TREADING WATER IN OUR MEDIA OCEAN it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the frenzy that surrounded Charlie Chaplin in his early years, when movies were all there was, and Chaplin had become, in critic Gilbert Seldes's words, "the universal symbol for laughter." In 1921, when he finally came home to London, crowds camped out for two nights to watch him drive from Waterloo station to the Ritz, and when he cruised by, they greeted him with more enthusiasm than their heroes marching home from war.
It wasn't Chaplin they cheered, of course; it was the Tramp. From his first pictures for producer Mack Sennett, who didn't credit actors, in a Los Angeles where the Times didn't take movie ads, the Tramp was an instant sensation. As Seldes remembers, he leapt to fame as a splay-foot cardboard cutout hung outside the theaters, beckoning young and old, first in America, but soon around the world.
Chaplin look-alike contest: J.W. Sandison Collection, Whatcom Museum of History and Art
Once Charlie found the Tramp, he only played the Tramp. Why not? Who'd have let him play anything else? This "many sided fellow," as Chaplin put it, "a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure," freed him to explore his complicated talent, and bound him to his audience. The Tramp touched his followers in a way only movie stars could when movies were new. Splashed huge on the screen, he was bigger than they were but they knew him like a brother. Their modest emotions, projected on the silver Tramp, expanded into passions deeper, subtler, and seemingly more important. Chaplin rubbed together greed and generosity, lust and love, triumph and disappointment, igniting a hotter, brighter laughter than they'd known before. They loved the Tramp with a superhuman love.
Sennett admitted he didn't see much potential in Chaplin when he hired him. As he wrote, "Charlie revealed most of the trade skills of the music-hall people. He could fall, trip, stumble, summersault, slap, and make faces. These were stock in trade items we could use. I did not see then, and I do not know anyone who claims to have seen then, the subtleties and the pathos of the small, hard-pressed man in a dilemma which a few years later were known as the genius marks of Chaplin's art." In his first film, Making a Living, Chaplin played his music-hall persona, the burlesque dude, in the role of con man and aspiring reporter.
Shoving the newsboy isn't funny. Chaplin's Tramp is a bum who believes he's an aristocrat; Chaplin's dude is a bum conning others into believing it. There's a hint of Tramp charm when he adjusts his clothing, but Chaplin comes across as vain, mean-spirited, stiff and mannered. We root against him.
Chaplin wasn't happy, nor were Sennett or director Henry "Pathé" Lehrman. Lehrman, Sennett's top man, earned his nickname pretending to come from France. Sennett hated a picture that "drooled along" and liked Lehrman because he pushed pace and pushed his bang-bang gags to the edge and occasionally beyond. His actors, who paid the price for Lehrman's enthusiasm, called him "Mr. Suicide." In Making a Living the director also played Chaplin's straight-man competitor.
Lehrman hated Chaplin's meandering rhythms. He hectored him about movie timing. Chaplin fought back. Sennett backed Lehrman, and suspended Chaplin for a week "to force him to follow instructions." Chaplin said he was close to quitting. His drunk act was a vaudeville staple; pictures were canned comedy. He'd had enough of them.
What wrought this miraculous transformation? How did Chaplin find such ease before the camera, such patience riding his instincts? Did he need any help? Chaplin claimed his costume was all he needed. "The moment I was dressed," he wrote, 50 years later, "the clothes and the make-up made me feel the person he was."
While Chaplin's stage persona was a well-known type, the Tramp was not so easily labeled. He wasn't faking wealthy, exactly, but he wasn't just dressed poor, either. "Everything a contradiction," Chaplin said, "the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large." He may have been rich at some time, or he may not. He was outside class, and outside the standard ethnic types that dominated vaudeville. He was American, the way anyone could be American, wherever they came from. We could all be the Tramp, yet he was uniquely himself. The Tramp dressed not to fit a type but to fill out a personal fantasy: formal on top, comfortable down below, self-conscious and oblivious at the same time.
