Francesca was five-years-old when she was chosen to play “Aggie” in Charlie Chaplin’s film, The Great Dictator (1940). She is best remembered for the line: “Not yet, he’s polishing a bald man’s head.” Here, for the first time, are Francesca’s detailed memories of the filming and of “Mr. Chaplin.” Even though she was young, she was evidently quite aware of her surroundings (hence the phrase she uses below “Little Pitchers Have Big Ears.”) I want to express to her my sincere thanks for taking the time to share her rare and fascinating story with me and for giving me the opportunity to be the first to share it with you.
1. How did I come to be in the film?
My mother, who seems to have had cinematic aspirations for me, taught me the entire Balcony scene from Romeo & Juliet at the age of 2. I can still recite it. She brought me from where we lived in Oakland to Hollywood (I had been on the radio—Death Valley Days—singing Brahm’s lullaby in German, of all things—in San Francisco). My father was the Sports Editor of the Los Angeles Examiner. I remember acting in several stage plays (The Constant Nymph; Ibsen’s, A Doll’s House) in Hollywood at the El Capitan Theatre. I later discovered that I had been in a Laurel & Hardy film, of which I have absolutely no memory.1 My memories of later films are negligible, and not terribly pleasant.
I’m not certain how my mother found out about Mr. Chaplin’s film, but I do remember being dressed in an orange/brown striped cotton sun-suit patterned with tiny flowers (that translates into a very innocent one-pieced striped pinafore top with longish shorts, of the same material) and sandals. My mother always parted my hair in the center, braided it, and put it into a crown on my head with two little curled ends as you can see from the picture. She also put a very large cartwheel hat with similar autumn colors on my head.
I remember standing in an anteroom at the Chaplin Studios (which, on the outside, looked like an old English half-timbered mansion) with perhaps ten other children. And someone, the casting director, I imagine, saying, “Will the little girl in the big hat please step forward?” I remember them asking me to take off my hat. I suppose they asked me questions, but I don’t remember.
2. Broken memories: I remember being in a large office, and someone saying that I was ‘natural,’ and that they wanted to keep me that way. I remember someone saying that he wanted ’natural’, not an actress.
3. Mr. Chaplin had engaged a little girl, the same age, or perhaps a year older, who’d come to the set with her mother. She was to be my special companion and playmate on the set when my scenes were not being shot (Unfortunately, I can’t remember her name, but she was very sweet; she had brown hair and a spattering of freckles on her face). We had a tutor; and the nurse, whom you see in the picture of me playing ball with Mr. Chaplin, had to be on the set whenever we were. My time between takes was very pleasant because of this little girl. I don’t believe that she had any actual role in the film, other than to keep me company during ‘school hours’. I do remember someone, Mr Chaplin, I think, saying that he didn’t want me playing with the extras (That sounds rather snobby to my grownup ears, but I think it had to do with keeping me ‘natural’.)
4. I was told that I was Aggie, Hannah’s—Paulette Goddard’s—‘niece’. Emma Dunne, who seemed elderly to my five-year old self, was my mother. I remember spending lots of time standing around between takes in the ghetto, holding her hand. I also remember sitting for quite some time with Paulette Goddard on the bench in the ghetto. We were having a lovely conversation and laughing together, she was like a playmate (Perhaps this was my screen test. I don’t remember ever taking one.). She was always so nice and friendly to me, as was everybody.
5. There were two ‘Ghettos’, an indoor ghetto and an outdoor ghetto. The indoor ghetto, in a huge soundstage (or it looked huge to me), consisted of the courtyard [no gates; the cameras and lights were outside what would have been the wall/gate facing us]. It had a balcony that ran around the courtyard, and stairs. Looking out towards the lights and cameras, the entrance to the barbershop was located just beyond a door, backstage right. Taking into account my age, I remember the barber shop being very realistic. I thought of it as a real place. Then there was the outdoor ghetto (more about it later), which was a street with shop fronts on a back lot.
6. My impressions of working in the indoor ghetto, where most of the scenes I was in took place. Lots of standing around, while lights were being adjusted. Mr. Chaplin would direct from the outside by the cameras, and then, depending on the scene, he’d come inside, in costume.
Vivid impressions; I remember being lifted up and set onto a barrel behind Paulette Goddard, who’s sitting on a bench. This was a scene in which all the inhabitants of the ghetto were celebrating something. I remember the stormtroopers (who looked comic in their red pants—which we were told photographed better than grey) standing outside the scene, by the cameras watching as our scenes were being shot—they had just done a scene elsewhere else on the soundstage, in which they had been singing a catchy song, which has stuck in my mind, and seemed very funny at the time. I have never forgotten either the words or the tune: “We’re Aryans; We’re Aryans; We’re Ary-Ary-Ary-Ary Aryans!” (Quite bold satire, when one thinks of it!)
