Charlie Chaplin, one of cinema’s greatest comic artists and a pioneering figure behind the scenes and in front of the camera, first appeared in film as his iconic screen persona the Tramp 102 years ago today.
The movie was Kid Auto Races at Venice (technically the film Mabel’s Strange Predicament was first, but it was released second), which features Chaplin’s Tramp mugging for the camera while disrupting the shoot of a go-kart race. It’s hardly a masterpiece, but it was Chaplin’s introduction to audiences before he would go on to write and direct his own movies — many of which he also starred in.
Chaplin had a lot to share over the years about his 50-year career in cinema, which we present to you in honor of the mustachioed funnyman.
“All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl.”
“The summation of my character [The Tramp] 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.”
“I don’t believe that the public knows what it wants; this is the conclusion that I have drawn from my career.”
“Naturalness is the greatest requisite of comedy. It must be real and true to life. I believe in realism absolutely. Real things appeal to the people far quicker than the grotesque. My comedy is actual life, with the slightest twist or exaggeration, you might say, to bring out what it might be under certain circumstances.”
“Comedy really is a serious study, although it must not be taken seriously. That sounds like a paradox, but it is not. It is a serious study to learn characters; it is a hard study. But to make comedy a success there must be an ease, a spontaneity in the acting that cannot be associated with seriousness.”
“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. It’s a question of that mysterious thing called candour 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 humour. 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.”
“If I go fishing, I have always the idea of a story in my mind. I can think it over while the line is in the water. Often I stay away from the studio hoping that a new situation may occur to me. When I go out for recreation in the evening it is the same. I see a different kind of life and it makes me think all the harder about my idea. I never get away from the notion that I am watching myself in the passing show. As I eat I think of changes in situations. I work while I play, with the result that I become myself, a piece of film.”
“To my mind, the underling motif of a story should be bright, not depressing. Motion-picture audiences like cheerfulness and don’t like to see too much suffering. They really don’t want the great truths brought home to them, and strongly resent having pessimism of any sort thrust in their faces. Yet I do believe in disappointments in a story, through which suspense may be obtained. Of course, what one is doing often falls far below one’s expectations. After a picture is released, you think of better things that might have been done with it. Perhaps, in the final analysis, one’s hopes have not been realized, after all.”
“The basic essential of a great actor is that he loves himself in acting.”
“Actors search for rejection. If they don’t get it they reject themselves.”
“All my pictures are built around the idea of getting in trouble and so giving me the chance to be desperately serious in my attempt to appear as a normal little gentleman.”
“With the plot in my mind, I go before the camera without the slightest notion of what I am going to do. I try to lose myself. I am the character I am representing, and I try to act just as I have previously thought the character would act under the same circumstances. You can understand that while the camera is working there is not much time to think. You must act on the spur of the moment. In one hundred or less feet of film there is no time to hesitate. In this way I think you can get more spontaneity into the action than trying to study out all the detail beforehand. That, in my opinion, is fatal. It makes the film look stilted and unnatural.”
“People want the truth. In the human heart, for some reason or other, there is love of truth. You must give them the truth in comedy. Spontaneous acting hits the truth nine times out of ten, where studied work misses it just as often.”
“Even in slapstick comedy there is an art. If one man hits another in a certain way at exactly the right psychological moment, it is funny. If he does it a moment too early or too late, it misses the mark. And there must be a reason to produce a laugh. To pull of an unexpected trick, which the audience sees is a logical sequence, brings down the house.”
“When I started on [Gold Rush] I sweated hard to keep the original thought. That is where many of us go wrong. We sell ourselves an idea and then leave it flat– with the result that we have nothing in the end but hodge-podge.”
“When I am not working, I just sit around and dream mostly. I get a lot of ideas that way. And sometimes, when I haven’t any special idea in mind, the camera man and a few of us with our makeup on, go out to a location. For instance, we go out to the races, take a few scenes (whatever happens to suggest itself), then other things suggest themselves, until the story is built, All the time this is going forward things pop into my head which help to make people laugh.”
“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 funny without a funny situation. You can do something clownish, perhaps stumble, but you must have a funny situation.”
“I don’t want perfection of detail in the acting. I’d hate a picture that was perfect, it would seem machine-made. I want the human touch, so that you love the picture for its imperfections.”
“Timing. My mother gave me that. I was born with it, more or less. She was very graceful and was a dancer. Naturally, I suppose those things are more and less instinctive. It’s the same thing with acting. I don’t think you can teach a person how to act.”
“A camera is more terrifying than talking before 40 million people. . . . With a camera, there’s a cold, round eye. And you have to rely on your own imagination and your own sense of proportion. And timing, what a thing deserves and should have in the way of time.”