'The Tramp was something within me'
The Lost Charlie Chaplin Interview, by Richard Meryman, as released by the Guardian Unlimited
|Richard Meryman This interview is entirely concerned with your work and your art, and nothing else. I want to give some indication of how you work.
Charlie Chaplin The summation of my character is that I care about my work. I care about everything I do. If I could do something else better, I would do it, but I can't.
MERYMAN Can you talk about the moment you created the Tramp outfit?
CHAPLIN It all came about in an emergency. The cameraman said put on some funny make-up, and I hadn't the slightest idea what to do. I went to the dress department and, on the way, I thought, well, I'll have them make everything in contradiction - baggy trousers, tight coat, large head, small hat - raggedy but at the same time a gentleman. I didn't know how I was going to do the face, but it was going to be a sad, serious face. I wanted to hide that it was comic, so I found a little moustache. And that moustache was no concept of the characterisation - only saying that it was rather silly. It doesn't hide my expression.
MERYMAN When you looked at yourself, what was your first reaction?
CHAPLIN It'll do. It didn't ignite anything. Not until I absolutely had to play it in the presence of the camera. Making an entrance, I felt dressed; I had an attitude. I felt good, and the character came to me. The scene [from Mabel's Strange Predicament] was in a hotel lobby, and the Tramp was trying to pretend to be one of the guests just so he can get anchored on a soft seat and rest for a while. Everybody looked at him a little suspiciously, and I did all the things that the guests were doing in the hotel, looked at the register, took out a cigarette, lit it, watched the passing parade. And then I stumbled over the cuspidor. That was the first gag I ever did. And the character was born. And I thought, this is a very good character. But not every character I played followed the same format for all the comedy ideas after that.
One thing I intended to remain - not so much the dress of the Tramp, but the sore feet. No matter how rambunctious or exuberant he felt, he always had these very tired, big feet. I inquired of wardrobe that I wanted two large pairs of old shoes, because I had absurdly small feet, so I wanted these big shoes, and I knew they would give me a comic gait. I'm naturally very graceful, but trying to be graceful in big feet - that's funny.
MERYMAN Do you think the Tramp would work in modern times?
CHAPLIN I don't think there's any place for that sort of person now. The world has become a little bit more ordered. I don't think it's happier now, by any means. I've noticed the kids with their short clothes and their long hair, and I think some of them want to be tramps. But there's not the same humility now. They don't know what humility is, so it has become something of an antique. It belongs to another era. That's why I couldn't do anything like that now. And, of course, sound - that's another reason. When talk came in I couldn't have my character at all. I wouldn't know what kind of voice he would have. So he had to go.
MERYMAN What do you think was the great appeal of the Tramp?
CHAPLIN There is that gentle, quiet poverty. Every soda jerk wants to dress up, wants to be a swell. That's what I enjoy about the character - being very fastidious and very delicate about everything. But I never really thought of the Tramp in terms of appeal. The Tramp was something within myself I had to express. I was motivated by the reaction of the audience, but I never related to an audience. The audience happens when it's finished, and not during the making. I've always related to a sort of a comic spirit, something within me, that said, I must express this. This is funny.
MERYMAN How does a gag sequence come to you? Does it come out of nothing, or is there a process?
CHAPLIN No, there is no process. The best ideas grow out of the situation. If you get a good comedy situation it goes on and on and has many radiations. Like the skating rink sequence [in The Rink]. I found a pair of skates and I went on, with everybody in the audience certain that I was going to fall, and instead I came on and just skated around on one foot gracefully. The audience didn't expect it from the Tramp. Or the lamppost gag [in Easy Street]. It came out of a situation where I am a policeman, and am trying to subdue a bully. I hit him on the head with a truncheon, and hit him and hit him. It is like a bad dream. He keeps rolling his sleeves up with no reaction to being hit at all. Then he lifts me up and puts me down. Then I thought, well, he has enormous strength, so he can pull the lamppost down, and while he was doing that I would jump on his back, push his head in the light and gas him. I did some funny things that were all made off the cuff that got a tremendous laugh.
But there was a lot of agony, too. Miserable days of nothing working, and getting more despondent. It was up to me to think of something to make them laugh. And you cannot be funny without a funny situation. You can do something clownish, perhaps stumble, but you must have a funny situation.
MERYMAN Do you see people doing these things, or do they all come out of your imagination?
CHAPLIN No, we created a world of our own. Mine was the studio in California. The happiest moments were when I was on the set and I had an idea or just a suggestion of a story, and I felt good, and then things would happen. It was the only surcease that I had. The evening is rather a lonesome place, you know, in California, especially in Hollywood. But it was marvellous, creating a comic world. It was another world, different from the everyday. And it used to be fun. You sit there and you rehearse for half a day, shoot it, and that was it.
MERYMAN Is realism an integral part of comedy?
CHAPLIN Oh, yes, absolutely. I think in make-believe, you have an absurd situation, and you treat it with a complete reality. And the audience knows it, so they're in the spirit. It's so real to them and it's so absurd, it gives them exultation.
MERYMAN Well, part of it is the cruelty, there was a lot of cruelty.
