24th March 2009, Art Workers Guild, London
THIS EVENT HAS TAKEN PLACE
NOTE: This was an illustrated talk with many images but references to them are only given where necessary to make the text comprehensible
For many more years than I like to count, I have been puzzling over the ultimate enigma of Charles Chaplin.
How did the phenomenon arise?
A boy who spent his first years in the direst poverty in the meanest streets of Victorian London, without education, was able to transform himself, at the age of 25, into an iconic figure - a fictitious character, brought to life on the screen, who within a year or so became universally known, recognised, loved.
And today, almost a century later, and more than 70 years since that character was last seen on the screen, he is still recognised everywhere in the world.
It is a story not just of rags to riches, but from the darkest obscurity to unparalleled fame.
So how could this come about?
Over the years I have come up with my own very simplistic and simplified attempt to explain the phenomenon. I believe the answer lies in the special and finally very symmetrical plan which his life took, without any prior determination, in its first 25 years.
Now I imagine I do not have to remind you of the general biographical details of our subject, which are very widely known. Just briefly:
He was born on 16 April 1889 to a young couple - father 26, mother 24 - who were music hall singers. Before he was three years old, his parents had separated. He was to see his father die of the endemic disease of the halls - alcoholism - at only 37 years old. Charlie and his stepbrother Sydney, born to Mrs Chaplin before she met Charles Chaplin senior were mostly brought up by their mother, except for long periods which they spent in homes for destitute children.
[Showing photograph] This is one of them, the Hanwell Schools, where Charlie spent most of his seventh and eighth years.
They rarely had enough money even for food; and before he was ten years old, Charlie was to witness his mother losing her mental faculties, the result of secondary syphilis. At the same time he saw his maternal grandmother lose her mental faculties, and suffer incarceration, as a result of alcoholism.
Thus by the time he was ten, he had encountered a range of experiences greater than most of us know in long life-times. He had known abject poverty and hunger, and the loneliness and deprivation of life in workhouses and children's homes. He had witnessed at close quarters alcoholism, madness and death. For much of the time he survived only by his own initiative and wit.
It was a life which would simply have killed many ordinary children. But this child was not ordinary. He had a strength and resilience which now appear phenomenal. And also, I believe, a strange facility to absorb and retain all this exceptional and often horrible life experience.
And then at ten years old, his life changed. He went to work. And his work, like his parents', and thanks to his father's connections, was in the music hall. He was engaged to dance and sing with a juvenile act called 'The Eight Lancashire Lads.'
The act had been established by a gentleman called John William Jackson and consisted of eight little boys - though at least one of them is said to have been a girl, one of Mr Jackson's own offspring, with her hair cut short. They were very smart, in Eton suits and collars, and specialised in clog dancing. Mr Jackson boasted that the lads were so healthy and bronzed that they never wore makeup, though if one of them looked a little pale and peeky, he had a nasty habit of pinching their cheeks until they turned suitably rosy. Chaplin stayed with the act for more than two years.
After this there followed two and a half years in which he lived from hand to mouth once more; but in July 1903, at the age of 14, he landed a job in the legitimate theatre, and therafter remained in fairly constant employment for the next decade, until he was recruited to films and Hollywood by Mack Sennett and the Keystone Comedy Company.
So - to resume my very simplistic explanation of the phenomenon that is Charlie Chaplin - having spent the first decade of his life absorbing a particularly tough and bitter experience of life, as a child of the poorest areas of London, he spent the next fifteen years discovering his expressive means - learning the art and the craft of the theatre.
And finally, when he came to the film, he succeeded in a unique and remarkable way in combining these two factors - the exceptional depth of experience, and a medium, a gift and an education which enabled him to give expression to that experience and the concomitant emotions. He became, in fact, a great actor, and one who had more to tell and more to reveal of life through his gifts than most.
Just a small aside, as I have taken the liberty of calling him "a great actor." For several decades, uniquely in Britain, his native country, it was fashionable for critics and academics to devalue Chaplin, to dismiss him for his easy sentimentality and his primitive film-making. A case, I suppose, of a prophet in his own land. I am very happy to have witnessed over the past decade a complete about-turn in this respect. There is a renewed industry of books about Chaplin, and I was delighted to see last week in The Guardian this passage in a review by Peter Conrad of one of these:
He recalls that the American critic James Agee called Chaplin's playing in the final moments of his 1931 film City Lights, 'the greatest piece of acting in movies.' 'Having flicked through my mental files', says Conrad, 'I could produce no evidence to refute the claim.'
What I would like to do tonight is to survey Chaplin's theatrical experience, to show that it added up to very much more than the usual year-on-year slog of the touring actor or music hall comic. Purely by accident, Chaplin landed a series of jobs which, added together, formed a quite remarkable theatrical education. At the very moment when he was touring in the play Sherlock Holmes, as Billy the Page Boy, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art was established - but I very much doubt that even that august establishment could have given him a finer training than he acquired on the road.
