One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had a chat with Charlie Chaplin about his future ambitions. He had no film to promote and was between jobs: he’d just finished his last film for Mutual and was about to leave for a vacation in Hawaii, after which he would start working for First National. They didn’t mention movies at all, and he seemed to be quite happy to talk about other subjects. He spoke about what he hoped to do in the future:
Chaplin’s big ambition, confided to me the other day, is nothing less than to write and produce a play on the stage. And about this business Charlie cherishes no illusions.
“I’m not nearly ready to do it yet,” he said. “I must work, study and write for at least another five years. In the meantime I must know people who will stimulate thought and imagination—clever people who have accomplished things. Yes, I should wish to write a comedy, of course, but a comedy with a deep and genuine human touch.”
So as early as 1917 he wanted to make Serious Art, but he didn’t imagine he could do that with film. Chaplin never did produce a play. He must have decided that film could be taken seriously enough for his ambitions. Five years later he began shooting A Woman of Paris, a drama about a woman who choses between security and love.
He went on to describe being tongue-tied when he met actor/theater manager/founder of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree: “I managed to yammer out something, but I’m sure it was quite ghastly.” Tree didn’t notice, he was too busy monologing on how he wanted to stage Macbeth, the history of non-Shakespeare Elizabethan playwrights and the benefits of travel for young people. Chaplin didn’t make his escape until Tree’s daughter Iris rescued him.
He also talked about fiction, and told a sweet story about his favorite author, Dickens:
“I used to imitate Dickens’ characters at school, from the Cruikshank illustrations,” said Charlie, “and one day one of the directors gave me Oliver Twist. It was the first book I ever owned because my mother was too poor to buy us books, and it was the first story I ever read. I carried it home and put it under my pillow, falling asleep that night on my precious book, and I read and reread it until it was soiled and torn.”
Oliver Twist remained his favorite novel for his whole life; he continued to read it over and over, according to his biographer Stephen Weismann.*
Kingsley’s favorite film this week was Bondage, which starred Dorothy Phillips as a newspaper writer who marries a lawyer, quits work and promptly gets bored and allows
an old love affair with a worthless cad to obsess her. If the young woman had kept on the job of writing, there would have been no story. But she didn’t. The creative mind is subject to influence which less imaginative souls never feel, and this Miss Phillips has subtlety conveyed.
Kingsley thought it was “Ibsen-esque in its power and insight…a picture which should not be missed by lovers of good drama.” Plus (for a change!) she got to see a female reporter that seemed realistic to her. Bondage was written and directed by Ida May Park More from a story by Edna Kenton. You don’t suppose that if there were more women directing films now we would get more interesting and complicated female characters?
Her review of Douglas Fairbanks latest, The Man From Painted Post, did the box office no harm, and she got to write some of her funniest lines of the week:
Any old time Douglas Fairbanks can’t hold up and kill off, sometimes one at a pop, sometimes two at a pop, as many as a dozen ruffians, smiling as he does it, he feels his day has been wasted….Nay, more than that, he holds up one rascally poltroon in the dust with nothing more dangerous than the handle of a stewpot! Very subtle satire on the old melodrama stuff, this picture play.
An earlier Dorothy Phillips film was running into a little trouble with the censors:
The New York censors, despite experience which might be supposed to be toughening, still have delicate sensibilities; or, at any rate there are large sensitive spots on their sensibilities. The title of the Bluebird feature Hell Morgan’s Girl, contained too strong a wallop for these gentlemen, who have changed the name to A Soul’s Redemption, which, as [film co-star] Lon Chaney justly observed the other day, has about as much punch as “toothbrush.”
* Stephen Weissman, Chaplin: A Life (2009), p. 94.