Charlie Chaplin – 1919 interview – originally published December 2, 1919, by Ray W. Frohman in the Los Angeles Herald
(When Charlie Chaplin, creator of ludicrous film divertissements that assuage the cares of a trouble world, was treated to a “pre-view” of Ray W. Frohman’s interview with him for The Evening Herald–the first authentic interview Chaplin has granted for over two years, and the first dialogue between Chaplin and Doug Fairbanks ever recorded–Chaplin, the laughmaker, LAUGHED and said:
“This is the first artistic interview I’ve ever had.
“It is one of the very few articles ever written about me that really reveal me to the public.”
Blushing over the praise of himself he had read, the comedian added that “perhaps the writer was a little too sympathetic!”
If the KIDS could vote, Charlie Chaplin would be our next PRESIDENT!
And if it’s true, as Doug Fairbanks told Charlie in my presence, that in Sweden and Denmark, too, they consider Charlie in a class by himself, he may yet be King of Scandinavia!
In fact, when the League of Nations gets to working and the Brotherhood of Man is a reality, my guess is that it’s the internationally popular Charles Spencer Chaplin who’ll be the first President of the World–in spite of his feet.
Even at RIVAL studios, publicity men paid to lie for Charlie’s competitors–if he can be said to have any–say freely, “Nobody’s ever had the vogue that Chaplin has.”
The peerless Douglas Fairbanks himself says:
“There is only ONE king in pictures–Chaplin; and only ONE queen–Mary Pickford. The rest of us must be content to be pretty good and compete with EACH OTHER!”
No wonder my kneecaps vibrated as I chatted over an hour with Charlie Chaplin–and Doug Fairbanks, too, at the same time–out in darkest Hollywood.
There we were, all in the same small room for one admission: Charlie and Doug and I–the king of comedy, the nonpareil light comedian, and a dictographic nonentity–talking our heads off, or, rather, talking Charlie’s head off!
Everybody knows Charlie joined Essanay in 1915, knows about his million- dollar contract with First National, and that he’s now “on his own” and one of “The Big Four.” Everybody’s seen every Chaplin comedy from “The Bank,” “A Night Out,” “A Woman,” “His New Job” and “Police” up through “A Dog’s Life,” “Shoulder Arms” and “Sunnyside.”
In fact, since they say “Chaplin doesn’t work” and call his producing concern out on La Brea “the century plant,” we’ve all been content to go to see him, and him alone, over and over again in the same films!
So I didn’t hash over with Charlie the well known facts of his pictorial biography.
Doug and Charlie, with an occasional interpolation from me, talked and talked of Charlie’s views on art and books and plays, on beautiful women and sunsets, on the Grand Canyon and whether or not a desert is beautiful, and everything else from cabbages to kings, from “Hamlet” to Doug’s new funny overcoat; and on Charlie’s professional methods and unprofessional soul–for he has one–and what he says he’s trying to do to pictures and is doing and is going to do.
And Eureka! Now I can tell the world for the first time WHY Doug smiles and smiles and smiles that famous smile of his!
It’s BECAUSE HE HAS PRIVATE “PREVIEWS” OF UNRELEASED IMPROMPTU CHAPLIN COMEDIES, every time he and his friend get together.
For Charlie, I think most of us agree, on the screen is “the funniest man in the world.”
And at times during our chat he was twice as funny as that!
And Doug–when he’s “kidding” and playfully baiting Charlie and leading him on conversationally, or waxing Rabelaisian, or mimicking a noted English author for Charlie and then registering a lobe-to-lobe grin–is funnier than Charlie!
And I might have been funny myself, for I was weak and helpless from laughter!
Through the flimsy cheesecloth curtain of a window I saw for the first time–and recognized–the little smooth-shaven face of the off-screen Chaplin. It was thrust forward in a sort of cataleptic grin toward Doug, who was uttering one of his introductory “Do you know, Charlie’s” in the deadly- serious resonant tones that he affects toward his little friend.