CHAPLIN Cruelty is a basic element in comedy. What appears to be sane is really insane, and if you can make that poignant enough they love it. The audience recognises it as a farce on life, and they laugh at it in order not to die from it, in order not to weep. It's a question of that mysterious thing called candour coming in. An old man slips on a banana and falls slowly and stumbles and we don't laugh. But if it's done with a pompous well-to-do gentleman who has exaggerated pride, then we laugh. All embarrassing situations are funny, especially if they're treated with humour. With clowns you can expect anything outrageous to happen. But if a man goes into a restaurant, and he thinks he's very smart but he's got a big hole in his pants - if that is treated humorously, it's bound to be funny. Especially if it's done with dignity and pride.
MERYMAN Your comedy in part is a comedy of incident, too. It's not an intellectual thing, it's things that are happening, that are funny.
CHAPLIN I've always thought that incidents related will make a story, like the setting up of a pool game on a billiard table. Each ball is an incident in itself. One touches the other, you see. And the whole makes a triangle. I carry that image a great deal in my work.
MERYMAN You like to keep a terrific pace going and you pack incidents one on top of the other quite a bit. Do you think this is characteristic of you?
CHAPLIN Well, I don't know whether it's characteristic of me. I've watched other comedians who seem to relax their pace. I can feel my way much better with pace than I can with being slow. I haven't the confidence to move slow, and I haven't the confidence in what I'm doing.
But action is not always the thing. Everything must have growth, otherwise it loses its reality. You have a problem, and then you intensify it. You don't deliberately start with intensifying it. But you say, well, now, where do we go from here? You say, what is the natural outcome of this? Realistically and convincingly, the problem keeps getting more and more complicated. And it must be logical, otherwise you will have some sort of comedy, but you won't have an exciting comedy.
MERYMAN Do you worry about sentimentality or cliche?
CHAPLIN No, not in pantomime. You don't worry about it, you just avoid it. And I'm not afraid of a cliche - all life is a cliche. We don't awaken with any sort of originality. We all live and die with three meals a day, fall in and out of love. Nothing could be more of a cliche than a love story, and that must go on, so long as it is treated interestingly.
MERYMAN Did you do the eating of the shoe gag [in The Gold Rush ] many times?
CHAPLIN We had about two days of retakes on it. And the poor old actor [Mack Swain] was sick for the last two. The shoes were made of liquorice, and he'd eaten so much of it. He said, 'I cannot eat any more of those damn shoes!' I got the idea for this gag from the Donner party [a wagon train of 81 pioneers who, heading to California in 1846, became trapped by snow in the Sierra Nevada]. They resorted to cannibalism and to eating a moccasin. And I thought, stewed boots? There's something funny there.
I had an agonising time trying to motivate the story, until we got into a simple situation: hunger. The moment you've solved the logic of a situation, its feasibility, reality and possibility of being able to happen, ideas fly at you. It is one of the best things in the picture.
MERYMAN Did you have any doubts or concerns going into sound?
CHAPLIN Yes, oh, naturally. In the first place, I had experience, but not academic training, and there's a great difference. But I felt I had talent, I felt I was a natural actor. I knew it was much easier for me to pantomime than it was to talk. I'm an artist, and I knew very well that in talking a lot of that would disappear. I'd be no better than anybody else with good diction and a very good voice, which is more than half the battle.
MERYMAN Was it a question of having an extra dimension of reality that might hurt the fantasy of silent film?
CHAPLIN Oh yes. I've always said that the pantomime is far more poetic and it has a universal appeal that everyone would understand if it were well done. The spoken word reduces everybody to a certain glibness. The voice is a beautiful thing, most revealing, and I didn't want to be too revealing in my art because it may show a limitation. There are very few people with voices that can reach or give the illusion of great depth, whereas movement is as near to nature as a bird flying. The expression of the eyes - there's no words. The pure expression of the face that people can't hide - if it's one of disappointment it can be ever so subtle. I had to bear all this in mind when I started talking. I knew very well I lost a lot of eloquence. It can never be as good.
MERYMAN Do you have a film that's a favourite?
CHAPLIN Well, I think I liked City Lights . I think it's solid, well done. City Lights is a real comedy.
MERYMAN That is a powerful film. What impressed me is how close tragedy and comedy are.
CHAPLIN That has never interested me. That's been the feeling, I suppose, of subjectivity. I've always felt that, and it has more or less been second nature with me. That may be due to environment also. And I don't think one can do humour without having great pity and a sense of sympathy for one's fellow man.
MERYMAN Is it that we want relief from tragedy?
CHAPLIN No, I think life is much more. If that were the reason I think there would be more suicides. People would want to get out of life. I think life is a very wonderful thing, and must be lived under all circumstances, even in misery. I think I would prefer life. Prefer the experience, for nothing else but the experience. I think humour does save one's sanity. We can go overboard with too much tragedy. Tragedy is, of course, a part of life, but we're also given an equipment to offset anything, a defence against it. I think tragedy is very essential in life. And we are given humour as a defence against it. Humour is a universal thing, which I think is derived from more or less pity.
MERYMAN Do you think there is such a thing as a genius?
CHAPLIN I've never known quite what a genius was. I think it's somebody with a talent, who's highly emotional about it, and is able to master a technique. Everybody is gifted in some way. The average man has to differentiate between doing a regular sort of unimaginative job, and the fellow who's a genius doesn't. He does something different, but does this very well. Many a jack-of-all-trades has been mistaken for a genius.
Check out the Guardian Unlimited and also Jeffery Vance, David Robinson and Harry N. Abrams, book Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema.