Much has been written about Charlie Chaplin. Yet little has been told.
For the real Chaplin is not easy to know. Not infrequently I have had occasion to wonder if he knows himself.
My knowledge of him has been acquired through sixteen years of close personal contact. I have worked side by side with Charlie day and night. We have traveled together, we have played together, we have lived together.
He is a man of great physical courage and endurance.
There is no sentiment in him. Yet he is so sensitive as to avoid at any cost inflicting pain on others — in their presence.
He has few friends. He has had scores.
He does not count it a loss!
There has been much talk about Chaplin's being "misunderstood." Actually he has fostered the idea. His "lonesomeness" is of his own choosing. He spends those hours alone — rehearsing!
As everyone knows, he was born in London, April 16, 1889. The poverty of his early years is also common knowledge. It was not until 1914 that his name flashed around the world. From that day to this it has been spread across the front pages of the world's newspapers. Every move he makes is of interest to the public. Now that the talkies have arrived, with their language limitations, he is the one man in all filmdom who — with his still silent films — has in his grasp a world audience.
PART ONE — THE LONDONER GOES HOME
A little more than sixteen years ago an invitation for me to become identified with a motion picture company in Hollywood seemed to me to be the answer to a prayer.
During the preceding two years I had been doing in-and-out jobs in the film industry, as a press agent. At this time, abruptly, I found myself jobless, with another job urgently necessary. Within five minutes the telephone rang. The man on the other end of the wire was John Jasper. He said something like this:
"Listen. I've just had a telephone call from Mr. Freuler, president of Mutual Film. You know, they own the Lone Star Company — the outfit where Chaplin works. Mr. Freuler's got ideas about Chaplin. What are you doing?"
"Looking for a job."
"Well, that's fine! Nine o'clock tomorrow morning you start as press agent. Good-by."
I didn't know Chaplin. Few people in Hollywood did. We knew his salary was supposed to be $667,000 a year — and guessed it was actually one quarter of that figure. (Our guess was wrong; the announced figure was right.)
I assume I had passed Charlie on Broadway in Los' Angeles a score of times. Even had I been aware of his identity I am afraid I should have paid him scant attention. For in those days his arm was almost always linked with that of the most beautiful blonde I have ever seen — the divine Edna Purviance.
Keen disappointment smote me the following morning when I went to work. Charlie Chaplin would not appear on the lot until the end of the week. However, this gave me a chance to get my bearings. One of my early discoveries was that the star disliked newspaper men and had no desire to be annoyed by "old friends."
I discovered he liked to be called Charlie — hated "Mister." That his hours were irregular and many of his demands impossible. That he had strong likes and stronger dislikes. That he had no idea of time.
And then at last I got my first close-up of Charlie.
I saw a young man in the studio yard playing with the company mascot, a goat. The animal would charge at Charlie — Charlie side-stepping the rush in toreador fashion. Then he would grasp the animal by the horns and pin it to the ground. This first sight of him did not impress me particularly. There were two things about him that did stamp him as being different: the smallness of his feet and his almost feminine hands. Generally, however, he was an unimpressive-looking person, although he looked much younger than his twenty-seven years.
Arriving at the studio the next morning, I had a conference with Jasper. On my way back to my office I heard a voice shouting, "He's here! He's here!" Everybody in sight stopped short in whatever they were doing — actors, carpenters, electricians, everybody! Then Chaplin came through the gate.
The whole performance struck me as ridiculous. I wondered vaguely why they didn't blow a bugle or fire a salute. (Subsequently I learned the announcer was Rollie Totheroh — one of his many unofficial jobs!)
The star arrived in a large expensive black sports car. Two men occupied the front seat. One was tall and thin. He alighted first. The other, the chauffeur, was a Japanese. The thin man scurried around the car and opened the door of the tonneau. Out stepped Chaplin, wearing a long black broadcloth overcoat with upturned collar of astrakhan. He was hatless. Slowly he strolled across the studio yard, Tall-and-Thin following.
