From the book
BEHIND THE SCREEN
SAMUEL GOLDWYN 1923
THE DISCOVERY OF CHARLIE CHAPLIN
WHILE the Lasky Company and the Famous Players organizations were taking their long and often competitive strides forward numerous other motion-picture enterprises had been coming into prominence. Among these was the Fox Company.
Some years ago William Fox bought the story, “A Fool There Was.” For its leading role he engaged a very prominent actress. She disappointed him at the last moment, and it was while he was at his wit’s end to know how to replace her that he happened to go one day into his casting department. There were several extras standing around in the hope of picking up a day’s work, and among these Fox’s eye fell upon a dark-eyed girl. He looked at her. He looked again. Finally he said to his casting director, “I wish you’d have some tests made of that girl. It seems to me she’s got possibilities.”
The tests were made. They were so satisfactory that the girl was cast for the leading role of “A Fool There Was.” In it she scored such a triumph that Fox bought immediately more similar vehicles for her. The girl’s name was Theda Bara, and “A Fool There Was” was the first of the vamp stories which for some time seemed to consume the motionpicture industry.
Among producer, of a very different type, who had been waxing strong during these first years of our development, was Mack Sennett. Sennett, originally a chorus man earning five dollars a day, had been associated with Griffith in the old Biograph studios. From these he departed with only about five or six hundred dollars, and he produced his first films without any studio at all. The cameraman overcame this fundamental lack by focussing on people’s front lawns and on any other part of the landscape which looked appealing. When at last his financial returns justified it Sennett established a studio near Los Angeles.
Mack’s specialty had always been comedies, and among his early stars was that noted screen comedian of another day, Ford Sterling. At the time when the Lasky Company started, Sterling was getting a salary phenomenal for that period. Yet, being a perfectly normal star, he kept wanting more, and it was in an hour when Sennett feared he would not be able to keep pace with these in creasing demands that he cast about him for some one to take Sterling’s place.
In this period of vigilance he chanced to go to Pantages’ in Los Angeles. Among the acts of this performance, which represented the second circuit—that employing the less costly talent of the organisation—there lingered in his mind the work of one comedian.
Months afterwards when Sterling really seemed on the point of leaving, Sennett thought immediately of the little comedian in the second circuit. He did not know where he was. He could not even remember his name. But he wired to an Eastern representative, “Get in touch with fellow called Chapman or Chamberlain—something like that — playing second circuit.”
The representative had a hard time locating the person thus vaguely defined. At last, however, in a little Pennsylvania town the agent caught up with Charlie Chaplin. He was getting fifty dollars a week for his work in vaudeville, and when Sennett took him on at one hundred and twenty-five he seemed stunned by his good fortune.
And did he make good at once in motionpictures?
Mack has told me that he did not.
“It was days and days,” the latter relates, “before Charlie put over anything real. He tried all sorts of make-ups—one of them I remember was a fat man—and they were all about equally flat. The fact of it was that for some time I felt a little uneasy as to whether my find was a very fortunate one.”
It must be remembered at this point, however, that Chaplin encountered at the outset of his screen career an almost inflexible conception of humour. He himself has told me how he had to combat this prejudice in creating his very first picture.
“I was a tramp in that story,” he recalls, “and they wanted me to do all the usual slap-stick stunts. I had to beg them to let me play the part my way. ‘If you want somebody to pull all the old gags,’ I said to Sennett, ‘why do you hire me? You can get a man at twenty-five dollars to do that sort of stuff.’ So at last they gave in to my idea. This I had worked out very carefully. A tramp in a fine hotel—there’s a universal situation for you. Hardly a human being that hasn’t duplicated the feeling of being poor, alone, out of touch with the gay crowd about him, of trying to identify himself somehow with the fine, alien throng. So I did the little touches here of imitation—the pulling down of shabby cuffs, the straightening of my hat, all the gestures that gave a wider meaning to the characterization.”
Chaplin’s own account of his start is eloquent of the creative imagination which has made him the supreme exponent of screen art. This first picture was a success. Even so, there were those in the Sennett studios who looked askance upon such advanced methods.
“They didn’t really appreciate Charlie in those early days,” so Mabel Normand has often said to me. “I remember numerous times when people in the studio came up and asked me confidentially, ‘Say, do you think he’s so funny? In my mind he can’t touch Ford Sterling.’ They were just so used to slap-stick that imaginative comedy couldn’t penetrate.”
When Chaplin went out to California to make his first pictures he found the pantomimist just quoted a star in the Sennett organization. After having been a model for Gibson and other noted illustrators, Mabel had worked with Mary Pickford and Blanche Sweet in the Biograph studios. She was still here when Sennett, meeting her on the street one day, said, “How about going to California at a hundred dollars a week? I’ve just got some backing for my company and I’m going to settle out there in a short time.”
Mabel had been rendered incredulous by her salary at the Biograph. She was so sceptical of there being any such salary as a hundred dollars a week that Sennett’s backers, to whom he had referred
her, thought she was hesitating because of the insufficiency of the recompense. They thereupon offered her twenty-five dollars more.
Not long ago my friend Edgar Selwyn, the theatrical producer and playwright, said to me: “We hear so much about our successful stars as they are to-day. Yet most of us are a great deal more curious to hear the details of their earlier years.” With this in mind I am devoting a short space to the Sennett studio of a former time, for, although these days did not come under my direct observation, they have been described to me so often by Mabel Normand and Chaplin and Sennett himself that they seem almost like a portion of my own experience. Certainly, too, such flash-backs are necessary to a complete participation in the stories of my own immediate contacts with these two stars.