“Hah!” quoth I to myself, waxing Shakespearian, “I have thee on the hip”- -and I was upon them.
It was the REAL Charlie Chaplin.
I do not mean the Chaplin you see on the screen, the last of the royal jesters, with all of us as his patrons, the beloved vagabond, who has been paid the sincerest flattery, that of imitation, by more people than any other man who ever lived–by little kids all over the globe, by folks at masquerades, by “would-bes” on “amateur nights,” by “rival” screen “comedians,” both Caucasian and Oriental.
That Charlie, with his most active flexible cane and his dogs, his oddest derby constantly being tipped to cops–until the psychological moment arrives–and to fair women, his trick moustache and his loose-fitting shapeless trousers, and the biggest feet in Filmland as well–that Charlie every man, woman and child under the stars knows.
He has probably been kicked and shot in the pants–on the screen–more than any other living man.
The camaraderie this humblest screen character displays toward policemen and burglars, until the moment arrives for him to destroy them–for he can pick up his feet quicker than any man in Shadowland–is world famous. A captivating smile, an artless blush–and then an agile hoof–is the way Chaplin on the silver sheet, broke in a saloon or restaurant, handles striking policemen before they strike.
And you are aware how chivalrous he is toward the fair sex; how his matchlike–not matchless–figure, and his inimitable–not immaculate–garb have captivated many a beautiful heroine.
He can get more fun out of stepping in a waste basket–but what’s the use? You know him.
Let it suffice to say that Chaplin’s smirks, shrugs and sucking together of his cheeks, his characteristic Chaplinesque gestures, his personal accoutrements and mannerisms are the most individual, distinctive on the shadow screen.
But those, as Doug opined to Charlie and me, are merely “the externals, the trappings” of his screen art.
“Our most subtle comedian,” he has been called by the critic of an eastern magazine, the veteran of a million reviews.
“Vulgar,” say some folks who have seen Charlie spout food on the screen amidst the medley of mock romance, mock tragedy, mock adoration, mock courtesy that he “spills” in the comedies he ORIGINATES.
But no “highbrown” has ever been able to sit through a Chaplin comedy without bursting involuntarily into spontaneous “Hah hahs!” right out loud; and cultured, intellectual college professors–wasn’t Professor Stockton Axson, brother-in-law of President Wilson, one of them!–have publicly proclaimed him an ARTIST.
However, the Chaplin I talked with, as I said, was not the screen Chaplin.
Neither was he the make-believe-real Chaplin who USED to talk to interviewers before he made all the money he wants and decided that he didn’t need any publicity. That Chaplin, I have one of his intimates’ word for it, used to turn on the phonograph in his room and chat engagingly, ALWAYS CAMOUFLAGING HIS REAL SELF.
The Charlie Chaplin who talked to me is the real, honest-to-goodness, personal, unprofessional, actual Charlie Chaplin, I give you my word for it. He was as artless, as “off his guard” as a three years’ child who doesn’t know the camera’s there when you snapshot him.
Charlie, you know, when it comes to being interviewed–which he hasn’t permitted for YEARS–is what Fielding’s eighteenth century bailiffs would have called “a shy cock.”
When famous newspapermen representing papers from all over the country with President Wilson’s party called on him. Charlie stuck his head in the door, took one look, said he “had to have some air,” and “ditched” them all– went out for an auto ride!
When his own casting director, Edward Biby pleaded with him for an HOUR A MONTH for nation-wide magazine interviews, saying it would be worth a million dollars to Chaplin, Charlie merely waved a hand airily and said: “Oh, no, that’s all right, that’s all right!”
But I found him a delightfully interesting conversationalist, a sensitive little aesthete who’s well-read and well versed in art, a cultured little chap with artistic sensibilities, a rather deep thinker–though I won’t vouch for the soundness of his theories–and withal a somewhat shifty or shifting one.