Bewildered, I sought enlightenment.
"Miss Roberts," I ventured, "is this an everyday occurrence? All this ceremony when Mr. Chaplin arrives?"
"Yes indeed," replied the studio stenographer. "Rollie has to do it every day. Charlie loves it!"
It did not take me long at the Lone Star studio to get the impression that on this lot everything was done backward! And in one respect at least I found that this was true.
I asked several executives to enlighten me as to the story of The Immigrant. None of them could. Only one person knew the story. That person was Mr. Chaplin!
(I know now that even he hadn't the least idea what the story might turn out to be!)
The last thing to be done at the Lone Star studio was to write the story of the film — after the film was finished. And writing the story was one of my jobs.
That evening Mr. Chaplin summoned me to his dressing room. As I came in he was pulling the fake mustache from his lip. He greeted me with a smile and asked me a few questions about myself. Then he bundled an overcoat about him and pulled a cap down over his eyes.
"Guess I'll go to the club," he said. "Good night. See you tomorrow, Mr. Johnson."
"Robinson," I interjected.
"Oh — oh, yes. What's your first name?".
"They call me Carl."
"All right, I'll call you Carl. And you call me Charlie. Good night. See you tomorrow." And off he scampered.
In the succeeding sixteen years Chaplin seldom addressed me orally as either Carl or Robinson. Generally he called me Buddy.
I didn't fully appreciate the energy of the little man until the last scene of The Immigrant had been completed and the elimination of excess footage was begun.
The Immigrant had to be cut down to sixteen hundred feet of film. Forty thousand feet had been shot. For four days and nights, without rest or sleep, Chaplin milled in the film. When finally it had been cut his closest friend would not have recognized him. His beard had grown a good part of an inch. His hair was a matted mass. Collarless, haggard, and dirty. But his picture was finished!
Chaplin at this time was nearing the end of his contract with the Mutual Film Corporation. Every company in the industry was bidding for his services. Telegrams containing offer after offer whizzed across the United States, each succeeding one better than the others. He signed his name to a document that guaranteed him a million dollars for eight two-reel pictures to be completed within eighteen months. His last film for the Mutual People was The Adventurer.
He now chose a site for his very own film plant: a piece of ground on the outskirts of Hollywood, five acres in the midst of cornfields. The choice was really made by John Jasper, his astute manager. How good the Jasper judgment was has since become abundantly clear. For that acreage, which cost Chaplin $34,000, is today in the very heart of Hollywood, and only recently the comedian turned down an offer of $1,250,000 for it.
In his new venture Charlie retained Jasper as his manager. In his company of actors Edna Purviance continued as his leading woman. But Edna never had a written contract. Chaplin knew, so far as she was concerned, a contract was unnecessary. Flattering offers were made to her by other companies; she chose to remain with Charlie at $100 a week.
Eric Campbell, a towering Scot, continued on as the heavy. Albert Austin remained as one of the chief foils. And I stayed on as press agent.
Chaplin had moved out of his room in the Los Angeles Athletic Club to a house on a hill behind Hollywood. In this ten-room mansion he dwelt alone, his entourage including the valet and three Japanese servants — Kono, the chauffeur, and a cook and a butler.
Ensconced in his new home Charlie now embarked on his first social whirl. But he steered clear of film folk. Among his guests were Max Eastman, student of socialism, Claire Sheridan, sculptress, Dudley Field Malone, lawyer, Upton Sinclair, author. From his association with this group a new Chaplin began to emerge.
At this stage of his career there were no love affairs to cause Hollywood whispering. To see Charlie and Edna arm in arm had become a commonplace. Otherwise he evinced no interest in feminine companionship, preferring heavy reading. Politics and world affairs intrigued him.
Miss Sheridan's arrival in Hollywood, and her inclusion in the list of house guests at the Chaplin mansion, gave the Los Angeles newspapers a grand idea. They would start a romance. When the reporters swooped down upon Charlie he made the mistake of running away.
