Chaplin at the start of his Essanay career: Shy, cheerful, serious, and scared to death of publicity

It was around this time 100 years ago that Chaplin arrived in Chicago to begin his new contract with the Essanay company. Eager to talk to the comedian about his move to the Windy City and his upcoming film plans, reporters clamored for interviews with the, as they would soon find out, notoriously shy Chaplin. His attempts to dodge them were unsuccessful and the results were some of the first major interviews of his film career–before he became an international star. Below are excerpts from four of these interviews, conducted soon after his arrival at Essanay in January 1915:

“Charles Chaplin In A Serious Mood” by Clarence J. Caine, Motography, January 16, 1915:

He arrived in Chicago the latter part of last week in the company of “Broncho Billy” Anderson and will remain at the Essanay studios in that city indefinitely, producing his imimitable farce comedies which have proved such a drawing card for exhibitors in all parts of the world. He seldom moved as fast while on screen as he did during the first few days of his stay in the Windy City. “Charlie” was wanted here and “Charlie” was wanted there, from the time he arrived in the studio in the morning until he left at night. Therefore it was rather difficult to catch him but I finally managed to corner him in the advertising department of the big studio on Argyle Street for an interview.

“Do you know to what extent the popularity of your comedies has reached?” 

“No,” he frankly replied, “but I have been told that they are quite amusing. I often wonder if the people sitting in the theater realize the immense amount of thought we put into our efforts or the depth of screen psychology.”

Yes, friend reader, the carefree vision that “skates” into a scene on one foot or throws pies at his “opponents” is really a serious thinking young man. Young because it was only 25 years ago that he was introduced to this life. England being the first country to be honored by his presence….

He paused again and I asked him if he had anything he’d like to tell our readers. 

“Just say that I am doing  my best to please them and that I hope that my releases under the Essanay banner will be as agreeable to them as my past work. And say! Tell them that I am just a fellow, a human being like they are and that I enjoy almost everything that is enjoyable.”

Chaplin sporting an Indian headdress, á la the Essanay logo.

“The Funniest Man On The Screen” by Victor Eubank, Motion Picture, March 1915:

Mr. Chaplin threw up his hands. “I have been in the Essanay studio just fifteen minutes,” he said, “and I don’t know anything about anything.”

I had heard about Charles Chaplin joining the Essanay Company and hurried to the Essanay studios at Chicago to get an interview on the new comedies I understood he was going to put out.

I met a rather handsome man with almost jet black hair and brown eyes [sic] which looked at me with a seriousness I could scarcely connect with a comedian. In fact, although I have seen him in comedies many times on the screen, I should not have known him.

I imagined I would see a man about forty years old, tall and with a comical expression. He is short, and he hardly smiled at all during the half-hour I talked with him. He takes his work as seriously as ever a “heavy man” is supposed to do.

He wore not a jewel: no stick pin, no ring, no watch, nothing in the line of ornamentation. I think he paid at least fifteen dollars for his suit, though I did not have the nerve to ask him. But he told me himself, with just a trace of a twinkle in his eye, that he had been grossly insulted by a newsboy, who recognized him, the first minute he landed in Chicago.

“I don’t care anything about dress,” he said. “As I got off the train a newsie spotted me. ‘What do you thank of that hamfat?’ he yelled to his companion. ‘One hundred thousand bucks a year, and he looks like a tramp. …'”

“It was only a year and a day ago that someone got the hunch that I could make good in motion pictures, and here I am. Yes, I am going to start immediately on a new line of comedies, and I believe they will beat everything else I have ever put out.

“The first time I looked at myself on the screen, however, I was ready to resign. That can’t be I, I thought. Then when I realized it was, I said, ‘Good-night.’ Strange enough, I was told that the picture was a scream. I had always been ambitious to work in drama, and it certainly was the surprise of my life when I got away with the comedy stuff.

When I asked Mr. Chaplin about comedy, he pulled a long, long face.

“It really is a serious study,” he said, “although it must not be taken seriously. That sounds like a paradox, but it’s not. It is a serious study to learn characters; it is a hard study. But to make comedy a success there must be an ease, a spontaneity in the acting that cannot be associated with seriousness.

