Interview with Charlie Chaplin
Interview with Charlie Chaplin
Did you ever see a film with Charlie Chaplin as the appealing character he created – the 'Little Tramp’ – who wore too big baggy pants, too tight tattered coat, too small bowler hat and too large raggedy shoes?
Well, there I was at a Chaplin film festival watching The Kid – a silent film Charlie made in 1925. When the movie ended, a funny little fellow followed me out of the theater, furtively tapped me on the shoulder, and whispered: “Gotta minute, drbj?”
I turned and looked at him closely, my Mace at the ready and OMG, it was Charlie Chaplin himself – in the flesh (more or less). My supernatural interviewing skills had subconsciously summoned him.
me – Are you Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin?
Sir Charles – Who else would dress like this? And wear such a funny-looking mustache? But call me Charlie.
me – I have long wanted to interview you, Sir Charles … I mean, Charlie.
Charlie – I know. That’s why I’m here. I got your subliminal message and a mutual friend, Bruce Lee, told me to look you up. I would like to share with you the true story of my life and career.
me – Let’s go to the café up the street and I’ll buy you a coffee. I know you are not fond of alcohol.
Charlie – When you hear about my early life you will understand why.
me – I remember reading, Charlie, that you were born in 1889 in London, and that your mother was a singer and comedienne, and your father, an actor.
Charlie – My mother, Hannah Chaplin, sang and acted in music halls using the stage name, Lily Harley. My father, Charles Chaplin, Sr., was a vaudeville actor with a drinking problem.
Before I was three years old, my father left us because my mother fell in love with another actor and had a son with him. My mother continued singing on the stage to earn money for the three of us.
me – Three of you?
Charlie – I already had a half-brother, Sydney, four years older.
me – How did your stage career begin?
Charlie – My mother had to bring us with her to the music hall every night. Day-care had not been invented yet. In the middle of a performance in 1894, my mother suddenly lost her singing voice. The unforgiving audience immediately began throwing trash at her.
I was only five years old and so upset that I impulsively ran on to the stage and finished my mother’s song. The audience loved me but my mother was fired and that was the end of her stage career.
Clog dancing is a folk dance performed in many parts of the world. Dancers wear wooden clogs in order to make a stomping noise to emphasize their dance steps.
me – How did your mother continue to support you?
Charlie – She began sewing piecework and somehow we survived even though my father never paid one farthing (1/4 of a penny) for child support.
In 1896, we entered the Workhouse for the Poor. Later Sydney and I were sent to a School for Orphans and Destitute Children. My mother was admitted to an asylum since she was suffering from a psychosis caused by syphilis.
Eighteen months later, Sydney and I were sent to live with my father. He now had a common-law wife, Louise, who was also an alcoholic and unhappy about inheriting children.
When my father staggered home at night, he and Louise would fight because she had locked us out of the house. We often had to sleep outside and beg for food.
me –You were living the horrid life of Dickens’ Oliver Twist: ‘Please sir, I want some more.’
Charlie – You got that right. Hot porridge would have been a welcome change. But my father did get me into a clog-dancing troupe called 'The Eight Lancashire Lads' when I was 10 years old.
My clog-dancing career ended when I was diagnosed with asthma at the age of twelve. My father died of cirrhosis of the liver soon after. My brother found a job as a cabin boy and I worked odd jobs including barber’s helper, printer's assistant, and retail gopher.
me – Retail gopher?
Charlie – You know . . . gopher for this, gopher for that. (chuckles)
Charlie Chaplin DVDs
me – How did you get back on the stage?
Charlie – When I was 14, I got a small part in the play, Sherlock Holmes. When the show ended, I joined my brother, Sydney, who was working as a comedian in cheap-ticket music halls.
me – When did you start developing your own comedy character?
Charlie – I played a clumsy dolt of a plumber's assistant in a comedy called Repairs.
Recalling my mother’s pantomiming antics and my father’s drunken mishaps, I invented my own klutzy clowning technique - a sort of early Three Stooges role.
At eighteen, I was given the lead in a comedy for the Fred Karno Troupe. On opening night, stage fright suddenly struck. I completely lost my voice just as my mother had.
