Saturday, December 5, 2009

Charlie Chaplin: The Way He Worked by Simon Louvish

His last two films for the Mutual Film Corporation were The Immigrant and The Adventurer. Whatever the convoluted and exhaustive process used to achieve his results, those results were now seamless, as if they had been meticulously planned and structured in advance. The process was quite unique among film- makers, and revealing of the odd and singular nature of Chaplin's intuition. He seemed to have no clear image in his mind, beforehand, of the shot he wanted, and, being both the director and actor, had to view the 'dailies' before he could make up his mind. But once the right shot had emerged, he recognized it unerringly.

The out-takes of The Circus show Chaplin, again and again, shooting the brief scene in which he sits down with Rex and Merna and the taunts of the fighter begin. Version after version, with Charlie, Merna, Rex and a waiter positioned in every possible manner, this small sequence, that was clearly irrelevant to the film and was doomed to be cut, is given the Chaplin treatment of repeated takes, marking slates numbered 3,417 through 3,645, over several days of shooting. Again and again Charlie turns to his tormentor, turns back to sit and has his chair yanked from under him by the boxer.

Such compulsive behavior by a director towards his actors might be ruthless and tyrannical. Such an attitude towards himself put Chaplin in another bracket entirely. No wonder that, when asked how his ideas came to him, Chaplin replied that 'ideas come from an intense desire for them', and that his method of working was 'sheer perseverance to the point of madness.'

City Lights, despite its reputation as yet another Chaplin picture wholly developed script-less in the shooting process, nevertheless emerged from a plethora of notes, script ideas, large folders of scribbled and typed sequences. Many versions, false leads and entire plot-lines were discarded along the way, before the purified simplicity of the central themes of the film emerged as if they had been crystal clear and obvious from the start.

Chaplin's final script for The Great Dictator was a massive three- hundred-page affair. For the first time it set down in writing precise details of action and gesture, rather than these being worked out during the shoot. Production lasted a total of 559 days, with an early Sceduale of Shooting giving a glimpse of the general atmosphere on the set:

Since it has not been found possible to arrange these weekly sceduales with any brilliant accuracy, perhaps it would be better to simply list probable order in which the next scenes and sequences will be shot. It must be remembered, however, that even though the sceduale is this qualified it is still subject to change on short notice. That's the way life is, citizens?


In the time that elapsed between the 1938 draft and completion, Poland was invaded and her cities bombed, the Germans marched into Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and France, Paris was occupied and the blitz on British cities began.

Wither the Tramp?... he faded away, shrinking from the colossal podium. One can imagine him, one of millions of refugees, survivors of the holocausts, trekking on foot or piled in trucks, headed for a home that might be nothing but rubble. This was a world in which he could not raise many laughs by a desperate tussle with a cop, or a soldier, over a rare plate of sausage, or fall in love with a blank innocent face. Withered, the Tramp would be a horrific rather than pitiable figure clinging to the barbed wire of a liberated camp, if he were not one of the dreadful emaciated remains shoveled by bulldozers into a mass grave.

Having dared to laugh at terror, Chaplin could only admit that terror had prevailed, even if there was something called 'Victory' at the end... but as ever Chaplin's fate, and luck, if not his genius, human, all too human as it was, he found a way to respond through his art. And if this response emerged by trial and error, and by apparently disconnected circumstances, it was none the less his response, available to us to be evaluated, praised, criticized, or denounced. Out of the muck of war, hypocrisy, mass slaughter and lies, and a searing urge both to confess and to explain human transgressions, the Tramp crawled back out of the shadows, slipped into the dressing room of Chaplin's studios, raided the costume and, make-up closets and emerged in a completely new guise. Thus was born Monsieur Verdoux, unemployed bank clerk, prim, French bourgeois, moralist and murderer.*

Reporting on his visits to the production sets of Limelight New York Times Hollywood corespondent Thomas M. Pryor wrote:

"Everything about his pictures- good and bad- is his own. He acts every role for his performers, including the smallest gestures of a bit player. Nothing escapes his critical eye. At the same time, Chaplin seems to have little regard for established procedures... He simply has a innate contempt for anything be believes to be interfering with his complete freedom of expression...At one one point in the ballet scene his assistant director, Robert Aldrich, called to an aide before the camera started to turn: "If anything goes wrong technically give me a signal.' To which Chaplin promptly appended: "We'll stop if anything goes esthetically wrong.' Chaplin later told his visitor that 'if the audience is so intent on watching technique that people become disturbed if you come into the scene from the left in one shot and from the right in the next, then you are not entertaining them. If the picture is good enough they should be too absorbed in the story to notice. "

Luis Bunuel wrote that he stopped worrying about divine moral imperatives once he had accepted the reality of imagination. "My form of atheism', he wrote, 'leads inevitably to an acceptance of the inexplicable.' He could have well been speaking for Chaplin. There he sits, on his director's chair, surrounded by the machines of creation, camera, lights, cables, sets, props, costumes, film crew and actors, trying to conjure, out of this chaos- something. He knows not what it is. Unlike other movie masters, he does not have the film in his head, fully formed. It will emerge out of the mulch o experience, out of the process of this communal art which is also so intensely personal. An assistant is poised with that dreaded instrument of time wasted the clapperboard:

Slate number 4,655!

Will this brief flurry of action produce the imaginary moment that Chaplin knows exists, yet unformed?

It will. It did. It is.

1 comment:

  1. * This is how Monsieur Verdoux explains himself to the jury:

    "As for being a mass killer, does not the world encourage it? Is it not building weapons of destruction for the sole purpose of mass killing? Has it not blown unsuspecting women and children to pieces- and done it very scientifically? As a mass killer, I am an amateur by comparison. However, I do not wish to lose my temper, because very shortly I shall lose my head. Nevertheless, upon leaving this spark of earthly existence, I have this to say: I shall see you all, very soon."

    As Verdoux, who has finally become Charlie again, is offered a last swig of rum, and, after a hesitation, says, I've never tasted rum.' and takes it, throws his chest out and breathes deep the fetid air of the execution chamber- the only air he has left- he recapitulates, for the last time, the Tramp walks into the sunset. But there is no sunset, merely the vaulted grill of the death chamber, with the axe, unseen, waiting. It is a strangely triumphant walk, as the music swells, to the technically obligatory but misleading fade and title of THE END.