Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Della Steele

Filming The Circus. Merna Kennedy is standing at center with Harry Crocker (tall man with hat),
 Toraichi Kono (behind Crocker) & Henry Bergman behind the camera. 
Seated in front of Bergman is Della Steele.

I've always been curious about Della Steele, Chaplin's continuity secretary from c.1924 to 1936. She can be spotted in numerous behind-the scenes-photos from this period (like the one above)--sitting behind the camera (usually off to the side somewhere) writing her meticulous notes, no matter where they were filming. She was among the crew who accompanied Chaplin to the snowy mountains of Truckee, CA during the filming of The Gold Rush. Lita Grey Chaplin remembered that Steele was one of the first crew members to catch a bad cold.

Steele's notes provide valuable insight into Chaplin's filmmaking process. Sometimes they included little tidbits of info about late-night meals and who visited the set on a particular day:
Midnight supper served on stage. Shooting in Dynamo set. Worked all night from 7:30PM to 4:45AM. Paulette Goddard, King Vidor and Betty Hill [Vidor's girlfriend] visitors on set. (October 15th, 1934)
The production report for the next day is a little more dramatic:
Shooting in Dynamo set. Hard rainstorm stopped work for an hour and a half. Rain came through tarpoleon [sic] overhead and caused some damage to the sets. Hot supper served at 1 A.M. and worked balance of night to 5:10 Wednesday morning. [work began at 6:30PM the previous day]
Production Report, Oct. 16th, 1934. Source: Modern Times: Project Chaplin n. 2 (©Roy Export)

Usually the secretary just filled in the start and end time for the day on the production report. Maybe it's just me, but the fact that Steele reiterated that the crew had to work all night both nights in her notes makes it sound like she wasn't too pleased about it.

Charlie directs a scene for Modern Times: Rollie Totheroh & Ira Morgan are behind the camera. 
Della Steele is behind Chaplin. Assistant director Carter De Haven is seated with his legs crossed on the left.
 Standing at far right is Paulette Goddard. Charlie appears to be in street clothes except for his shoes.

According to a 1936 article by Sara Hamilton,* Steele stood in for the actors during a story conference for Modern Times. The article also reveals how Chaplin could bring an audience to tears even during rehearsals (and even when he wasn't playing the Tramp)**:
About the table gather Charlie, Henry [Bergman] and Della and the situations are then acted out one after the other. Charlie begins by taking his own role of the little tramp, closely watching their reactions to his every move. Henry, who weighs the better part of a ton, [poor Henry!] is then called upon to play Chaplin's role, Della takes Miss Goddard's role of the little street waif and Charlie is the factory foreman. They go into the scene, silently moving about the room.
Swiftly they change parts again. Della is Charlie the tramp. Henry is the policeman and Chaplin becomes the street waif, a look of pathetic wistfulness stealing across his face as the Chaplin features fade into some vague mist and the hungry child of the streets emerges in perfect form. Trying to hide their tears Della and Henry watch the character before them. Not Chaplin. Certainly not Chaplin. But a strange and terrified child.**
Not much is known about Steele's personal life. A lifelong Californian, Della Elizabeth Dosta Steele was born in 1890 and died in 1955. She was married once (as far as I can tell) to a man named John Steele. They were divorced sometime in the 1920s. She is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale. I don't believe she had any children. She was among the few women who worked for Charlie who wasn't an actress. It's a shame she was never interviewed (to my knowledge) about her time working for him. I'm sure she had some great stories to tell.

Chaplin's crew circa Modern Times. Back row: Mark Marlatt (asst. cameraman), 
Girwood Averill (projectionist), William Bogdonoff (construction). 
Front row: Joe Van Meter (production asst.), Henry Bergman (asst. director),
 Rollie Totheroh (cinematographer),  Della Steele, Allan Garcia (casting).
Photo by Max Munn Autrey.
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*"Charlie Chaplin and Charles Chaplin," The Straits Times, March 20th, 1936

**Alice Davenport had a similar reaction while watching Charlie film the scene from The New Janitor where the Tramp pleads for his job because he has a large family to care for. Afterwards Davenport told Charlie, "I know it's supposed to be funny, but you just make me weep." Henry Bergman also recalled the crew members getting misty-eyed while watching Charlie film the final scene of City Lights.

6 comments:

  1. wow! Fantastic insight to this woman and her history with Chaplin. I've always wanted more info about Catherine Hunter, his secretary throughout the 30's and 40's. I read in a Thelma Todd article that she was connected with her originally, and not as a secretary - but the details were sketchy. I wonder why she didn't stay on for Great Dictator?

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    1. Thank you.
      Catherine Hunter was a very close friend of Thelma Todd's. She was evidently an aspiring actress when Charlie hired her as his publicity rep. I might be mistaken but I think she was still employed by Chaplin during the Great Dictator. She was present at the wedding of Charlie and Oona in 1943 & can be seen in the background of the famous photo where Charlie is putting the ring on Oona's finger. She left Chaplin's employ not long after and I wonder if it had something to do with the Joan Barry scandal.

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  2. Sorry, my editing mistake - I meant to write why hadn't DELLA remained with Chaplin after the Modern Times film.

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    1. I don't know. Not much is known about her after she quit working for Chaplin except the date of her death. I couldn't find an obituary for her either.

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  3. How strange - does working for Chaplin launch you into obscurity? Other than actors- well, even some of them disappeared!

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  4. Very interesting article. Thank you.

    A Little Tramp

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