All the actors were taught all the character roles so my brother, Sydney, suggested that I play the part of a pantomime drunk. I played that drunk with such gusto that the audience loved me in the sketch, A Night in an English Music Hall.
Famous dinner rolls ballet from 'The Tramp' (1915)
Funny roller skating scene from 'Modern Times' (1936)
Coming to America
me – Where did the Karno Troupe appear in the U.S.?
Charlie – In 1910 we played Jersey City, Cleveland, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Butte, Billings and Denver - a true cross section of the American population. (laughs)
On my second tour of the U.S. in 1912, serendipity struck. Mack Sennett, the head of Keystone Studios, saw me perform as a funny drunk, and offered me a contract at $150 per week – a princely sum in those days. I joined him in Los Angeles when my contract with Karno ended in 1913.
me – Keystone Studios? Wasn't that the home of the Keystone Kops?
Charlie – Righto. Those short silent films with slapstick cops chasing slapstick criminals were very popular and very profitable. Unlike the written scripts in today’s movies, Sennett’s films had no script at all.
Instead, Sennett would start with an idea for the beginning of the film, and then just shout commands to the actors until it led to a chase scene. Remember – these were silent films – no sound was recorded during filming.
me – When did you first play the part of the Little Tramp?
Charlie – In my first short film, Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), “I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat – everything a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large.”
Voila! The Little Tramp was born!
me – I have always been curious, Charlie. Why did you add that strange little mustache?
Charlie – I thought it made me look a little older without disguising my facial emotions.
In my spare time, I practiced playing the violin, and read every book I could get my hands on. I had discovered a passion for self-education. Even without the advantages of today's Goggle and Bang, I became a walking encyclopedia.
me – Do you mean Google and Bing?
Charlie – Righto.
Charlie Chaplin was so popular in the 1920s and 30s that when his fans saw him, they struggled to be near him and tear at his clothing. And women constantly pursued him. He still despised alcohol, but he adored younger women.
'The Kid' (1921)
me – When did you become a director as well as actor?
Charlie – The directors I worked with did not appreciate my telling them how to do their jobs. (rolls eyes). So I asked Sennett if I could direct a picture. My timing was perfect since his distributors were clamoring for more hilarious Chaplin film shorts.
My first film as a director was Caught in the Rain (1914), a 16-minute short film with me playing a very tipsy hotel guest. Sennett was so impressed with my acting AND directing that he added a $25 bonus to my salary for each short I directed. With my new clout, I got Keystone to sign my brother as an actor, too.
me – How did you find new ideas for your films?
Charlie – “All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl.”
The Tramp (1915), my first full-length motion picture, was a gigantic hit. I made 35 films for Keystone before Essenay Studios offered me a higher salary.
I made 15 films there before going to Mutual where I made 12 films between 1916 and 1917, earning a hefty $10,000 a week plus bonuses which amounted to $670,000 that year. I was the highest paid entertainer in the world.
me – Why did you build your own motion picture studio?
Charlie – When I was 27, First National Pictures, Inc. signed one of the first million-dollar contracts in the history of Hollywood with me. But, they had no studio. So I built my own studio at Sunset Boulevard and La Brea in Hollywood. Sydney joined me as my financial adviser.
At Charlie Chaplin Studios, we created both shorts and feature-length movies including these favorites of mine: A Dog’s Life (1918), The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), and Limelight (1952).
In 1919, I co-founded the United Artists film distribution company with actors Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks and director D.W. Griffith so that we would have our own power over film distribution.
In 1921, I moved my mother from the asylum where she had been living to a house I bought for her in California where she was cared for until her death in 1928.
me – Tell me about wife number one.
Charlie – In 1918 when I was 29, I met 16-year-old Mildred Harris, a young ingenue, at a party. We dated for a few months and then Mildred told me she was pregnant. To avoid a scandal, I quietly married her. It turned out that she wasn't really pregnant.
Later, she did get pregnant but the baby died shortly after birth. When I asked her for a divorce offering a settlement of $100,000, she asked for $1,000,000. We were divorced in 1920 and I paid her $200,000.
me – And wife number two?
