In 1924, Chaplin invited four owners of his former distributor, First National, which had recently become a producing company, to his studio for lunch. Colleen Moore, one of the company’s rising stars, came along:
When we arrived, Charlie ushered us into his studio living room. On one wall was a large bay window, the bright California sunshine streaming through. It was a beautiful day.
We were all sitting there chatting, waiting for lunch to be served, when Charlie stood up and, turning to Robert Leiber, the president of First National, said, ‘I hear you’ve bought Papini’s Life Of Christ.‘
Mr. Leiber nodded.
Charlie nodded, too. ‘I want to play the role of Jesus.’
If Charlie had bopped Mr. Leiber over the head with a baseball bat, he couldn’t have received a more stunned reaction. Not just from Mr. Leiber. From all four of them. They sat there like figures in waxworks. Even their faces had turned sort of waxy yellow.
‘I’m a logical choice,’ Charlie went on. ‘I look the part. I’m a Jew. And I’m a comedian.’
The bosses looked more stunned, if possible, than before.
Colleen Moore & Chaplin in 1922 (Both photos by James Abbe)
Charlie explained to them that good comedy was only a hairline away from good tragedy, which we all knew to be true. ‘And I’m an atheist,’ he added, ‘so I’d be able to look at the character objectively. Who else could do that?’ 1
They had no answer for him.
He stretched his arms high over his head, his fists clenched, and in a blood-curdling tone of voice screamed, “There is no God! If there is one, I dare Him to strike me dead!’ 2
The five of us sat there chilled and tense, holding our breath, but nothing happened, not even one small clap of thunder. The California sun shone outside, the chirp of birds came through the window, and I suppose God was in his Heaven, and all was right with the world–all but for five very shaken people in the Chaplin studio.
There was silence in the car going back until Richard Rowland said, ‘He’s the greatest actor alive, and he’d give an historical performance, but who of you would have the nerve to put in lights on a theater marquee: Charlie Chaplin in The Life Of Christ?’
Mr. Leiber said wistfully, ‘It would be the greatest religious picture ever made, but I’d be run out of Indianapolis.’
Mary Pickford later told me that one time she and Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie were sitting around the swimming pool at Pickfair when Charlie, who couldn’t swim, got up and jumped into the pool with all his clothes on, screaming, ‘I am an atheist! If there is a God, let him save me!’
He was gurgling and going down for the third time when Douglas, also fully dressed, jumped in and pulled him out. Mary, meanwhile, was running around the pool shouting, ‘Let the heathen drown!’ 3 (Colleen Moore, Silent Star, 1968)
1Chaplin told Harry Carr in 1925 that “no adequate performance–no representation either in literature or on the stage has ever been given to Christ. Chaplin said that his conception of Christ is different from the usual pious, solemn, sad-eyed figure on the stage.” Chaplin told him: “Christ was evidently a man of the utmost charm, with humor. You read of him in the Bible as a dinner guest at the houses of the rich and poor–and an honored guest. He was what we call a mixer–yet He was always alone. He tried to give His message to the world, and nobody understood Him. That is the supreme tragedy.” (Carr, “Chaplin Explains Chaplin,” Motion Picture, Nov. 1925)
2In London in 1921, Chaplin put on a similar stunt at a party with Edward Knoblock and others during a thunderstorm. He stood at an open window and dared God to strike him dead. At the next flash of lightning he fell to the floor and appeared lifeless, and was carried into the next room. Some minutes later, he came out draped in a sheet with pillowcases on each arm for wings, to end his little stunt. (Theodore Huff, Charlie Chaplin, 1952)
3This must have been a practical joke since Chaplin was a good swimmer his entire life.