Charlie Chaplin remembered
When Kevin Brownlow wrote me his account of an afternoon spent watching Charlie Chaplin direct A countess from Hong Kong, I was astonished at his disciplined concentration which registered a thousand sights and sounds and emotions spread before him. I was astonished at his ability to remember every technical detail and everybody’s dialogue reconstructed from a few hasty notes he dared jot down in Chaplin’s prohibiting presence. But, at the end of his brief report, what more than astonished me was his insight into the character of Chaplin who is the most bafflingly complex man who ever lived. Kevin’s description and the shadow of my memory came together in pure Chaplin. If we knew nothing more of Chaplin than his subtly sweet and cruel method of reducing the sound mixer’s arrogance to submission, we would touch his essence. Beyond that, however, beyond his conflict with Marlon Brando, his seventy-seven years and grinding work, we find a man “happy” in the element of his genius, dancing a gay funny rumba, remaining forever young in the adoring smile of a lovely young actress.
As I envisioned this scene, fourty-one years were stripped from my life. It was New York, August, 1925. Chaplin, aged thirty-six, was in town for the premiere of The gold rush at the Strand Theatre on Broadway. I, aged eighteen, was dancing in the Ziegfeld Follies round the corner at the new Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street. Submerged in my own fascinating being, I was only vaguely aware that The gold rush had brought Chaplin his greatest triumph; That he was the toast of all intellectual, cultural and social New York; and that for a week the tabloids ran front-page pictures of Broadway beauties, asking: “Who bit Charlie’s lip?”. Then, one afternoon at a cocktail party given by Walter Wanger, I met him.
His physical presence revealed an exquisiteness the screen could not reflect. Small, perfectly made, meticulously dressed, with his fine grey hair and ivory skin and white teeth, he was as clean as a pearl and glowed all over. Inside he was glowing too with the radiant gaiety released by the successful conclusion of two year’s work on his film. Taken at this time for Vanity Fair magazine was the Edward Steichen photograph which has been reproduced in Chaplin’s autobiography. He is grinning with infectious naughtiness into the camera at the same time Steichen has caught his horned curls in a faun shadow on the background.
As if to receive him, New York had also put on a new glow of luxury, grace and elegance. Gone were the Scott Fitzgerald exhibitionists, the hip flask, the flapper and the charleston. 1925 was the year that marked the beginning of Café Society. Photographs of English duchesses advertising Pond’s cold cream appeared in “Photoplay” magazine, and New York society men dined with Follies girls unmolested at the exclusive Colony restaurant. Harry d’Arrast, Chaplin’s assistant was staying with him at the Ritz, and they took Peggy Fears, my best friend in the Follies, and myself to all the smart new night clubs. Swirling in chiffons of pink and blue, Peggy and I danced the tango with them at the Montmartre where the head waiters bowed reverently before Charlie and the haughty patrons pretended that they were not thrilled at the sight of him. Charlie and Harry took us, Peggy shinning in crystal beads and me magnificent but itchy in gold lace, to the Lido for the opening of the great dancer Maurice with his new partner Barbara Bennett-my second best friend. Beneath the composure of his public face, Charlie had an hilarious time because, in the opening waltz, Barbara muffed a step and giggled. Glaring with rage, Maurice did not kick her then only because he was reserving his punishment for their final Apache number at the end of which he sent Barbara skidding on her face to the very edge of the dance floor.
New York also produced dozens of new plays that season. We sat in a box at The cradle snatchers looking at Mary Boland, Edna May Oliver and a young actor, Humphrey Bogart on the stage while the rest of the audience looked at Charlie. From the Ambassador Hotel, where Charlie moved after Harry returned to Hollywood, we walked seventy blocks down to the Greenwich Village Theatre to see Outside looking in, a play about tramps which Charlie already seen twice. In the cast were James Cagney, Charles Bickford and Blyth Daly who played a young girl disguised as a boy hobo. Her performance might have interested me more had I known that I would play her part in the film renamed Beggars of life after the title of Jim Tully0s book which Maxwell Anderson had adapted for the theatre.
This passion of Charlie's for long walks led to two curious incidents. The first was a night walk to the Jewish ghetto on the lower East Side where, to get rid of a mob of fans following Chaplin, we ducked into a little white-tiled restaurant. Four hours passed before we came out because inside Chaplin had find a wild Hungarian torturing a violin, and Chaplin's absorption in his performance kept us there till closing time. Twenty-seven years later I saw the Hungarian violinist come to life again in the person of Chaplin in his variety hall act with Buster Keaton at the piano in Limelight. The second incident was a mystification of only minutes. Walking up Park Avenue one afternoon, I recognized the unmistakable figure of Chaplin more than a block ahead of me. Swinging his cane, he was strolling with his usual grace except that at intervals he would snap his head back for a quick look behind him. Running to catch up with him I asked: "What in the world is the matter with you?". Looking back once more, Charlie whispered, "Mr. Hearst is having me followed!" and then vanished through the Ambassador's lobby door. Ever since he had become a friend of Marion Davies and Mr. Hearst, because Mr. Hearst guarded Marion so closely, Charlie was sure that he too was spied upon. This, I could never believe, although I had first-had knowledge of the surveillance which prevented Marion from too frequently "dipping the bill". One day at the Warwick Hotel after Mr. Hearst had gone out and a group of girls had retired to her bedroom, Marion had barely time to say: "B-b-Brooksie, get the gin out of the bathroom" and I had barely time to produce the bottle before Mr. Hearst stuck his head through the door, piping pleasantly: "Well, hello!".
After d'Arrast's departure, he was replaced in our foursome by A. C. Blumenthal, the tiny film financier. It was September now and Charlie was sick of being watched in public, sick of entertaining society and the intellectuals who numbed his soul. Most of our time together was spent in Blumie's big airy apartment atop ,the Ambassador. Blumie played the piano, Peggy sang, I danced, and Charlie returned to reality-the world of his creative imagination. He recalled his youth with comic pantomimes. He acted out countless scenes for countless films. And he did imitations of everybody. Isadora Duncan danced in a storm of toilet paper. John Barrymore picked his nose and brooded over Hamlet's soliloquy. A Follies girl swished across the room, and I began to cry while Charlie denied absolutely the he was imitating me. Nevertheless, as he patted my hand, I determined to abandon that silly walk forthwith.
And then, as fluidly as they had taken form, those exquisite Chaplin days dissolved. Peggy went on the road with the Ziegfeld Follies, I began my first film role in The American Venus at Paramount's Long Island studio, Charlie returned to Hollywood, and the Ambassador apartment was left alone with Blumie.
In his autobiography, Chaplin gave less than a page and less than a week's time to this period. "Were we too dull to be remembered? or had the actress who bit his lips spoiled the memory?". I wondered until I read Kevin's fresh view of Chaplin and found him again in my past, realizing how hopeless it was to ponder the motives of a faun.
Louise Brooks, Charlie Chaplin remembered, “Film Culture”, nr. 40, Spring 1966