Chaplin wrote that the Tramp came to him whole: "I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born." Sennett remembered otherwise: "It was a long time before he abandoned cruelty, venality, treachery, larceny, and lechery as the main characteristics of the tramp." Looking at the Tramp's early films, we have to agree with Sennett. And yet, before the Tramp was pathetic or lovable, he was wildly popular. His gentle nature let his audience enjoy his vices without hating itself. He was lecherous but not threatening, venal but not vicious, treacherous but somehow loyal.
The contradictions that let the audience enjoy Chaplin's genius were bought with screen time. The Tramp didn't exactly drool along, but he chewed his mustache and swung his cane and second-guessed himself, and that broke Sennett's First Rule of Funny: it stopped the story. How did the Tramp, a secondary character at that, appear in the first frame of Mabel's Strange Predicament and then take 30 seconds to sit down? Chaplin claimed he invented the Tramp alone, but someone had to let him eat up film. Lehrman wouldn't stand for it. Who freed up Chaplin to be the Tramp? Was it Sennett, who had just suspended him for such shenanigans?
Was Sennett even there? He was producing, not directing, and had three pictures going at the same time. Fifty years later Sennett claimed that Chester Conklin, who was there, said that when the actors were laughing at Charlie, "we didn't notice that the Old Man had come down from the tower and was standing in the rear. All of a sudden we heard him. 'Chaplin, you do exactly what you're doing now in your next picture. Remember to do it in that get-up. Otherwise, England is beckoning.'" The words Sennett puts in Conklin's mouth say exactly what he'd like us all, himself included, to believe.
Chaplin remembered a different scenario. In his version, all three pictures were being cranked on the same stage. Chaplin ambled out in his street clothes, and he wrote, Sennett was "looking into a hotel lobby, biting the end of a cigar. 'We need some gags here,' he said, then turned to me. 'Put on a comedy make-up. Anything will do.'" Chaplin returned as the Tramp. "The secret of Mack Sennett's success was his enthusiasm. He was a great audience and laughed genuinely at what he thought funny. He stood and giggled until his body began to shake." Then Chaplin explained his character in detail, for 10 minutes or more, "keeping Sennett in continuous chuckles. 'All right,' he said, 'get on the set and see what you can do there.'"
Chaplin's story honors Sennett, perhaps, but it also confirms Chaplin's version of creating the Tramp whole, as a single stroke of genius. But Chaplin's version ignores the fact that the character he plays in the picture is essential to the story, not simply an add-on in the first scene. He couldn't have just ambled into the story, because there was no story without him.
Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett
These two eyewitness accounts, sharpened by novelistic detail (the voice from behind, the chomped cigar) can't both be true. Sennett's account is hearsay, so perhaps Chaplin deserves precedence, but if Chaplin's account were true, wouldn't Sennett have told it himself? Sennett says he wasn't there until the Tramp showed up. Wouldn't he want to take credit for ordering Chaplin into the scene? What if they both have it wrong? How did the volcanic, dictatorial Mack Sennett let pesky, supercilious (and by all reports, foul-smelling) Chaplin, coming off a week's suspension for bloody-mindedness, violate his First Rule of Funny?
Chaplin hinted at Sennett's doubts when he wrote, "It was a long scene that ran seventy-five feet. Later Mr. Sennett and Mr. Lehrman debated whether to let it run its full length, as the average comedy scene rarely ran over ten." But Lehrman had nothing to do with Mabel's Strange Predicament. If someone fought Sennett over Chaplin's screen time, it wasn't Mr. Suicide, and if Sennett was fighting, it wasn't because he wanted more time for Chaplin, but less.
