In 1966, Chaplin granted several extensive interviews to journalist Richard Meryman for a Life magazine article to promote A Countess from Hong Kong. Only a small portion of Meryman’s taped interviews was ever published. A copy of the complete transcript, from which this excerpt was taken, is preserved in the Chaplin Archives.
MERYMAN: This interview is entirely concerned with your work and your art, and nothing else. I want to give some indication of how you work.
CHAPLIN: The summation of my character is that I care about my work. I care about everything I do. If I could do something else better, I would do it, but I can’t.
MERYMAN: Can you talk about the moment you created the Tramp outfit?
CHAPLIN: It all came about in an emergency. The cameraman said put on some funny makeup, and I hadn’t the slightest idea what to do. I went to the dress department and on the way I thought, well, I’ll have them make everything in contradiction—baggy trousers, tight coat, large head, small hat—raggedy hut at the same time a gentleman. I had a sad, serious face. I wanted to hide that and make it comic, so I found a little mustache. And that mustache was no concept of the characterization—only saying that it was rather silly. It doesn’t hide my expression.
MERYMAN: When you looked at yourself, what was your first reaction?
CHAPLIN: It’ll do. It didn’t ignite anything. Not until I absolutely had to play it in the presence of Hie camera. Making an entrance, I felt dressed; I had an attitude. I felt good, and the character came to me. The scene [from Mabel’s Strange Predicament] was in a hotel lobby, and the Tramp was trying to pretend to be one of the guests just so he can get anchored on a soft seat and rest for a while. Everybody looked at him a little suspiciously, and I did all the things that the guests were doing m the hotel, looked at the register, took out a cigarette, lit it, watched the passing parade. And them I stumbled over the cuspidor. That was the first gag I ever did. And the character was born. And I thought, this is a very good character. But not every character I played followed the same format for all the comedy ideas after that. One thing I intended to remain not so much the dress of the Tramp, but the sore feet. No matter how rambunctious or exuberant he felt, he always had these very tired big feet. I inquired of wardrobe that I wanted two large pairs of old shoes, because I had absurdly small feet, so I wanted these big shoes, and I knew they would give me a comic gait. I’m naturally very graceful, but trying to be graceful in big feet—that’s funny.
MERYMAN: Much of what the Tramp did was the outrageousness of a child. Did the Tramp appeal to the child in you and the yearning for childlike freedom?
CHAPLIN: No, I don’t think it comes out of any sense of freedom, and I don’t think there’s any yearning in a comedian to do childish things. But from the viewpoint of the public, civilization so restricts them, and they have no chance to really kick up, unless a man gets very drunk or something, f think their restricted life becomes a habit, and when they see a clown they enjoy it immensely. It’s a release and a great deal of freedom. I don’t think it’s a yearning. I think we get beyond that.
MERYMAN: Do you think the Tramp would work in modern times?
CHAPLIN: I don’t think there’s any place for that sort of person now. The world has become a little bit more ordered. I don’t think it’s happier now, by any means. I’ve noticed the kids with their short clothes and their long hair, and I think some of them want to be tramps. But there’s not the same humility now. They don’t know what humility is, so it has become something of an antique. It belongs to another era. That’s why I couldn’t do anything like that now. And of course, sound—that’s another reason. When talk came in I couldn’t have my character at all. I wouldn’t know what kind of voice he would have. So he had to go.
MERYMAN: What do you think was the great appeal of the Tramp?
CHAPLIN: There is that gentle, quiet poverty. Every soda jerk wants to dress up, wants to be a swell. That’s what I enjoy about the character—being very fastidious and very delicate about everything. But I never really thought of the Tramp in terms of appeal. The Tramp was something within myself I had to express. I was motivated by the reaction of the audience, but I never related to an audience. The audience happens when it’s finished, and not during the making. I’ve always related to a sort of a comic spirit, something within me, that said I must express this. This is funny.
MERYMAN: How does a gag sequence come to you? Does it come out of nothing, or is there a process?
CHAPLIN: No, there is no process. The best ideas grow out of the situation. If you get a good comedy situation it goes on and on and has many radiations. Like the skating rink sequence [in The Rink], I found a pair of skates and I went on, with everybody in the audience certain that I was going to fall, and instead I came on and just skated around on one foot gracefully. The audience didn’t expect it from the Tramp. Or the lamppost gag [in Easy Street]. It came out of a situation where I am a policeman, and am trying to subdue a bully. I hit him on the head with a truncheon, and hit him and hit him. It is like a bad dream. He keeps rolling his sleeves up with no reaction to being hit at all. Then he lifts me up and puts me down. Then I thought, well, he has enormous strength, so he can pull the lamppost down, and while he was doing that I would jump on his back, push his head in the light, and gas him. I did some funny things that were all made off the cuff that got a tremendous laugh. But there was a lot of agony, too. Miserable days of nothing working, and getting more despondent. It was up to me to think of something to make them laugh. And you cannot be tunny without a funny situation. You can do something clownish, perhaps stumble, but you must have a funny situation.
