Just Call Me Charlie
“You have to rely on your own imagination… and your own sense of proportion.”
Charles Spencer Chaplin spoke those words 78 years ago, in 1954 on a BBC radio interview. At the time, he was 65 years old and Charlie had just returned to London after a 20 year hiatus in order to promote his new movie. During the course of this interview, Charlie shares many candid thoughts, personal stories, and observations. The real value of this recording is stated by the commentator as an "unscripted and un-rehearsed" interview. Charlie Chaplin... in his own words.
The Setup So... you may ask yourself, why is this interview interesting? Actually, I have asked myself that same question many times. The interview is the basis for this blog post. The reason this post exists came from this brief conversation posted in a weekly online Twitter chat.
The following question was asked. “In detail, how did Charlie Chaplin choose himself?”
Through many magazine articles, books, audio interviews, written interviews, and hours of research... I believe we may have an answer.
To begin the process, let's start with a slightly different question.
“How did Charlie Chaplin see the world?”
In the beginning of the BBC interview, the commentator asks Charlie what changes has he noticed since his last visit. Charlie rattles off a list of words. The words have been grouped into two main areas. The first group is positive, while the second set is more negative in tone. Here are the words:
Excitement Gladness Vitality
In addition, Charlie also mentions:
Frustration Bewilderment Sadness
This is an interesting set of words indeed... one that we will be referencing during the course of this writing.
Change and Absurdity, Charlie's Origin Story It is no secret that young Charlie Chaplin had a very unstable and tough childhood. It is almost too easy to point his childhood and to try and define his approach to his life and art through the lens of trial and tribulation. For example, his father abandoned the family. His mother could not care for Charlie and his brother and at the age of seven, Charlie entered into his first workhouse for boys. He was briefly reunited with his mother, but was once again sent to a institutional home for destitute boys.
The interesting aspects of the origin story is how at a very young age... Charlie learned that he could rely on only a few small things in life. Those things are:
Change/The Future -- As a child in the institutional homes... Charlie knew that his situation had to get better at some point. Things had to get better, there was no way they could not. It is interesting to note, that in the BBC interview, Charlie applies this same reasoning to all of London... "When we have reached the bottom of the well, there is only one way to go.. up!" Absurdity/Humor -- Again, as a child, Charlie painted a picture of life in an orphanage for us. He would find himself in an "absurd situation" and ask himself how could it get any worse? Through these experieces, Charlie simply learned to observe the situation, and would try to find the humour in the absurdity.
Charlie's Values During the BBC Interview, Charlie briefly mentions the values of people. He recognizes values as a component of his observations and work or "serious study" as he calls it. By digging deeper into various interviews, we find two recurring themes over and over. It is almost certain that Charlie had many more values, but these two seemed to especially obvious and easy to identify.
Vitality -- Charlie mentions vitality many times, you can hear it in the BBC audio interview where he notices a vitality in the people of London and more importantly, in his observations of children in 1954. He compared it a visit 20 years earlier, where that essence (vitality) was missing from children. Humility -- This one is interesting because Charlie has a slight moment of outrage over the lack of humility in the 1960's. From an interview in the Guardian Unlimited, Charlie makes the following comments: "But there's not the same humility now. They don't know what humility is, so it has become something of an antique."
Charlie went on to talk about why the Tramp would not work in the modern era. Clearly, he felt things had changed and his personal value of humility was missing.
Charlie's Gifts In addition to making great movies, Charlie also relied on a few basic elements in order to pull together the necessary pieces of a story and to also to make an audience "rise off one's feet." Here are two of Charlie's gifts:
People Observation -- In the book Interviews, tells a story of how he needed to study the habits of a barber for a movie. In order to accomplish the task, Charlie found the busiest barber shop he could, in order to have a lot of time to study the barber. After his encounter, he waited around until the barber went home, then followed him for three miles just to watch the details of his mannerisms! Letting Go -- Another great gift of Charlie Chaplin is to simply let things go. To let a scene un-fold naturally. Whether people called it "Timing in comedy," or "pausing," Charlie understood that filling in all the holes for the audience had one fatal consequence.... they were not using their imaginations.
Sacred to Charlie The interesting thing about Charlie Chaplin are two distinct areas that were sacred to Charlie. "Sacred," not in a religious sense, but in terms of something that may need to be protected and nurtured Something that is so important to Charlie, that it should never be dishonored, touched, or messed up. Two main areas have been identified and are included below:
Audience based permission -- You can hear this in the BBC interview. Charlie actually does this two times during the recording. At the very beginning, he interrupts the line of questioning to express his "deep gratitude" for being welcome on the show and in London. In this moment, Charlie is quite simply acknowledging the importance of the moment, on a very heart-felt level. The second instance is a bit tougher to identify.. but if you listen closely, there is a point where Charlie is comparing movie audiences to theatre audiences. At first he states... “That is entirely different, the marriage of an audience...” then quickly corrects himself. Personal Imagination -- On many occasions, Charlie would refer to the imagination as the most important thing. Without the personal imagination, there was nothing. As stated at the beginning of this article, Charlie mentioned "You have to rely on your own imagination."
Charlie's Reputation Management System On listening to the interview for the very first time, there is one interesting aspect that popped out in the beginning of the interview. Charlie mentions, "We have been inundated with mail, sacks and sacks and sacks of it… sooner or later, I hope I will be able to answer every one of them.” With this simple acknowledgement, Charlie reveals to us one of the methods he used to "Choose Himself." In a separate interview from 1916, Charlie describes receiving over 100 pieces of mail every day. A secretary would help him separate, archive, and catalog all the mail that he received. The interesting letters were labeled "A number 1" and were meant to be read at a later date. Boring letters were responded to, then eventually thrown out.
The collection and cataloging of mail is an interesting fact, but there is more to the story and Charlie himself reveals to us the true importance of engaging and corresponding with his fans. Towards the end of the BBC interview Charlie tells us a story about a specific conversation he had with a fan. The correspondence was not a one off letter, (important for a number of reasons), but was an on-going conversation through the mail. The fan shared an observation that stuck with Charlie in a very profound way. As Charlie tells us... the fan wrote, "I have noticed you're becoming outre" and "a slave to the audience." Charlie took this to heart. With this conversation, Charlie was reminded of one important thing:
"I've always remembered that, so that is why I try to rely on myself and what pleases me"
Side note: If Charlie was receiving 100 pieces of mail per day in 1916, and mentions the on-going process in 1954... that is 38 years worth of mail. Or, 1,387,000 pieces of mail, just within this time frame! Charlie lived well beyond 1954, so I wonder how many wonderful pieces of correspondence Charlie received over the years.
Conclusion The interesting thing about Charlie Chaplin is how he mixed various elements for his audiences. His power of observation, the future, a situation, human character... all came together in order to engage the imagination of his audience.
Charlie knew what an audience expected of him. By using scenes from real life Charlie could react in the moment to create a funny situation. This is why the audience truly loved him for. Charlie was a master at managing the future expectations of his audience, by simply allowing them to engage their own imaginations.
So, in order to answer the question, "In detail, how did Charlie Chaplin choose himself?", the final answer is...
By choosing himself, Charlie Chaplin would engage an audience and allow them to experience their own imaginations, and ultimately, to choose themselves.