Mabel Normand on the set, 1919
Only one person on the Keystone lot could shout down Mack Sennett, and her name was on the title of the picture, the little lady with the big plume who walks out on Chaplin. Mabel Normand was Sennett's meal ticket and his perpetual fiancée. Sennett's Keystone didn't credit actors, because they might want more money, but Sennett hung Normand's name on her pictures, because Mabel on a picture brought in crowds. She started as a Gibson girl in her early teens, pushing Coke. She met Sennett when he was a failed opera singer making comedies at Biograph for tomb-faced D.W. Griffith. Sennett took her to Los Angeles, and made her immensely popular. She made him a fortune.
Normand was an inventor of the movie star, the first woman allowed to be both sexy and funny. She was a high diver, a bareback rider, a race car driver, and a flapper a decade before flappers. Photoplay called her "a kiss that explodes in a laugh, cherry bonbons in a clown's cap, sharing a cream puff with your best girl, a slap from a perfumed hand, the sugar in the Keystone grapefruit." By the time the man who would become the Tramp walked onto her set, Normand had worked on sets for four years, and made over a hundred pictures. She was 22.
Shouldn't we credit the director, the one who decided to shoot 75 feet, for the success of the Tramp? Keystone didn't have writers in those days, but did the director of Mabel's Strange Predicament unleash the Tramp? Doesn't Sergio Leone deserve some credit for Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name? Doesn't the director dictate tempo and decide who gets the camera's attention? Isn't the director's job to seek out the hidden talents of his actors and make sure they end up on screen? Doesn't a good director jump on a happy accident like the Tramp and ride it with a prayer of gratitude?
What Sennett and Chaplin both neglect to mention in their memoirs is that Mabel Normand was among the very first stars to direct their own films, and Normand directed Mabel's Strange Predicament. Perhaps in the intervening decades they forgot. It was certainly in their interest to forget. Why diminish their own roles in creating the miracle of the Tramp? Normand remembered it differently; she recalled Sennett's fury after seeing Chaplin's performance, screaming that Lehrman "had hooked himself up with a dead one." Normand said she begged him to give Charlie another chance.
Sennett acknowledges her effect on Chaplin:
After Mabel saw what Charlie could do in his new costume and tramp character, she changed her mind about 'that Englisher.' She not only wanted to work with him but wanted to help him. Charlie knew nothing about screen acting. He did not know how to behave in front of a camera, or why he was directed to move left to right in order to match a scene shot the day before. He was baffled by instructions to react to someone off camera — someone who would be inserted in the next day's shooting. Mabel patiently explained these and other simple techniques to Charlie, who had rebelled when Pathé Lehrman gave him orders.
I submit that Normand did a good deal more. As director and star (and the second most powerful person on the Keystone lot) she shaped Mabel's Strange Predicament. She saw Chaplin's potential and worked to bring it out. Chaplin said he was surrounded by rough and tumble types, admited he was anxious and found Normand reassuring. He called it a "unique atmosphere of beauty and the beast." Isn't it reasonable to believe that Normand, his director and acting partner, loosened up Charlie? That she gave him confidence in his own rhythms, and when she saw what she had, she knew he was the key to making her picture work, and let him run on at unprecedented length? He was a secondary character, but she built the picture around him. Normand the star stepped back and let the Tramp take over. Here she plays with Chaplin in the key scene of the picture, the predicament scene, when she's locked out of her room wearing only her pajamas, and the Tramp happens along. Notice how she plays to his tempo, and gives him the scene:
Normand was known for a subtle comic style that isn't on display here. She vamps along, buying time for Chaplin to wring his contradictions, from surprising to calming her, to seeing they're alone, to eyeballing her, to coming on to her, to chasing her tail. Sennett characters didn't have time for such transitions, just as they didn't take 30 seconds to sit down in a hotel lobby. I submit that Normand the director won Charlie's confidence and drew this out of him, and that Mabel Normand the star sacrificed her scene for the good of the picture.
