Right upfront, I have to confess to being a silent film fanatic. I adore early films. I’m not referring to what many people of my generation got all too used to seeing – action too fast, bad acting, terrible print quality. I’m referring to the films that today we recognize as masterpieces of the time. Today we understand that they run at a different frame rate. We’ve got good clean prints. And we know that many outstanding actors were beginning to explore and exploit acting techniques to work for the camera, rather than the stage. Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton (my all-time favorite), Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks…. The list goes on.
And then of course, there’s Chaplin.
Charlie was hugely popular in his early career, making a fortune from his Little Tramp movies, such as Gold Rush, The Circus, and City Lights. However, in the 1940s his career went downhill after a paternity suit, a couple of movies that were considered “progressive and amoral,” and government accusations of being a Communist. Finally, the Truman administration waited until he had gone abroad for a vacation, and then filed charges (sound familiar, Roman Polanski?). Charlie was never able to reenter the U.S.
Did he deserve all this? Frankly, no. But Charlie was never exactly Mr. Tact – he had offended a lot of people and it came back to bite him. But he was also brilliant in front of the camera and is still the single most recognizable actor and director of the silent era.
Chester Conklin, in the Kevin Brownlow book, The Parade’s Gone By, described the initial creation of the Little Tramp: “I remember one rainy morning, Roscoe Arbuckle, Ford Sterling, and myself were sitting in the dressing room playing pinochle. Charlie wanted in and went up to the make-up bench… he held up various pieces of crepe hair under his nose…. Finally, he found a piece that he liked, stuck it on with spirit gum, went over and got Roscoe Arbuckle’s hat and his pants, my [cutaway] coat…. He took his own cane and went out … into the lobby and started clowning around doing the drunk act he’d done on vaudeville. He’d get his foot stuck in the cuspidor and couldn’t get it out – all that kind of thing.
“Everyone had gathered around and was laughing. [Keystone Director Mack] Sennett stood back of the crowd and watched. Finally he went up to Charlie and said ‘Listen, do what you’ve been doing when we shoot this picture with Mabel and Chester.’ Of course, it wound up that he stole the picture from us.”
I found myself thinking of all this as I looked at a lithograph I just put up for sale on my shop, CollectibleCool. It’s a single page by caricaturist Henry Major, and appeared in a limited edition book of 800 called Hollywood in 1938.
Out of all the images in this book, Major chose to show Charlie in three different aspects: As the Little Tramp twice, and as a wild-haired character who looks more like the role he played in Limelight much later. Was Major trying to convey some of Charlie’s complexity with these sketches? It’s as though he was having a hard time deciding who Charlie was.