Book Bag: The Early Days of Cinema

My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin.

Charlie was born in 1889 in Walworth, London and spent his early life in the London suburb of Kennington. His parents were both music hall performers but separated when Charlie was about two years old. His mother was poor and the small family, Charlie, his mother and older brother Sydney, were admitted to the workhouse on two separate occasions.

In 1903, Charlie’s mother was committed to Cane Hill mental asylum and Charlie lived on the streets alone until his brother Sydney, who had joined the navy, returned from sea.

With his father’s connections Charlie secured a place in a clog dancing troupe called the Eight Lancashire Lads and so began his career as a performer. After appearing in some minor roles in the theatre he developed a comic routine and, with help from Sydney, was signed by Fred Karno, the famous music hall impresario, for his comedy company in 1908.

Chaplin became one of Fred Karno’s top comedians and Karno sent him with a troupe of other comedians on a tour of vaudeville theatres in the USA. One of the others was Stan Laurel, later to find fame with the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy.

By far the most interesting part of Charlie’s autobiography is where he talks about the beginning of his movie career. On a second tour of America in 1913, Chaplin was asked to join the Mack Sennett studios as a performer in silent films for the fee of $150 per week. He wasn’t initially keen but liked the idea of starting something new.

His first film for Sennett was called Making a Living, released in 1914. Chaplin himself wasn’t so keen on the film and for his second appearance selected a new costume. After searching through the costume department Chaplin chose a bowler hat, a jacket that was too small, baggy trousers, shoes that were too large and a cane. It almost seems as though the clothes made him become the character of the tramp which was to make him famous. The film was Mabel’s Strange Predicament although another tramp film made afterwards, Kid Auto races at Venice, was released to the public first.

Chaplin clashed frequently with his directors when his ideas or suggestions were dismissed but after exhibitors asked Sennett for more Chaplin films he was allowed to direct his own. When his contract expired in 1914 Chaplin asked for 1000 dollars per week. Mack Sennett complained that that figure was more than he was getting and refused. Another film company Essanay, offered him $1200 per week and a signing fee and Chaplin signed. He wasn’t initially happy with Essanay and didn’t like their studios in Chicago, preferring to work in California.

Chaplin was also unhappy after he finished his contract at Essaney because they continued to make lucrative Chaplin comedies by utilising his out-takes. Chaplin was however an astute businessman. In his new contracts the negative and film rights reverted to Chaplin after a certain amount of time. This was in the days when a movie had a life of months, if not weeks.

Chaplin seems strangely perturbed by his fame and fortune. He writes about an incident between contracts where he takes the train to meet his brother in, I think, New York but word has got out to the public he is travelling and everywhere the train stops, masses of people were waiting. Eventually it dawns on him that it is he they were waiting for. Many times the narrative describes meals and walks taken alone giving the impression of a solitary, lonely man.

The thing to remember about reading this book is that Chaplin tells the reader only what he wants them to know, nothing more. His various marriages are only skimmed over although when he is making the Kid, probably his most important picture, he explains how he thought the negative may have be taken by lawyers acting for his estranged wife so he takes the film and edits it whilst almost ‘on the run’ in various hideaways and hotel rooms.

Chaplin was known for being attracted to young girls and one of his conquests, a girl called Joan Barry, was arrested twice for her obsessive behaviour after he ended their relationship. She became pregnant and claimed he was the father and began a paternity suit against him. J Edgar Hoover who believed Chaplin to be a communist, engineered negative publicity against him and public opinion began to turn against Charlie. He was ordered to pay child support to Barry’s baby despite blood test evidence which showed he could not be the father. The blood test evidence was ruled inadmissible.

The earlier part of the book is by far the most interesting but the later part, where Chaplin is famous the world over, becomes an excuse for name dropping, despite there being a clear absence of any notable anecdotes involving the famous names. Even his best friend Douglas Fairbanks makes few appearances within the pages.

A fascinating read none the less.

Stan, The Life of Stan Laurel by Fred Lawrence Guiles.

I have a lot of time for Fred Laurence Guiles. He wrote one of the definitive biographies of Marilyn Monroe, the one Norman Mailer used as the basis for his classic book about the star.