MERYMAN: Do you see people doing these things, or do they all come out of your imagination?
CHAPLIN: No, we created a world of our own. Mine was the studio in California. The happiest moments were when I was on the set and I had an idea or just a suggestion of a story, and I felt good, and then things would happen. It was the only surcease that I had. The evening is rather a lonesome place, you know, in California, especially in Hollywood. But it was marvelous, creating a comic world. It was another world, different from the everyday. And it used to be fun. You sit there and you rehearse for half a day, shoot it, and that was it.
MERYMAN: So much of your comedy is physical. Was anyone ever hurt while filming?
CHAPLIN: We’ve never had an accident in our films. I was the only one that got hurt—in Easy Street I had to have three stitches in my nose.
MERYMAN: Well, what about the falling?
CHAPLIN: It was all worked out like a ballet.
MERYMAN: You have used the word dance to describe your work.
CHAPLIN: Everything I do is a dance. I think in terms of a dance. In City Lights, with the blind girl, there is a beautiful dance. I call it a dance. Purely pantomime. The girl extends her hand with a flower. And the Tramp doesn’t know she’s blind. And he says, Til take this one.’ ‘Which one?’ He looks incredulous—what a stupid girl. Then the flower falls to the ground, and she goes to feel for where it is. I pick it up and hold it there for a moment. And then she says, ‘I lave you found it, sir?’ And then he looks, and realizes. I le holds it in front of her eyes—just makes a gesture. Not much. That is completely dancing.
MERYMAN: Now, you dictate your writing a great deal, don’t you?
CHAPLIN: Yes, I dictate the so-called mechanics of the thing very offhandedly and then go over it carefully, or if I have a scene that’s poetic and has emotional content I have to do that alone. And write in pencil.
MERYMAN: Do you act it out for yourself?
CHAPLIN: Oh, yes. I can’t sit still much, especially if I get excited, and I act it out. If it’s something too personal that I have to do in long hand, it’s not very much, maybe a couple hundred words at most.
MERYMAN: So you act, and then you go back to the desk and write, and then get up and try it some way, and write again. Do you act for the secretaries sometimes when you’re dictating?
CHAPLIN: It all depends upon the nature of the secretary. Sometimes they are a good audience, sometimes they are a serious worker. It doesn’t always come off on paper. Anything very personal, poetic, which I think is emotional, I write myself and then I dictate it, because I’m the only one who can decipher what I’ve written. I dictate in the very cold language, and that’s done.
MERYMAN: As far as the technical aspects of your films, do you worry much about lighting or camera placement?
CHAPLIN: Well, yes. I like the lighting more or less up—I don’t like shadows. I don’t think it’s the most important element in a film. I think if you concentrate on that, you may be neglecting something else. As to the camera, if I have a rule at all, it is the fact that I like to establish orientation—to know where you are. I like to keep the camera way back, then come into a closeup or whatever you want to finish up. You can eliminate time, with discretion, but now they go overboard. I don’t mind when they cut away—it’s refreshing to me. But I do like to see something smooth. I use the closeup, not in any sense of mechanics, but sort of as an emphasis, as punctuation, like putting in a comma or parentheses. Technique is so much a part of expression through the camera. But I really concentrate more on the performances of the actors.
MERYMAN: Do you think cutting is extremely important?
CHAPLIN: Oh, yes, but simple cutting. Trick cutting doesn’t interest me because I’m so much interested in the human equation, and not in photographing a stone or a drop of blood falling on it. I suppose there is merit in the accumulation of what the effect will be, but I don’t make pictures that way. I like acting. I’m very fond of acting and human emotion. I like the face, and to concentrate on beauty. Other people might think it’s slow. That’s my whole approach to motion pictures—to bring out their personality and their acting ability. Cutting is just a juxtaposition of one set or one person to another, you see. I also sometimes sharpen up where I think it might be a little slow. You can do a lot by cutting.
MERYMAN: And in the old days when you were cutting the film you could even go back and reshoot.
CHAPLIN: Yes, although I was always days behind, you see. I would see my action on the screen and I’d say God, I’m like a windmill, throwing my arms all round the place and I’d know what was wrong. Then I’d come the following day and have the thing right. The moment I came out of the room I knew what was wrong.
MERYMAN: When you see one of your one- or two-reelers today they’re all sped up. Were they sped up in those days?
