Some day Charlie Chaplin is going to show the world a drama of serious acting.1 The conventional joke to follow this suggestion is the query, “Is he going to play Hamlet?”2 The answer is, “Nix, brother, he is not—not so anybody notices it—but howsumever, when he does get around to a production of anything approximating the sadness of the Hamlet play and a grave digger digging a grave and telling the spectators it is a grave matter—holding up the skull of a man and commenting on the jests that once fell from the lips—when Charlie Chaplin gets around to anything like that in seriousness—it will be a drama with clutches and high speed.”
For Charlie, I found on visiting him in his unprofessional and confidential moods, is an artist of beautiful and gentle seriousness. Away back under all the horseplay—the east-and-west feet, the cane, the derby and the dinky mustache—is a large heart and a contemplative mind. He knows what he is doing nearly every minute.
Sometimes he refers to the time when he will put before the world a Chaplin film play without the east-and-west feet, the cane, the derby, the dinky mustache. Those who have seen him in his quiet, serious moods understand well that it will be a drama with punch, drive and terrible brooding pauses of high moments.
I have seen four or five renowned actors (most of them admit they are renowned) play Hamlet, but I have not seen any player better cast for the high and low spots of the life of the Prince of Denmark than this lithe mocker of a little mummer out at Hollywood, making farces for the world to laugh at.
Not often is the child joy and play heart of the world to be found in a man shrewd and aware of the hungers and dusts of its big streets and back alleys. Yet Chaplin in his gay moods—and his commonest mood is gaiety—is the universal child. I have heard children 4 or 5 years old bubble and ripple with laughter in the course of a Chaplin film. They answer to the child in him. The Kid is a masterpiece of expression of love for the child heart—love and understanding.
There is pathos about the rain-beaten, dusty walls of the city street where the scenes of The Kid were filmed. The walls are still standing about the center of the studio lot. And the thought comes to a looker-on, “These are unique walls, different from stage play scenery or exposition art works or any similarly transient creation. These walls and paving stones have already been seen by millions of people and will in future years be known to millions more who shall see The Kid.”
The home of Chaplin is on a mountain side overlooking Hollywood and Los Angeles. In a night of blue air the city of Los Angeles is indicated by lights that resemble a valley of fireflies. Charades is a favorite game when there is company at the house. After the Japanese cook and waiters have served “everything there is,” the guests go in for pantomimes, sketches, travesties, what they will.
Charlie was paired with a young woman who has done remarkable work in art photography “stills.” All lights went out both in the drawing room where the spectators sat and in the dining room which was the improvised stage.
A door opened. Here was Charlie in a gray shirt, candle in his right hand, lighting his face and throwing shadows about the room. He stepped to a table with a white sheet over it. He drew back the sheet. A woman’s head of hair, then a woman’s face, appeared. He slipped his hand down under the sheet and drew out his fingers full of the pearls of a necklace. He dropped the necklace into his pocket, covered the face and head, picked up the candle and started for the door.
Then came a knocking, louder, lower, a knocking in about the timebeat of the human heartbeat. The man in the gray shirt set down the candle, leaped toward the white sheet, threw back the white sheet, put his fingers at the throat and executed three slow, fierce motions of strangling. Then he started for the door. Again the knocking. Again back, and a repetition of the strangüng.
The third time there was no more knocking heard, no more timebeats in the time of the human heartbeat. He paused at the door, listening. He stepped out. The door closed. All was dark.
The guests were glad the lights were thrown on, glad to give their applause to the mocking, smiling, friendly host.
At the dinner Charlie mentioned how he once was riding with Douglas Fairbanks in a cab past some crowded street corner. And one of them said in a voice the passing crowds could not hear: “Ah, you do not know who is passing: it is the marvelous urchin, the little genius of the screen.”
The ineffable mockery that Charlie Chaplin can throw into this little sentence is worth hearing. He holds clues to the wisdom and humility of his ways.
Every once in a while, at some proper moment, he would ejaculate, “the marvelous urchin, the little genius of the screen,” with an up-and-down slide of the voice on the words, “little genius” and “marvelous urchin.”
Fame and pride play tricks with men. Charlie Chaplin is one not caught in the webs and the miasma.
Originally published in The Daily News (Chicago), April 16, 1921, p. 13. Reprinted by permission of The Chicago Daily News.
1.Sandburg’s comments anticipate A Woman of Paris (1923) which Chaplin wrote and directed, but in which he did not act.
2.See Shaw’s Preface to Ellen Terry and Bernard Shaw: A Correspondence (1931) in which GBS says that Charlie Chaplin is the only performer who reminds him of the great Shakespearean actor, Sir Henry Irving.