I suppose one scene was taking longer to prepare than usual. All of a sudden, Mr Chaplin, who was directing from the outside, in makeup and costume (He was wearing what I recall as being a green plaid vest), came inside the ghetto. He started dancing a jig, just to entertain the cast, and keep them from getting more restless than usual. Since I was on the barrel, I remember he had his back to us, and he was facing the cameras. I don’t know if they ever shot any of that in film, but a still remains. I like to think that the cameras were moving. We were all clapping our hands. It was very funny, and it was also very kind of him to break up any restlessness the cast might have had.
|I’m sitting on the large barrel behind Hannah—Paulette Goddard, at left.
Mr. Chaplin improvised a jig to entertain us!
6a. Another ghetto memory (Little pitchers have big ears!) was of a red-haired woman wearing a fringed flowered scarf over her shoulders. Between takes, she made some remark to Mr. Chaplin, calling him “Charlie.” I remember him looking at her coldly, and saying quietly but firmly, “Mr. Chaplin.” He must have wanted to preserve the distance between director and cast.
7. As for my scenes that are left in the film. You’ll see me washing my doll under the porch, and the one closeup, after Hannah says, “Aggie, go and see if he’s ready yet.” I recall running across the balcony, down the stairs, and going to the door of the barber shop. Then you will notice, that my line, “Not yet, he’s polishing a bald man’s head!” is said from behind the door. There is a story attached to that.
|Note Aggie in the background washing her doll.|
7a. Disaster! We were shooting those scenes over and over, and Mr. Chaplin was so funny, as was the man in the barber chair. They had me giggling during rehearsals (I think they must have been improvising in order to make the situation real for me). The scenes were shot on a Friday, I believe, and were going to be resumed after the weekend on Monday. Meanwhile, at home, I was playing with my friends (We lived close to the studios on Formosa Avenue, which used to have beautiful Victorian houses, but is now all ugly apartments). Some of my playmates began chasing me—it might have been a game of tag. At any rate, I was looking over my right shoulder and I ran smack into a tall palm tree with a very rough surface; the left side of my face, I recall, was all scratched and bruised. My mother put brown iodine on it. I remember screaming from the sting of the iodine.
We went back to the studio on Monday. I remember the uproar. Someone saying to my mother, couldn’t you have used white iodine? I remember great discussions about whether they could put makeup on my face. I remember someone else saying, perhaps we should have her knocked about by a stormtrooper. I also remember protracted discussions about how long it would take the wounds to heal and the question of shooting around me. It was pretty intense. I have a feeling they were furious with my mother for not watching me like a hawk. No one made me feel bad, though, but I was pretty miserable with my face banged up.
I’ll never forget what happened next. Mr. Chaplin sent everyone home for the day, I remember having lunch, and sitting with my playmate and the nurse somewhere in the outdoor set, and all of a sudden, Mr. Chaplin appeared, from behind a wall, dressed in his costume as the Little Tramp, with cane, moustache, baggy trousers, and bowler hat. He then spent at least an hour entertaining me, making me (and my friend) laugh with his classic Little Tramp routine—the funny walk with his toes turned out—all in pantomime. It was wonderful, and I think it was a very kind thing to do, to make a little girl, who had had an accident that had upset the shooting schedule, laugh!
At any rate, that is why my actual line, “He’s polishing a bald man’s head.” is said from behind the door. It must have been one of the many takes they had done the weekend before (I remember doing the scene from both inside and outside the barbershop). I believe that more must have been planned for me, or they wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of hiring me a playmate to be my constant companion on the set.
8. The story behind the picture, where I am playing ball with Mr. Chaplin, comes at a later time. I recall being called back to the set some weeks/months later. My wounds had healed. The scene, which took place in the outdoor ghetto street, was explained to me, before it was shot, as follows: The Jewish Barber has been substituted for the dictator. The false dictator has sent out the message that everyone should ‘live and let live’. To prepare for the scene, Mr. Chaplin, not in costume, was trying to teach me to play catch. No one knew that I was nearsighted, and I could not see the ball to catch it. In the photo, besides Mr Sydney Chaplin, whom I also remember as being a kind man, is the nurse who had to be on the set whenever I was, and I think the man sitting on the barrel was the publicity director, but I am not certain.
|“Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the ball to catch it! Mr. Chaplin was very patient!”
At left is Francesca’s nurse. Henry Bergman is seated behind Francesca.
Standing at right is Sydney Chaplin.
The scenario for the scene: A stormtrooper, who has heard the barber/false dictator’s message, happens to be passing the ghetto in the street. Aggie is bouncing the ball against the ghetto wall. The ball bounces into the street. Aggie runs into the street; a black car comes racing out of nowhere, and is about to hit the child, but the passing stormtrooper, who has heard the ‘dictator’s’ new message on the radio, grabs Aggie in the nick of time, and the car doesn’t hit her.
