A Comedian Sees the World

A Comedian Sees the World


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Film star Charlie Chaplin spent February 1931 through June 1932 touring Europe, during which time he wrote a travel memoir entitled “A Comedian Sees the World.” This memoir was published as a set of five articles in Women’s Home Companion from September 1933 to January 1934 but until now had never been published as a book in the U.S. In presenting the first edition of Chaplin’s full memoir, Lisa Stein Haven provides her own introduction and notes to supplement Chaplin’s writing and enhance the narrative.

Haven’s research revealed that “A Comedian Sees the World” may very well have been Chaplin’s first published composition, and that it was definitely the beginning of his writing career. It also marked a transition into becoming more vocally political for Chaplin, as his subsequent writings and films started to take on more noticeably political stances following his European tour.

During his tour, Chaplin spent time with numerous politicians, celebrities, and world leaders, ranging from Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi to Albert Einstein and many others, all of whom inspired his next feature films, Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), and A King in New York (1957). His excellent depiction of his experiences, coupled with Haven’s added insights, makes for a brilliant account of Chaplin’s travels and shows another side to the man whom most know only from his roles on the silver screen. Historians, travelers, and those with any bit of curiosity about one of America’s most beloved celebrities will all want to have A Comedian Sees the World in their collections.

Available only in the USA and Canada.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826220400
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 11/28/2014
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Lisa Stein Haven is Associate Professor of English at Ohio University Zanesville. She lives in Zanesville, Ohio. Her publications include Syd Chaplin: A Biography.

Read an Excerpt

A Comedian Sees the World

By Charlie Chaplin, Lisa Stein Haven

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2014 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-7333-8


Part I

By Charles Chaplin (1933)

The most popular actor in the world pieces together the fragments of his youth and his struggles, recapturing the past in today's glory

In the past twenty years I have made seven trips from Los Angeles to New York and one memorable visit to Europe. These excursions were for business reasons only and were never without the sword of Damocles above my head. No wonder, when living in Los Angeles for twenty years, that in the interim of work I became an easy victim to sentimental lapses. Hence all my troubles.

The disillusion of love, fame, and fortune left me somewhat apathetic. There seemed nothing, to turn to outside of my work, and that, after twenty years, was becoming irksome. I needed emotional stimulus.

I am tired of love and people and like all egocentrics, I turn to myself. I want to live in my youth again, to capture the moods and sensations of childhood, so remote from me now—so unreal—almost like a dream. I need to turn back time,; to venture into the blurred past and bring it into focus.

Thrilled with this adventure I buy maps of London and here in my California home I retrace road lines, bringing back memories of places that affected me as a boy.

High factory walls that depressed me, houses that frightened me, bridges that saddened me. I want to capture some of the hurt and joy again. To see the orphan asylum where, as a child of five, I lived two long years. Those cold bleak days in the playground! I want to see the drill hall where on rainy days we were sheltered, sniveling around half-heated water pipes; the large dining-room with its long tables and forms; the smell of sawdust and butter as we entered the kitchen.

These memories have landmarks and I want to stand in the midst of them before it's too late. Something may have happened. The school may be pulled down. I cannot bear to be disappointed this time.

My first trip to England was a disappointment. Not my reception. On the contrary. Friends and everyone were kind to me. But in another respect, which reason I shall explain.

It is necessary to digress and go back to a spiritually starved youth of nineteen earning a sporadic living as a vaudeville sketch artist, as we termed ourselves. In those days life was lonely. My social precincts were limited. I yearned for more than my environment could give me. Those were melancholy days without romance or beauty until one August night something happened.

We were playing a suburban theater. I was standing in the wings, waiting my turn to go on. A troupe of girls was dancing. One of them slipped and the rest smiled—one especially, a brunette with big brown laughing eyes.

She turned to the wings and caught my gaze. Never had I beheld such beauty. I was enthralled. She was conscious of my admiration for her smile became a look of embarrassment.

When she came off to change, however, she asked me to mind her wrap. It had a perfume of lavender. I have liked this perfume ever since.

When they had finished she came for it.

"Thank you," she said and we both stood smiling, but the moment was interrupted by the manager of the troupe.

"Come on, girls, we're late." They were working in another theater. She turned to pick up her things.

"Let me help you," I exclaimed taking her makeup box and opening the exit door.

"See you tomorrow night," she said eagerly.

I could only nod, not trusting myself to speak. As she was leaving through the outer door, she looked back over her shoulder. "Don't forget," she said shyly.

"I won't forget," I replied.

That was the beginning. Each night we would meet for a few moments. We never saw each other during the day, both being busy with rehearsals, and so we arranged to meet at Kennington Gate Sunday afternoon at four o'clock.

I was all dressed up for the occasion; a double-breasted coat pinched at the waist, derby hat, cane, and gloves. I rattled my thirty shillings impatiently.