CHAPLIN: No, because the projection was slower so that you saw them in natural action. Slightly speeded up because comedy was considered 14 frames per second, and drama was considered 16 frames, which was natural. And now we have 24 frames per second. So that today the comedy would be jerky.
MERYMAN: Is realism an integral part of comedy?
CHAPLIN: Oh, yes, absolutely. I think in make-believe, you have an absurd situation, and you treat it with a complete reality. And the audience knows it, so they’re in the spirit. It’s so real to them and it’s so absurd, it gives them exultation.1
MERYMAN: Well, part of it is the cruelty—there was a lot of cruelty.
CHAPLIN: Cruelty is a basic element in comedy. What appears to be sane is really insane, and if you can make that poignant enough they love it. The audience recognizes it as a farce on life, and they laugh at it in order not to die from it, in order not to weep. It’s a question of that mysterious thing called candor coming in. An old man slips on a banana and falls slowly and stumbles and we don’t laugh. But if it’s done with a pompous well-to-do gentleman who has exaggerated pride, then we laugh. All embarrassing situations are funny, especially if they’re treated with humor. With clowns you can expect anything outrageous to happen. But if a man goes into a restaurant, and he thinks he’s very smart but he’s got a big hole in his pants—if that is treated humorously, it’s bound to be funny. Especially if it’s done with dignity and pride.
MERYMAN: But in your films there’s a different quality. The story is not necessarily a real story. It’s too much coincidence, too much fantasy. It has a truth, yet a fairy-tale aspect in it.
CHAPLIN: Well, of course I don’t think there’s anything wrong with coincidence, if you don’t overdo it. I think there’s a lot of coincidence in life. Those things never bother me, so long as there’s a plausible excuse for it. A character is activated in my story. The fairy tale comes in, but I don’t strive for that. I strive for comedy and believable comic situations. For instance, The Circus is a very funny comedy, and it has lots of invention and little reality. It’s so full of adventure. It’s a silly story, but, at the same time, you give it a certain treatment, and the audience believes it. It all depends on what the story is. The moment one starts on the basis of a pretty girl interested in the character like the Tramp, then you have to have some convincing situation to bring that about. Sometimes it’s very difficult to give the illusion of reality.
MERYMAN: Isn’t the fairy tale one of the ingredients of romance?
CHAPLIN: Yes. I think romance is an approach to make life interesting and noble and beautiful. I don’t say that in any fitting sense or any moral sense, I say that [without romance] life can be a very horrifying and frightening thing, but if you’re going to live it, as people do, they do like it and think it’s a wonderful mystery. I mean, romance is the only thing by which to live by. We get away from the so-called realism and enter into it, but, without romance, you may as well be in a prison. It feeds spirituality and your sense of exultation. Something that is romance, is marriage—you look at it from one sense, from the sense of truth and realism, and it can be an irksome, horrible, terrifying thing that is constricting and confining. But if you think of it in terms of romance, the relationship makes life really beautiful. I like romance in comedy. I think the people are more believable.
MERYMAN: There must be a lot of romance necessary for a person to be an actor.
CHAPLIN: Oh yes, absolutely. It is romantic to be someone else, to be placed in such a condensed capsule of situations. The whole attitude toward the theater is romance. People don’t go to the theater to seek truth. Truth has a means to an end. To create a believable romance I think you’ve achieved a great deal in the theater. I suppose when an actor stops feeling romance and starts looking at his profession with a cold eye he can’t act anymore.
MERYMAN: Your comedy in part is a comedy of incident, too. It’s not an intellectual thing, it’s things that are happening, that are funny.
CHAPLIN: I’ve always thought that incidents related will make a story, like the setting up of a pool game on a billiard table. Each ball is an incident in itself. One touches the other, you see. And the whole makes a triangle. I carry that image a great deal in my work.
MERYMAN: You like to keep a terrific pace going and you pack incidents one on top of the other quite a bit. Do you think this is characteristic of you?
CHAPLIN: Well, I don’t know whether it’s characteristic of me. I’ve watched other comedians who seem to relax their pace. I can feel my way much better with pace than I can with being slow. I haven’t the confidence to move slow, and I haven’t the confidence in what I’m doing. But action is not always the thing. Everything must have growth, otherwise it loses its reality. You have a problem, and then you intensity it. You don’t deliberately start with intensifying it. But you say, well, now, where do we go from here? You say, what is the natural outcome of this? Realistically and convincingly, the problem keeps getting more and more complicated. And it must be logical, otherwise you will have some sort of comedy, but you won’t have an exciting comedy.
MERYMAN: Do you worry about sentimentality or cliche?
CHAPLIN: No, not in pantomime. You don’t worry about it, you just avoid it. And I’m not afraid of a cliche—all life is a cliche. We don’t awaken with any sort of originality. We all live and die with three meals a day, fall in and out of love. I think when you have a situation that is justified it’s not a cliche. Nothing could be more of a cliche than a love story, and that must go on, so long as it is treated interestingly.
MERYMAN: You think the theater is the great training ground for films, don’t you?
CHAPLIN: Oh yes. My experience in the theater has helped me a great deal in films. Even with the settings. That’s always been at the back of my mind. I look upon the aperture as a small proscenium. That’s why I’ve never moved my camera much, because I’m influenced by the scene of the theater. And why I haven’t liked the closeup too much. I realize that one must come closer for a certain emphasis, which is very important and very valuable. I like the choreography of movement of the theater. I think the entrances, coming on anti off, helps one’s lime. And if you’re cognizant of all those things that the theater does present I think it helps in a motion picture.
MERYMAN: You’ve said that you art; a better director than an actor. Why do you think that?
CHAPLIN: Oh, because I think I am. I think every actor has a certain sense of insecurity, whether he can play the part or not. In pretending to be somebody else you’re exposing yourself. Acting is reaching out and finding the reality of a scene. Sometimes you get it and sometimes you don’t. As a director, sometimes you’ll reach out for it and you’ll get it. It’s like a comedy line in a play. One time it just rings a bell, and they’ll laugh, and the next night it doesn’t come—it’s just lost. For some reason, either in timing, intonation—there are so many aspects. It’s difficult to do it. My directing is an emotional process. I don’t give a big powwow about the psychology of it. If a person can act, you give them something that’s actable, and they can do it.
MERYMAN: And you deal in terms of a gesture and the inflection in the voice, or a move here . . . it’s external.
CHAPLIN: No, there’s nothing external. I believe everything we touch is the inside, you never do external. But anything that you tell [actors] to do is just as much a part of the spiritual as it is the so- called external, the mechanics. It will bring them into the mood— that’s all mechanics are for, to put them in the feeling of it and put them on the track, as it were. Like when we learn lines. It will help to create a mood, and they render a very finished performance. In other words, what differentiates the professional actor, the good actor, from the amateur is the fact that he knows what he is doing—the mechanics every minute. And does it with authority. If you’re an authority the audience will listen to you; if you’re not, they won’t. But the one thing about directing is to know how to act it—to know how to be able to tell, to demonstrate to the actor how to do it and at the same time to feel that you don’t interfere with his personality. That’s essential. By doing that, it makes the actor comfortable. Directing for an actor is easy. And actors make good directors.
MERYMAN: Is there any kind of common fault with actors that you feel over and over again?
CHAPLIN: I think it’s a fault that’s partly also a virtue. They’re egocentric, of course, and they have to be. Such egocentricity might get in the way of a very good performance, but if it’s controlled, I think it’s all right. I like actors. Some are very, very humble and realistic and others, of course, are perfectly absurd. And yet, in some way, it doesn’t interfere with their giving a magnificent performance.
MERYMAN: What is the greatest single quality an actor can have?
CHAPLIN: I think the love of what they are doing—with restraint. And you have to be in the right key, like striking a sounding fork, or the key can be out of tune with an audience. I think an actor in his first minute or so is tuning himself with his audience and his environment. One of the strange mysteries of a performance, one night it’ll come out excellent, and that contact is there, and another time it isn’t. No great actor is infallible. And sometimes he gives a great performance and other times he doesn’t.
MERYMAN: Can you have this experience in film?
CHAPLIN: It does happen in motion pictures very often. Well, you say, that was good, and I felt it and I know it was right. And then you see it on the screen, and for some reason there’s an element lacking. I’ve had that happen to me. I’ve come to the conclusion it was the camera. You see only half of one’s self that’s photographed. There’s a shutter that comes in between every frame that’s black. And it may catch you between those vibrations. That’s my own explanation. It’s very fascinating, that you might just be out of sync with that spiritual thing, whatever it is.
MERYMAN: Does the opposite happen—something that you thought was fair and it turns out to be marvelous?
CHAPLIN: I had it once or twice in a broader sense. I had one close-up in City Lights, the last scene, and one could have gone overboard. The girl sees through her fingers and realizes, “My God, this is the man.” And it was nothing like what she had imagined in her mind. And he just looks curious. I was looking more at her and interested in her, and I detached myself in a way that gives a beautiful sensation. I’m not acting. Sort of standing outside of myself and looking, studying her reactions and being rather slightly embarrassed about it. And it came off. I took several takes before that, but they were all overdone and overfelt. But this one, for some reason, was objective and apologetic. It’s a beautiful scene, beautiful; and because it isn’t overfelt.
