was legally underage, meaning Chaplin could face a criminal charge of rape with a potential 30-year prison term. His first instinct was to pay for an abortion, but Lita’s Catholic mother was outraged. The only answer was an immediate marriage. By his own actions, Chaplin had once more trapped himself in an unwanted relationship.

Towards the end of November 1924, Chaplin took a small film crew to Mexico, supposedly to continue with some filming for The Gold Rush (despite the improbability of that location). Instead, the trip was simply a cover story for the rapid civil wedding between Chaplin and Lita Grey that took place on 26 November at Empalme, Mexico (bizarrely at 3am, according to Chaplin biographer Joyce Milton). During what remained of that night, Lita and her mother shared the bridal suite; Chaplin was nowhere to be found, the groom having apparently ‘gone fishing’! The entire weary entourage returned to Los Angeles the next day. One anecdote has Chaplin saying to his travelling companions of his ‘shotgun’ marriage: ‘This is better than the penitentiary, but it won’t last…’

The press was quick to catch on, even if reporters had been most recently fascinated by a supposed burgeoning relationship between Chaplin and Marion Davies. The actress was then the mistress of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, and Chaplin had been caught up in the mystery surrounding the death of director Thomas Ince aboard Hearst’s yacht earlier that November. Now, however, the cat was out of the bag and Chaplin’s marriage to the extremely young Lita Grey was front-page news. The New York Daily News headline suggested the marriage was in danger of ‘Spoiling A Good Clown’ by making Chaplin too happy!

Gold 06To escape his personal troubles, Chaplin followed his habitual reaction to such drama—he threw himself into his work. His first act was to replace Grey in The Gold Rush, using her pregnancy as a spurious excuse. By Christmas 1923, the Chaplin studio had announced that unknown Georgia Hale would be Chaplin’s new co-star in The Gold Rush (then 17-year-old Carole Lombard was among those tested). Chaplin was once more treading on dangerous ground in that his replacement for 16-year-old Grey was only herself 18—Chaplin was then 35 years old. At 16, Hale had won the Miss Chicago title and had come to Hollywood in the summer of 1923 seeking stardom. She’d won a few parts as a background extra, including in the Mildred Harris-starring film By Divine Right (1924, directed by Roy William Neill). Joseph von Sternberg then cast Hale as the lead in The Salvation Hunters (1925), his directorial debut, which was where Chaplin first saw her. Chaplin then ‘stole’ Hale from Fairbanks who had subsequently cast her as the Queen in his Don Q., Son of Zorro (1925, Hale was replaced by Stella di Lanti), a sequel to his 1920 film The Mark of Zorro. Hale had been a fan of Chaplin’s since she was a teenager, so working with him on his latest film was a dream come true for her.

Replacing Grey with Hale was relatively simple, since all that had been shot was the later excised dream sequence and Chaplin had not yet reached the scenes set in the town that featured the dance hall girl (now named Georgia, after the actress). The dance hall and bar were built in the studio and Hale was prepared for her first scenes in The Gold Rush. Around 100 extras were signed up for these scenes, but many of them proved disruptive to the filming by acting as if they were in a real bar. Despite that, the highest paid performer in these sequences was actually the dog (hired from Hal Roach) that’s on the end of the rope Chaplin’s Tramp employs to hold up his trousers. The ‘fake’ New Year’s Eve scenes were completed by 19 January 1925, shortly after the real event. In February, the scenes of the lonely Tramp waiting for party guests who never arrive (including the famous ‘dance of the rolls’, part of another dream sequence) were shot. By April, with the filming of the closing boat scenes in San Diego, The Gold Rush was completed (although in mid-May some additional miniature filming of an avalanche for the death of Black Larsen was shot).

As Chaplin was hard at work editing the footage of The Gold Rush, Lita Grey gave birth to his son, Charles Chaplin Jr., on 5 May 1925. Concerned over the fact that it had only been six months since the marriage, Chaplin hid Lita and her mother, along with the baby, in a cabin in the San Bernadino mountains. A friendly doctor (who owned the cabin and had attended the birth) falsified the birth certificate giving the child the ‘official’ birthday of 28 June—two days after Chaplin premiered the completed The Gold Rush.

Gold 08Chaplin described The Gold Rush as a ‘dramatic comedy’ revealing his new balance between drama and laughs in his films going forward. Where The Kid had leaned perhaps a bit too heavily on strong emotion or even sentimentality, The Gold Rush would provide the ideal mix between the drama of the general situation and the specificity of the comedy involving the antics of the Little Tramp. Overall the film had cost the Chaplin studio just under $1 million to make, while it would gross in excess of $6 million at the box office during its first run. By any contemporary measure, The Gold Rush was a success.