So let us go back a little. Was it in his genes? His parents were both stage artists, but themselves had no theatrical background. His father's family were mostly butchers or publicans; while his mother's father was a modest shoe-maker. What took them into the theatre? In the 1880s, the music halls were at their height. In London there were 36 theatres, and 234 in the rest of the British isles, bills to be filled every week. So in just the same way as teenagers in the 60s aspired to be pop singers, Victorian youngsters with looks and a little talent were lured by the idea of becoming music hall stars.
Chaplin's mother was the first to go on the stage at the age of 19. His father did not make his debut until after their marriage, at the age of 24. Charles Senior was a minor star, singing songs mostly in the character of a masher, a man about town, or a questionable husband.
He was good enough to have his pictures on the covers of the song sheets; and in 1892 when Charlie was two or three, he made an American vaudeville tour, which had unfortunate consequences, since during his long absence, Mrs Chaplin embarked on an affair with a bigger star, Leo Dryden, as a result of which Charles Senior abandoned his family on his return to London. Chaplin seems hardly to have seen his father on stage.
His mother's career was less successful and had virtually ended by the time Charlie was born. Yet he speaks with enormous admiration of her gifts as a performer and as a mimic, and throughout his life said that he learned much from her. He also related that his own first appearance on stage was at the age of five , when he stood in for her one night at the Aldershot Canteen Theatre. According to his account, her voice went, and the manager pushed on the five-year-old who delighted the audience with a rendering of Gus Elen's "'E Don't Know Where 'E Are".
So from his first years, the theatre was a natural element of his world. Even when Mrs Chaplin was isolated in a mental hospital, she still asked her sons to send her The Era every week. And Charles Chaplin Senior took sufficient interest in his son to arrange the job we have already mentioned, with Mr Jackson's Eight Lancashire Lads.
In terms of pure technique he can have learned little from the Lads beside a few clog dances and how to stay neat and clean. Yet these two years in the music halls at the close of the 19th century must have been an exceptional initiation into the theatre.
Even to a ten-year-old in a troupe of clog dancers, the music halls of those times provided an incomparable schooling in method, technique and discipline. A music hall act had to seize and hold its audience and to make its mark within a very limited time - between six and sixteen minutes. The audience was not indulgent, and the competition was relentless. The performer in the music hall could not rely on a sympathetic context or build-up: Sarah Bernhardt might find herself following Lockhart's Elephants on the bill. So every performer had to learn the secrets of attack and structure, the need to give the act a crescendo - a beginning, a middle and a smashing exit - to grab the applause. He had to learn to command every sort of audience, from a lethargic Monday first-house to the Saturday rowdies.
The best of music hall was invariably rooted in character. There were the eccentrics, such as Nellie Wallace or W. C. Fields who always presented the same well-loved character; or there were the singers like Marie Lloyd, Albert Chevalier, George Robey or Charles Chaplin Senior himself, who would create an entire and individual character within each song. Hetty King, who was beginning her career at this time, was to bill her act as 'Song Characters True to Life'. The 'true to life' was important. The audience was keenly alive to falsehood, and comedy had to observe its own laws of dramatic and psychological truth.
Although the Lancashire Lads was just a speciality act, they got good bookings with the big circuits, and played some of the great London halls. At the Oxford they were on the same bill as Dan Leno. Charlie regretted that when he watched him he was already in his final years of sickness and decline. He saw Marie Lloyd, and was struck by how serious she was in her work. And it was with the Lancashire Lads that he made what was to be his most important discovery - COMEDY.
He told his son many years later:
'Even when I was in the orphanage, when I was roaming the streets trying to find enough to eat to keep alive, even then I thought of myself as the greatest actor in the world. I had to feel that exuberance that comes from utter confidence in yourself. Without that you go down to defeat.'
But at this stage he though of acting as a very solemn job. While he was with the Lancashire Lads he persuaded Mr Jackson to let him put on an old man's wig and impersonate Bransby William's reading of Grandfather from The Old Curiosity Shop. With his piping voice, it was a disaster, and was his first and last appearance in tragedy.
The discovery of comedy came when the Lancashire Lads landed an engagement in a pantomime spectacle, CINDERELLA, which provided the second half of the bill at London's new theatrical marvel, Frank Matcham's Hippodrom, opened in January 1900 by Sir Edward Moss. The centrepiece of this palace of marble, mosaic, gilt and terracotta was the great arena, which could be flooded with 100,000 gallons of water, or converted within sixty seconds to a dry performing space by raising up platforms which lay at the bottom of the artificial lake.
Cinderella, which was produced by Frank Parker ran from Christmas Eve 1900 until 13 April 1901. It was in five scenes and an aquatic display; and the setting for the ball was so elaborate that even with the Hippodrome's stage machinery it required a pause of several minutes. The Lancashire Lads provided a little pack of cats and dogs to figure in the scene 'The Baron's Kitchen'.