MERYMAN: I understand that as the years went on the responsibility multiplied for you—keeping your eye on your own spiral, not being numbed by success and sitting down on the job somehow.
CHAPLIN: Well, my feeling was, will this thing last? Will I be creative? But it was never with the idea of topping myself. We were simply people out there making a living, and each day was unknown. We didn’t know what we were going to do, and so it kept everybody on their toes pretty much. You could never get satisfied those that did fell by the wayside.
MERYMAN: Well, once you were enormously successful, didn’t you have to say no to a lot of things that other people said yes to? You never really made personal appearance tours. Do you think it’s a danger for someone to start doing that?
CHAPLIN: Yes. I wouldn’t want to commit myself to be exploited, and I knew that: it would be very unsatisfactory. I knew that if I once did that it would affect my popularity. I realize I was very rude in many ways. People liked me, and it was too much, and I didn’t have any secretaries or anybody to look after that or dictate anything. I couldn’t do everything. I hadn’t the energy. Douglas Fairbanks used to say, “Charlie has the most instinctive sense of protection.” With me, I had to direct, act, write, cut, and produce a Him. I did it all, and that’s why I was always exhausted.
MERYMAN: You gave the idea of A Woman of the Sea to Josef von Sternberg, didn’t you?
CHAPLIN: Yes. After A Woman of Paris, Edna [Purviance] wanted to make a picture on her own, and I said fine, as I was getting to where I wanted another character for my films. So von Sternberg used to hang around, and l said, well, I’ve got an idea. If you can make a picture with Edna it would help me out, and he said he would. I had a sketchy idea. I’d been up to Carmel, Monterey, and Seventeen Mile Drive—very beautiful coastline, rugged, with the waves coming up—and I started to think of all sorts of gags. Edna was getting a little robust and bosomy, and I thought she’d make a wonderful fisherman’s wife—fighting against nature to get a big catch, starving, and all that. I can see her with the sheen on her face, pulling in the nets. She’s out there and they’re going to lose the catch, they almost lose their lives, but they save the catch. So Sternberg said, “Don’t tell me any more, that’s enough.” In those days we didn’t have a script, just the story. But he came back with the most puerile, infantile story of a man from the city with a mustache—the heavy—hanging around and peeking through fishermen’s nets, looking at Edna. And Edna played this infantile woman just walking around. I said, that’s not a fisherman’s wife! I wanted to see a woman with a squint and the ocean in her eyes. We lost about $60,000 in cost.
MERYMAN: Do you still have the film?
CHAPLIN: No, I burned it. I didn’t want it around. I was completely at a loss about the whole thing, and it depressed me.
MERYMAN: How did you feel when you went out to the set each morning?
CHAPLIN: It was a challenge, and one is resigned to that challenge. You want to get to it like you want to get to the winning post. Each morning, one has to pray for it, like a prizefighter. You must go to bed early, get some good sleep, get up in the morning, and go into the studio. I wouldn’t work at night. I would turn off all the worry about what I’m going to do the following day. Sometimes we’d end the day by saying, well, tomorrow we’ll set up here and shoot this, and we’ll do that. But other times I’d he so tired that I wouldn’t know what to do. I knew very well that the following day that I’d be refreshed and enthusiastic. An idea will generate enthusiasm, and then you’re off! The enthusiasm only lasts for a little while, and then you wait for another day. It replenishes itself, and you start again. If something is right, and I think it is right, then it will generate enthusiasm. If I get an idea and someone tries to dampen my enthusiasm, then I’m lost. That’s what it is. It’s the fact that my enthusiasm is the thing -flat makes me mad and everything else. That’s my secret, I think. I’m terrifically enthused, if I like something. I couldn’t be an ordinary director. In the first place, I wouldn’t have the enthusiasm for other people’s ideas. That’s where my ego comes in, but I can’t help it.
MERYMAN: Did you do the eating of the shoe gag [in The Gold Rush] many times?
CHAPLIN: We had about two days of retakes on it. And the poor old actor [Mack Swain] was sick for the last two. The shoes were made of licorice, and he’d eaten so much of it. He said, ”1 cannot eat any more of those damn shoes!” I got the idea for this gag from the Donner party. They resorted to cannibalism and to eating a moccasin. And I thought, stewed boots? There’s something tunny there. I had an agonizing time trying to motivate the story, until we got into a simple situation—hunger. The moment you’ve solved the logic of a situation, its feasibility, reality, and possibility of being able to happen, ideas fly at you. It is one of the best things in the picture.
MERYMAN: Did you have any doubts or concerns going into sound?
