The Count was a struggle for Chaplin from the beginning. He built a set, as he often did, "with not an idea in my head."1 This lack of inspiration caused him a great deal of anxiety: "When I arrive in the morning I'm usually gloomy, especially when I haven't any idea what I'm going to do in a scene...," he told journalist Grace Kingsley in August 1916, "tears bedew my eyes as I put on my makeup, and I weep sadly as I step out on the stage."2
His first plea for help went out to his brother, Sydney, who was in New York at the time. How much Charlie counted on him for brainstorming gags and scenario possibilities is evident in their correspondence when Syd was away.
Wiring him at the Hotel Bonta in New York City, July 31, while he would have been filming The Count, Charlie pleaded: "Have you any suggestions for scenes? Have dining room and ballroom. I am playing a count but an imposter to win an heiress but cannot get story straight. Wire me some gags if possible. Playing in Chaplin make-up in fancy dress ball." Charlie's problems with this story continued, however, causing him to film the mostly one-man-show One A.M. in the meantime. By August, the situation was so dire that Charlie's butler and Man Friday, Tom Harrington, wired Sydney again:
"Charlie is very depressed condition for past two weeks. Doesn't seem able to get mind around to his story. He wishes nearly every other day that you were here...Think it very important for his future success for you to drop everything in New York and come here immediately at least three or four weeks. Charlie hasn't been sick but whenever he gets into difficult situation, which doesn't work out satisfactorily, he always wishes Syd were here."
Five days later Charlie wired his brother himself: "The last two pictures have given me great worry and I need you here to help me. Drop everything and arrange to be in Los Angeles by August 12 to help me in directing next picture. Wire answer immediately."3Why was Sydney tormenting his brother this way? It seems Sydney felt "used" by Mutual and that they weren't paying him what he thought he was worth. A settlement seems to have been reached because Sydney eventually returned to California.4
The Count's ballroom scene appears to have caused Chaplin the most stress. He told Grace Kingsley:
"And as for these gray hairs"--indicating those about his temple over his right ear--"I got them all the other day trying to be funny in a ballroom scene. I think any comedian who started out to be funny in a ballroom would have his career blighted at the outset." 5
|Illustration by Gale for Grace Kingsley article, Los Angeles Sunday Times, Aug. 20th, 1916|
Charlie wasn't the only one driven crazy by this scene. Chester Courtney, an old music hall acquaintance who had been given a job at the studio, recalled:
If anyone were to play "And They Call It Dixieland" in my hearing I should run, screaming! It nearly lost me my sanity, thanks to Charlie. He kept a studio band playing it for weeks learning to dance with Edna Purviance."6Despite all the problems, The Count was well-received among critics and fans, who had been disappointed with his last film One AM. The public felt that Chaplin had made a come back of sorts.
The inimitable comedian returns to the type of motion picture farce in which he gained his fame and is seen in his familiar baggy trousers, cutaway coat at least two sizes too small, his dinky derby, diminutive moustache and slender cane, not forgetting the celebrated brogans.7
1 Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography, The Bodley Head, 1964
2Grace Kingsley, "Beneath The Mask: Witty, Wistful, Serious Is The Real Charlie Chaplin," Los Angeles Sunday Times, August 20th, 1916
3 Lisa K. Stein, Syd Chaplin: A Biography, McFarland, 2011
5 Grace Kingsley, "Beneath The Mask: Witty, Wistful, Serious Is The Real Charlie Chaplin," Los Angeles Sunday Times, August 20th, 1916
6Chester Courtney, "The Real Charles Chaplin," Film Weekly, Feb. 1931
7Moving Picture World, September 2nd, 1916