The Sunday was a typical one. Discarded tram tickets littered the deserted streets and a news sheet blew aimlessly in the road. It was four minutes to four. I was wondering what she looked like without her stage make-up. Somehow I couldn't visualize her features. The more I tried, the more vague my impressions became. Perhaps she was not so beautiful off-stage.

At last I saw someone approaching who answered her description. My heart sank as she came nearer. Not a trace of the beauty I had imagined. I was despondent. However, I braced up. I must give the impression of being enthused, I thought. It would be cruel to display signs of disappointment.

She was almost up to me now. She was looking directly my way. I was about to smile. But she turned her head and passed on. It was not she! Thank heavens, it was not she! I breathed a sigh of relief. The suspense was terrific. It was one minute past four.

A street car slowed up. The occupants were getting off. At last a slender-looking girl, neatly dressed in blue serge and looking radiantly beautiful, alighted and came toward me. I recognized her at once. It was Hetty, more lovely than I had dreamed. What a wonderful day that was!

That night after seeing her home I walked the Thames Embankment. I was all choked up with emotion. I wanted to express my happiness. I wanted to make a gesture. There were nineteen shillings left in my pocket. I lined up a crowd of derelicts to a near-by coffee stall and handed out tea and sandwiches until the money was spent. Such was the reaction of a youth in love.

What happened was the inevitable. After all, the episode was but a childish infatuation to her, but to me it was the beginning of a spiritual development, a reaching out for beauty. I suppose I must have burdened her with my unabated attentions, for she tired quickly and we parted.

I went through the youthful misery of unrequited love. Later she left with the troupe for the Continent and I lost sight of her for two years, but the next time we met it was in a curious way.

I was crossing Piccadilly when the screech of an automobile made me turn in the direction of a black limousine, which had stopped abruptly. A small, gloved hand waved from the window. There must be some mistake, I thought, when a voice unmistakably called, "Charlie!"

As I approached, the door of the car opened and there was Hetty, beckoning me to get in. She had left the troupe and had been living on the Continent with her sister. Oh yes, her sister had married an American multimillionaire. All this as we drove along.

"Now tell me something about yourself," she said eyeing me kindly.

"There is very little to tell," I answered. "I am still doing the same old grind—trying to be funny. I think I shall try my luck in America."

"Then I shall see you there," she interposed.

"Oh, yes, I'll fix that up with my secretary," I laughed ironically.

"But I mean it," she insisted. "You know I've thought of you a good deal since the old days."

Again I was lifted into paradise, yet in the back of my mind I knew it was more hopeless than ever now.

That evening we spent visiting her brother and mother; Hetty was to leave the following day for Paris. We said good-bye and she promised to write. But after one letter she ceased corresponding. Later I left for America.

Soon after I read of her arrival there with her sister. The thought of meeting her now embarrassed me. The affluence of her position added to my sense of inferiority complex. Yet I would often walk by the house on Fifth Avenue where she lived, hoping to meet her accidentally, but nothing ever came of it. Eventually I gave up the idea of ever seeing her again.

Then came my adventure into motion pictures—my sudden rise to popularity.

I had arrived in New York to sign million-dollar contracts. Now is my opportunity to meet her, I thought, but somehow I cannot do it normally. I couldn't go to her house or send a letter. I am too shy. However, I stayed on in New York, hoping to meet her accidentally.

A New York paper had a headline: "Chaplin in Hiding—Nowhere to be Found." Nothing of the kind. If they had noticed a taxi waiting on the opposite side of a certain house on Fifth Avenue, they would have found the culprit.

At last I ran across her brother. I invited him to dinner. He was always aware of my devotion to his sister and was a little shy about discussing her. So during the meal we talked of my affairs.

Eventually I broached the subject. "By the bye, how's your sister?"

"Oh, she's quite well. Of course you know she's married and living in England."

I immediately made up my mind to leave New York and all the nonsense and get back to work.

During the year that intervened, I would occasionally glance over my mail on the chance of finding a particular "e" that was characteristic of her writing. One day a letter came.

I recognized it at once. I tore it open immediately. It was signed "Mrs.—"and in brackets, "Hetty."

She began: "Do you remember me after all these years? I have often thought of you, but never had the courage to write."

What irony! She never had the courage to write!

In conclusion she stated: "If ever you come to London, look me up."

The contents seemed strange and far off. But I was going to London. How wonderful it would be to see her again—this time without the inferiority of my youth. It would be an intellectual adventure.

Whatever happens, I thought, I will not be disappointed. I am too philosophical for that.

I had several weeks before the completion of my picture, but at last my affairs were in shape and I was on my way to England.

The boat arrived in Southampton. There was a tremendous reception. I was received by the mayor. Hundreds of telegrams and wirelesses were waiting, inviting me to banquets and parties. The excitement was intense.

Hetty's brother was on the dock. Perhaps Hetty is with him, I thought. We greeted each other warmly. But she was not there! After the interviews with the press and the crowd demonstrations at the train, we were at last on our way to London.