From the atmospheric opening shot of the hundreds of prospectors climbing the snowy mountain pass to the uncharacteristic happy ending that sees the now wealthy Tramp reunited with Hale’s dance hall girl aboard ship, The Gold Rush is a perfectly constructed masterpiece displaying the ideal balance between drama and comedy, with several of the comedic moments making their mark on film history. In surveys of silent cinema, The Gold Rush often comes second only to the same year’s Sergei Eisenstein directed Russian drama Battleship Potemkin.

MBDGORU EC025The Gold Rush features a slightly different version of Chaplin’s Tramp, a more mature figure whose outlook on life is still optimistic but who has admitted to himself his lonely station in life as the perennial striver who, despite his own ambition and persistence, repeatedly fails to make the big time or get the girl. The Tramp’s hunger pangs call back to Chaplin’s own early life, aspects of which were also explored in A Dog’s Life and The Kid; the black marks around the Tramp’s eyes accentuate his deprivation. The fantasy of the ending seems somehow out of place, with the now rich Tramp’s donning of his old outfit for photographers keen to tell his rags-to-riches story perhaps suggesting that no matter his wealth, he cannot escape the man he really is inside those clothes. Much the same could be said of Charlie Chaplin himself.

Gold 10Version Control: Chaplin reissued The Gold Rush in 1942 in a new cut that deleted 20 or so minutes, used alternate takes in some scenes, deleted the inter-titles, and added sound effects, as well as narration and dialogue performed by Chaplin himself. The most significant alteration is on the ending, where the passionate kiss between the Tramp and Georgia is deleted. This new version of The Gold Rush no doubt extended the commercial life of the film at that time, but the alterations were really unnecessary, and the best version of the film is the full-length 1925 original. It can be hard to see however—the Chaplin estate insist on making only the 1942 cut-down version available (this is the one on Blu-ray). However, in 2003 MK2/Warner Bros. included the original 1925 longer version of The Gold Rush as an extra on the DVD release of the film (a 1993 restoration by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill), so don’t ditch that DVD if you move up to Blu-ray!

Trivia: The studio-built Klondike mountain range for The Gold Rush took 239,577 feet of timber and 22,750 feet of chicken wire to build, and it was covered in 200 tons of plaster, with the snowy landscape made up of 285 tons of salt, 100 barrels of flour, and four cartloads of confetti!

Gold 09Charlie Says: ‘I read a book about the Donner Party who, on the way to California, missed the route and were snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Out of 160 pioneers, only 18 survived, most of them dying of hunger and cold. Some resorted to cannibalism, eating their dead, others roasted their moccasins to relieve their hunger. Out of this harrowing tragedy I conceived one of our funniest scenes…’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964

‘During the filming of The Gold Rush, I married for the second time. Because we have two grown sons of whom I am very fond, I will not go into any details. For two years we were married and tried to make a go of it, but it was hopeless and ended in a great deal of bitterness.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964

Verdict: A film of genuine laughs and genuine drama, The Gold Rush gets the balance right mostly avoiding the sentimentality that was a key feature of The Kid.—Brian J. Robb

Next: The Circus (6 January 1928)

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

A Woman of Paris (26 September 1923)

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Release Date: 26 September 1923

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 82 minutes

With: Edna Purviance, Adolphe Menjou, Carl Miller, Clarence Geldart, Lydia Knott, Charles K. French

Story: Marie St. Clair, a young rural French woman, moves to Paris becoming the ‘mistress’ of a wealthy Frenchman. Her boyfriend, a young artist, follows her and tries to rekindle their relationship leading to a tragic outcome…

Production: Subtitled ‘A Drama of Fate’, 1923’s A Woman of Paris was 34-year-old Charlie Chaplin’s first proper feature length film (the 1914 Keystone feature Tillie’s Punctured Romance was always more a vehicle for Marie Dressler in which Chaplin—then flavour of the month—guest-starred, although it is counted as a Chaplin flick, as are several Arbuckle and Normand shorts of the same period). It is a film directed by Chaplin—as had been all his shorts and semi-feature length films since his mid-Keystone days—but he doesn’t appear in it, beyond a brief non-Tramp related cameo. It was also a huge failure with the Chaplin-loving public of the 1920s.

paris02The inspiration for A Woman of Paris came from one-time Ziegfeld girl Peggy Hopkins Joyce, an apparently much-married ‘gold digger’ (the term was coined for her by a newspaper reporter) with whom he had a brief two-week affair in the midst of making The Pilgrim. Mary Pickford’s favourite director, Marshall Neilan introduced them during the summer of 1922—Chaplin biographer David Robinson implies Neilan was looking to get her off his hands! During their limited time together, Joyce regaled Chaplin with tales of her raucous adventures in early-1920s Paris, so laying the groundwork for his ‘drama of fate’. Realising that Chaplin would not be an easy conquest as her prospective sixth millionaire husband, Peggy Hopkins Joyce quickly moved on to romance future MGM ‘boy wonder’ Irving Thalberg, then working at Universal with Erich von Stroheim on Foolish Wives (1922). After his dalliance with Joyce, Chaplin moved on to rekindle his relationship with Pola Negri, who was now in Hollywood set to pursue a screen career of her own.

