Charlie the Ringmaster

Charlie the Ringmaster

By the time Charlie Chaplin was making The Circus, from 1925 into 1928, his production company was a smooth-running organization. Numerous problems plagued the comic during the shoot—scratches on the first month of rushes, a fire that damaged the studio and destroyed the circus sets, problems with the IRS, and a very public and sensationalized divorce from Lita Grey. More than enough to shelve any film. But Chaplin persevered, with the help of his devoted staff.

How did Chaplin come to be surrounded by such an amazing support group? Much of his early film career was a quest for independence and artistic control. After a great success on stage in England as a headliner with Fred Karno’s traveling music hall company, Charlie ended up as a movie newbie in Hollywood at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios, in 1914. He had to hit the ground running in the whirlwind that was Keystone, and soon got his bearings—even starting to direct himself with his fourteenth film, Caught in the Rain. But as his popularity grew he chafed at turning out the same old slapstick. Moving on to the Essanay Film Company in 1915, and then the Mutual Film Corp. in 1916, Chaplin gained more control and got closer to the total autonomy that he craved. In 1917 he built his own studio.

One of the highest paid and most popular film stars in the world, Charlie was in a unique position that gave him a lot of freedom. But he still had a release schedule to uphold for his distributor, First National Pictures. It wasn’t until his formation of United Artists with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith in 1919 that he could finally achieve his ultimate goal. His films would now be handled by his own company. There was no one to hold him to a schedule or an allotted number of films. Since he was producing with his own money he could make a dramatic film such as A Woman of Paris (1923) if he wanted to, reshoot substantial parts of a picture as he did with The Gold Rush (1925), or take three years to work as his inspiration ebbed and flowed, as it did on City Lights (1931). His studio became a kingdom with himself as the monarch (or as Virginia Cherrill, who played City Lights’ blind girl, implied—its despot), the single-minded purpose of which was to enable his artistic vision to manifest itself on film. And for this he required a handpicked crew of stage and screen veterans.

Chaplin’s original comic training had been as part of an ensemble, with Karno. Surrounded by the other clowns in the company, the young Charlie rose to the top of the heap, but he became used to having an array of comics available for support. When he first arrived on the Keystone lot he must have felt at home amongst its collection of riffraff—players such as Mack Swain, Chester Conklin, Edgar Kennedy, and others. They were from the stage, circuses, and vaudeville, and they were on tap and ready to portray an assortment of lower-class mugs, crooks, and sharpies. Chaplin made good use of these players at Keystone, and this clearly was a model for his own artistic enclave.

Chaplin worked in his own way. There was no script—the overall story was in his head, so the actors were given ideas for a scene, or “little bits of a scene,” as Jackie Coogan remembered, which were then fleshed out as the cameras turned. Sometimes after a few months of shooting, the story in his head would be put aside and a new one begun, until he would become inspired again with the first idea and go back to that. Most silent comedy was shot in this loose, improvisational way, but Chaplin took it to an extreme—doing it for years on a single film sometimes. This certainly was the case for The Circus, where his team held fast for two years to ensure that the film came together. Although Charlie didn’t pay huge wages, he took care of his regulars—at times continuing salaries during various layoffs. For example, Edna Purviance, who had been Chaplin’s early leading lady, remained on the studio payroll for many years after she stopped appearing with the comic. Comedian Chester Conklin summed it up well when he said, “Sign on with Charlie and you’re guaranteed to eat for a while.” This kind of loyalty on Chaplin’s part engendered the same from his creative crew.

You have no items in your shopping cart