Now the way the scene was actually shot, and how it was shot, should be of interest to film historians. I remember it vividly: It was all done in reverse (I hope I get it in the right order). The automobile, which was on a sort of train track, moved slowly backwards. At the same time: 1) The giant stormtrooper lifted me up from the sidewalk by the shoulders, whirled me towards the center of the street and then carried me into the middle of the street where he put me down; 2) I put the ball down carefully onto the ground; 3) Then, empty-handed, I backed slowly towards the curb. I was told that when the film was reversed and sped up, the ball, which I had been bouncing against the ghetto wall, would bounce into the street, just as the car was ‘careening’ out of nowhere; I would run into the street; the passing stormtrooper would pull me out, almost from under the car’s wheels. I remember doing many takes for the scene, so that the timing would be right.
9. As for what happened to the scene, I can only surmise in retrospect. Hitler had annexed Austria, and continued on his insane course for world domination. Mr Chaplin had to change the ending rather suddenly. My ‘big scene’, which might have once important to the plot, ended up on the cutting room floor. The photograph is the only memory of the scene, the rehearsal of which went on for some time.
10. One more Chaplin memory. When the film had been finished. Mr. Chaplin invited me and my mother; the little girl who had been my companion and her mother, to tea at what I thought might be Sydney Chaplin’s house. There were two older English children there, a girl named Primrose, and a boy named Robin. I thought they might be Mr Sydney Chaplin’s children. It was my first experience of tea being served with milk, from a proper teapot, in proper flowered bone china cups and saucers. Since my role in the film ended up being so peripheral, I think it was a very kind gesture of Mr Chaplin to think of thanking me with a tea party after the film had wrapped up.2
11. As for Jack Oakie, a lovely funny man! I’m not sure when I first met him, but I certainly knew who he was, and that he had been in the Dictator, by the time I was in that ghastly film, Little Men. I’m not sure if I had seen The Great Dictator by that time. I believe my parents took me to see it, and I remember laughing at his Mussolini, or Napoloni.
|Francesca and Jack Oakie in Little Men (1940).
“So much for ‘natural’. Bleached blonde hair, every 10 days—Sheer hell!”
11a. About Wheeler Dryden, only the name “Mr. Dryden”—a large office—and excitement about baby “Spencer”3 are floating around in the recesses of my memories from that time.
12. I suppose that my parents had told me about the Little Tramp, but I can’t recall ever seeing actual silent films until I was much older, but I’ll never forget Mr. Chaplin appearing in the costume just to make me laugh when I was feeling bad. I don’t think I had ever actually heard previously about Charlie Chaplin. I was just taken to the studio, and the film became part of my life, as did the war, even before we were actually in it in 1941. I think the film made me conscious of the war (My mother used to take me to newsreels on Hollywood Blvd, which was a very different place in those days.).
13. As for what it was like being such a classic film. In retrospect, it is an honour to have played even such a small role. At the time it was simply part of ‘normality’ in what seemed an inexplicable but fascinating world. I remember a sense of intense drama, as we’d sit around the radio listening to broadcasts of the ever-darkening news, with Mr. Churchill and President Roosevelt encouraging us not to be afraid. I remember looking at maps and watching Germany, which looked to me like a purple amoeba, growing bigger and bigger as it absorbed Czechoslovakia and the rest (And the thing that made me feel safe, as a small child, was the pink of the British Empire, which stretched across the map of the world). This was before Japan got us into the war. The actual sense of being a part of history, both reel and real, did not come into my consciousness until much later, after I grew up, became an ancient historian, and began to put my life into perspective.
|Me and the dreaded palm trees, before the crash. I’m playing with a globe of the world.|
Just to give you an idea how much Charlie Chaplin was a part our culture during wartime, I’ll leave you the rhyme to which we used to skip rope (I turned the rope, because I couldn’t see the rope, to skip, either):
Charlie Chaplin went to France To teach the ladies how to dance: First the heel and then the toe And then the splits and around you go.
Salute to the captain, Bow to the Queen And turn your back On the Nazi submarine!
Dr. Francesca Santoro, 82, has a PhD in Ancient History and Archaeology. She is a retired professor and continues to teach in a private school in California. She is a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome, Italy, where she lived for a number of years, and she is a published author of two scholarly books on ancient Roman rhetoric. Besides ancient history, her hobbies include writing and the study of foreign languages. Because of her scholarly focus upon ancient Greek and Roman political discourse, she takes an intense interest in British politics. She has five children and five grandchildren.
1The film was Saps At Sea (1940). Watch here. Francesca’s part begins @ 11:44 and lasts for about a minute. 2This tea party took place at the home of Chaplin’s half-brother and assistant director, Wheeler Dryden, who lived at 1226 Gardner St. in West Hollywood. Primrose and Robin were the children of British journalist and playwright, R. J. Minney, who penned a biography of Chaplin in 1954 called The Immortal Tramp. In October 1940, Minney sent his wife and kids to live with the Drydens for protection during the war.
3Spencer Dryden (April 7, 1938 – January 11, 2005) was the son of Wheeler Dryden. Read more about him here.