CHAPLIN: Yes, oh naturally. In the first place, I had experience, but not academic training, and there’s a great difference. But I felt I had talent, I felt I was a natural actor. I knew it was much easier for me to pantomime than it was to talk. I’m an artist, and I knew very well in talking a lot of that would disappear. I’d be no better than anybody else with good diction and a very good voice, which is more than half the battle.
MERYMAN: Was it a question of having an extra dimension of reality that might hurt the fantasy of silent him?
CHAPLIN: Oh, yes. I’ve always said that the pantomime is far more poetic and it has a universal appeal that everyone would understand if it were well done. The spoken word reduces everybody to a certain glibness. The voice is a beautiful thing, most revealing, and I didn’t want to be too revealing in my art because it may show a limitation. There are very few people with voices that can reach or give the illusion of great depth, whereas movement is as near to nature as a bird hying. The expression of the eyes— there’s no words. The pure expression of the face that people can’t hide—if it’s one of disappointment it can be ever so subtle. I had to bear all this in mind when I started talking. I knew very well I lost a lot of eloquence. It can never be as good.
MERYMAN: Why did you choose to do The Great Dictator, which was really dealing with a very serious theme?
CHAPLIN: I think it was very obvious. These poor wretched prisoners in the prison camps and the torture that was going on. That was the first knowledge we had of Hitler. And then his attacking of minority people or people that didn’t agree with him. If he had won, then the world would have been Nazi for the next thousand years. Those things you can’t bear to think of.
MERYMAN: Did you study Hitler a great deal for The Great Dictator?
CHAPLIN: No, I don’t study much of anything. I didn’t have to read a column about Hitler. I did go to the Museum of Modern Art to see a film with him in it. I thought to myself, let me see this ridiculous madman. I thought he was a humorless, horrible man. Naturally a man in his position would be very fretful. I’m sure there were moments when he questioned his own genius, if that is what it was. I’m sure there’s a paradox there, where he was so effete and fearful of everything. Everybody going to him and saying, what shall we do, and he, underneath, was just as fearful as the rest.
R\l: That speech at the end has been criticized; I wonder whether you regretted it at all.
CHAPLIN: Oh, no. Not a bit. I saw the picture recently, and the war dates it because it was on a serious note, and that’s why I feel slightly embarrassed by the speech. It was a damned good speech and I liked it as far as I was concerned- -I was really most sincere. People “think too much and feel too little.” I thought this is where one could make a curtain speech. Say, Ladies and Gentlemen, there’s a tragedy going on—that’s all I wanted to do metaphorically.
MERYMAN: But you got pretty high marks for clairvoyance— when you made that film, Hitler was not totally recognized for what he was.
CHAPLIN: It’s true, I did have some foresight. And of course, Oona always kids me about it. I sensed it, it was in his face, this confident ego. This madman, in a way.
MERYMAN: Well, up until that point, had your great motivation been to instruct or amuse?
CHAPLIN: To amuse. I never wanted to instruct. I’ve never had any message. People themselves will instruct.
MERYMAN: Was Monsieur Verdoux based on an actual man?
CHAPLIN: Well, not exactly. I had the idea that Landru was a matter of two separate lives—a schizophrenic. He was one then the other. At home my character of Verdoux was very good, staid, a moral father with a beautiful wife, and he’s just come from an abattoir where he’s been putting women in his little stove! He would come home from a murder like a father having done a hard day’s work.
MERYMAN: Did you explore the motivation for a murderer, the killing of somebody?
CHAPLIN: Oh, no. That’s purely inventive and imaginative and has nothing to do with murder. It was purely my conception of it. It just occurred to me that it would make a very funny comedy. I had a great desire when I started that picture. First of all, I was seeking my way and became lost a little bit in it. When I finished it there was no identification to the audience. And that was a mistake. Of course, some liked it, and now, as time goes on, I like it less. I was terrifically influenced by the public because they unconsciously were aggravated, and I have a profound respect for that. They don’t know why, but it’s our business to know why.
MERYMAN: How do you feel about A King in New York now?
CHAPLIN: Well, as I said, the public influenced me a great deal. And I think, well, I wouldn’t want to do anything like that now. Although genuinely I had what I thought was a comic notion. Frankly, I got a good opening. I didn’t know where the hell the story was going, but the opening was very good. I think perhaps I went overboard a little bit, because I got into politics and so forth. And that was the time of McCarthy. But I see nothing anti-American in it.
MERYMAN: And this was never seen in America.
CHAPLIN: No. It was shown in Europe, but the people didn’t really understand it. There were certain things that were excellent. It’s a very funny idea to do a comedy on honesty. As I say, I am influenced a great deal by the public. Not that they’re completely right, but if something goes wrong, if they show the slightest indifference, that’s me. And you’ve got to play to the public.
MERYMAN: Do you think critics influence the public in films?