Of course they tracked him down. They found him enjoying the quiet and beauty of the countryside with Miss Sheridan and her son. This was quite enough for the reporters. That imaginary romance now burst forth!
One reporter, an old-time pal, came to see me for the low-down. After I had denied a dozen times that there was any romance, I became a little impatient.
"Good heavens," I finally said, "don't you realize Claire Sheridan is old enough to be Charlie's mother?"
Of course I didn't mean him to take it literally. It was a hasty exaggeration for emphasis, a phrase picked out of the air to scotch the idea that there might be a marriage. It was not said for publication, and it was most certainly not to be attributed to Chaplin.
But next morning this headline hit my eyes:
NO CHAPLIN-SHERIDAN MARRIAGE! COMEDIAN SAYS SCULPTRESS OLD ENOUGH
TO BE HIS MOTHER!
I knew that at that moment Chaplin was reading the story. That Miss Sheridan was reading it. And that they were together!The next thing I knew was that Miss Sheridan had quit the Chaplin home as a house guest and was domiciled in a hotel.
Then a roaring Chaplin thundered into the studio. Nothing I could say pacified him. For an hour he stormed. Then he allowed me to tell him the true story, and calmed down. Presently he was himself.
To this day I do not know whether I did break up a romance.
With the coming of 1917 and America's entrance into the World War thousands of letters began to pour into the studio, their indignant writers demanding that Chaplin lay aside his film work and take up arms as a soldier. His countrymen were the most insistent of these letter writers. But hundreds were from United States citizens.
It was clear that something must be done, and done quickly. Many of the letters contained definite threats.
First Chaplin underwent a private examination. His weight was one hundred and sixteen pounds — below the minimum so far as the United States draft law was concerned.Chaplin returned to his grease paint.
But now a powerful newspaper organization flayed him mercilessly. At last he approved a public statement beginning as follows:
Regardless of the passage of ... any bill which has to do with the drafting of men for military service, I can only state that my attitude would be the same as it was at the beginning of hostilities. And that is that I will willingly go when called.
In my present capacity in the motion-picture industry and also in private life I have always considered that I have been doing my "bit" despite the fact that I am not in the trenches with a gun on my shoulder.... Knowing myself as others do not, I am certain that until it is absolutely imperative that I join the ranks my efforts will serve the country in a more effective and valuable manner than if I was included among those now on the firing line.
What I have done, what I am doing, and what I want to do to prove my loyalty to the cause of Democracy has not and will not be publicly exploited.... I have not neglected my duty in any direction, whether it be for the Red Cross, Bond Issue, or any cause to defeat Prussianism, and I intend to continue. I am one of millions of individuals who are also ready to respond to the request of the government.
The statement was widely printed. The clamor subsided. But now Chaplin was determined to do everything possible to prove his patriotism. He started by making propaganda films. Then he accepted an invitation from the United States government to stimulate interest in the sale of bonds for the Third Liberty Loan. Mary Pickford was covering the Eastern states. Douglas Fairbanks was active in the Middle West. To Chaplin was assigned the territory of the Southern states. Off we went to Washington, where Charlie was received by President Wilson at the White House, and then launched his Liberty Loan drive from the steps of a near-by building before a crowd of 75,000 wildly enthusiastic Washingtonians.
Chaplin's physical courage and endurance were tested to the limit on that Liberty Loan tour.
Not one of the thousands of bond salesmen throughout the country created as big a demand as he did. Not that he was a good salesman. He was not. But he was a mighty magnet.
For the first week Charlie was thrilled. In the middle of the campaign, however, something happened. Perhaps the man was tired. At any rate he abruptly canceled the rest of his tour, returning to Hollywood.
Surely nobody today will question the statement that Chaplin did more for the Allied nations during the World War than he could possibly have done by enlisting. All of the hostile criticism of him was based on ignorance.
After our return to Hollywood I discovered that Charlie had derived practical good from the tour. His experiences had given him the germ of the idea of Shoulder Arms.
