The Lost Charlie Chaplin Interview, by Richard Meryman, as released by the Guardian Unlimited
Richard 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.
Charlie 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 canât.
Richard Meryman: Can you talk about the moment you created the Tramp outfit?
Charlie Chaplin: It all came about in an emergency. The cameraman said put on some funny make-up, and I hadnât the slightest idea what to do. I went to the dress department and, on the way, I thought, well, Iâll have them make everything in contradiction – baggy trousers, tight coat, large head, small hat – raggedy but at the same time a gentleman. I didnât know how I was going to do the face, but it was going to be a sad, serious face. I wanted to hide that it was comic, so I found a little moustache. And that moustache was no concept of the characterisation – only saying that it was rather silly. It doesnât hide my expression.
Richard Meryman: When you looked at yourself, what was your first reaction?
Charlie Chaplin: Itâll do. It didnât ignite anything. Not until I absolutely had to play it in the presence of the camera. Making an entrance, I felt dressed; I had an attitude. I felt good, and the character came to me. The scene [from Mabelâs 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 in the hotel, looked at the register, took out a cigarette, lit it, watched the passing parade. And then 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. Iâm naturally very graceful, but trying to be graceful in big feet – thatâs funny.
Richard Meryman: Do you think the Tramp would work in modern times?
Charlie Chaplin: I donât think thereâs any place for that sort of person now. The world has become a little bit more ordered. I donât think itâs happier now, by any means. Iâve noticed the kids with their short clothes and their long hair, and I think some of them want to be tramps. But thereâs not the same humility now. They donât know what humility is, so it has become something of an antique. It belongs to another era. Thatâs why I couldnât do anything like that now. And, of course, sound – thatâs another reason. When talk came in I couldnât have my character at all. I wouldnât know what kind of voice he would have. So he had to go.
Richard Meryman: What do you think was the great appeal of the Tramp?
Charlie Chaplin: There is that gentle, quiet poverty. Every soda jerk wants to dress up, wants to be a swell. Thatâs 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 itâs finished, and not during the making. Iâve always related to a sort of a comic spirit, something within me, that said, I must express this. This is funny.
Richard Meryman: How does a gag sequence come to you? Does it come out of nothing, or is there a process?
Charlie 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 didnât 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 funny without a funny situation. You can do something clownish, perhaps stumble, but you must have a funny situation.
Richard Meryman: Do you see people doing these things, or do they all come out of your imagination?
Charlie 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 marvellous, 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.
Richard Meryman: Is realism an integral part of comedy?
Charlie 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 theyâre in the spirit. Itâs so real to them and itâs so absurd, it gives them exultation.
Richard Meryman: Well, part of it is the cruelty, there was a lot of cruelty.
Charlie 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 recognises it as a farce on life, and they laugh at it in order not to die from it, in order not to weep. Itâs a question of that mysterious thing called candour coming in. An old man slips on a banana and falls slowly and stumbles and we donât laugh. But if itâs done with a pompous well-to-do gentleman who has exaggerated pride, then we laugh. All embarrassing situations are funny, especially if theyâre treated with humour. With clowns you can expect anything outrageous to happen. But if a man goes into a restaurant, and he thinks heâs very smart but heâs got a big hole in his pants – if that is treated humorously, itâs bound to be funny. Especially if itâs done with dignity and pride.
Richard Meryman: Your comedy in part is a comedy of incident, too. Itâs not an intellectual thing, itâs things that are happening, that are funny.
Charlie Chaplin: Iâve 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.
Richard 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?
Charlie Chaplin: Well, I donât know whether itâs characteristic of me. Iâve 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 havenât the confidence to move slow, and I havenât the confidence in what Iâm doing.
But action is not always the thing. Everything must have growth, otherwise it loses its reality. You have a problem, and then you intensify it. You donât 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 wonât have an exciting comedy.
Richard Meryman: Do you worry about sentimentality or cliche?
Charlie Chaplin: No, not in pantomime. You donât worry about it, you just avoid it. And Iâm not afraid of a cliche – all life is a cliche. We donât awaken with any sort of originality. We all live and die with three meals a day, fall in and out of love. Nothing could be more of a cliche than a love story, and that must go on, so long as it is treated interestingly.
Richard Meryman: Did you do the eating of the shoe gag [in The Gold Rush ] many times?
Charlie 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 liquorice, and heâd eaten so much of it. He said, âI cannot eat any more of those damn shoes!â I got the idea for this gag from the Donner party [a wagon train of 81 pioneers who, heading to California in 1846, became trapped by snow in the Sierra Nevada]. They resorted to cannibalism and to eating a moccasin. And I thought, stewed boots? Thereâs something funny there.
I had an agonising time trying to motivate the story, until we got into a simple situation: hunger. The moment youâve 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.
Richard Meryman: Did you have any doubts or concerns going into sound?
Charlie Chaplin: Yes, oh, naturally. In the first place, I had experience, but not academic training, and thereâs 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. Iâm an artist, and I knew very well that in talking a lot of that would disappear. Iâd be no better than anybody else with good diction and a very good voice, which is more than half the battle.
Richard Meryman: Was it a question of having an extra dimension of reality that might hurt the fantasy of silent film?
Charlie Chaplin: Oh yes. Iâve 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 didnât 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 flying. The expression of the eyes – thereâs no words. The pure expression of the face that people canât hide – if itâs 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.
Richard Meryman: Do you have a film thatâs a favourite?
Charlie Chaplin: Well, I think I liked City Lights . I think itâs solid, well done. City Lights is a real comedy.
Richard Meryman: That is a powerful film. What impressed me is how close tragedy and comedy are.
Charlie Chaplin: That has never interested me. Thatâs been the feeling, I suppose, of subjectivity. Iâve always felt that, and it has more or less been second nature with me. That may be due to environment also. And I donât think one can do humour without having great pity and a sense of sympathy for oneâs fellow man.
Richard Meryman: Is it that we want relief from tragedy?
Charlie 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 humour does save oneâs sanity. We can go overboard with too much tragedy. Tragedy is, of course, a part of life, but weâre also given an equipment to offset anything, a defence against it. I think tragedy is very essential in life. And we are given humour as a defence against it. Humour is a universal thing, which I think is derived from more or less pity.
Richard Meryman: Do you think there is such a thing as a genius?
Charlie Chaplin: Iâve never known quite what a genius was. I think itâs somebody with a talent, whoâs 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 whoâs a genius doesnât. He does something different, but does this very well. Many a jack-of-all-trades has been mistaken for a genius.