Buttons was played by the Spanish-born clown Marceline (1873-1927), who was to remain a favourite on Hippodrome bills for some four years, at first billed as 'Continental Auguste' and later as 'The Droll'. This young artist made a deep impression on the 11-year-old Chaplin, as he describes in his autobiography; and it seems a reasonable speculation that professional contact and close observation of Marceline's work was formative to his own subsequent conceptions of comedy.
There is a distinctly 'Chaplinesque' quality in the bright-eyed little face that stares - sometimes soulfully quizzical, sometimes demonic - out of the few surviving photographs.
Marceline's hair and nose were red. He never spoke on stage - 'one understood what he was up to more clearly by watching him than if he had brayed through a loudspeaker' - but he employed a repertoire of whistles (perhaps an inspiration for Charlie's swallowed whistle in City Lights).
His characteristic costume was a too-small tail coat attached in front by a piece of string, a white waistcoat and a broad bow tie. The grotesquely wide, short trousers were copied almost exactly by Chaplin for his musical act with Buster Keaton in Limelight. Below these, Marceline's turned-out feet were encased in shoes that were too long and turned up at the ends.
The whole was surmounted by a battered, cockaded tall hat, which was a focus for Marceline's emotions: in moments of anger he would batter it in fury, but then a few moments later caress it and honour it with the greatest care and respect. An exceptional acrobat, he would leap over a rank of eight men, after placing them in position with absurd precision. McQueen Pope sums up his comic character:
... what he was up to was always interference, being a source of trouble to others and eventually to himself.... He also laboured under the delusion that he was a born organizer. Let a carpet used by acrobats be in the course of removal, Marceline would rush to help. He would work like a beaver, push everyone about, create utter chaos and end up by being carried off, rolled in the carpet and struggling to be free.
A sketch that Marceline presented in his 1900 Hippodrome season could well be the scenario of an early one-reel comedy film:
Marceline and his brother, the clown, receive a present of a wonderful marble statue. On turning a handle it moves into various striking attitudes, in one of which Marceline is actually struck by the statue. Marceline's brother decides that they must have a photographer to take 'lots of photographs, heaps of photographs', and leaves his brother in charge while he goes to fetch the photographer. Marceline is told to dust the statue, and his nervous approach with a feather broom is very comic.
Marceline's confidence grows as he dusts, and he puts the statue in such a number of 'new positions' that it finally breaks. Fearful of telling this to his brother, Marceline dresses up in a sheet, puts the statue's helmet on (backwards) and seizes his sword and shield. Marceline, however, is not careful enough with the sheet and is discovered by his brother after some very comical imitations of the statue's positions.
Chaplin recalled in his autobiography how in Cinderella Marceline would perch on a camp stool beside the flooded arena, and fish with a rod for the chorus girls who had disappeared under the waves - anticipating Busby Berkeley musicals of later years. For bait he used diamond necklaces and bracelets. There is something perfectly Chaplinesque about the impertinence of angling in the Hippodrome's spectacular arena, as there seems also to have been in the little poodle who shadowed Marceline's every movement. After his brief years of glory at the London Hippodrome, Marceline faded into obscurity and committed suicide in 1927, at the age of fifty-four.
Working with Marceline, Chaplin quickly recognised the appeal of laughter, and tried a little comedy himself in Cinderella. He recalls in his autobiography that he tried improvisations of his own. In the role of a cat, he had the privilege of tripping up Marceline in the kitchen scene. At one of the children's matinees, he introduced some very unfeline comic business, sniffing at a dog and raising a back leg against the proscenium. According to Chaplin's own account the laughs were gratifying but repetitions were strictly forbidden. The Lord Chamberlain in those days was ever vigilant for any impropriety in music hall performances.
Charlie seems to have left The Eight Lancashire Lads after Cinderella, and the next two years were tough. His step-brother Sydney, always very protective, had gone to sea as a ship's steward, and the 12-year-old Charlie had to watch his mother's mental health become more and more unstable. He tried a variety of jobs - as flower seller, barber's boy, chandler's boy, doctor's boy, page boy. He worked for W.H.Smith and in Straker's printing works, sold old clothes, and helped some itinerant toy makers. None of the jobs lasted long, but their variety shows both exceptional enterprise and a continuing thirst for experience.
There is certainly no doubt of his enterprise. In the early summer of 1903 this shy and shabby fourteen-year-old walked into the office of a respected theatrical agency H. Blackmore's in Bedford Street, Strand, and asked them to take him on their books.
No doubt he already had the looks, vivacity and charm of later years, and made an impression: within a short time of his registering, the Blackmore agency sent a postcard asking him to call in about a job.
He was seen by Mr Blackmore himself, and sent off to the offices of Charles Frohman. Frohman's manager, C. E. Hamilton, engaged Chaplin on the spot to play Billy the pageboy in a provincial tour of William C. Gillette's Sherlock Holmes, due to start in October. His salary would be £2. 10s. a week.