Where the “shifts” came in, the mental sidestepping from one “highbrow” subject to another or from high to low, the “sacheting” to use a dancing term, of the gray matter in instinctive–and courteous–reaction to the conversation of others, were with Doug Fairbanks.
For when talking with Charlie, the jovial “Smiling Doug” Fairbanks is not merely magnetic–he is HYPNOTIC! He holds his friend Charlie in the hollow of his hand.
“I’ve been dreaming of London,” mused Charlie, who was born near there only 31 short years ago and was in vaudeville there–for he became identified with the theater when he was seven years old. “I tried to show it to someone, but there was always fog or night or something–I couldn’t show its beauties. But I would say ‘WAIT–you’ll see it.'”
Charlie said he hasn’t been back in dear old Lunnon since he attracted favorable notice in “A Night in an English Music Hall,” as the lead in which he came to the United States before he made his picture debut, some years ago.
But, pause! I didn’t tell you how the real Charlie looks!
He’s a slender sapling, this artist in the neat gray-checkered suit and black knitted tie and yellow-tinted pleated shirt who lolled in a Morris chair chatting so naturally and vivaciously. He has curly black hair with touches of gray–a young man’s gray–at the temples, and vivid blue eyes, and sensitive features like the person of high-strung temperament that he is.
When he shows his perfect teeth in a grin–a charmed, fascinated, hypnotized grin–at his master, Doug, he has Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat “backed off the boards.”
At times when his eyes shine and his face glows as he gets talking of his professional or aesthetic enthusiasms, Charlie becomes almost beautiful.
And when he gets really “worked up,” his disreputable LITTLE black shoes with they grayish tops twist, and his supple figure writhes, as his right hand helps him to express himself by graceful, powerful gestures.
“I became a star when I’d been at Keystone SIX MONTHS,” said Charlie in response to my question. “I was there about a year. No, that’s not the world’s record–with some people it takes only one picture. Look at the way Betty Compson’s salary jumped after her work in ‘The Miracle Man.’
“Did I have ‘awful struggles,’ or fights with bosses to MAKE them star me? My struggles were over before I went into pictures.”
“After one picture the public fell on its face and worshipped him,” said Doug. “I’m an admirer of yours, Charlie, even if you are a friend. And when I see you on the screen there’s something goes from you to me, I feel an interchange.
“It isn’t what he DOES, or even how he does it, that makes you laugh,” “enthused” Doug to me. “When you watch his pictures it’s the human dynamo WITHIN that you see. And evidently what he’s giving us is what the public wants.”
“What I put into my pictures is what I WANT to do,” supplemented Charlie.
“Before I went into pictures, I felt repressed, I wasn’t in my proper sphere. Now for the first time I’m doing what I want to do.
“I get a feeling, from a play or somewhere, and then THINK OUT WHAT I WANT TO DO.”
Sometimes, say folks at his studio, where his own people never dare disturb him when he’s “on the set” or on the job mentally, Charlie sits for as long as eight hours in solitude thinking up something the world–for his audiences are numbered by the hundred million–hasn’t laughed at!
“I got a feeling from reading Thomas Burke’s ‘Limehouse Nights,'” continued Charlie, “and the result was ‘A Dog’s Life‘–working it right out, going through natural experiences and having the consequent reactions. It is a translation, though not in Burke’s language or style, of course.
“There is beauty in the slums!–for those who can see it despite the dirt and sordidness. There are people reacting toward one another there– there is LIFE, and that’s the whole thing!
“Look at Rabelais. Vileness? That’s only his SUBJECTS, BUT–!
“Writers have no STANDARDS of beauty. What IS beauty? It is indefinable!
“Beauty is all WITHIN,” continued Charlie after Doug quoted “Hamlet” by the yard. “I DON’T THINK ANYONE HAS EVER PAINTED A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN!”
