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.

Top of the post and above: Chaplin and Henry Bergman

Many of Chaplin’s regular retinue were part of the difficult Circus project—none more visibly than Henry Bergman, who’s very hard to miss as the large old clown who becomes Charlie’s assistant at the circus. Born in San Francisco, the rotund Bergman was taken to Germany as a child but later returned to the U.S., where his pre-film career is said to have encompassed grand opera, musical comedy, and even weight-lifting. His big size put him in demand as a film character player, and he became a silent comedy veteran working for Selig, Pathe, and Crystal Comedies. In 1914 he became the main support for Billie Ritchie in Universal’s L-Ko Comedies. Ritchie, a former Fred Karno headliner, was a Chaplin imitator, but two years later Bergman switched his allegiance and began working with the real thing when he hooked up with Charlie in The Pawnshop (1916). For the next thirty years Bergman played occasional larger parts for Chaplin, such as Hank Curtis in The Gold Rush, but mostly he was seen in a variety of roles in various beards and mustaches (often in the same film). More importantly he acted as a gagman, assistant director, sounding board, and personal confidant to the comedian until his death in 1946.

Chaplin and John Rand

And on the subject of multiple roles, John Rand turns up at least three times in The Circus—as the father holding the baby whose hot dog Charlie munches, the circus hand who operates the safety harness for the high wire, and one of the clowns. Rand actually started his career as an acrobatic clown with Adam Forepaugh’s traveling circus, then moved on to vaudeville, and finally to films, in 1913. After comedies for Majestic, Selig, L-Ko, and Kalem, he began with Chaplin at Essanay in 1915. His best role in a Chaplin film is as Charlie’s beleaguered coworker in The Pawnshop, but he worked with him on and off for twenty years—right up to 1936’s Modern Times. Between Chaplin gigs Rand appeared all over the silent comedy map, and in the sound era turned up with the Three Stooges and in features like Blondie (1938) until his death in 1940.

Chaplin and Stanley J. Sandford

The big head property man, who spends much of his time kicking Charlie in the pants, is played by Stanley J. Sandford. Better known as “Tiny” Sandford, he should look familiar to movie comedy fans as a member of the Hal Roach Studio stock company, particularly from Laurel & Hardy classics like From Soup to Nuts (1928), Big Business (1929), and Busy Bodies (1933). Touring in traveling stock companies led to movies in the late teens—at first in dramas for people like Francis Ford. Probably due to his gruff demeanor he soon gravitated to comedy and worked with everyone—Monty Banks, Joe Rock, Carter DeHaven, as well as the comedy units of Fox, Universal, Christie, and Selig. Besides The Circus, he played the bartender of the Yukon dance hall in Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, and was “Big Bill,” Charlie’s friend on the assembly line in Modern Times. Continuing to work in pictures until 1943, he later ran a construction business and died in 1961.

Allan Garcia

Making a strong impression as Merna Kennedy’s father, the circus owner, is Allan Garcia, who’s practically the mustache-twirling villain of the film. Garcia specialized in unlikable characters for Chaplin—in City Lights he’s the drunken millionaires’ snooty butler, and in Modern Times he’s the callous factory owner. Joining the Chaplin organization around 1920 when Charlie’s brother, Sydney Chaplin, was making his starring feature, King, Queen, Joker (1921), Garcia was soon on payroll as an assistant director and studio casting head. Born in California to Mexican parents, he had entered the film industry in 1911 as Al Ernest Garcia, working for the Selig Company before branching out to Kalem, Bosworth, Lasky, Vitagraph, and others. Even after settling in with the Chaplin staff he still played small parts in other features, and when sound arrived he became a Spanish accent coach on pictures such as The Gay Caballero (1932) and Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936). Although in Modern Times he forced his employees to work faster and faster, in real life he helped form the Hollywood Supporting and Extra Players Organization, where he fought to get them better pay and working conditions. He remained busy right up to his death in 1938.

Harry Crocker and Merna Kennedy

Our last on-camera regular in The Circus is Harry Crocker, who as Rex the tightrope walker makes a rather anemic leading man, but his main function was as assistant director and confident to Chaplin. The scion of a wealthy San Francisco industrialist family, Crocker caught the movie bug and in the mid-1920s began working as an extra. His family connections put him in touch with Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst, which is how Chaplin met him. Continuing to work with the comic on City Lights, Crocker was fired during its long shoot, but returned to work for Charlie as publicity director and business manager during the time of Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Limelight (1952). In 1928 he had become a columnist for the Hearst newspaper the Los Angeles Examiner and remained there until his retirement in 1951.