Then Normand the director protected what she had in the can. In his first picture, Lehrman cut away from Chaplin whenever he could, so he could snip out what he saw as dead time, returning only for what he saw as action. These were the 10-foot scenes Chaplin talked about. Normand guards Chaplin's rhythms and lets him breathe. Given Sennett's obsession with pace, it is likely he had words with her during dailies. When they edited the picture, it is likely he wanted to chop up Chaplin as Lehrman had done. If so, Normand the director fought him on that, and made sure Chaplin's pregnant pauses stayed in the picture. Could Sennett have denied his director, his fiancé, his biggest star?
Unless you've made a movie, it's to hard to conceive how difficult it is to read your own picture before an audience sees it. This was as true for Star Wars and Casablanca as it was for Howard the Duck and Ishtar. In fact, as William Goldman put it, nobody knows. Alan Pakula said he could write the good review and the bad review, but which is the audience writing? Once an audience sees the picture, all comes clear. Once audiences saw Mabel's Strange Predicament and loved their Tramp, Normand's insights became obvious and her strength of conviction just good sense. But that doesn't diminish the courage or vision it required before the fact.
When Chaplin became the Tramp on Normand's watch, he also learned to be a movie actor. As Sennett put it, Normand, "the greatest motion-picture comedienne of any day, was as deft in pantomime as Chaplin was... She worked in slapstick, but her stage business and her gestures were subtle, not broad." Normand, the first movie star actress who wasn't stage trained, hadn't been taught the comic conventions of the theater, or to project to the back of the house. She had a movie-bred patience for living in the moment. She was a movie star because while she was beautiful, she let you see inside, and people liked what they saw. Movies are supremely intimate, and Normand was consummate at drawing people in, and holding them. We can watch Chaplin learning Normand's delicate skills.
Three months after the Tramp showed up, Sennett was cranking the first feature-length comedy ever made, and Normand and Chaplin were part of it, though neither one was above the title. Sennett's old boss was making his first magnum opus, The Clansman, later called The Birth of a Nation, and so Sennett wanted to match him. Smart money said a movie audience couldn't laugh for more than half an hour, and Sennett bought insurance in the form of Marie Dressler, star of the Broadway hit Tillie's Nightmare. She would bring in the middle-class audience that was only beginning to warm to cloth-cap darling Normand. Sennett paid Dressler her stage rate, $2500 a week, or 10 times what Normand earned.
Dressler was a skilled comedienne in the pre-Normand pattern of the grotesque who thought herself a beauty, and she transferred well to pictures. Later, Chaplin preferred ingénues to comediennes, but in Tillie's Punctured Romance he plays against two of the best. Watching Chaplin play with stage-trained Dressler and with movie-star Normand, we can see how Normand's subtler style toned down Chaplin, and brought him closer to the mature Tramp. Here, in Tillie, Chaplin doesn't play the Tramp. He's a low-life con man, after Dressler for her money. Sennett directs.
Here are Chaplin and Normand in the same picture. Normand is Chaplin's moll. They've stolen Dressler's money and spent it on fancy clothes, and they're watching a movie about a pair of low-lifes like themselves doing the same thing. Sennett cut up their close shot into 10-foot bits, but even in bits we can see they have a comfort with each other that allows for nuance and grounds the scene. Would Chaplin have found his subtle style without Normand, with Sennet pushing pace?
Sennett wrote about what Normand taught Chaplin, but Chaplin is mute on the subject. In his autobiography Mabel is pretty, Mabel is sweet, Mabel is reassuring, but Mabel is not an experienced professional who helps perfect his art. Why is Chaplin so dismissive? In part because she's a woman but more, I think, because Chaplin needed to portray Normand as incompetent to justify the shabby way he treated her.
