One hundred years ago this month, Chaplin began work at the Keystone Studios. In this excerpt from My Autobiography, Chaplin describes his first meeting with Mack Sennett and his first days at the studio (this is the real story, not the fictionalized, Hollywoodized version in the 1992 Chaplin film):
Eager and anxious, I arrived in Los Angeles and took a room at a small hotel, the Great Northern. The first evening I took a busman’s holiday and saw the second show at the Empress, where the Karno Company had worked. The attendant recognised me and came a few moments later to tell me that Mr. Sennett and Miss Mabel Normand were sitting two rows back and had asked if I would join them. I was thrilled, and after a hurried, whispered introduction we all watched the show together. When it was over, we walked a few paces down Main Street, and went to a rathskeller for a light supper and a drink. Mr Sennett was shocked to see how young I looked. ‘I thought you were a much older man,’ he said. I could detect a tinge of concern, which made me anxious, remembering that all Sennett’s comedians were oldish-looking men. Fred Mace was over fifty and Ford Sterling in his forties. T can make up as old as you like,’ I answered. Mabel Normand, however, was more reassuring. Whatever her reservations were about me, she did not reveal them. Mr Sennett said that I would not start immediately, but should come to the studio in Edendale and get acquainted with the people. When we left the cafe, we bundled into Mr Sennett’s glamorous racing car and I was driven to my hotel.
The following morning I boarded a street-car for Edendale, a suburb of Los Angeles. It was an anomalous-looking place that could not make up its mind whether to be a humble residential district or a semi-industrial one. It had small lumber-yards and junk-yards, and abandoned-looking small farms on which were built one or two shacky wooden stores that fronted the road. After many enquiries I found myself opposite the Keystone Studio. It was a dilapidated affair with a green fence round it, one hundred and fifty feet square. The entrance to it was up a garden path through an old bungalow—the whole place looked just as anomalous as Edendale itself. I stood gazing at it from the opposite side of the road, debating whether to go in or not.
It was lunch-time and I watched the men and women in their make-up come pouring out of the bungalow, including the Keystone Cops. They crossed the road to a small general store and came out eating sandwiches and hot dogs. Some called after each other in loud, raucous voices: ‘Hey, Hank, come on!’ ‘Tell Slim to hurry!’
Suddenly I was seized with shyness and walked quickly to the corner at a safe distance, looking to see if Mr Sennett or Miss Normand would come out of the bungalow, but they did not appear. For half an hour I stood there, then decided to go back to the hotel. The problem of entering the studio and facing all those people became an insuperable one. For two days I arrived outside the studio, but I had not the courage to go in. The third day Mr Sennett telephoned and wanted to know why I had not shown up. I made some sort of excuse. ‘Come down right away, we’ll be waiting for you,’ he said. So I went down and boldly marched into the bungalow and asked for Mr Sennett.
He was pleased to see me and took me immediately into the studio. I was enthralled. A soft even light pervaded the whole stage. It came from broad streams of white linen that diffused the sun and gave an ethereal quality to everything. This diffusion was for photographing in daylight.
After being introduced to one or two actors I became interested in what was going on. There were three sets side by side, and three comedy companies were at work in them. It was like viewing something at the World’s Fair. In one set Mabel Normand was banging on a door shouting: ‘Let me in!’ Then the camera stopped and that was it—I had no idea films were made piecemeal in this fashion.
On another set was the great Ford Sterling whom I was to replace. Mr Sennett introduced me to him. Ford was leaving Keystone to form his own company with Universal. He was immensely popular with the public and with everyone in the studio. They surrounded his set and were laughing eagerly at him.
Sennett took me aside and explained their method of working. ‘We have no scenario—we get an idea then follow the natural sequence of events until it leads up to a chase, which is the essence of our comedy.’
This method was edifying, but personally I hated a chase. It dissipates one’s personality; little as I knew about movies, I knew that nothing transcended personality.
That day I went from set to set watching the companies at work. They all seemed to be imitating Ford Sterling. This worried me, because his style did not suit me. He played a harassed Dutchman, ad-libbing through the scene with a Dutch accent, which was funny but was lost in silent pictures. I wondered what Sennett expected of me. He had seen my work and must have known that I was not suitable to play Ford’s type of comedy; my style was just the opposite. Yet every story and situation conceived in the studio was consciously or unconsciously made for Sterling; even Roscoe Arbuckle was imitating Sterling....
For days I wandered around the studio, wondering when I would start work. Occasionally I would meet Sennett crossing the stage, but he would look through me, preoccupied. I had an uncomfortable feeling that he thought he had made a mistake in engaging me which did little to ameliorate my nervous tension....
Nine days of inactivity had passed and the tension was excruciating. Ford, however, would console me and after work he would occasionally give me a lift down-town, where we would stop in at the Alexandria Bar for a drink and meet several of his friends. One of them, a Mr. Elmer Ellsworth, whom I disliked at first and thought rather crass, would jokingly taunt me: ‘I understand you’re taking Ford’s place. Well, are you funny?’
‘Modesty forbids,’ I said squirmishly. This sort of ribbing was most embarrassing, especially in the presence of Ford. But he graciously took me off the hook with a remark. ‘Didn’t you catch him at the Empress playing the drunk? Very funny.’
‘Well, he hasn’t made me laugh yet,’ said Ellsworth.
He was a big, cumbersome man, and looked glandular, with a melancholy, hangdog expression, hairless face, sad eyes, a loose mouth and a smile that showed two missing front teeth. Ford whispered impressively that he was a great authority on literature, finance and politics, one of the best-informed men in the country, and that he had a great sense of humour. However I did not appreciate it and would try to avoid him. But one night at the Alexandria bar, he said: ‘Hasn’t this limey got started yet ?’
‘Not yet,’ I laughed uncomfortably.
‘Well, you’d better be funny.’
Having taken a great deal from the gentleman, I gave him back some of his own medicine: ‘Well, if I’m half as funny as you look, I’ll do all right.’
‘Blimey! A sarcastic wit, eh? I’ll buy him a drink after that.’
|Chaplin with Elmer Ellsworth1, c. 1920.|
1 Ellsworth later came to work for Chaplin as a writer c. 1919 but their relationship came to an abrupt end when Chaplin gave him $300,000 to hold until his divorce from Mildred Harris was final. Chaplin immediately regretted the decision and when it came time to return the money, Ellsworth handed him a check for $290,000 claiming that Chaplin had promised him $10,000 if he carried out the mission. This so infuriated Charlie that he fired Ellsworth and didn't speak to him for two years.