In addition to Crocker and Henry Bergman, also working behind the scenes on the film were three of Chaplin’s longest and most important employees. Alf Reeves had been the Chaplin Studio’s manager since 1918, but his connection with Charlie went back to the Karno Company when he managed their North American tours. It was Reeves who received Chaplin’s telegrammed movie offer from Mack Sennett and encouraged him to accept it. Reeves remained with Charlie until his 1946 death. Roland “Rollie” Totheroh was Chaplin’s principal cameraman through Modern Times, and then continued to consult on the later features with younger cinematographers like Karl Struss. He also handled Chaplin’s special effects (for example, the miniature cabin and puppets in The Gold Rush) and was his film archivist. Being with the comic from 1916 to the closing of the Chaplin Studio, in 1952, he was immensely important for the iconic look of the films—particularly the sharp clarity of the alleys and run-down buildings of Charlie’s universe. A key but often overlooked player in developing the no-frills visual style where the main focus was always on Chaplin’s performance, Totheroh had this to say to interviewer Timothy J. Lyons right before his death in 1967:

“As a director Mr. Chaplin didn’t have anything to say as far as exposures, things like that. Otherwise, I used to say, ‘Take a look through here.’ The idea of that was that if he was directing, he’d have to know the field I was taking in. Of course, in the early days, the role of the cameraman was much bigger than it is now. It was up to the cameraman to decide what angle to shoot for lighting; or outside, which is the best angle on a building or whatever it is.”

In addition to being Charlie’s camera eye, as conservator of the Chaplin oeuvre Totheroh was responsible for many of the versions of the films that we see today—especially the First National shorts like A Dog’s Life (1918) and Shoulder Arms (1918), whose original negatives were worn out, resulting in new versions having to be assembled in the 1940s from outtakes and C and D negatives. In the early 1950s, with Chaplin exiled in Europe, it was Rollie who closed up the studio, bringing to an end an amazing decades-long run of extreme creativity.

Completing this trio of crucial collaborators is art director Charles “Danny” Hall, who began with Chaplin on the first film at his own studio, A Dog’s Life. Although sometimes not credited, Hall created the physical look of Charlie’s world through Modern Times. 

Chaplin’s talent was the flame that attracted numerous moths. Besides the collaborators mentioned on The Circus, there were plenty of others over the years, such as the assistant directors and gagmen Charles F. Reisner, A. Edward Sutherland, Monta Bell, Albert Austin, Carter DeHaven, and Harry d’Arrast. In later years, when Charlie had relocated to Switzerland and his activities were scaled down to mostly repackaging (editing and scoring) his silent films, he still had a faithful trio in Jerry Epstein (assistant director and writer), Eric James (music collaborator), and Rachel Ford (business manager). 

During Chaplin’s heyday, working with him was a pass to go and collect two hundred dollars. Hoping that some of his genius had rubbed off on them, most of the assistants ended up with sizable Hollywood careers. In particular Charles F. Reisner and A. Edward Sutherland became longtime studio comedy experts, and between them directed all the big movie comics like Buster Keaton, W. C. Fields, Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and Abbott & Costello, up through the early 1950s. Darryl F. Zanuck went from a brief time on Charlie’s writing staff to eventually becoming the production head of 20th Century Fox. Hall, working in Hollywood until 1952, would become a key player in the creation of the classic Universal horror films as art director of quintessential examples such as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). And in the sound era Chaplin’s musical collaborators Alfred Newman, David Raksin, and Meredith Wilson were responsible for the scores of classic films such as Laura (1944), All About Eve (1950), Love Is a Many Splendored Thing (1955), and the 1957 Broadway mega-hit musical The Music Man.

Today, with the Chaplin comedies still shown in cinemas and available in home video collections and online, not to mention the creation of his own museum, Charlie is still current. Working for Chaplin was never easy as he put his artistic demands before everything else in his Herculean effort to achieve simplicity and universality on film. Despite the difficulties, the people who chose to follow and support him must have had a sense that this was a bid for immortality. Time has proven them to be correct.