It was while making this film that Chaplin took his first dip in the sea of matrimony. Until then it had been generally supposed that if there were ever to be a Mrs. Charles Spencer Chaplin it would be Edna Purviance.
It is true Charlie had often spoken of his one and only love — Hetty Kelly, an English girl; the girl of his dreams during his music-hall days. He told me how he had wooed and hoped to win Hetty. Told me how, often in a secluded corner of a tea shop, over a lemonade, he had painted dream pictures of the love nest to be. How the bus rides were always too short as he poured into Hetty's ear the glories of their future together. How beneath the glow of a flickering gas lamp on a park bench in the East End he pressed his suit.
Eventually he formally proposed — and Hetty rejected him.
"It was a great blow," Charlie told me. "She did not take me seriously. There was nothing I could do. But I remember saying to her, 'You'll be sorry, Hetty; one day I may be famous."'
Not long after being flouted by her, Charlie went to America as a member of Fred Karno's repertoire company. It was a different Charlie who returned to London. Now he was well groomed. Gone were the patched trousers, the worn-down heels. How he thrilled in anticipation of that reunion with Hetty!
They met. But it was a different Hetty. She too had prospered. Wealth had come to her family.
Charlie found himself wondering which of them had become the more successful. Could he again ask her to be his wife? He didn't. He went his way and she went hers. She has since been laid to rest.
A startled world awakened one morning to learn that Charlie had married Mildred Harris, a girl in her teens.
There had been no courtship. To Hollywood Mildred had seemed to be just another girl. She had played bits and was being developed by Universal for better parts when she came under the gaze of Charlie. They had been seen together once or twice — at the theater, dancing afterward. Nobody gave it a moment of serious thought — not even Charlie's intimates or Mildred's closest friends.
Yet their marriage was an accomplished fact. Then began the wagging of many tongues. Predictions were in order. Most of them came true.
There was no home life for this couple. The novelty soon wore off. They had nothing in common.
Then a son was born to them. There was rejoicing. Then grief.
In a Hollywood cemetery there is a simple headstone inscribed, "The Little Mouse." It marks the final resting place of the first Chaplin heir. The infant had scarcely opened his eyes before they closed again forever.
Had this child lived Mildred and Charlie might still be together. As it was, the next step was the divorce court. Mildred's prayer for relief from the bonds of matrimony bristled with many charges against Charlie. He said nothing. Mildred accepted $300,000 as compensation for her brief experience as his wife.
Today Hollywood has forgotten her name.
I fancy Chaplin would have difficulty in placing her, were they to come face to face.
Those of us who thought we knew him were sure he had got the matrimonial bee out of his bonnet for all time. Then — another girl in her teens, trying to crash the gates of filmdom! Again the Chaplin eye was focused on alluring youthful femininity.
Yet Charlie showed symptoms of caution. At any rate something prevented his proposing to and marrying May Collins. He made it a point to be accompanied by a third person during the later stages of their romance.
It was not long after her departure for the East that, at supper in a Hollywood restaurant, he suddenly became dazzled by the smiles of a beautiful blonde. It was I who introduced them.
This beauty was not an unsophisticated girl. She was the mother of a young son. A divorcée. She had come to Hollywood for a film career, and under the capable tutelage of Lois Weber, one of filmdom's few successful women directors, she was being developed into star timber.
All she needed was publicity. And what could be lovelier than a romance with Charlie Chaplin?
One August evening newsboys startled the community yelling the news of the kidnaping of the blonde beauty! To quote from the police records:
At two o'clock in the afternoon a young woman arrived at the Hollywood Riding Academy. She parked her car at the curb and entered the establishment and hired a horse. [A description of her follows.] Ten minutes after engaging her horse she rode away. Three hours later the riderless horse returned to the academy. The doors of the car were locked. On the driving seat were a purse and three books. The owner was shown to be ...
Publication Date: August 19, 1933