The older Sennett studio, like the stable which first cradled the Lasky Company, presented a striking contrast to the modern film background with its meticulous divisions of labour, its attempts to introduce the efficiency methods of a business establishment. Everybody knew everybody else; all the performers talked over in the most intimate fashion the details of the day’s work; the stars could and did do all such chores as cutting films.
Instead of a honeycomb of dressing-rooms, there was a communal space where all the men put on their make-up; as to Mabel’s dressing-room, this was a crude, boarded cubicle with the oil-stove familiar to all the old-timers in California studios. Altogether, an atmosphere informal and light-hearted as that which we imagine surrounding a group of strolling players in Elizabethan times!
Every one knows the long rainy seasons which in California interrupt those months of brilliant, unflagging sunshine. During such times the rain would drip ceaselessly from the roof of Sennett’s projection-room, and his actors, shivering from the cold dampness, used to gather together after the day’s work around the one cozy spot in the studio — the oil-stove in Mabel’s dressing-room. Here, by the hour Chaplin, a slender little fellow of twentytwo or three, attired unvaryingly in a checked suit, used to sit and talk with Mabel about work, books, and life. They were great pals, these two, and whenever Charlie wanted a raise he would go to Mabel and say, “Come now, you ask Mack for me.”
Sometimes, according to those who worked with the pair, the friendship was invaded by a little feeling of rivalry, especially on Chaplin’s part. This was hardly strange, for Mabel’s talent as a comedienne was undoubted, and to this gift she added not only her experience on the screen but a very exceptional beauty. Of course the sentiment was only fleeting, but every now and then something would bring it to the surface.
One day when Chaplin entered the studio he found Mabel standing beside the camera. Running over to Sennett, he asked the producer what it all meant.
“Oh, nothing,” replied Mack. “Only I’ve asked Mabel to direct you to-day.”
Chaplin said nothing, but for an hour or so he was quite evidently ruffled. Before the end of the day, however, all irritation had vanished in the boxing-bout which represented the favorite muscular
outlet of the two young comedians.
Charlie and Mabel, as will be remembered, appeared in many comedies together. One of their scenes which the public was never permitted to share involved a motor-cycle. On being asked if he could ride this vehicle Charlie had replied promptly that he could.
“Now you’re sure you know how, Charlie?” Sennett inquired of him again as on the day the scene was to be taken he confronted the comedian with this modem mechanism.
“Why, of course I do,” maintained Charlie stoutly, “I used to cycle all about London.” With no apparent trepidation he mounted the cycle. Mabel jumped on behind him. An instant afterward those watching the performance saw the two riders whirling down a steep hill with a fury that made a nor’easter look cool and collected.
“Talk about Jock Gilpin’s ride!” laughs Mabel to-day as she tells the story. “I knew from the moment we set out that Charlie hadn’t the least idea in the world how to guide or stop that machine, and as the trees and hills whizzed by us I closed my eyes. My only wonder was when and how badly. At last it happened. When I opened my eyes again it was from a long unconscious state. I had been dashed into a ditch at the side of the road, and a little farther on they found the souvenirs of poor old Charlie. You see,” she concludes, “he hadn’t realised that there was any difference between a cycle and a motor-cycle.”
Just a little farther on I shall pick up the thread of Miss Normand’s career where it became interwoven with my own professional interests. In the meanwhile closing these glimpses of the Sennett
studio in its early days, I shall proceed to developments in the Lasky Company.
It had long been apparent to me that a merger of the Lasky and the Famous Players organizations promised many benefits. It would put an end to the costly competition for stars and stories and it would effect a corresponding reduction in other expenses. To all such arguments, however, Mr. Zukor turned a deaf ear, and it was not until 1916 that I succeeded in overcoming his reluctance. Then, under the name of the Famous Players Lasky Company, these two enterprises, which only a few years before had launched out with a capital representing conjointly less than one hundred thousand dollars, were incorporated at twenty-five million
It was a radiant day for me when the vision of this gigantic unification, held so persistently for many months, finally took form. But, as so often happens, the fulfilment of my most cherished dream
proved to be a weapon, turned against me. Mr. Zukor was the president of the new organisation; I was chairman of the board of directors. I shall not enter here into the differences which sundered
us, both men accustomed to domination, I shall merely relate that only a few months after the formation of the new company I resigned my interests in the Famous Players-Lasky organisation.
But before leaving this phase of my career I want to pay my heartfelt tribute to the man whom I consider responsible for much of the success won by Lasky films, Cecil de Mille!
Although I have had occasion to mention several instances where his judgment was at fault, I have never once lost the sense of how disproportionate these rare flaws were to the sum of his achievement. As a matter of fact, De Mille is seldom wrong in his valuations of either performer or story. Again and again his judgment proved superior to both Lasky’s and mine. Then, too, he adds to the qualities which make him a big director, a gift for personal relations which I have seldom seen equalled. Farrar was only one of the many Lasky stars who “got along” wonderfully with our chief director. The courteous, self-controlled, kindly De Mille — who, indeed, could dislike him?
Certainly my own thought of him always reaches far beyond our mere professional association. To me at a time when I most needed it De Mille was a true friend, and the memory of his truth and loyalty illumines one of the bitterest chapters of my life.
TO THE MOTION PICTURE INDUSTRY
WHICH HAS BROUGHT ME SOME SUCCESS, A WORLD
OF GOOD FRIENDS AND PLEASANT ASSOCIATES,
AND, ABOVE ALL, THE SUPREME SATISFACTION OF
DOING THAT WHICH I LOVE BEST TO DO, THIS
BOOK IS DEDICATED. IN GRATEFUL APPRECIATION,
I LIKEWISE DEDICATE TO THAT INDUSTRY
MY SINCEREST EFFORTS FOR THE FUTURE.