Working With Charlie Chaplin, Vol. 6: Talking Story

Chaplin holds a scenario conference at the Lone Star Studio during production of Behind The Screen, 1916.  L-R: Eric Campbell (2nd from left), Henry Bergman (next to Campbell, partially visible),  Frank J. Coleman, Loyal Underwood, Albert Austin (wearing boater hat), CC, Rollie Totheroh (far right).
(Source: Jeffrey Vance/Chaplin: Genius Of The Cinema)

  • For story conferences on pictures preceding The Circus and City Lights, Charlie used a small frame bungalow on the far northeast cor­ner of the studio lot. Consisting of a bedroom and dressing room, a bathroom, and a small kitchen, it was secluded and quiet. Sometimes he would sit, one foot tucked under him, slashing at the leather cushion with one of his limber bamboo canes, as if in an effort to whip out an idea. Mostly, though, when he was thinking he would walk. Furiously. The room was small. Restlessly he would pace up and down like a caged animal. Sometimes he would detour through the rest of the bungalow. That he was in another room didn’t stop him talking…. “Have you got that down?” Charlie would demand incessantly of Carl Robinson who, pencil in hand, had been making notes of all ideas expressed and suggestions made. He would walk up and shake an impatient finger at the sheet of paper. “Get all this down! I can’t remember everything. Have you got the ring gag down? And the fruit stand? And the vegetable wagon?” Carl would nod. –Excerpt from Harry Crocker manuscript, Academy Leader, April 1972
  • He came scurrying into the bungalow every morning on the dot of ten in cap, tieless shirt, white slacks and the angora sweater, sat down at the creaky little table and said, “Shall we go?”…Then we started the [Napoleon] script, and the first thing he taught me was that you don’t begin at the beginning. “We look,” he said, laying down the law with a firm index finger tapping the table, “for some little incident, some vignette that fixes the other characters. With them, the audience must never be in any doubt. We have to fix them on sight. Nobody cares about their troubles. They stay the same. You know them every time they appear. This is no different from the characters who surround ‘the little fellow.’ He’s the one we develop.”
  • Sometimes we had along Carter de Haven, whom Chaplin had hired to be assistant director on Modern Times….Almost always, except during the knottier historical sketches, there was his massive old friend, spiritual uncle and adviser, Henry Bergman, who had played in some of the early two-reelers as every sort of foil from a fat lady and a bum to a pawnshop owner. Bergman was a huge, gentle old German to whom Chaplin always referred some promising scene or gag. He said very little, but if Chaplin had doubts, in the moment of improvising, he would look over to Bergman, say, “No?” and Bergman would shake his head, and we’d forget it. –Alistair Cooke, Six Men, 1956

Still from How To Make Movies (1918). L-R: Tom Wilson, Loyal Underwood, CC, Henry Bergman, Rollie Totheroh Jack Wilson, Edna Purviance

  • The “writing” of the story is done in Charlie’s room at the Athletic Club, for obvious reasons which will appear when it is related that the other night a bellboy, entering Charlie’s room, found the whole crowd rehearsing a wild scene, and started to call for the police. –Grace Kingsley, “Charlie Chaplin Begins Work In New Studio,” Los Angeles Times, January 20th, 1918
  • 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 gather Charlie, Henry and Della and the situations are then acted out one after the other. Charlie begins by taking his own role of 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 and Charlie is the factory foreman. They go into the scene, silently moving about the room. Swiftly they change parts again. Della is Charlie the tramp. Henry is the policeman and Chaplin becomes the street waif, a look of pathetic wistfulness stealing across his face as the Chaplin features fade into some vague mist and the hungry child of the streets emerges in perfect form. Trying to hide their tears Della and Henry watch the character before them. Not Chaplin. Certainly not Chaplin. But a strange and terrified child. –Sara Hamilton, “Charles Chaplin and Charlie Chaplin,” Straits Times, March 20th, 1936
  • There is another story that Harry D’Arrast loves to tell as convincing proof that Charlie is an eccentric and unpredictable genius. Shooting had been suspended for a few minutes while the staff sat down to discuss a certain scene. During the discussion a fly kept buzzing around Charlie’s head; he slapped at it several times, finally became annoyed, and called for a fly swatter. The swatter was obtained and Charlie took charge of it. As the discussion continued he watched the fly, waiting for an opportunity to swat it. But this was a very elusive fly. Three times Charlie swung at it and three times he missed. At last the fly settled on a table directly before him. He raised the swatter to deliver the death blow. Then he changed his mind and lowered his weapon, allowing the fly to escape.
    “Why didn’t you swat it?” someone demanded.
    Charlie shrugged. “It wasn’t the same fly.” –Adolphe Menjou, It Took Nine Tailors, 1948


  1. The first time I saw the Behind the Screen story conference photo was about 8-10 years ago. I'm pretty sure Rollie is the youngest one in the picture and boy does he look it! One correction, in the frame grab from How to Make Movies, the 'cameraman' is Jack Wilson. Rollie was the actual cameraman, so behind the camera that took the picture, not in it. DT

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