Charlie At The Wheel

Charlie & Oona going for a drive, c. 1950s

Charlie was a notoriously bad driver. According to his son, Charlie, Jr., he was easily distracted by the scenery around him and would sail through traffic lights or swerve into oncoming traffic. “I think he seldom looked at the road ahead,” recalled his son. Charlie bought his first car when he was with the Keystone company: “The first day I ran it, it went on a gasoline jag. First it playfully climbed a telephone pole, then it bit me when I tried to fix the speedometer, and lastly, when I got out and tried to pry the darn thing loose from a house it had run into, it jammed me up against a wall and wouldn’t let me go.”1 A few years later, he crashed a brand-new Rolls-Royce roadster into a pole on Sunset Boulevard, only a few blocks from his studio. He was also involved in a couple of crashes in which he wasn’t the driver of the car, one with Paulette (Charlie’s chauffeur was driving, Paulette suffered a bump on the head) and another with Oona (Jerry Epstein was the driver, no one was injured).

One of the first things Charlie did when he became wealthy was to buy a car and acquire a chauffeur. In those days, he had little interest in driving. “I don’t drive my car about much. In fact about the only thing I like to do is ramble around.”2 Sometimes Charlie had no choice in the matter. When it came time for his first wife, Mildred Harris, to give birth to their son, the chauffeur was not available, so Charlie rushed to the garage and got out the car. He wrapped Mildred in a blanket, placed her in the car, and drove her to the hospital himself.3  In 1930, Harry Lang of Photoplay magazine observed that Charlie “prefers to drive himself and let the chauffeur ride in the backseat.”4 Although he had several cars at his disposal, his car of choice was almost always a Ford sedan. Charlie, Jr. said his father kept the same one for years because he was “confused by the strange gadgets on later models.”5 In his book, Remembering Charlie, Jerry Epstein recalls riding to work with Charlie during the filming of Limelight: “We spotted Aldrich (Robert Aldrich, assistant director) driving ahead of us in his brand-new Cadillac. Charlie grumbled: ‘Look at him driving a Cadillac while I’m driving a small Ford!’ ‘You can afford a Cadillac,” I said, ‘Why don’t you buy one?’ ‘But I don’t like big cars, I like small ones.’ ‘Well Bob likes big cars, so leave him alone!’ I said.”

Go-karting with Douglas Fairbanks, c. 1919
Charlie’s international driver’s license, which was sold at a Julien’s auction earlier this year

1Los Angeles Times, August 20th, 1916
2New York Herald, September 11th,1921
3Interview with Mildred Harris, 1935, reprinted in Charlie Chaplin: A Centenary Celebration, Peter Haining, ed. Note: Charlie & Mildred’s son, Norman Spencer, lived only three days.
4Harry Lang, “No Talkies For Charlie,” Photoplay, May 1930
5Charles Chaplin, Jr., My Father, Charlie Chaplin, Random House, 1960

1 Comment

  1. Glenn Ford's son Peter recalled in an article a few years back that Chaplin accidentally ran over and killed their family dog on a rainy night in Beverly Hills. Ford remembered that Chaplin brought the dog's body to the door wrapped in his coat, and was deeply distressed by what happened.

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