CHAPLIN: Well, I suppose they do to a certain amount, but it’s very minor. It’s not like the theater where they can just cut your throat. Motion pictures are too popular, it’s too much for the people. They go for entertainment, and they see something they like, of course, and it may be something that’s very obvious. But you must take an audience seriously because their rebuffs are very gentle—they merely don’t go. A critic gets furious, foams, and writes a column about how horrible a man is, but the public is not concerned that way—they merely don’t go. I think that’s terrifying—indifference.
MERYMAN: There were many wonderful lines in Limelight when you’re trying to encourage Claire Bloom’s character of Terry. That was a very personal film, wasn’t it?
CHAPLIN: In some sense yes, it was. It was generally what I felt and thought at that time. I made it believable and rational. If you rationalize a situation so that you can make the audience believe that people are happy, which I think on the whole they are— I think people are happy in a way, in spite of all these damn atomic bombs.
MERYMAN: This film is so different from what I’d been seeing, and I think partly it was the simplicity of the whole thing.
CHAPLIN: Oh, yes. The camera is seeing the performance, and nothing can compete with the human equation, in my estimation. Nothing is more interesting.
MERYMAN: A line from Limelight I wrote down is “that’s the trouble with the world, we all despise ourselves.”
CHAPLIN: Yes, I sincerely believe that. I try to be sincere about my feelings on the matter. I think men of great power are trying to get away from the fact that they really do despise themselves. They think they can exalt themselves without the average man. I think that’s the psychology of half of our dictators.
MERYMAN: Do you think ordinary people despise themselves?
CHAPLIN: No, not to that extent. I think they do to a degree. They feel they couldn’t be leaders, but I think any man can be a leader. If they take the trouble and the responsibility, there’s a great deal of so-called courage about it. I think we’re all pretty lazy, but if somebody had to do it, they can do it. It’s hard work to face problems, and who wants to face problems?
MERYMAN: In Limelight you have the background in one scene totally different from the scene which you have just seen, as sort of a joke on the people. That you feel that nobody cares whether things change from scene to scene.
CHAPLIN: Well, I don’t do those things deliberately. I don’t have any joke on the public. They’re not to be joked with, in my estimation. But I do know that if I’ve done a very good scene and a pillow may be out place in the background and the [continuity] girls will say that’s no good, well, to hell with the pillow in the background. It’s a good scene and that’s more important. In Shoulder Arms I had a gun in one scene and in the other I didn’t have it, but it was a good scene. So I used it.
MERYMAN: I was aware in some of your films that instead of a real city there would be a painting. It was rather charming.
CHAPLIN: Yes. What I enjoy with pictures is to create something that looks as though it’s a lot of money and do it for the sake of intention. Not because it’s cheap, but because it’s creative. To do it
cleverly without spending a lot of money. People would build train platforms just for a simple scene of somebody going away. What a waste of money. In A Woman of Paris when a woman gets on the train, she has a shadow of a train that comes into the station pass her face, and it was done with just a piece oi cardboard. People said it was beautiful, poetic.
MERYMAN: Your most recent film is A Countess from Hong Kong. A big question that’s going to be on everybody’s mind when they look at it is, is he going to be old-fashioned? What is it about the him that they might consider old-fashioned?
CHAPLIN: Well, they all have an idea that I’m terribly conservative and I’m not. We don’t twist the camera upside down. Personality, people, the human equation transcend any acrobatics that the camera might do. I don’t think there is such a word as being old-fashioned, in the deepest sense, because we don’t understand the past, the present; we’re conscious of the future. I like the misty mysticism of that. Time is something that is there, and we pretend that everything is modern and new, but it’s not. So I’m never bothered about being old-fashioned.
MERYMAN: I heard the comment that the script seemed terribly simple.
CHAPLIN: Well, that’s something as a director one has to overcome, and you tell them this is essentially a romantic love story in a realistic situation. And you just play it straightforward, without nonsense.
MERYMAN: And you wrote the music for this?
CHAPLIN: Yes—well, you see, I don’t write music, so I have to have another man there, but I can play. I have no technique, but I know what I want to do. I’m not very good. I will say, I want the flutes and nothing but the woodwinds here, and doing something, with a little brass here, French horns coming in here, and the climax there— something like that. I would play the tune—I always want the tune first, because my tunes are lyrical, then you can go into the violins and all of that afterwards, but I want to hear the tune clean.
MERYMAN: Is writing music like writing words in any way?
CHAPLIN: No, because you have command in your words. You can go over them and rewrite and rearrange. But music is always in the hands of somebody else, and if you make a mistake, with forty-five musicians, and they’re pretty well paid, it means you have to bring them back.
MERYMAN: This was your first movie in color. Did you enjoy that?