Before Tillie began, only six weeks after the Tramp first walked on stage, just as Mabel's Strange Predicament came out in the East and the Tramp first captured the public imagination, Sennett put Chaplin in a picture where he didn't play the Tramp. Lehrman had absconded to Universal with Ford Sterling, Sennett's most popular male star, and Sennett decided that Chaplin would play a Sterling role in his next picture. This had the double virtue of plugging the hole left by Sterling's departure and putting Chaplin in the kind of role Sennett could appreciate, because unfortunately for Chaplin, Sterling played the consummate scenery-chewing villain, a vaudeville Dutch with the volume jacked to 11. Chaplin despised his style but went along with the gag. Perhaps suspension did its job.
To fans of the Tramp, a spectacularly bad idea. Oddly, when Chaplin recalls this picture he omits the fact that he played Ford Sterling. Here is his account. Chaplin was 24, and had acted in pictures for all of 10 weeks:
Now I was anxious to write and direct my own comedies, so I talked to Sennett about it. But he would not hear of it; instead he assigned me to Mabel Normand who had just started directing her own pictures. This nettled me, for, charming as Mabel was, I doubted her competence as a director; so the first day there came the inevitable blow-up ... Mabel wanted me to stand with a hose and water down the road so the villain's car would skid over it. [In fact Chaplin was the villain; Mabel drove the car.] I suggested standing on the hose so that the water can't come out, and when I look down the nozzle I unconsciously step off the hose and the water squirts in my face. But she shut me up quickly: 'We have no time! We have no time! Do what you're told.'
'I'm sorry, Miss Normand,'" Chaplin says he replied, "'I don't think you are competent to tell me what to do,'" and he walked off the set.
Sweet Mabel — at the time she was only twenty [she was 22], pretty and charming, everybody's favorite, everybody loved her. Now she sat by the camera bewildered; nobody had ever talked to her so directly before.
Chaplin said that his solution to their impasse was to strike a deal with Sennett: he offered to let Normand finish this picture in exchange for the right to direct his own picture next. Chaplin, a notorious tightwad, had saved up $1500, and to allay Sennett's very reasonable misgivings he offered it all to Keystone if his picture was unreleasable. Sennett, pressured by East Coast reports of Chaplin's instant popularity, took the deal. The rest, as they say, is history.
As Chaplin biographer David Robinson points out, the spritz-in-the-eye bit that Chaplin proposed was the oldest joke in movies, dating back to the Lumière brothers in 1896. Normand probably wanted something fresher. Not only had she already directed Chaplin well in Mabel's Strange Predicament, a few weeks later they'd partner up to direct Caught In a Cabaret together.
The deeper truth is that Chaplin was set on directing his own pictures, and Sennett wouldn't let him. The God Griffith could have helmed Mabel at the Wheel, but Chaplin knew he was popular back East, knew this was his chance to leverage himself into directing. To justify his dirty dealing, he had to paint Normand as incompetent. As he put it, "this was my work."
In 10 weeks Chaplin had gone from rank amateur to auteur. If he had anyone but himself to thank, it was probably Mabel Normand. He was lucky she was directing when he decided to take home his football. According to Mabel, a couple of extras offered to beat him up, and she talked them out of it. Had Mr. Suicide been talking to those extras, Chaplin might have had more painful memories.
Do we know what really happened? No. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. To understand what happened, we have to play with the facts until we find the story that fits them together most comfortably. Mabel Normand is the missing piece that knits together the invention of Chaplin's Tramp.
We owe it to Normand to speculate. She didn't have her say decades later like the others. She was mortally ill by the time sound came to the movies, and she died soon thereafter. It's easy to forget her brilliance, because most of her pictures are gone as well. Chaplin's remain.
We need to honor Normand for larger reasons. We all need genius. It's essential to know that Great Souls are out there, revealing the potential of the species, and we want to believe that true genius creates itself, and forces itself on the world. But we only know those geniuses who have broken through, and when we look at their stories, we often find that a random stroke of luck or a passionate believer made all the difference. If ever there was a movie genius, it was Charlie Chaplin. But anyone who works in movies will tell you that when it comes to pictures, nobody does anything alone.