In 1922 Chaplin had finally got around to building himself a permanent home, located at 1085 Summit Drive in Beverly Hills, close to the Pickfair Estate of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. The six-acre site was filled with a self-designed two-storey mansion that included a screening room and a pool shaped like the Tramp’s bowler hat. Known locally as the ‘breakaway house’, Chaplin had used studio carpenters to build parts of it. Used to constructing temporary film sets, their structures were less-than-permanent, so bits had a tendency to fall off. Despite that, the property—where Chaplin stayed for the rest of his period in Hollywood— still stands today, although it was extensively remodelled in 1970. Some lucky purchaser picked it up for a mere $3 million in 1997, according to property records, with the property value having soared to almost $15 million by 2019.

Pola Negri would help Chaplin decorate his new home, and as 1923 dawned the pair were an item in real life and in the pages of the Los Angeles gossip columns. Theirs was a tempestuous relationship, with them each accusing the other (with good reason) of repeated infidelity. Their on-and-off engagement served to confuse the press as well as the two participants. By the summer, it was all over with Negri claiming to have walked out on Chaplin. In the Los Angeles Herald Examiner she was quoted as declaring: ‘He is too temperamental, as changing as the wind. He dramatizes everything, he experiments in love!’

paris10Four years on from the incorporation of United Artists, Charlie Chaplin was at last free to begin making movies for the upstart talent-focused studio. Pickford and Fairbanks had already been hard at work producing films for the new venture, and they now expected Chaplin to contribute what would no doubt prove to be a highly successful moneymaking comedy (D. W. Griffith, the fourth founder, would drop out of the company the following year, 1924). The independent distributor had been running at a financial loss during its first three years, so a moneymaking Chaplin feature comedy would be very welcome to United Artists’ principals. Instead, always willing to confound expectations, Chaplin declared his intention to make a non-comedic romantic melodrama in which he would not star, much to the horror of his long-suffering partners.

paris11Chaplin had tired of the Tramp and was determined to move on to pastures new—there had to be more to him and his filmmaking than the comic little character he had created almost by accident getting on for a decade ago… Surely his audience would go with him in whatever new direction he decided to take—they would see that there was more to Charlie Chaplin than the Tramp, wouldn’t they? Chaplin’s Destiny (as the film was first titled) would feature a young woman who travels to Paris and becomes the mistress of a rich gentleman (modelled after the stories Peggy Hopkins Joyce had told Chaplin). Her artist former boyfriend follows her, but upon discovering he has lost her love, he shoots himself (this was yet another personal story from Joyce). As Chaplin refined and focused the emerging story in order to tell it in distinctly visual terms, it became more his own creation and less reliant on the tattle tales of Joyce. It was the baldest of melodramas, but Chaplin hoped through his filmic technique to turn the story into something special. As his leading actor Adolphe Menjou noted: ‘Chaplin’s genius transformed the very ordinary story.’

As Chaplin biographer David Robinson points out, Chaplin had been making moves in this more ‘serious’ direction for a while, most notably in The Kid and the incomplete Essanay film Life. As Robinson states, as far back as 1917 Chaplin had attempted to buy the rights to the play The Prodigal Son by Caine Hall, intending to put himself in the ‘straight’ (i.e. non-comedic) title role. Nothing came of that, but the urge to produce something worthy, of a different quality to his knockabout comedies, had clearly driven Chaplin’s direction of creative travel through Mutual and First National.

parsi12For the leading role of Marie St. Clair, Chaplin reached out to his own ex, 28-year-old Edna Purviance. Her screen career as a comedienne had suffered a wobble, and she’d turned to drink. Chaplin hoped to help her out by offering her the chance to switch to playing straight drama roles, toying at one time of featuring her as Josephine opposite his own Napoleon (a long held ambition he was not to fulfil, something Chaplin had in common with Stanley Kubrick). Adolphe Menjou was cast as the Parisian gentleman Pierre Revel (pretty much setting the path for the rest of his screen career; ironically, it was a role Chaplin had considered playing himself), while Carl Miller played St. Clair’s spurned suitor Jean Millet, with Lydia Knott and Charles K. French as his parents. Chaplin’s oft-favoured co-star Henry Bergman appeared without credit as a waiter, while Chaplin himself made a cameo appearance (out of his Tramp outfit) as a clumsy porter (oddly, a cameo he more or less repeated in his final film A Countess From Hong Kong, 1977).

