Monday, June 1, 2015

Martha Raye on making a film with "Chuck"

©Roy Export S.A.S.

Excerpt from "Monsieur Chaplin" by Martha Raye
Movieland, February 1948

All right, I was scared. 
That sounds silly, I guess, coming from me, a toughened-up trouper who's afraid of neither men, mice, nor the special brand of rodent known as the night-club heckler. 
But the first day I walked onto the set to play a scene opposite Charles Chaplin I thought I'd never be able to open my big mouth. Me, Martha Raye! Funny, isn't it?
My agent had called me a couple of weeks before. "Martha," says he, "Charles Chaplin wants you to play opposite him in Monsieur Verdoux!"
"You must have got yourself a new writer," I came back, quick and cute as anything. "You were never this funny before."
It took the fellow ten minutes--and a few light taps with a ball peen hammer--to get it through my head that he was serious and that Charles Chaplin did want me to play the roll of indestructible Annabella in his French bluebeard comedy. 
I jumped at the chance. There isn't a comedian anywhere who wouldn't have. For to all of us, Chaplin is the tops--and corny as it may sound--to work with an artist like that is an honor and a privilege. 
But after I'd jumped at the chance, I wanted to jump right back again. In the interval before I went to work on "Verdoux," I envied those funny man high-divers in the newsreels--the ones who can un-plunge. ...
Wanta know how long that scared lasted? For about ten minutes after I started working with Mr. Chaplin. 
Somehow he put me at my ease immediately. He made me feel as though my contribution to the picture was a good one and important. And the Charles Chaplin whom I'd respected as an artist became "Chuck"--a person whom I liked besides. 
I've been tossing around words like honor and privilege. Words like that are usually associated with the kind of wonderful but darned uncomfortable feeling a man  must feel when he wears a boiled shirt. Working with Chaplin was not only an honor and a privilege, but more fun that I've had since funny business became funny business. And that, for me, was when I was three-and-a-half years old. 
That first day we worked through lunch hour and well into the afternoon. Chuck was intent upon some intricate effect, and the cast and crew, whose day had begun almost before daylight, began to get the haggard, hungry look of a high fashion dress model. 
At twelve o'clock on the second day, I yelled, "Lunch!"
Now when I yell, I yell! I heard later that workmen over in Honolulu knocked off early--there's a difference in time, you know. 
The silence was terrific. You could hear the jaws drop. Nobody yells on a Chaplin set, not even Mr. Chaplin. 
Chuck came over, in that exquisite ballet-dancer gait of his. Pleasantly he asked me, "What was that, m'love?" (Chuck called me "m'love" during all the twelve weeks we worked. It's his term for Annabella--in the picture.) 1
So I explained. People who aren't geniuses get hungry at noon. Every other place I'd worked somebody like an assistant director yelled lunch, and there was lunch. 
Chuck thought it was a wonderful idea. He couldn't imagine why somebody hadn't told him about it before. So for the duration of the picture, I called lunch. And now that I think of it, maybe that's the reason the crew and other members of the cast used to insist that I come around to the set even on the days that I didn't appear in the script!
One of the first scenes I played with Chaplin called for a bit of tricky dialogue. As my hsuband he plays the role of a sea captain and greets me with a staccato sentence, involving sou-wester and every polysyllabic nautical term there is. He did the take perfectly--but I realized something that hadn't occurred to me before. 
Sublime master of pantomime that he is, Chaplin still finds the spoken word a new medium. He could have spared himself that tongue-twister--after all he wrote the thing, didn't he--but because it was right he kept the lines, lines for which he had to gather up a bit every time he saw them coming. Chaplin doesn't spare anyone, even himself. 
After a few days, Chuck asked me if I didn't want to stay and see the day's rushes.
We'd talk about the scenes and he honestly seemed interested in my reactions. And while we were talking, he taught me things about show business I'd never thought of before. He knows every trick of the trade.
One day I brought my three-year-old daughter, Melodye, down to see me work. I think Melodye's pretty special, but then, of course, I'm her mother. 
I'd known that Chuck liked and understood children because I'd seen him work with little Allison Roddan, who plays his son in Monsieur Verdoux. But after all, movie time is money and Melodye was told that she could look--but she must not be heard. 
Martha's daughter Melodye visits the set.
Melodye is smart but she can't read. So she didn't know that the quick-moving little man with the thatch of silver hair and kind, freckled hands was a great artist, alone in his field. She wasn't awed; nobody remembered to tell her. 
So we all knocked off for the afternoon, while Chuck and Melodye got acquainted. IT was the day when a nightclub scene was scheduled, and the dress extras and the Can-Can chorus and the waiters and orchestra stood around--at union wages--and watched the pair of them have a delightful time., playing pixy. Mr. Chaplin, who's quite an intellectual, believe me, was simple and unaffected as Melodye. It takes a little kid to be that way--or a big man. 
Chuck taught me a lot. He's a genius. But the nicest thing he taught me was that a genius can be a good guy.

1According to Charles, Jr. he also called her "Maggie" (her real name was Margaret).


  1. What an absolutely lovely tribute! I really enjoyed reading it.

    1. I thought so too. Glad you enjoyed it!