Charlie – In 1924, I met 16-year-old Lita Grey (I had her change her name from Lillita MacMurray) who was to be my leading lady in The Gold Rush. When she became pregnant, she was replaced in the film and became my second wife. We had two sons, Charlie, Jr. and Sydney.
We divorced in 1928. Her grounds - my adultery. I paid her $825,000. This ordeal turned my hair prematurely white at the age of 35.
me – And putative wife number three?
Charlie –My leading lady in Modern Times and The Great Dictator, was 22-year-old Paulette Goddard. We lived together between 1932 and 1940. When she didn’t get the part as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939), we thought it was because we were not legally married.
So we announced we had been secretly married in 1936. Before you ask, no, I don’t have the marriage certificate.
me – Moving on, next wife?
Charlie – I love younger women – much younger women – and had numerous affairs and some legal battles as a result. But I remained single until the age of 54. Then, in 1943 I married 18-year old Oona O’Neil, daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill.
We had eight children and I remained married to her for the rest of my life. BTW, (proudly) I was 73 when my last child was born.
The Red Scare (McCarthyism) was a period in the United States when accusations of communism, often without supporting evidence, led to blacklisting of many in the movie industry.
The Red Scare
me – Why did FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the House Un-American Activities Committee become suspicious of you during McCarthy's Red Scare?
Charlie – Although I had lived in the U.S. for several decades, I had never applied for U.S. citizenship. The Committee claimed that I was inserting communist propaganda into my films. I denied being a communist and argued that even though I never became a U.S. citizen, I had been paying U.S. taxes.
But it seems that my previous affairs, divorces, and appreciation of teenage girls didn’t help my case. I was labeled a communist.
In 1952, while abroad on a trip to Europe with Oona and the children, I was denied re-entry into the U.S. So my family and I eventually settled in Switzerland. I saw the entire ordeal as political persecution and satirized my experiences in my European-made film, A King in New York (1957).
Chaplin receiving honorary Oscar (1972)
One particular song, ‘Smile,’ which was the theme song Chaplin wrote for Modern Times, became a hit on the Billboard charts in 1954 when lyrics were written for it and sung by Nat King Cole. Here is Barbra Streisand's version as she sang it on Oprah Winfrey's television show in 2003.
Smile by Barbra Streisand (2003)
Return to the U.S.
me – You returned to the U.S. in 1972 to receive an Academy Award. What was the award for?
Charlie – This Academy Award was given to me, and I quote: ‘for his incalculable effect in making motion pictures the art form of the century.’
I was 82 years old at the time and could barely speak while receiving the longest standing ovation in Oscar history – a full five minutes.
I died of natural causes in 1977 when I was 88 at my home in Vevey, Switzerland, surrounded by my family. I was buried in Corsier-Sur-Vevey Cemetery, Switzerland.
me – What’s that story about your body being held for ransom?
Charlie – It's true! Two months after I died, two local auto mechanics dug up my coffin, reburied it in a secret location, and telephoned my widow that they were holding it for ransom. The police traced the men when they made calls to her.
The men were charged with attempted extortion and disturbing the peace of the dead – now, that’s funny! The coffin was dug up from a field, about a mile away from my home, and then cemented back in its original grave site.
Have to run now. I’m late for a meeting with Lucille Ball. We get together each year to compare our pantomime techniques. Ta, ta.
me – Thank you, Charlie, for the interview and all the laughter you have provided. You were indeed a genuine Renaissance Man of the silent film era – an actor, a director, a writer and a music composer. Ta, ta.
Although Chaplin made Limelight in 1952, before he was denied U.S. re-entry, his music for the film won him an Oscar in 1973 when the movie was finally played in a Los Angeles theater.
In 1975, Chaplin became Sir Charlie Chaplin when knighted by the Queen of England for his services to entertainment.
© Copyright BJ Rakow, Ph.D. 2013, 2014. All rights reserved. Author, "Much of What You Know about Job Search Just Ain't So." Learn to write a dynamic resume and cover letter, network effectively, interview confidently, and negotiate salary.
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