Meanwhile, Mr Hamilton advised him, there was a likely part for him in a new play, Jim, A Romance of Cockayne, written by H.A.Saintsbury, who was to play Holmes in the forthcoming tour. Hamilton gave .the boy a note to take to Saintsbury at the Green Room Club. To present himself in those grand premises must have tested the boy's courage.
Saintsbury clearly took to Charlie on sight, and handed him the part there and then. The boy was much relieved that he was not asked to read on the spot, because he still found it very difficult to make out words on the page. Sydney read the part for him, however, and in three days he was word-perfect. The brothers were amazed and moved at their good fortune. Sydney said that it was the turning point of their lives - and promptly went off to Frohman's office in an unsuccessful attempt to up Charlie's salary.
Jim, A Romance of Cockayne was not a success, and closed after two weeks. The reviews were poor - except for the young actor who played the supporting comedy role of Sammy the Newsboy.
The best was The Topical Times which ended its slaughter of poor Saintsbury's play with a stroke of remarkable prescience: But there is one redeeming feature, the part of Sammy, a newspaper boy, a smart London street Arab, much responsible for the comic part. Although hackneyed and old-fashioned, Sammy was made vastly amusing by Master Charles Chaplin, a bright and vigorous child actor. I have never heard of the boy before, but I hope to hear great things of him in the near future.
The demise of Jim hastened Sherlock Holmes into rehearsal, and so Chaplin acquired a small role in one of the great phenomena of the early twentieth century stage.
In the 1890s Conan Doyle had written a play featuring Sherlock Holmes, and had unwisely sent it to Beerbohm Tree, who required that Holmes be refashioned in his own mould. So the play was forgotten until Doyle's agent sent it to Charles Frohman, who showed it to William Gillette. Gillette was intrigued, but substantially rewrote the play, which was based on two of the Holmes stories, A Scandal in Bohemia and The Final Problem. The Final Problem provided Professor Moriarty, and A Scandal in Bohemia provided the charming Alice Faulkener. Gillette cabled Doyle, somewhat ambiguously, 'May I marry Holmes' to which Doyle impatiently replied, 'You may marry or murder or do what you like with him'. Hence the very uncharacteristic moment of romance that ends the play.
The play opened in New York in November 1899, with Gillette in the title role, and ran for 236 performances and toured for a year, before opening in London at the Lyceum on 9 November 1901. The production was remarkable for its staging. There was total darkness during which the scenes changed, an unprecedented use of blackouts; and a mass of electric equipment to provide such novel lighting effects as the glow of Holmes' cigar in the darkness
Nevertheless, the play was very badly received by the British critics, who found it melodramatic and badly written, and I suspect were prejudiced against an American Holmes. But the audience cheerfully ignored the critics. The play was a huge success. It remained at the Lyceum for almost six months, and then embarked on a tour of the provinces.
Meanwhile however the play was already being toured by four other companies. Two of Ben Greet's companies took it into their repertory, while Charles Frohman organised a Northern and a Southern Sherlock Holmes company.
And it was in the Northern Company that the young Charles Chaplin played Holmes' page, Billy. It was a good part. He makes half a dozen appearances in the course of the play, and has quite funny dialogue, elaborately written in cockney dialogue. He actually closes Act II. Having helped Holmes disarm Moriarty of his pistol, he is about to leave when Holmes says:
"Billy, come here!"
"Billy! You're a good boy!"
"Yes, sir! Thank you, sir!"
"Stands grinning up at Holmes. The lights go out suddenly".
He was able to make his mark in the role, as we know from the reviews, which generally mentioned him as the company toured the provincial towns. But in terms of professional training, this was for Chaplin more than simply a provincial tour. Of course the practical realities of touring - the theatrical digs, the need to accommodate your performance to a different theatre and a different stage every week - was an essential part of the experience. But H.A.Sainsbury, in his capacity both as actor and director, was able to convey valuable tutelage.
Saintsbury was a dedicated professional of the old Victorian repertory school. Born in Chelsea on 18 December 1869, he came from a good middle-class background and was educated at St John's College, Hurstpierpoint. He started his working life as a clerk in the Bank of England, but was irretrievably stage-struck. At eighteen he appeared in Kate Vaughan's revival of Charles Reade and Tom Taylor's Masks and Faces, and soon afterwards became a professional. He toured in the standard repertory of Victorian melodrama - The Silver King, The Harbour Lights, The Lights o' London, Under the Red Robe - as well as classic parts. His great role, however, was Sherlock Holmes.
Chaplin thought he looked just like the Strand Magazine illustrations of the great detective. Saintsbury was to play Holmes for almost thirty years, and for some 1400 performances. His own plays and adaptations reveal his romantic streak: as well as Jim, they included The Eleventh Hour, Romance (after Dumas), The Four Just Men, Anna of the Plains, King of the Huguenots and The Cardinal's Collation. Chaplin admired Saintsbury, and learned much about stagecraft working in his companies. One of his lessons, Chaplin recalled, was not to 'mug' or move his head too much when he talked. In 1916 Chaplin told a reporter in California:
'People always connect me and my work with my training under Fred Karno, the vaudeville manager on the other side; but as a matter of fact, I owe more to the tutelage of a Mr Saintsbury, who have me my first legitimate engagement as Billy, the boy in Sherlock Holmes, more than anybody in the worlod.'
