Journalist Sara Hamilton describes a day on the Chaplin lot during the filming of Modern Times:
A Chaplin picture conference is something that defies description. When the picture situations (they are never referred to as gags on the Chaplin lot) have been perfected in the mind of Chaplin–a long slow process that requires from two to four years–Della [Steele] and Henry [Bergman] are then summoned to a conference in Charlie’s bungalow.
About the table they gather–and the situations are acted out one after the other. Charlie begins by taking his own role as the little tramp, closely watching their reactions to his every move. Henry, who weighs the better part of a ton, is then called upon to play Chaplin’s role; Della takes Miss [Paulette] Goddard’s role of the little street waif; Charlie is the factory foreman. Then swiftly they change parts again. Della is Charlie, the tramp; Henry is a policeman and Chaplin becomes the street waif.
|Henry Bergman and Della Steele, c.1935. ©Roy Export S.A.S.|
It was his untiring striving for perfection in performance and his gentle patience with the clumsiest performer that impressed a titled visitor (and visitors are rare) at the Chaplin lot recently. Rehearsals began at ten that morning with extras and bit players ready and waiting. Then began one of the strangest phenomena every witnessed. Chaplin directing his own picture. In explaining the action to the owner of the delicatessen shop, Charlie became the character. In some manner he took on enormous proportions, his face rounded, his hands grew massive and clumsy as the tramp faded in the background.
In a flash he became the policeman, growing in stature before the eyes as he strutted, stormed and threatened. Then on to Miss Goddard’s role. Prone on the sidewalk he wept, cried out in childish despair, “I didn’t, please, please, I didn’t steal the ham. Oh please, I didn’t, Mister. Honest, I didn’t.” The voice, not Chaplin’s, but the voice of the frightened waif–wept and cried and pleaded from the sidewalk. Now, in a flash, he was an extra tramp, weaving his gentle way in perfect rhythm in and out among the characters.
|Directing Paulette Goddard. ©Roy Export S.A.S.|
From ten till four it went on without a moment’s pause. And then, with the perspiration dripping down his face, he humbly thanked them all and with an apology for having carried them past the lunch hour, staggered off, tired and weary, to his little bungalow, his cane flipping a feeble staccato as he went.
There is little boisterousness around the Chaplin studio. The Chaplinites feel that unwarranted noise or crude language might offend “him.” “Him” in case you haven’t guessed, is the little tramp, the tattered ragamuffin, the gallant little gentleman with his absurdly defiant elegance who picks his teeth with such delightful savoir faire and belches with such charming daintiness.
To them this pathetic little creature who once, long ago, sprang from the forehead of Charles Spencer Chaplin, is a definite personality. He lives, he breathes, he thinks, he walks his troubled way alone. His name to all of them, is just “he.”
In the midst of some hilarious bit of tragedy in which “he” finds himself involved on the set, Chaplin will figuratively stand aside and contemplate his little friend with an amused chuckle and a knowing wink that seems to say, “our little friend got himself into a fine pickle that time, didn’t he?”
So it was when they showed Charlie the sweater knit by the loving hands of some dear old lady and sent over to the Chaplin studio with a note explaining it was for the little tramp when the wind blew cold. Chaplin’s eyes grew misty as he said, “Write and thank her and tell her not to worry. “I’ll always take care of ‘him.'”
–Sara Hamilton, “The New Charlie Chaplin,” Baltimore Sun, September 1, 1935