Sonny, Hetty's brother, was in the carriage sitting beside me, telling me of the excitement in London and what a welcome I was to expect there. I listened politely, but I was preoccupied with other thoughts—. The thrill of meeting Hetty, what she would say, how she would act. I intended to be disarming, simple, and natural. You can afford to be yourself when you're successful.

Sonny and I were alone in the carriage. I hadn't noticed until then. There was something strange about his appearance. As usual, he avoided any mention of Hetty. There was a pause in the conversation. I looked out of the window at the revolving panorama of green fields. At last I ventured to remark: "Is your sister Hetty in town?"

"Hetty?" he said quietly. "I thought you knew. She died three weeks ago."

I was prepared for every disappointment but this. I felt I had been cheated out of an experience and my holiday had suddenly become aimless.

Up to that time I had lived with a vague ideal, a faint hope—never definitely analyzed—but always in the back of my mind. My success I had looked upon as a bouquet of flowers to be addressed to someone, and now the address was unknown.

So I have made up my mind not to be disappointed this time. It is dangerous to depend too much on people. They grow up and become other persons or pass out of our lives.

London, I feel, will remain the same. What little change has taken place will not affect my general impression and if I can capture some fragments of my youth, I shall feel amply rewarded.

The day I completed my current picture, City Lights, was one of extreme relief. After fretting and stewing for almost two years, to see the end in sight was like the finish of a marathon.

Usually after each picture I go to bed for a day or two to replenish my nerves, but this time there was another task ahead—the composing of the music and synchronizing it to the picture. I can assure you it was a most nerve-racking experience,. But eventually everything was ready for the premiere showing in Los Angeles.

All first nights are terrifying. On these occasions I always feel that the picture was a mistake and should never have been made. The audience is excited and enthusiastic waiting for it to start.

If only I can sustain this enthusiasm, for there's always that lurking fear that they may be disappointed after they've seen it. However, I must walk the plank and accept what the gods have in store for me. When the first laugh comes, what music it is to my anxious ears.

Professor Einstein and his wife dined at my house that evening and went to the theater afterward. I sat between them during the performance. Occasionally I glanced at the professor. What a simple man he is! To think that with his mind he could enjoy a movie with the enthusiasm of a child.

He would laugh and exclaim, "Ach, das ist wunderbar! Das ist schön!" I shall write of the professor, but in a later chapter.

My friends convinced me that I had a success and after the ordeal of that first night in Los Angeles, I made plans to leave the following evening for New York.

Upon my arrival there I invited the late Ralph Barton, the famous caricaturist and writer, to come as my guest to Europe. He confessed to me that he had been feeling depressed, and that recently he had attempted suicide. Poor Ralph! I remember I tried to appeal to his ego.

"Life could never defeat me," I said. "Nothing matters, only physical pain. Our tragedies are only as big as we make them."

Ralph was creatively exhausted. This, I think, preyed on his mind and was partly the cause for his later killing himself.

I tried to cheer him up. "All artists experience a lull in their work. It is a period of replenishing the soil—of plowing in and turning under our past experiences and watering them afresh with new ones. But later you'll reap a creative harvest," I laughed. "What you need is adventure, so come to Europe."

He accepted my invitation, and we sailed for England on the Mauretania.

All journeys are long if you're in a hurry, and I counted the hours. My entourage consisted of my friend Ralph Barton, Carl Robinson, my secretary, and Kono, "my man Friday," as I call him. He is everything—nurse, valet, private secretary, and bodyguard. He is Japanese and jack-of-all-trades.

Ralph was feeling better. I was "selling" him England. He was pro-French some three years ago and during my divorce troubles, he would implore me to leave America and come and live with him in France. "America is not civilized," he said. "Artists' lives are too much exposed to the scrutiny of the puritanical. But in France it is different. They are more intelligent about such matters."

Ralph had only recently returned from France, giving up his residence there because he felt he was too far away from his work.

He confessed he had never cared for England or the English. "They are a strange cold people, all bound up in archaic traditions and prehistoric customs. They are snobbish."

But I remonstrated. "Snobbishness is the national fault of all countries. Republics are the same. Take America—for example, its social register and its exclusive clubs, busy excluding. Your occupations and your sports come under a snobbish category. If you can claim two generations of polo-playing in your family, your social position is usually unassailable."

And so the time would pass, sitting up far into the night, discussing the pros and cons of everything.

We were to land at Southampton, but I discovered Sir Malcolm Campbell was getting off there, and thinking that the celebrated should divide the celebrating, we decided to get off at Plymouth and leave Southampton to Sir Malcolm.

It is seven in the morning when we arrive, but there are friends to greet us. After the preliminary interview with the press, we are safely installed in a private carriage on our way to London. Several journalists are on the train, some wanting special interviews, but I have to decline. If I started that sort of thing, I should never have a moment to myself.

However, they are very considerate and let me take a few minutes' nap. On awakening I find I am looking into three cameras. I have been snapped in every known position, both asleep and awake.


Excerpted from A Comedian Sees the World by Charlie Chaplin, Lisa Stein Haven. Copyright © 2014 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
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