Saintsbury, for his part, encouraged the boy. No doubt thanks to Saintsbury's interest, Master Chaplin was generally mentioned in the press copy which the company sent each week to The Era.
Apart from theatrecraft, this kind of touring must have been an extraordinary schooling in life for a bright boy to whom Hannah Chaplin had passed on her gift of observation. They toured all over Britain, from London to Dundee, from Wales to East Anglia. Mostly, though, they travelled through the sooty industrial towns of the Midlands and North - Sheffield, Blackburn, Huddersfield, Manchester, Bolton, Stockport, Rochdale, Jarrow, Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Leeds. At the time, even the smallest town had its theatre: including the Co-op halls and corn exchanges, there were well over five hundred active professional theatres in the British Isles.
In the course of the tour Chaplin persuaded the management to take on his brother Sydney in the role of Count von Stahlberg, which relieved the loneliness of which he sometimes complained.
The tour with Mr Sainsbury ended on June 12 1904, and on 10 August an advertisement in The Era announced a forthcoming production of Rags To Riches, with Master Charles Chaplin in the role of Ned Nimble. But this seems never to have materialised, and on 31 October he resumed his role as Billy in Frohman's Midlands Company, with Kenneth Rivington in the title role. This tour ended in April 1905 and in August he reluctantly joined a less prestigious tour under the management of Harry Yorke, with Lawrence Layton as Holmes. The unkindest cut was that his salary was reduced to 35 shillings a week. He was not popular in the company, because he was inclined to lay down the law about 'How we do things in the Frohman company.'
He was to be miraculously rescued. The company had played Blackburn, Hull, Dewsbury, Huddersfield, the Queen's at Manchester and the Rotunda at Liverpool, and were at the Court Theatre, Warrington, when there came a telegram from William Postance, stage manager to William Gillette himself. Gillette had just returned to London with a new comedy, Clarice.
His leading lady was the exquisite Marie Doro, who had played opposite him in New York the year before in The Admirable Crichton and had made a triumphant London debut in Friquet in January 1905.
Clarice opened at the Duke of York's Theatre on 13 September 1905, and was not a success. The London critics not only disliked the play but they disapproved of Gillette's American accent. Gillette decided to reply with a joke, a little after-piece to be called The Painful Predicament of Sherlock Holmes, 'a fantasy in about one-tenth of an act,' in which he would appear without speaking. The playlet had only three characters: Holmes, his page Billy and a mad woman. The idea was that despite the efforts of Billy to keep her away from Holmes, the mad lady bursts into his room and talks incessantly and incoherently for twenty minutes, defeating all his efforts to get a word in. Holmes, however, manages to ring the bell and slip a note to Billy. Shortly afterwards two attendants come in and carry the lady off, leaving the last line to Billy: 'You were right, sir - it was the right asylum.' The unfortunate mad lady, Gwendolen Cobb, was to be played by one of the most gifted young actresses on the London stage, Irene Vanbrugh. Gillette required a Billy, and the Frohman office, who ran the Duke of York's and were managing Gillette, had the very boy. Hence the telegram from Mr Postance.
After his final Saturday performance in Lancashire, Charlie hurried to London, and after a couple of days of rehearsals was a West End actor. The Painful Predicament of Sherlock Holmes went onto the programme on 3 October. Unfortunately Gillette's good-humoured little joke still failed to save the day, and the double bill ended its short run on 14 October, to be replaced after three days by a revival of the infallible Sherlock Holmes. Charlie, who had clearly made the same hit with Gillette as with everyone else with whom he worked, was kept on as Billy. Another veteran of the Frohman tours, Kenneth Rivington, who had played Watson to Saintsbury's Holmes and taken over the title role for the 1904-5 tour, was cast as Dr Watson. Marie Doro played Alice Faulkner for the first time; and the sixteen-year-old Chaplin fell desperately and agonisingly in love with this radiant young woman, seven years older than himself. The play repeated its original success: on 20 November there was a Royal Gala performance in honour of the King of Greece, who attended the show with Queen Alexandra, Prince Nicholas and Princess Victoria. Chaplin remembered that in a tense moment in the third act, when he and Gillette were alone on stage, the Prince was evidently explaining the plot to the King whose strongly accented voice boomed out in agitation, 'Don't tell me! Don't tell me!'
Saintsbury had taught the young Chaplin a lot of stagecraft Working with Gillette provided other valuable tuition. Gillette was highly intelligent and very successful. His father was a senator and he was himself educated at Harvard, the University of Boston and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Though his whole background was intellectual, he brought an aggressively populist approach to the theatre, both as actor and playwright. The dramatist, he said, should not study dramaturgy, but the public. He held that the drama should be derived from observation of life and not from concerns about correctness of grammar, diction and aesthetics. He reacted against current melodramatic, declamatory conventions of acting, adopting a casual, down-played style which suited light comedy rather better than love scenes. His guiding principle was that the actor must alway strive to convince the audience that what he is doing he is doing for the first time. He set out this principle in a famous essay published in 1915, 'Illusion of First Time Acting'.