CHAPLIN: Yes. Of course, one is so insecure, because you never know what the hell is coming out. It was very fine, very discreet. I rather liked the idea of it. It’s like any picture—the only nervous qualms I had was starting. The moment we took the first scene I knew what I wanted.
MERYMAN: If a person walked into the cinema not knowing anything about it or what was being shown, would I know that you had a hand in it? Would it have something that I would recognize as having your stamp on it?
CHAPLIN: I think so. The situations are crazy enough. And the thing is so absolutely logical; so right, and completely truthful. It’s a sort of mad thing which has the pretense of being absolutely real. It’s screamingly funny. It’s treated so real and so mad.
MERYMAN: Did you have any different kinds of nervousness about this than previous films?
CHAPLIN: Oh, slightly. My one desire was to please the actors, and l found that I wanted their respect more than anything else. It wasn’t a question of nerves. I knew I’d got a good thing, I wasn’t too sure whether it would come off or not.
MERYMAN: Do you have a film that’s a favorite?
CHAPLIN: Well, I think I liked City Lights. I think it’s solid, well done. City Lights is a real comedy.
MERYMAN: That is a powerful film. What impressed me is how close tragedy and comedy are.
CHAPLIN: Well, that has never interested me. That’s been the feeling, I suppose, of subjectivity. I’ve always felt that, and it has more or less been second nature with me. That may be due to environment also. And I don’t think one can do humor without having great pity and a sense of sympathy for one’s fellow man.
MERYMAN: Is it that we want relief from tragedy?
CHAPLIN: No, I think life is much more. If that were the reason I think there would be more suicides. People would want to get out of life. I think life is a very wonderful thing, and must be lived under all circumstances, even in misery. I think I would prefer life. Prefer the experience, for nothing else but the experience. I think humor does save one’s sanity. We can go overboard with too much tragedy. Tragedy is, of course, a part of life, but we’re also given an equipment to offset anything, a defense against it. I think tragedy is very essential in life. And we are given humor as a defense against it. Humor is a universal thing, which I think is derived from more or less pity.
MERYMAN: What keeps you from directing a play and keeps you fascinated with the film?
CHAPLIN: Well, you can fix permanently the artistry in a film, but you cannot in a play. People fall off after the repetition of playing a part, they get into bad habits, and that’s one aspect, although I enjoy the theater, and I would like to put a play on. But you would have to be a caretaker or watchdog. We have an expression— “that’s in the can”—you’ve done that. And that’s forever—as long as film lasts.
MERYMAN: Do you think there is such a thing as a genius?
CHAPLIN: I’ve never known quite what a genius was. I think it’s somebody with a talent, who’s highly emotional about it, and is able to master a technique. Everybody is gifted in some way. The average man has to differentiate between doing a regular sort of unimaginative job, and the fellow who’s a genius doesn’t. He does something different, but does this very well. Many a jack-of- all-trades have been mistaken for a genius.
MERYMAN: Well, you have done something in your life that nobody did before, and nobody will do again. That’s absolutely unique.
CHAPLIN: Unique, yes, but genius is such a pretentious word, and you come to find it doesn’t mean anything. You see genius all over the world, in beautiful paintings … I think they do their job well, and they’re artists, and how far the genius goes, some are better artists than others.
MERYMAN: What do you think has kept you sustained all these years? Kept you from running away?
CHAPLIN: Oh, I think it’s my vitality. I’m an optimist within my own self. At my age, I enjoy it very much because there are a lot of things that one gives up, especially if you’ve been successful and in your success you’ve been sensible.
MERYMAN: What sort of fears did you have?
CHAPLIN: I’ve never had any fears when I was young. If I had five dollars a week, I could go around and play my violin in a pub and make it.
MERYMAN: Limelight is a reflection of that, isn’t it?
CHAPLIN: A lot of that, yes. One is sort of haunted with the fact that you want to settle and be happy. And those things didn’t come until very late. As I say, age is very gratifying, because you shed yourself of a lot of fears. Death doesn’t have any fear for you. It did when I was young. I always thought I was going to die in the cold or something. And then, one doesn’t want the social things so much. One doesn’t want to go out and stand around with their back against the wall and talk to somebody you don’t know. One gets lazy. It’s nice to stay home and have a good meal. Put your feet up by the fire and have a drink, or read a book, and that’s it.
MERYMAN: Is there anything in the world now that fires your imagination?
CHAPLIN: There’s a lot that fires my imagination, but I wouldn’t make a story about it. But there is an optimistic note here. There is a lot of sorrow to life, there’s plenty of trouble in the world, and I think to make a picture showing the possibility that there is another aspect to life is very charming. It’s not the question of what life is, it’s the question of what the possibilities are.