“I always knew I was a poet”

When Garson Kanin was a young production assistant at Samuel Goldwyn’s studio in 1937 he would spend his off hours screening films from the Goldwyn library. After several months he felt he had become “an expert on the oeuvre of Samuel Goldwyn” and decided to move on to films from other studios, many of which he hadn’t seen. “In time I felt I was ready to begin my study of Charles Chaplin.” But when he tried to acquire the films for viewing, he quickly discovered that Chaplin’s films were not loaned out, nor could he go to the studio to screen them.

Extremely frustrated and determined to have his way, “I picked up the phone and said to my secretary, ‘Get me Charles Chaplin!'”

“Who?” she enquired. 

“Mr. Chaplin,” I said. 

“Do we have his number?”

“Get it from somewhere. Goldwyn’s office. Somebody must have it.”

“Chaplin, did you say?”

“Chollychaplum!” I heard myself say [recalling the way he said Chaplin’s name as a child.]

“Oh,” she said. “Charlie Chaplin, of course.”

In less than a minute, the buzzer sounded. I picked up the phone. 

“Hello, Mr. Chaplin?”

“Who is this?” asked a high, fractious voice. 

I identified myself as one of Mr. Goldwyn’s assistants, which seemed to melt but not break the ice. I described my long efforts to get to see his films, explained why I wanted to do so, and did not forget to include about a minute and a half of shamelessly fulsome flattery.

When I finished there was a long pause, then he asked. “Do you play tennis?”

“No, sir, I’m afraid I don’t.”

Well, come over here anyway some day and we’ll talk about it.” 

Could I believe my ears? Was I being invited over by Charlie Chaplin?

“When?” I asked. 

“Any time,” he said. “Any afternoon.”

“How about right now,” I asked. 

He laughed and said, “All right. I’ll tell you where I am.”

“No, no. Don’t bother. I’ll find you!”

L-R: Chaplin, Laura Harding, Garson Kanin, & Tim Durant at the Fairway Yacht Club in New York, 1940
Another view here.

Kanin then had to ask his boss if he could skip the afternoon staff meeting to go to Charlie Chaplin’s house. Goldwyn was suspicious about why Chaplin would invite one of his young assistants to his house. “What’s it about? What does he want you for?” he wanted to know. Kanin explained the situation and Goldwyn finally agreed. “Go on. Go to Chaplin,” he said. “[But] come back after and tell me what he said about me.”

On his way out, Kanin stopped in Goldwyn’s outer office and got Chaplin’s address & instructions on how to get there.

As I approached the high wall surrounding Chaplin’s house on Summit Drive, I could scarcely believe what was happening to me. I drove through the gate, parked my car, and was about the ring the front doorbell when I heard a tennis game in progress. 

I made my way around to the tennis court. A tall, handsome man, who I would later know as Tim Durant, was playing against Bill Tilden. Actually, he was taking a lesson from Bill Tilden. Bill Tilden! The greatest tennis player in the world and Charlie Chaplin in the same day. It was too much. Chaplin rose and came to greet me at once. 

“Why, you’re just a kid,” he said. 

“Call me Jackie Coogan,” I said. 

Chaplin smiled and led me to a table. He was even smaller than I had imagined but vital and bursting with energy. 

“Iced tea?” he asked. 

“Fine,” I said. 

He picked up a pitcher full of iced tea with one hand, and a glass with the other, and did something extraordinary. He put the spout of the pitcher onto the rim of the glass, then spread his arms, one high and one low, creating a long stream of tea from pitcher to glass. He brought his hands together again, put the pitcher down, and handed me the glass. 

It is not possible, I reflected, for this great, great clown to do anything in the ordinary way. I wondered if he took his comic sense along when he went to bed with a girl. He told me later, much later, that he often did. In fact, he considered it larkish to fix his sights on the least likely, least attractive female he could find and play Don Juan to the end. Often, he told me, with astonishing results. 

It turned out to be the most pleasant of afternoons. Following a short discussion of my situation, he agreed to let me screen any of his films I wanted to see. He preferred that I run them at his studio and made it clear he would expect Goldwyn to assume the expense. Before I left, he invited me to dinner the following week. He became a warm and generous friend. 

I spent the next three months running Chaplin pictures. The scripts were hard to come by, but now and then I was able to find a treatment or a sketch. Discussing the work with some of the players, I learned that there was a great deal of improvisation during each shooting day. Whenever possible, I met with Chaplin himself to ask questions about his pictures. 

“What did you think–what went through your mind when people like George Jean Nathan and Gilbert Seldes and T.S. Eliot began to discuss your work in terms of great art? After all, you were a music-hall comic, the son of a music-hall comic, doing the job you’d done for years on end, and all of a sudden, sort of–just because you were now doing it in front of the camera, you were being hailed as a great figure in the arts.”

“What’s your question?” asked Chaplin. 

“Well, I mean–what did you think of all this? How did it affect you? You must have been pleased, but were you surprised?”

“Not at all,” said Chaplin. “I always knew I was a poet.” 

–Garson Kanin, Hollywood, 1967


  1. Fascinating read. The first paragraph is the most interesting, which has me asking: How much did CC push his older films on a modern audience back then? Revival theaters weren’t around much, or were they? For instance, my mother was born in 1926. She only remembers The Gold Rush, probably the reissue in 1942, which would make her 16 (she grew up on a farm in Ohio and moved to a city later). She only knew his fame, not his films, and she said she went to movies all the time when she was a teen. I had to go to UCLA Film Archives to see TGD, pre-VCR and DVD and such, and this was 1984. As for poet, Orson Welles called him that. Also called him “the cheapest man who ever lived.” Read “My Lunches With Orson,” Chapter 13. Interesting stuff about MV in there, too.Tom K

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