Someone in the company or in the Frohman office at this time very clearly had Chaplin's interests at heart: it may have been Gillette himself, or Mr Hamilton or even William Postance, whom Chaplin remembered long afterwards with affection. (He was to call the kindly impresario in Limelight, played by Nigel Bruce, Mr Postant: this seems to be intended as a tribute to Mr Postance, whose name is similarly misremembered as 'Postant' in the autobiography.) Two privileges which Chaplin enjoyed during the Duke of York's run of Sherlock Holmes were certainly exceptional for a small-part 16-year-old actor in the West End. He was procured a seat at the funeral of Henry lrving, which took place two days after Sherlock Holmes opened. He remembered that he was seated between another celebrated actor-manager, Lewis Waller, and 'Dr' Walford Bodie, the current sensation of the music halls as hypnotist, healer and miracle worker. Chaplin was shocked by Dr Bodie's unseemly behaviour, 'stepping on the chest of a supine duke' to get a better view as the ashes were lowered into the crypt.
A more remarkable achievement was that Chaplin managed to secure an entry in the very first edition of The Green Room Book, or Who's Who on the Stage. This was the forerunner of Who's Who in the Theatre, but contained many fewer entries and so was more selective and prestigious. Hence it is remarkable to find listed among the aristocracy of the Edwardian stage:
CHAPLIN, Charles, impersonator, mimic and sand dancer; b. London, April 16th 1889; s. of Charles Chaplin; brother of Sidney Chaplin; cradled in the profession, made first appearance at the Oxford as a speciality turn, when ten years of age; has fulfilled engagements with several of Charles Frohman's companies (playing Billy in 'Sherlock Holmes', &c.), and at many of the leading variety theatres in London and provinces; won 20-miles walking championship (and £25 cash prize) at Nottingham. Address: c/o Ballard Macdonald, 1, Clifford's Inn, E.C.
Sherlock Holmes might have settled in for a long run at the Duke of York's, had the theatre not been previously booked for the first revival of Sir James Barrie's Peter Pan, with Cissie Loftus in the leading role. As it was it closed on 2 December 1905, and Chaplin sadly rejoined Harry Yorke's touring Holmes company, at 35 shillings a week. Gillette however was to play Sherlock Holmes practically to the end of his life. He embarked on a farewell tour when he was 76, but the tour lasted three years. Finally, at the age of 82 he broadcast the play for CBS Lux Radio Theatre. He had even filmed it, in 1916 for the Essanay Company, but the film is unfortunately lost.
Chaplin himself might have continued in the legitimate theatre but for a display of pride in the foyer of the St James's Theatre, just before the end of the London run of Sherlock Holmes. Irene Vanbrugh's husband Dion Boucicault gave him a letter of introduction to Mr and Mrs Kendal, who needed a boy actor for their 1906 tour of A Tight Corner. Madge Kendal swept in imperious and late for the appointment, and asked him to come back the next day at the same time, whereupon young Chaplin coolly retorted that he could not accept anything out of town and swept out, dignified but unemployed.
One might have thought that after two years of continuous employment, culminating in two months in the West End, he would have been determined on an acting career. As it was, he was never again to act in the legitimate theatre. Was it that he recognised the agonising and perilous challenge of transforming himself from a juvenile performer to a jeune premier or a character actor? Or was it simply that he was out of work and it was the music hall that offered him jobs.
His brother Sydney had given up his job as a ship's steward; and encouraged by the success he had had in ships' smoking concerts, had gone into the music hall as a comedian in sketch companies. In March 1906 he was engaged for a new company under the management of Fred Regina to tour a sketch 'Repairs', and he managed to get his younger brother taken on as well.
Sydney played a heavily moustachioed and beery agitator endeavouring to get the slow-witted workmen to strike. Charlie was the plumber's mate, wearing a green tam o'shanter which was an object of unreasonable irritation to the plumber. When instructed by the latter to hang it up, Charlie would knock a nail into a water pipe and soak himself. In exasperation, the plumber would seize the offending headgear, throw it to the ground and trample it in fury. This is the earliest known picture of Chaplin on stage.
Chaplin left the troupe and his act was taken over by another youth, Horace Kenney (1890‹1955), subsequently to become a music hall star in his own right, and the father of the actor James Kenney.
Chaplin left to join a new sketch company, Casey's Circus, or the Caseydrome, This was a follow-up to Casey's Court, an act that had already proved successful on the music halls. The setting for this was an alley, and the central figure, around whom a dozen or so juvenile comedians clowned, was 'Mrs Casey' - played in pantomime style by the comedian Will Murray (1877-1955), who continued to tour with the act until he was well into his seventies.