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Chaplin had his staff production designer Arthur Stibolt create elaborate plans for locations that were in the evolving story outline, many of which ultimately failed to appear in the finished film, including a race track, a jewellery retailer, and an art gallery. According to Robinson’s account, plans were drawn up to rent space at Universal Studios for some more elaborate locations that couldn’t be managed at Chaplin’s own studio, including a church and a hotel. A proposed ending set in Canada called for Stibolt to provide a ‘Canadian street’, among other Northern locations. There was even a suggestion that Chaplin might want to shoot some scenes on location in Paris, for verisimilitude. Chaplin also firmly linked the locations of the movie to the characters that would inhabit them, making sure that the environment reflected their social and economic status as well as giving clues to their emotional states. The contrasts between the Paris apartments of the rich Marie and the impoverished Jean illuminate their individual characters through mise-en-scene. The costumes serve a similar function, as does Jean’s portrait of Marie. He paints her in the plain clothes he better recognises rather than the fancy dress she wears when posing for him. Environments and clothes help build the character contrasts.

Among those helping Chaplin realise his ambitions with A Woman of Paris was Edward Sutherland, a failed actor (he’d been a Keystone Cop in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, 1914) who was later briefly married to Louise Brooks (they hooked up in 1926, but divorced in 1928) and who would go on to become a director in his own right, working with Stan Laurel and W. C. Fields (he and Brooks met on It’s the Old Army Game, 1926). As well as serving as Chaplin’s de facto assistant, Sutherland appeared in A Woman of Paris as an uncredited extra. Chaplin also employed two Frenchmen to ensure accuracy: Comte Jean de Limur, an aspiring actor who’d appeared in Fairbanks’ The Three Musketeers (1921), and Argentinian-born Henri d’Abbadie d’Arrast—both would go on to become film directors in their own right, with d’Arrast working with Adolphe Menjou.

paris06A Woman of Paris shot for seven months from the end of November 1922, with Chaplin employing his usual method of working without a script, a situation that confused Menjou. Everything was in Chaplin’s head, and the success of the picture would depend upon him communicating this to his actors. It also depended upon careful notation being taken for continuity purposes between scenes and shots so that the final film would adequately cut together. Where Chaplin has several notions, he would shoot variations upon the scene, allowing him ultimately to pick that which best served his purposes during editing. Only a trio of scenes were shot that did not end up in the final film, although many takes were needed of certain scenes before Chaplin was satisfied that he’d achieved the desired effect. Chaplin also filmed A Woman of Paris in strict story order, a technique that has long fallen by the wayside due to expense and the fact that efficiency can be gained by shooting all the scenes required on one particular set (no matter where they occur in the story) before striking that set and moving on, as films are largely made today (there are, of course, exceptions).

In the scene in which Chaplin appears as the careless porter, the effect of an arriving train was famously faked by Chaplin’s cinematographer Rollie Totheroh by having cut out train windows in plywood drawn across a powerful light shining on Edna Purviance’s face. This was further evidence, alongside his innovations on Pay Day, that Totheroh was becoming more ambitious in photographing Chaplin’s films. Chaplin’s uncredited scene, however, drew such laughter from audiences that he shortened it even further to lessen the undesired disruption to the atmosphere of the drama that his comic interlude seemed to be creating (Chaplin was instantly recognised by audiences despite being in partial disguise and the opening text claim that he did not appear in the picture).

paris04A Woman of Paris was without a definitive ending right through to the summer of 1923. That June Chaplin was still juggling various options, including a happy marriage between the Purviance and Menjou characters, emigration for Marie to America or Canada, or her leaving Menjou to devote herself to charitable works, possibly working at a leper colony! Chaplin was moody at the best of times (Robinson’s account has his staff being able to tell his mood in advance depending upon what colour of suit he was wearing—his green suit was said to be a particularly bad omen). Towards the end of filming on A Woman of Paris, he became particularly put out, picking fights with—among others—both Sutherland and Totheroh. He would often apologise later, but it made for a fraught working atmosphere at the Chaplin studio.

With A Woman of Paris, Charlie Chaplin proved to be something of an unsung pioneer in the field of screen acting and directing. He worked closely with the actors, instilling in them a ‘less is more’ approach to screen acting, a counter to the more emotive style (derived from the theatre) that had, up until them, pervaded silent film, especially melodrama. Chaplin had learned through his years of filmmaking, from the broad comic strokes of his Keystone days through to the more subtle work at First National, that the slightest emotion came over well on giant theatre screens. There was no need for extreme hand wringing, swooning, and dramatic gestures to get across the emotions of the characters; the slightest indication of a thought crossing a face would be enough in a close-up to convey the inner anguish the character was feeling. In this way, Chaplin began to lay the foundations of all modern screen acting.

paris00For Chaplin, the direction he offered his actors on A Woman of Paris was instinctual. Although he had years of experience behind him, and repeated viewing of his own work had taught him much in terms of screen technique, this was his first proper ‘straight’ drama. He knew what he didn’t like, but he had no conscious rationale for what he wanted to achieve. He said he just knew that it ‘felt’ right. Adolphe Menjou, once he’d surpassed his own confusion about what Chaplin wanted, came to regard his director as a genius of the screen. ‘The word “genius” is used very carelessly in Hollywood,’ the actor said after his experience on A Woman of Paris, ‘but when it is said of Chaplin, it is always with a special note of sincerity. If Hollywood has ever produced a genius, Chaplin is certainly first choice.’

