Chaplin & Napoleon

                                                                  Chaplin in costume as Napoleon, c.1930
Chaplin had a life-long fascination with Napoleon Bonaparte and for many years considered making a film about him. When he was looking for a dramatic vehicle to launch Edna Purviance’s career, one of his first thoughts was to star her as Josephine to his Napoleon. Edna was not the first of Chaplin’s female friends/companions to be offered the role of the Little Corporal’s wife. Among them were Lita Grey (in private, Chaplin referred to her as “My Empress Josephine”),1 Raquel Meller, Merna Kennedy, Estelle Taylor,2 and May Reeves.

Merna Kennedy wearing a Napoleon-style hat (the same one Harry Crocker is wearing below)
in a photo taken at the Chaplin Studios.
Lita Grey posing in Napoleonic jewels at an exhibition in New York City, 1932.
During her marriage to Chaplin, they attended a fancy dress party as Napoleon and Josephine.
Click here to see a photo.

During the summer of 1934, Chaplin embarked on a screenplay for the Napoleon film with with his new friend, Alistair Cooke. Many months were spent on the script, which would be based on Napoleon’s experiences in St. Helena, until Chaplin suddenly declared “it’s a beautiful idea, for someone else.”3

                                                                  With Harry Crocker
Below is a home movie of Chaplin as Napoleon that was filmed by Alistair Cooke aboard Chaplin’s yacht, Panacea, during the summer of 1933. Alistair Cooke describes the film in his book, Six Men:

Chaplin suddenly asked me to take some photographs, both still and in motion, of himself as Napoleon. He pulled his hair down into a ropy forelock, slipped one hand into his breast pocket, and slumped into a wistful emperor. He started to talk to himself, tossing in strange names to me–Bertrand, Montholon–and then took umbrage, flung an accusing finger at me and, having transformed his dreamy eyes into icicles, delivered a tirade against the British treatment of him on “the little island.” His face was now a hewn rock of defiance. I still have it on film, and it’s a chilling thing to see. 

For a more in-depth look at the Napoleon project and how it eventually morphed (somewhat) into The Great Dictator, click here to watch a 20-minute visual essay by Chaplin archivist Cecilia Cenciarelli entitled “Chaplin’s Napoleon.”


1Lita Grey Chaplin, My Life With Chaplin

2Movie Classic, November 1932. Additional note: Chaplin was romantically linked to Taylor during the early part of 1924. There were even rumors of an engagement, but Taylor nipped that in the bud: “No, I couldn’t take that kind of punishment. I will pick my own persimmons. Charlie isn’t one of them.” (Adela Rogers St Johns, Love, Laughter, and Tears

3Alistair Cooke, Six Men


  1. and then there's than infamous picture (not featured here) with the impossibly tight pants. i swear, he was soaking in a tub the night before and let them dry while wearing them because there would have been NO way to squeeze in there any way else.

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