Henry’s huge figure had been familiar to me for some time. But not until I looked into his kindly eyes did I realize what a definite quality of sympathetic understanding radiated from his tremendous strength. One can appreciate how the high-strung artist–the world’s playfellow, but the loneliest man in it, has grown to rely upon Henry Bergman.
At first he was reluctant to talk of his association with Chaplin. So, to draw him out, I asked him to talk about himself, knowing it would be impossible for Henry to do this without talking about Charlie.
The first thing I learned was surprising–that Henry is a native of California, as are three generations of Bergman farmers. Bergman’s father was a breeder of fine horses, his mother a former grand opera singer, who as “Aeolla” was well-known in Europe. Henry inherited his mother’s talent and sang on the same stages on which she appeared. He studied in Germany and Italy, making his operatic debut in a small role in Faust.
“I got my histrionic training in Wagnerian roles,” he told me.
“Twenty years ago I came into pictures. Before that I had been with Augustin Daly’s company for nine years in New York. I was catapulted from stage to screen by a music comedy flop. I had been rehearsing for it many weeks without pay and when it closed a few days after it opened I was disgusted. ‘This is no business for me,’ said I.”
“One day I ran into a player I had known in Germany. When I asked him what he was doing he said. ‘Sh-h-h, don’t let anyone know, I’m working in pictures. Doing pretty well, too, making $5 a day.’
“He suggested he might be able to fix me up at a studio. The idea rather appealed to me, that when you don’t get paid, you don’t need to work, so I went out with him to the Pathe. There I got my first job as heavy with Pearl White in The Perils Of Pauline. An introduction to Paul Panzer led to my association with Henry Lehrman with whom I came to Hollywood with the Elco Company in 1914.
“We did a series of pictures after which I went to Mr. Chaplin and stayed with him. I had known Mr. Chaplin personally. We used to be quite friendly at dinners, etc. and when I mentioned to him that I was looking for a job, he said: ‘Why don’t you come with me? You can work with me when I start a company of my own.’ That’s the way it was.”
As simply as that, Henry tried to dismiss his long association with the Napoleon of the movies. But the reporter pressed him for details.
“Just how do you assist Mr. Chaplin in directing?” I asked.
Henry shrugged a protesting shoulder at the word “directing.”
“What I really do is cueing. I stand in Mr. Chaplin’s place cueing while he enacts the scene. Then he takes my place and I do his part while he directs.”
“Is Mr. Chaplin difficult to work with?” I inquired.
“The easiest man, never abusive, never impatient. I don’t believe anyone else could get out of people what he does. At first they are a little overawed by such a big man. But he soon puts them thoroughly at ease. He always reassures them like this: ‘I don’t know much more about this than you do. Instead of telling you what to do, perhaps I can show you better.’ If the player doesn’t respond properly, instead of saying ‘No, no, that’s wrong!’ he very quietly says: ‘Maybe I didn’t show you right. I will do it again.’
“He always likes the most dramatic scenes best. When he did the last scene in City Lights, where the flower girl recognizes him. I was sitting alongside the camera. Gradually I could feel my eyes fill up. ‘That’s funny I’m affected that way.’ I thought. I turned around and the script girl had tears rolling down her face. I looked at the cameraman, Mr. Totheroh, who had been with Charlie for 15 years, and he was weeping.”
“When Charlie saw the reaction, he was like a child. He looked at me and said, ‘All right, Henry?’ Then he got a little cocky and said, ‘I’ll do it again.’ ‘Oh, don’t spoil it, Charlie.’ I urged. But he did the scene twice again and better each time.”
“A few hours after the Hollywood opening of City Lights, I was just leaving the studio in my car when Charlie drove up. At once he came to me and said in all seriousness: ‘Henry, I don’t know so much about this picture, I’m not sure.’ And I said to him: “I’m telling you, Charlie, I’ve never failed you yet, have I? If this isn’t right you will quit the business and go live abroad on what you’ve got. Nobody can do what you’ve done.”
“It really is a supreme achievement of histrionic art. Finer ln construction than A Woman Of Paris or The Kid. It has more comedy and one of the most dramatic moments that has ever appeared on the screen.”
“Did you ever see such a world of drama?” said Henry, now appealing to me, “when the flower girl recognizes in the tramp the man she had visualized as being wealthy and charming? Charlie realizing that he would break the spell if he walked away, did the only thing there was to do–left it to your imagination. It is your business to figure out what you would like to happen.”
I made a futile attempt to get some admission from Mr. Bergman as to whether he played any part in assisting Mr. Chaplin to compose the score for City Lights. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if he hasn’t had something to with the comedian’s love of music. Music and travel are his only relaxations.
“When Chaplin left Hollywood” (on his world tour), remarked Henry, “he said: ‘I won’t be long. I’ll come back and go to work after I’ve relaxed and played around a little bit.’ He took his Japanese valet with him, and his secretary, Carlyle Robinson.
“Until he returns, I’ll not hear a solitary word. Charlie never writes to anybody. He never even wires about business. That’s why he has to have someone with him all the time.”
“Mr. Chaplin is interested financially in your cafe is he not?”*
“That’s just a story,” said Henry, “but I haven’t bothered to deny it. When I found myself, seven and eight months at a time, walking up and down Hollywood Boulevard between Chaplin pictures, I said to myself, “this won’t do. I’m getting to the age where my mind must be occupied. I’ve been a bachelor all my life, eaten in restaurants in all parts of Europe. I thought it would be a good idea to create in Hollywood a place where people could feel at home, sit around and chat with their friends. The kind of cafe they have in every country in Europe.”
As I passed out of the cafe, by the deaf and dumb newsboy who maintains the front of Henry’s as his special right, and walked down the gayly lit boulevard, I thought how strange it was that in Hollywood, obsessed by self-aggrandizement, I should find in the heart of a cafe proprietor such unselfish allegiance and devotion to the world-famous clown with whom he works and weeps.
In a way, Henry Bergman can be likened to a piano tuner who keeps the unique instrument that is Charlie Chaplin in shape to play upon the world’s emotions.
*Henry’s Cafe opened in the 1920s. It became one of the most popular lunch spots in Hollywood. Charlie was a regular customer.