Chaplin had exhorted Menjou to not ‘sell’ his acting but to be subtle about it. He also worked closely with Purviance on the same approach, often resulting in many takes of a scene until he felt the actors had reached the right level of naturalism in their depiction of the characters. He wanted then to simply ‘be’ rather than to ‘act’. Other directors took notice, with Ernst Lubitsch and Michael Powell in particular pointing to Chaplin’s example on A Woman of Paris as opening up a new style of screen acting, one they were keen to follow in their own work. Powell said, ‘Suddenly, there was a grown-up film with people behaving as they do in real life’.

By the end of June, Chaplin had locked down the conclusion of his film, capturing the moment that Menjou and a friend obliviously drive by Purviance while musing on her fate (and making it clear that Menjou’s Revel was not all that interested). It had been over a year since Chaplin had begun drafting the scenario for the film but it was finally finished, at the cost of 130,000 feet of film (edited down to just 7,500 feet for 82 minutes) and $351,000. Chaplin’s final act was to settle upon a title, working his way through the likes of The Melody of Life, Social Customs, Public Opinion, Time and Destiny, Human Nature, and Love, Ladies, and Life (his motto, perhaps), before settling upon the more descriptive A Woman of Paris.

A Woman of Paris was not what audiences expected from Charlie Chaplin. Where was the Little Tramp? Where were the laughs? What was with the depressing melodrama? Additionally, audiences were not ready for the new approach to acting that Chaplin was pioneering, and many rejected it on that basis. Chaplin’s popularity as a beloved comic, in the character of the Tramp, counted against him in this attempt to break out of that narrow definition and broaden his filmmaking horizons. Although Chaplin had gone to great lengths to prepare the public for the fact that A Woman of Paris would be a different kind of Chaplin film, his efforts appear to have been wasted. At the premiere, he had distributed flyers highlighting how the film diverged from his normal work, but that he hoped audiences would find it enjoyable nonetheless. Largely, they didn’t. An opening on screen declaration that Chaplin would not be featured in the film that followed probably served to put many off before the drama even began to unspool.

Many critics, however, saw what Chaplin was trying to do and rated the film highly. Even Mary Pickford, who had wanted another Tramp comedy from Chaplin as his first film for United Artists was won over by A Woman of Paris. ‘[Chaplin’s film] allows us to think for ourselves and does not constantly underestimate our intelligence,’ she said. ‘It is a gripping human story throughout and the director allows the situations to play themselves [out]. The actors simply react the emotions of the audience. Charlie Chaplin is the greatest director of the screen. He’s a pioneer. How he knows women! Oh, how he knows women! I do not cry easily when seeing a picture, but after seeing Charlie’s A Woman of Paris I was all choked up—I wanted to go out in the garden and have it out by myself.’

While the public did not take to Chaplin’s ‘serious drama’, the critics loved it. In The New York Herald Robert Sherwood wrote ‘There is more real genius in Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris than in any picture I have ever seen … Chaplin has proved many times that he understand humanity, he has leavened his hilariously broad comedy with elements of poignant tragedy. He has caught and conveyed the contrast between joy and sorrow which makes existence on this terrestrial ball as interesting as it is.’ Exceptional Photoplays noted of A Woman of Paris that it ‘has the one quality almost every motion picture that has been made to date lacks—restraint. The acting is moving without ever being fierce, the story is simple and realistic without ever being inane, the settings are pleasing without ever being colossally stupid. The result is a picture of dignity and intelligence and the effect is startling because it is so unusual.’

Chaplin was, however, downhearted by the wider reception given to A Woman of Paris. Rather than offer Edna Purviance a new career direction, it was the beginning of the end for her on the screen; she would make only two more films before withdrawing from acting altogether. Chaplin withdrew the film shortly after its release, making it unavailable in any form for many decades. Eventually, in the mid-1970s, he would re-edit the movie (cutting it down to 78 minutes, five minutes shorter than the 1923 release), adding a new musical score of his own composition. It is oddly fitting that this film should be the last he worked on for it’s 1976 re-release, just a year before Chaplin died. Just one week after the original 1923 release and disappointing audience reaction to A Woman of Paris, Chaplin declared that ‘unless my feelings undergo a marked change, I am going right back to comedy!’ His next film would be one of his greatest comedies, The Gold Rush (1925).