Chaplin appeared with Casey's Circus in its opening week at the Olympia Theatre, Liverpool, from 21 to 26 May 1906. Chaplin quickly asserted himself as the star of the show, as this photograph seems to confirm. Chaplin is seated beside Mr Murray, in a group photograph of the troupe taken in 1906. Certainly he was given the two plum turns in the Circus. The act included a number of burlesques of current music hall favourites, and Chaplin impersonated "Dr' Walford Bodie, whose indecorous curiosity had shocked him at the funeral of Sir Henry lrving, and was at the peak of his celebrity. He billed himself modestly as 'The most remarkable man on Earth, the great healer, the modern miracle worker, demonstrating nightly "Hypnotism, Bodie force and the wonders of blood-less surgery".' He claimed among other benefits to mankind to have cured nine hundred cases of paralysis judged incurable by the medical profession. Chaplin studied his make-up from the photograph in Bodie's advertisement in The Era, and had a studio portrait taken of himself adopting the identical pose.
The reviews invariably picked out Chaplin's Bodie impersonation for praise - even though Chaplin had worked up the act without ever having seen Bodie on stage himself.
Chaplin's other star turn was a burlesque of Dick Turpin. The climax of this was when Turpin, having lost Black Bess, is pursued around the stage; and it was generally said that it was in building up the business for this chase that he developed his characteristic run, with its method of turning quick corners by sticking out one leg and revolving on the other.
Three months after the close of the Casey's Court Circus tour, Chaplin was to embark on the final and most significant phase of his stage work - his six years and successive contracts with the Fred Karno company. I think this period of his early life is the most recorded and best known so - with time running on - I will deal with it rather cursorily.
After leaving Repairs, brother Sydney had signed a contract with Fred Karno's Speechless Comedians and in July 1907, by this time a star earning £4 a week, he renewed his contract. He sought to interest Karno in the now unemployed Charlie, but Karno was less than keen. He thought Charlie 'a pale, puny, sullen-looking youngster. much too shy to do any good in the theatre, particularly in the knockabout comedies that were my speciality.' Reluctantly he gave the lad a two-week trial at the London Coliseum in February 1908. Chaplin made his mark from his first appearance, as a comic villain; and enraged the star, Harry Weldon, by upstaging him. Eighteen days later he was given a contract, which was to be renewed over the next years with constant increases of salary, as Chaplin became the undeniable star of the troupe.
Fred Kamo was from all accounts a rude, crude and mean man, but in the creation of comedy, he was a genius. He combined extraordinary gifts for organisation, for invention, for spotting and training talent, for mise-en-scène and direction. Like most of the great figures of the English music hall, his origins were humble.
He was born Fred Westcott in Exeter on 26 March 1866, but moved with his family to Nottingham. He became a plumber's apprentice, but then became fascinated by gymnastics, eventually becoming a professional, working in fairs and circuses. In 1888 he put together an act with two other acrobats calling themselves The Three Karnos, and in 1894 they presented their first sketch, an old warhorse called Love in a Tub. The next sketch devised by Karno, Hilarity presented at the Gaiety, Birmingham, was hugely successful, toured continuously for five years and was the prototype for the rest of Karno's work. Karno had found his ideal medium.
Hilarity was followed over the years by Jail Birds, Early Birds (1901 a 'tale of slumland', The New Woman's Club which satirised the early feminist movement. His early productions were generally launched at the Paragon Mile End Road. Subsequently they were premiered as annual Christmas attractions at the Palace, Manchester, among them His Majesty's Guests, The Casuals (set in a workhouse), Moses and Sons, Saturday to Monday, The Football Match and Skating.
Chaplin was particularly to be associated with The Football Match, Skating, Mumming Birds, The Wow Wows and Jimmy the Fearless, which was very much devised to suit his youth and talents.
The Football Match was characteristic of the elaborate scenic effects in which Karno specialised. The settings included a huge panoramic cloth with a great crowd of people painted on it. The painted figures had loose arms and hats which were activated by electric fans hidden behind a raked ground row. In front of these were supers, with very small people arranged behind larger ones, to produce an effect of perspective.
In The Wontdetainia, first presented at the Paragon, Mile End Road on 11 April 1910, and satirising public enthusiasm for the great new luxury liners like the recently launched Lusitania and Mauretania, the effects were even more elaborate, with a prop liner so huge that it had to be built up section by section in the wings as it was moved across the stage.
For Mumming Birds, which was to be closely linked to the fate and future of Charles Chaplin, a stage was built within the theatre stage, complete with boxes, proscenium and tabs.