Stan was born in Ulverston in Cumbria, as a matter of fact, I once visited his old home in the town. It was a small house as I remember and a little bit tatty. I remember being rather disappointed to view this old house with photocopied pictures of Stan on the walls. Either way it was still fascinating to think that Stan, one half of that great duo, Laurel and Hardy, had started life here as Arthur Jefferson. Guiles follows Stan -as he began to call himself- from northern music halls to being part of Fred Karno’s comedy circus and to the USA and Hollywood. Fred Karno was the great music hall impresario of the time and he sent teams of entertainers all over, even to the USA. In his early days touring the USA for Karno, Stan shared rooms with Chaplin although not once is Stan mentioned in Chaplin’s autobiography. Chaplin just seemed to ignore or black out anyone from his memory he either didn’t like or thought was a threat.

Stan Laurel appeared in a number of silent comedy films. He eventually signed with producer Hal Roach but decided he was going to move into scriptwriting rather than performing. One day Oliver Hardy was too ill to perform so Stan stepped in and played his part. Later the two appeared together in various films and director Leo McCarey noticed the positive reaction from the public. Together with McCarey the two worked at their comedy and after McCarey suggested they both wear bowler hats, their partnership took off and their Laurel and Hardy series began in 1927. In 1929 they moved from silent pictures to sound with Unaccustomed As We Are. Unlike many other stars of the period, the two made a seamless transition into talking pictures and are today recognised as giants of comedy.

In 1933 director Frank Capra made the first of what was an entirely different kind of comedy film and, according to author Guiles, this actually spelt the beginning of the end for the slapstick comedy type of film humour that Laurel and Hardy, and others such as Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, were so good at. It Happened One Night starred Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert and after a slow start, the film became an enormous hit, winning eleven Academy Awards. Some writers thought that film comedy had finally ‘grown up’ and sadly, just over 10 years later Laurel and Hardy would be making their final Hollywood film.

After Hardy died in 1957, Stan declined to work without his comedy partner and he retired to a modest flat in Santa Monica, California. He was listed in the telephone directory and was happy to answer calls from his fans. He spent his retirement answering his fan mail and meeting with other comedians who revered him; people like Jerry Lewis, Peter Sellers and Dick Van Dyke. He died in 1965 aged 74.

Hollywood.

I think I wrote about the 1920’s in a previous post saying that if I could go back to any time and place I’d go back to Hollywood in the 1920’s. You didn’t need a degree in filmmaking to be a director then as the whole industry was new. Hollywood was just a mass of orange groves when someone decided that with its wonderful climate, Hollywood would be the perfect place to make films. In 1910 DW Griffiths came to Hollywood to film In Old California and other film makers followed him as not only was there perfect weather and excellent light but it was a great place to avoid Thomas Edison who owned patents on the movie making process and wanted paying. In the 1980’s there was a wonderful TV  documentary series called simply Hollywood and this is the book that was published alongside the series. The TV version was narrated by James Mason and was filled with interviews with former writers, directors and stars of that bygone age. It’s a pity it hasn’t made its way onto DVD but apparently because of all the stars involved, all of whom will have passed away by now, getting the releases signed for DVD has been problematic. It just so happens that I have the first episode on VHS video and of course, the book that accompanied the series.

The book I have is subtitled ‘The Pioneers’ and concentrates on the first great Hollywood stars both in front of and behind the camera, people like director DW Griffiths and actors like Valentino, Chaplin, and Garbo who became the first ‘movie stars’. Then there were others like John Gilbert and Buster Keaton who did not make the transition to sound successfully and Laurel and Hardy, who did.

One particularly interesting thing about the TV series and the book is that many of the veterans of silent pictures were telling their stories for the first time. Kevin Brownlow who wrote the book and directed parts of the TV series says that some of the interviewees were very old but even so, they were very lively and interesting in their old age with many stories to tell about filming, editing and the beginnings of Hollywood. Back then Hollywood shunned those who worked in films. They called them ‘movies’ and many hotels and boarding houses had signs up saying ‘no movies’.

Sadly many silent films have not survived to the present day because the nitrate film of those days was highly volatile. Many of the films that have survived are made from poor quality ‘dupes’ or copies so it is not easy to appreciate how good those films originally were. This book though with its superb quality production stills does go some way to invoking the sense of what those films were like. I live in hope that one day this wonderful series will find its way into digital media.

After writing this I wondered what were the chances of an episode or two finding its way to YouTube? A quick check and I was happy to find the entire series there. That’s me sorted for the next few days then . .


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