Trivia: Unthinkable today, but back in the 1920s films would be subject to the whims of local censorship boards or even just easily offended projectionists. While A Woman of Paris passed the New York Board of censors unscathed, the film was not so lucky in Ohio and Maryland. Vernon Rigel, head censor in Ohio admitted the artistic merit of the movie, but insisted upon editing it to make the central characters conduct themselves ‘as a lady and gentleman should conduct themselves towards one another’, by—among other changes—adding a title card to explain that Marie St. Clair inherited her money from a wealthy aunt. Similarly, in Maryland Marie’s opulent lifestyle was not due to her ‘kept woman’ status but instead because of her high earnings as an acclaimed actress! Such changes to a filmmaker’s work today would be unthinkable without the filmmaker’s consent.

Charlie Says: ‘I have been thinking the public wants a little more realism in pictures, whereby a story is pursued to the logical ending. In my first serious drama, A Woman of Paris, I’ve striven for realism, true to life… the beauty, the sadness, the gaiety, all of which are necessary to make life interesting. The story is simple, intimate, and human, presenting a problem as old as the ages, showing it with as much proof as I am allowed to put into it, giving it a treatment as near to realism as I have been able to devise.’—Charlie Chaplin, extract from a Programme Note presented at the New York premiere of A Woman of Paris on 1 October 1923.

‘As I have noticed life in its dramatic climaxes, men and women try to hide their emotions rather than seek to express them. And that is the method I have pursued in an endeavour to become as realistic as possible [in filmmaking].’—Charlie Chaplin, in an interview with a New York newspaper.

Verdict: It may not look as ground-breaking now, almost 100 years later, but there can be no doubt that Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris was a significant step forward in the art of naturalistic filmmaking. It’s often overlooked as a footnote in Chaplin’s filmography (along with A Countess From Hong Kong) as it doesn’t feature Chaplin nor the Tramp, but it was just the latest attempt by Chaplin to forge his own path in Hollywood (and, later, beyond) and has to be engaged with on its own terms.

—Brian J. Robb

Next: The Gold Rush (1925)

 

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.

The Pilgrim (26 February 1923)

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Release Date: 26 February 1923

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 46 minutes

With: Edna Purviance, Sydney Chaplin, Mack Swain, Loyal Underwood, Marion Davies, Henry Bergman, Dean Reisner, Tom Murray

Story: An escaped convict steals a minister’s clothes, only to find he also assumes the man’s life, too…

Production: Several years late, and a couple of films short of the original number promised, Charlie Chaplin finally completed his lucrative First National contract in February 1923 with the release of The Pilgrim, which also served as his final short film. From now on, Chaplin would turn to features, with all but his final two British-based productions being released through United Artists, the mini-studio he’d established back in 1919 with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith.

Chaplin began work on what would become The Pilgrim the day before the release of Pay Day, his final two-reeler short. As had become the case more recently, he was better prepared prior to shooting than had ever been the case before in his ramshackle filmmaking career. Chaplin wasn’t quite working with a script, yet, but he did compile a series of written notes outlining his ideas for The Pilgrim. This no doubt helped his collaborators immensely in preparing to make the film. As David Robinson notes in Chaplin: His Life and Art, The Pilgrim ‘is the first film for which there survives a quantity of written scenario and gag notes. … Chaplin was moving away from his earlier method of creating and improvising on the set and even on film, towards a greater degree of advance planning on paper.’

Pilgrim02It is no accident that in his final film in what had become an onerous contract from First National Chaplin should choose to depict the Tramp as a convict escaping prison. There was no subtext here. A swimming minister gives the Tramp the opportunity to dump his rather obvious prison garb and don a new identity, that of a preacher. Soon, he’s tied up in the affairs of the local congregation of Devil’s Gultch, Texas (Robinson calls the town Dead Man’s Gultch, both in print and in his video introduction to the DVD release, despite the onscreen evidence; perhaps it was named such in the original notes?) where his somewhat improvised yet energetic sermons prove a hit.

Chaplin’s David and Goliath pantomime is central to The Pilgrim and is certainly one of this short’s funniest moments. He throws himself wholeheartedly into depicting both characters, occasionally stopping to double check the details of the tale in a handy Bible. He depicts the ins-and-outs of the battle between the pair with great wit and physical dexterity, enthralling his congregation and the cinema audience.

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This moment almost overshadows the rest of the film in which the faux-minister foils a robbery (by an erstwhile cell mate, no less), but is then found out as being an imposter, and even worse, an escaped convict. A Sheriff has to take him away, but instead of returning him to jail, he lets the Tramp free at the Mexican border. It takes a moment for the truth to dawn upon the Tramp, but he’s just been deported (in a pre-echo of Chaplin’s own exile from America in 1952). Gun-totting bandits on the Mexican side, however, see him hedge his bets as he walks off, straddling the border, one foot in the US and one in Mexico…

He may have had his troubles at First National, but Chaplin had developed as a filmmaker over the extended duration of the contract. His films had grown in both length and complexity, while his characterisation of the Tramp had matured, especially in Shoulder Arms and The Kid. Just as his pace of production had slowed, so too had the frantic nature of his films. They were now more measured, less antic. He’d drawn upon memories of his own younger life in London to make The Kid. Having visited the streets he once called home, and returned to filmmaking in the United States, The Pilgrim revealed a more mature, thoughtful, and deeper Chaplin.