At the time that Sydney Chaplin joined him, in 1906, Karno had as many as ten companies regularly on tour. They were managed and serviced from Karno's 'Fun Factory', established in three houses at 26, 28a and 28 Vaughan Road, Coldharbour Lane, Camberwell. In 1906 Karno advertised a
Magnificent NEW WING just added to the above, comprising a Paint Room, Rehearsal Room and Storage Dock . . . The new Paint Room is furnished with Two Frames capable of carrying any Cloths. The new Rehearsal Room, splendidly lighted, ventilated, and heated, is 72 feet long, 21 feet wide, and owing to the exceptional height (28 feet 6 inches) can be used as a Practice Room for any Gymnastic or Aerial Acts. The huge Storage Dock, thoroughly ventilated and dry, covers an area of 316 square yards, and has a cubic space of 32,648 feet.
Karno's genius in the creation of comedy and comedians lay in his unerring instinct for what was funny. He understood the value of tempo and rhythm (his sketches always had special musical accompaniments). He strove for finesse and for faultless ensemble work. Until a company had been playing together for half a year he reckoned them unskilled, 'a scratch company'. Each player had to be perfect in his part, or rather in several parts, for it was necessary to be able to replace individual members of a cast like the parts of a precision machine.
Karno knew how to get the best out of his artists even if his methods of doing it sometimes lacked charm: a below-standard performance would be criticised with humiliating insults or simply a loud 'raspberry' blown from the wings. His treatment even of his stars could be brutish. Chaplin recalled that when he went to negotiate a new contract, Karno had arranged a plant at the other end of the telephone line to pose as the manager of a theatre and confirm his view that Chaplin had no appeal and so was not worth any more money.
Another feature of the Karno style was to remain dominant in Chaplin's work. 'I do not remember if he was the one who originated the idea of putting a bit of sentiment right in the middle of a funny music hall turn,' Stan Laurel told John McCabe,
'Karno encouraged that sort of thing. 'Wistful' for him I think meant putting in that serious touch once in a while. Another thing I seem to recall: you would have to look sorry, really sorry, for a few seconds after hitting someone on the head. Karno would say, 'Wistful, please, wistful.' It was only a bit of a look, but somehow it made the whole thing funnier. The audience didn't expect that serious look. Karno really knew how to sharpen comedy in that way.'
Karno taught his comedians other principles of comedy: that a slow delivery can often be more effective than hectic speed, but that in any event pace must be varied to avoid monotony; that humour lies in the unexpected, so it is funnier if the man is not expecting the pie that hits him in the face. The serious absurdity and the bizarre comic transpositions of the Karno sketches must often have resembled Chaplin gags. In one of them a man picks up a passing dog to wipe his hat.
I am coming close to conclusion; but I hope that this summary of Chaplin's work and influences in the theatre, indicates that in learning his art, the means which he would bring to the exploration and expression of that hard and bitter life experiences, he had spent more than a decade in a very good theatre school. Look at the faculty of his College. For dramatic art, William Gillette and H.A.Saintsbury. For comedy, Marceline and Fred Karno. For stage-craft, the British music halls in their apogee. For communication with the public, the mercilessly critical audience that had been created by the British and American vaudeville theatres of the turn of the twentieth century.
It was indeed a great theatrical training. But in the end he was to transfer it to the infant cinema, and to no small extent transform that cinema, by giving it its first universal icon, and being instrumental in opening up a world market for Hollywood.
In 1910 Karno sent him as the star of a company which toured America for more than a year and a half. After only four months back home he was off again to the United States. He was already recognised as a star in vaudeville, and was inevitably spotted by the comparative new Keystone Film Company of Hollywood, specialising in comedy. On 25 September 1913 he signed a year's contract with Keystone at £150 a week - more than three times his London salary with Karno.
On November 29, 1913 he made his last appearance with the Karno Company at the Empress Theatre Kansas City -
And never again stepped on a stage as a performer. Inevitably, in his years of fame, he received proposals from Broadway; but on occasion he would say that he hated the stage and feared the audience. When he did undertake personal appearances - to make patriotic speeches during the war, for example, or occasionally on radio broadcasts, he suffered terrible anxiety, and often became physically ill.
Yet somehow he could not resist it. To the end of his life he followed the London theatre, and was interested in the new stars. . In 1946, his son Sydney joined his friend Jerry Epstein, the actress Kathleen Freeman and students from UCLA in forming the Circle Theatre. The first performances were given in a friend's drawing room, but later a corner grocery store was converted into a theatre. Props were borrowed from the Chaplin studios, and, nostalgic for his own theatre days, Charles Chaplin himself took a hand with direction, or would happily sit beside Epstein in the box- office. The theatre became Hollywood's first centre of avant-garde drama; Saroyan, thanks to some prodding from Chaplin, gave them the play Sam Ego's House; and The Circle became a meeting place for Hollywood's brighter people, including Katharine Hepburn, George Cukor, Edward G.Robinson and the patrician old English actor and friend of Chaplin, Constance Collier. Chaplin never missed a show.
In his late film Limelight, a nostalgic looking back to the music halls of his youth, the heroine Teresa exclaims, 'But I thought you hated the theatre!' 'Yes. I also hate the sight of blood - but it is in my veins.'
[© David Robinson 2009]
Mr Robinson then answered questions from the audience.
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