“I lay out my plot and study my character thoroughly. I even follow the character I am to represent for miles or sit and watch him at his work before I attempt to portray him. For instance, I recently took the part of a barber.1 I even went and got my hair cut, which is my pet aversion. In fact, I never get it cut until the boys along the street yell at me. Then I know it must be done, and I submit to the slaughter.

“But I picked out a particular busy barber shop, so that I could sit there a long time before my turn came. I watched all the barber’s ways. I studied out exactly what he did, and what he might be expected to do in my photoplay. Then I followed him home that night. He was some walker, and it was three miles to his home, but I wanted to know all his little idiosyncrasies….

“In fact, naturalness is the greatest requisite of comedy. It must be real and true to life. I believe in realism absolutely. Real things appeal to the people far quicker than the grotesque. My comedy is actual life, with the slightest twist or exaggeration, you might say, to bring out what it might be under certain circumstances.

“People want the truth. In the human heart, for some reason or other, there is love of truth. You must give them the truth in comedy. Spontaneous acting hits the truth nine times out of ten, where studied work misses it just as often.

“But there is a time and place for everything. Even in slapstick comedy there is an art. If one man hits another in a certain way at exactly the right psychological moment, it is funny. If he does it a moment too early or too late, it misses the mark. And there must be a reason to produce a laugh. To pull off an unexpected trick, which the audience sees is a logical sequence, brings down the house.

“It is always the little things that brings the laughs. It is the peculiar capers, the little actions suited to the situation that make the hit.

“Motion picture comedy is still in its infancy. In the next few years I expect to see many improvements that you could then scarcely recognize the comedy of the present day.”

“Charles Chaplin, A Modest Violet, Scared To Death Of Publicity” by Mae Tinee, Chicago Tribune, January 10, 1915:

“Why,” I asked him at the start, “don’t you like to be interviewed? Don’t you know it’s good for you?”

“I doubt it,” he said. “You see, people aren’t strong for celebrities that are already made. When a man’s been boasted to the skies, they’re apt to sit back in their seats and say: ‘I don’t see anything so wonderful about that chap. Nothing to make a fuss about. He’s overrated.’ But if the man is not made, they take joy and pride in discovering him. They say: ‘Now, there’s a man that can act. He’s a comer.’ Later when the man’s made good they have all the joy of saying: ‘I told you so.’ Get me?” 

“How did you happen to leave Keystone?”

“Contract ran out. I had several other offers, but Mr. Anderson’s was the most promising, so I accepted. I think I’m going to like it here–nice people, nice studio, etc. With conditions favorable a man can do much better work, you know. I’ll miss California and the old Keystone bunch, though,” he sighed. 

“But,” I comforted him,” your audience will follow you. That should delight your soul! And your correspondents will write to you.”

He grinned. “You bet they will. Say, Miss Tinee, I must tell you about the first letter I ever received. I never was so pleased about anything in my life. It was from a little chap, and after telling me I was his ‘favrit’ about six times, he ended his letter by saying, ‘You was certainly grand, Mr. Chaplin, all threw the pixter, but the way you squirted watter out of your moth was classic!”

We laughed until we cried. Then he talked a little longer about his work, etc. Finally as I saw several people waiting impatiently, I left him and I’m sure I was not mistaken about hearing him heave a sigh of relief. It sounded like a gust, so fulsome was it!

He’s a nice as well as a funny Charlie Chaplin, 25 and unmarried, girls. 

L-R: Francis X. Bushman, CC, and Broncho Billy Anderson, Chicago, 1915

“Charlie Chaplin: Cheerful Comedian” by Mary E. Porter, Picture-Play Weekly, April 24, 1915:

I rested in the advertising department of the Chicago studio of the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company, waiting for an interview, while the reserve forces of that department set out to find the popular Charlie. Yes, they all called him “Charlie,” though he had just arrived in their midst a few days before.

I wondered what sort of a fellow I was to meet. Was he old and gloomy, or was he middle-aged and foolish? And did he wear that little mustache in life off the screen? A thousand other things passed through my brain, until finally I admitted that I could in no way picture him to myself in advance.

Just as I reached this decision the advertising manager hurried into the room, followed by a smiling young chap, whom he introduced as “Mr. Chaplin.”