Shot across 42 days, The Pilgrim was the most economic of Chaplin’s longer, near feature-length shorts (it was a four-reeler, coming in at around 46 minutes). First developed as a Western-style comedy (anticipating some aspects of the later The Gold Rush), The Pilgrim originally had Chaplin’s Tramp as one of four escapees who actively mug the minister to steal his clothes (rather than have the Tramp appropriate them while the minister is swimming, as in the finished film). The Tramp sets up in a real rough ‘wild West’ town as the new minister, keen to replace the church organ with a jazz band, and the collection plate with gambling. Instead, Chaplin settled on what Robinson dubbed ‘the hypocrisies of small-town religion’.

Pilgrim09The set-up of The Pilgrim is swift—over just five individual shots, Chaplin rapidly establishes the character and his latest predicament. The shots include the pasting up of the Wanted poster; a close up of Chaplin’s mug on the poster; a shot of a man swimming, who discovers his clothes are missing; a fourth shot shows the clothes have been replaced by a stripy convict outfit; and the fifth and final shot is of Chaplin’s Tramp walking towards the camera, dressed as a preacher. This economy of style was new for Chaplin and perhaps suggests something of the urgency with which he was determined to finally escape the First National contract. Satirising both the church and small town morality, Chaplin also takes aim at the conventions of the Western (already hardened into cliché) in the sequence in which he alters his pilgrim’s garb to pass for a gunfighter of the Old West in his attempt to retrieve the stolen money. It’s a neat switcheroo, perhaps showing a growing interest from Chaplin in the Western, that most American of genres, which he’d follow up (sort of) in The Gold Rush.

Tackling the subject of the church and religion, however obliquely and in pursuit of comedy, brought Chaplin some unwanted attention. The Evangelical Ministers Association of Atlanta demanded the film be withdrawn as it was ‘an insult to the Gospel’, while the South Carolina branch of the Ku Klux Clan objected to the film as they claimed it ridiculed Protestant ministry. Censors had their go at The Pilgrim, too, with the Censor Board of Pennsylvania cutting so much ‘objectionable’ material from the film there was little left worth screening.

Chaplin hoped to persuade First National to accept the four-reel The Pilgrim (unexpectedly longer than the films the contract was for, as with The Kid) as final fulfilment of the terms. In case they did not, he had in mind another two-reeler quickie to see out the contract, to be titled The Professor. David Robinson noted that correspondence between various parties, including Chaplin and Sydney Chaplin, indicates that this film actually existed in 1922, although there are no records of it having been shot (suggesting it was merely a stand-by idea in case of contract difficulties). Sydney makes the suggestion of screening both films for First National, giving Robinson the idea that The Professor must have already existed. Chaplin suggested delivering The Professor to First National in fulfilment of the contract, and then releasing The Pilgrim through United Artists. First National agreed to accept The Pilgrim, so The Professor was apparently quickly forgotten. Robinson also suggests the next most likely theory—it was all a put on as part of the negotiations. ‘The film must have existed,’ he speculated, ‘unless we predicate some outlandish bluff between the two brothers … [on] the existence of a purely imaginary film.’

Bosco01Of course, a five-minute scene found in film cans labelled ‘The Professor’, discovered during the making of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s groundbreaking Unknown Chaplin documentary series from 1983, helped solve the case. The scene is an early draft of the flea circus sequence eventually reprised in Limelight (1952). The scene appears to have been shot on the sets of The Kid during a break in production. Robinson concluded: ‘Had Chaplin and his cutter [editor] assembled a new film out of rejected scenes, perhaps from the Mutual as well as First National series?’

With the films for First National, Charlie Chaplin had embraced life in America. A Dog’s Life saw him begin the process of moving away from depicting street life as he recalled it from London, setting event in New York’s Lower East Side. Shoulder Arms took him entirely out of his usual urban environment, putting him in the trenches where he recalled Broadway’s lights, not those of the West End of London. Although The Kid drew upon those Lambeth memories rekindled by his trip back to London for the film’s UK premiere, in Jackie Coogan Chaplin presented a uniquely American take on impoverished childhood. The attempts to make Chaplin’s Little Tramp a family man, sometimes with a job—as in A Day’s Pleasure, The Idle Class, and Pay Day—further explored the American milieu that Chaplin had come to embrace over his near-decade living and working in the country. With The Pilgrim, especially through the development of the story, Chaplin had finally gone ‘full Western’ and embraced that most American of all genres.