“Artists today put on the canvas a ‘Follies’ type–which people call beautiful. That sort of beauty is merely external. Look at the old masters, such as Van Dyke, and you see old women with their faces screwed up with wrinkles. It’s the beauty that’s WITHIN that counts.”
When Doug called him an admirer of Basil King’s novels, Charlie did not dissent; and when Mark Twain was mentioned Charlie said: “Ah, now you’re getting me back on my favorite topic.
“I’ve been reading Waldo Frank’s book of essays, ‘Our America,'” continued Charlie. “He is DEEP! You think when you start out it’s the ordinary fervor, but when you get into it–! And I caught something of myself in what he wrote about me.”
“Me, too,” said Charlie, showing his dimples in a smile of assent, when Doug remarked that he thinks the mouth is the most expressive feature–though Charlie said he’s seen some women with small mouths who were uglier than other women with large mouths.
When Doug said to him: “You are not responsible for what you are able to do,” meaning that Charlie’s ability to produce mirth-provoking comedy is God-given, Charlie modestly remained silent, making a gesture of instant, impersonal agreement.
Dimpling, he admitted that he “hates it more than anything else when they call me sentimental.” Whether he meant in real life or reel life will ever remain an unsolved mystery.
We talked of sciences. “A scientist must be a lover of life,” said Charlie.
Do you know that Chaplin has none of his excruciatingly funny stunts worked out on paper in advance, nor even the plot of his comedies prepared in “script”? He admitted it.
“He takes an idea, a theme, and works it out by himself as he goes along,” said his admirer, Doug, to his face, uncontradicted. “He’s a remnant of an aristocrat going through all those adventures. Reel after reel WITHOUT SUBTITLES–ACTION!”
“You are more HEART,” returned Charlie, regarding Doug’s screen work.
And then Charlie sprung NEWS of a new departure in Chaplin comedies! Said he:
“In the one I’m making now there’s a whole reel of drama before I appear. I’ve got pathos, human interest, tragedy, humor–we’ve had that before–EVERYTHING in it! Yet it is all pertinent, constructive of the plot. It’s a comedy DRAMA. That’s what I’m going to do from now on.
“Edna (Edna Purviance, his leading lady) is an OPERA SINGER in this one! I didn’t have her commit suicide.”
It was a soul-wrenching effort NOT to call him “Charlie” but–
“Mister Chaplin,” I asked, “isn’t it a terrific constraint for a sensitive man of artistic sensibilities and tastes like you to play a vagabond, a TRAMP?”
At that, Doug Fairbanks exploded:
“Why, he’s naturally a BUM!” said Doug, uncontradicted by the smiling Charlie. “When he has a clean collar on it’s Tom Harrington (Charlie’s secretary) who’s responsible!”
Entirely aside from his alleged bumminess, “Spencer,” as Doug called him once, fervently declared that he LIKES the smell of idoform–“the hospital smell,” as it is popularly known.
He averred that the reason why people aren’t particularly fond of the fragrance of the skunk is simply because their ancestors for generations haven’t liked skunks, and they think of the odor that’s going to get on them.
“You,” he added, turning to Doug, “are particularly sensitive of odors.”
But we were getting quite Rabelaisian, weren’t we! Perhaps I’d better tell you at once that Charlie also talked familiarly of Bill Sikes and Nancy, and thinks that “Los Angeles will eventually be a great artistic center.”
And ONCE Charlie’s eyes blurred.
There were tears in them.
The face of the man who, say some who know him, works not for money but as a creative artist, and plans to retire from money-making screen work in about five years, trembled with silent emotion–whether modest shame or gratefulness, I know not.
It was when Doug quoted someone as saying that people regard Charlie as the one and ONLY, “than whom” there is no one like.
Something about that tribute touched the droll comedian’s heart.
PRAISE OF CHAPLIN MADE CHARLIE WEEP!
Charlie Chaplin became, for that moment, a TRAGEDIAN!