I wonder what he thought of me as I said something I could not remember a moment later, and looked at him in surprise. He was just an ordinary fellow in his twenties — twenty-five. I learned later—rather short, and of slight build; but the thing that impressed me most was his smiling, friendly features. At once I ceased wondering why they called him Charlie.

“I presume it is undignified for a near-critic to offer a compliment,” I said, by way of an opening shot, “but I certainly have enjoyed your pictures.”

“It’s very kind of you to say that, I’m sure,” he replied, with a gracious smile. Then he added, with a twinkle in his eye: “I’m afraid you are trying to put me in good humor for the interview, though, and really you haven’t a chance to succeed.”

We both laughed, and drew our chairs–supplied by the watchful advertising manager–up to a table in the corner of the room.

“You have an awful job on your hands if you expect to make this interesting reading matter,” he said, “for there are thousands of other players whose experiences have been far more exciting than mine.”

“We will do the best we can,” I comforted, and my tone must have sounded consoling, for Charlie–I guess I’ll have to call him that, too–laughed. Before we could begin, some one, who thought the room was too warm, opened the window. The cold Chicago air swooped down upon the comedian, and he executed one of those funny little turn-the-nose-up-and-look-to-the-side tricks you have often seen him “get over” on the screen. Then he quickly moved his chair around to the side nearest the steam pipes.

“And to think I was in California last week!” he said, in such a long-suffering tone that every one in the room was forced to laugh. “Broncho” Anderson did this. Only for him I wouldn’t be freezing. I’ll have to stand it a while longer. Then it’s back West for mine.” I knew he meant that if G.M. Anderson, “Broncho Billy,” as the public knows him, hadn’t signed him for the Essanay folks, that he would still be in the land of sunshine and motion pictures–namely California. But Charlie didn’t mean things the way he said them. I soon found this out, and I also learned that about two-thirds of the things he said had a laugh-getting power which one could not resist.

We settled down to our interview finally, and it was in the first few sentences that I learned his age, which I have previously given. And girls! He also said he wasn’t married, and had no thought of entering the marital state for some time.

“Tell me something about your career,” I requested, after carefully making a mental note of the “not married” fact.

He paused a moment to think over what he had done. Then he said: “I guess that will be easy. I worked in England for a while with my brother—you know I was born in England —and then joined the “Night in an English Music Hall” vaudeville company. We toured the Continent, and then came to America, where we traveled from coast to coast. I think we were here aboutwo years. I played under several names; but I have been told that the only way the public distinguished me was as the ‘funny drunk.’ “

“We were in the East…and Mack Sennet, who had seen the act while we were in California, wired me that there was an opening in the rank of the Keystone Company. Ford Sterling was leaving, though I didn’t know who was who in pictures at that time as I had never been much of a fan. Since I had first appeared before an audience I had an ambition to become a great dramatic actor, but it seemed that things had never come my way in this line.”

“The usual desire of the comedian for tragic roles,” I murmured.

Charlie smiled broadly, and I made another note on his character. He is one of those cheerful fellows, and never allows anything to give him the blues. The more things go wrong for his class the funnier the world seems. Therefore the title of this story….

 “Can you imagine how I felt, when I reported at the Keystone studio, and was told that I was to become chief comedian, and that I was to use the same methods that I had used in vaudeville?”

Charlie stopped, and laughed. Then he cleverly reached over and took the advertising manager’s cigarette case from that worthy’s desk, without being noticed, at the same time giving another clever exhibition of facial expression. After asking my permission, he lit one of the cigarettes, and, by means of letting the advertising manager know what had happened, thanked him for the smoke.

And then?” I queried.

He looked surprised, for he seemed to think that he had told all that was of interest.

 “Nothing much,” he added.

“A little over a year with Keystone, and then my present engagement with Essanay. I believe I will do some of the best work of my career here, for if the public look to my pictures as part of their amusement, I want to satisfy them.”

1This statement is a bit of a mystery. Some have wondered if Chaplin may have originally been involved in the Syd Chaplin comedy, Giddy, Gay & Ticklish, which is set in a barbershop, and was filmed toward the end of Charlie’s career at Keystone. But Chaplin doesn’t appear in the finished film and no evidence exists that he had anything to do with it. If anything, Chaplin may have just made up the barbershop stuff for the interview.

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