Perhaps at the same time Chaplin was trying to escape the guise of the Tramp altogether. He had explored and developed the character through his work at four studios—Keystone, Essanay, Mutual, and First National—and at each studio, the Tramp was slightly different. As Chaplin became a better filmmaker, with more control over his productions and greater command of his storytelling and filmmaking skills, so the character of the Tramp grew. Chaplin tried him out in a variety of circumstances, careers, and roles. Now, in depicting the character as an escaped convict, was he not simply escaping First National but also the trap that he was beginning to see the Tramp character as. ‘Bosco’, the character he depicted in the brief extract from The Professor, certainly suggests he was open to exploring new characters. That might also be one explanation for his first choice of feature film for United Artists, A Woman of Paris, a ‘straight’ drama in which the Tramp does not feature and Chaplin himself only makes a brief cameo as well as directing.

In all The Pilgrim breaks no new ground, but it is the culmination of all Charlie Chaplin’s filmic education to this point, a process of almost a decade from 1914. Now he was ready for full-length feature films, although his choice for his debut would be somewhat uncharacteristic…

The Critics: ‘[Chaplin has not] played low to the mob with haphazard slapstick. He has aimed at something in his new work and he has hit it.’—The New York Times

‘[The Pilgrim] is aimless in story and formless in structure.’—The Times (London)

‘[The Pilgrim is] not sensationally funny, not as much as so expected from Chaplin in four reels.’—Variety

Pilgrim04Trivia: The full story is too involved to adequately cover here, but the brief presence of Marion Davies in The Pilgrim opens up the entire Chaplin-Hearst-Ince story. Davies was the mistress of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, and through the 1920s he attempted to establish a movie career for her, going so far as to finance a mini-studio devoted to her often-unsuccessful films. In 1924, the year after the release of The Pilgrim, Chaplin was one of many Hollywood luminaries invited to a party on Hearst’s yacht the Oneida. It was an event that would end in a fatality. Also among the guests was Western director (and another mini-studio mogul of the time) Thomas H. Ince. He, at the age of just 43, would be dead by the end of the cruise. Here fact and fiction get confused—was he shot, as early Hearst newspapers reported, or did he die of a heart attack? If he was shot, who did it? Chaplin biographer Joyce Milton suggested that the culprit was Chaplin, who accidentally shot Ince while toying with a revolver that he was thinking of using on himself. At the time, Chaplin was said to be ‘almost suicidal’ over his marriage to 16-year-old Lita Grey, while there were also suggestions he was also having an affair with Davies. The rumours surrounding the death of Ince and what happened on the yacht formed the basis of the 2001 Peter Bogdanovich movie The Cat’s Meow, a viewing of which is as good a way of any to get to grips with the ins-and-outs of the various stories surrounding that ill-fated November 1924 boat trip…

Pilgrim06More Trivia: The annoying little brat (the opposite of Jackie Coogan in The Kid) who spends most of his scenes slapping Chaplin’s faux-Pastor was played by five year old Dean Rieser, son of Chuck Rieser who plays Chaplin’s former cellmate-turned-thief. Chuck was friends with Chaplin and Buster Keaton, and young Dean regarded both comedians as honorary uncles, making it hard for him to hit Chaplin as required by the scene. Initially billed as ‘Dinky’ Rieser as a child actor, Rieser followed his father into the profession, acting in various roles such as the part of Detective Brody in 1948’s The Cobra Strikes through to his final acting part in B-movie Mesa of Lost Womena (1953). Rieser switched roles, taking up an alternative career as a screenwriter in 1939, and a lot of TV writing (mainly on Western series) would keep him busy right through to the 1970s. He wrote a series of Clint Eastwood movies, including thriller Play Misty For Me (1971), Dirty Harry (1971) and High Plains Drifter (1973), using the name ‘Dean Franklin’, his first names. Weirdly, Rieser was married to Maila Nurmi between 1948 and 1954—if the name doesn’t ring a bell, she’s better known under the moniker of ‘Vampira’, 1950s TV horror host and accidental ‘star’ of Ed Wood’s ‘worst movie of all time’ Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). Rieser died in 2002, while Nurmi died in 2008.

Pilgrim07Charlie Says: ‘I was now entering the last mile of my contract with First National and looking forward to its termination. They were inconsiderate, unsympathetic, and short-sighted, and I wanted to be rid of them. Moreover, ideas for feature films were nagging at me. Completing the last three pictures seemed an insurmountable task. I worked on Pay Day, a two-reeler, then I had only two more films to go. The Pilgrim, my next comedy, took on the proportions of a feature-length film. This again meant more irksome negotiations with First National. The negotiations terminated satisfactorily. After the phenomenal success of The Kid, I met little resistance to my terms for The Pilgrim: it would take the place of two films… At last, I was free to join my associates in United Artists.’—Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964

Verdict: A slight end to Chaplin’s First National period, notable for his miming of the David and Goliath story, but featuring little else of note…

—Brian J. Robb

Next: A Woman of Pairs (26 September 1923)

Chaplin: Film by Film will return in January 2019!

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION

An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

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