"C" is for "Charlie"
Charlie Chaplin, that is.
If you were around in the year 1915 – and it’s possible you weren’t :-) -- you would have been very familiar with a young guy named Charles Spencer Chaplin.
Because if you went to the motion pictures at all at that time, and just about everyone did, you would have been aware that the young guy wasn’t just a big movie star, he was gigantic – his films were known throughout the world.
In those early days, when you planked down your hard-earned fifteen cents to see a film you may have felt you were taking a risk, because motion pictures were still a fairly recent invention and a lot of the available "flicks" were amateurish and boring. But with Charlie Chaplin you knew you were safe; you were about to be entertained by a master.
(He was the little tramp known as “Charlie” to most folks, but he was “Charlot” in France and “Carlitos” in Latin America.)
It’s worth adding that very few world-famous motion picture celebrities ever started out as low on life’s ladder as young Charles Spencer did.
His father, who had little to do with him, was an alcoholic who died of cirrhosis when Charlie was twelve; his mentally unstable mother was in an asylum. So the boy was raised literally in a London poorhouse.
But it’s obvious that he was a natural performer. At the age of eleven he wound up with a children’s theatrical troupe called “The Eight Lancashire Lads.”
For those vaudeville companies, you had to be able to sing, dance, act, do comedy and acrobatics and even pretend to be a Lancashire lad, along with anything else that might be needed.
Later Charlie graduated to another kid group, the Karno Company, and actually got to visit the U S; his roommate with the troupe was another young fellow, one Arthur Stanley Jefferson, later to become fairly well known as Stan Laurel.
Charlie’s act was caught by Mack Sennett of the Keystone Company, the Grand Panjandrum of movie comedy, and young Charlot found himself trying to adjust to the strange demands of the celluloid medium. It took a while, but soon the short films he made were a huge success – he became bigger than the Keystone Cops.
He created a character, the little tramp, who rapidly became world-famous. To audiences everywhere, the poor guy lived in abject poverty; they never got to see Charlie’s real home, a magnificent Southern California mansion.
For a full quarter-century, he specialized in illusion, turning out wagon-loads of movies, ranging from easily-forgotten slapstick stuff to a number of what many regard as among the best motion pictures ever made
As a person who made his living in the field of film production, I’ve always been fascinated by the way C. Chaplin worked. Once he had achieved his fabulous degree of success, he became king of the hill; as a writer-producer-director he could do whatever he wanted to do, work any way he liked, and he did. He was in a position to ignore financial problems and time constraints.
There’s an old saying: tragedy is easy, comedy is hard. It was hard for Chaplin, too. Watching him on the screen, he seems to create all the funny stuff with little effort. But there’s a fascinating documentary, “The Unknown Chaplin,” that reveals the secret of just what he went through when he created a motion picture.
His usual method was to start out with just an idea, a theme: “Charlie works in a pawn shop,” or some such thing, and then he’d improvise.
He begins without a script – there’s no executive producer to approve or reject it – and he starts production by having sets built and by hiring a large number of actors, sometimes as many as a hundred, and of course a large technical crew.
Chaplin then sets to work, which for him means he sits thinking. He may spend hours doing this. Some times a day will go by before he has worked out a suitable plot in his mind for a scene, complete with all the accompanying “business.”
The actors love this. They get hired and paid for doing nothing but play cards, talk sports with each other, and have a free lunch. And if they don’t get anything done today, that’s all to the good; they’ll be hired back tomorrow for another day’s “work.”
From time to time Charlie will assemble everyone and try out a scene to see if his latest idea will work. Then he’ll do it again. And again. He is known to have actually done a hundred different takes of a scene before he has one he feels is right.
No other writer-producer-director, as far as I know, ever worked like this.
If you’ve never seen “Modern Times” or “City Lights” or a couple of the other great ones, you should check them out. You’ll be seeing the work of one of the most remarkable film geniuses who ever lived.
(Also submitted to "Writer's Island" and "Sunday Scribblings")
1 year ago