Born May 25, 1925, the son of Charlie Chaplin and Lita Grey, Charles Chaplin, Jr. was an actor and writer. In 1952 he appeared with his father in Limelight. He and his brother Sydney acted together on occasion on stage. In 1960 he published a memoir about life as the child of one of the world’s best known and most beloved movie stars, My Father, Charlie Chaplin. Though clearly a labor of love, Chaplin Jr.’s memoir dealt frankly with his father’s moodiness and single-minded pursuit of perfection at the expense of family intimacy but also made clear the depth of his father’s love for his offspring. In this excerpt from his book, Chaplin Jr. recalls the intensity of life in the household as the creative impulse took hold of his father, who was focused laser-like on writing the script for Modern Times, his Depression-era masterpiece, and coaching neophyte actress Paulette Godard (who was also his stepmother) through arduous script readings that would ultimately produce her acclaimed portrayal of “the beloved pixie gamin of Modern Times.” Music and tennis also figure prominently in the son’s portrait of a father gifted with genius but whose pursuit of perfection strained his relationships with family and co-workers alike. Charles Chaplin Jr. died of a pulmonary embolism in Hollywood on March 20, 1968
Throughout my childhood and youth, life with my father was like life in an open boat on a sea with massive rollers. The rollers, spaced about five years apart, were the intense creative periods, each of which culminated in one of those pictures that made up his series of cinema masterpieces—City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, Monsiour Verdoux and finally Limelight. I do not know how my father brought The King in New York to completion in Europe, but I rather imagine it was with the same concentration and intensity that he did the others.
When Dad is working, all outside interests, family included, are ruthlessly sacrificed to that inexorable rush of creativity which rises to a wild crescendo before crashing over in a turbulent finale, leaving him drained. He himself has said that he usually has to go to bed for at least a day or two to restore his nerves after finishing a picture. My father was not the only one to be drained at such times. Everyone associated with him during these periods, either at the studio or at home, was drained too; drained, limp and more than ready to call it quits. Such is life with a creative perfectionist, but of course with a genius in the house you can’t expect an atmosphere of sustained normalcy. Syd and I not only didn’t expect it, we took our lives for granted until we got older.
The more or less tranquil home atmosphere which I have described in the preceding chapter took place in the trough between two waves—between City Lights, which had passed over us, and Modern Times, which was on the way. It was, comparatively speaking, a comfortable period, if you could dismiss from mind the uneasy agitation of the water below and the steady building of the heavy roller behind.
It took my father more than two years to complete the script of Modern Times, which he had begun immediately after his trip abroad in 1932. He always progressed slowly, at first in an almost leisurely fashion. He loved to write, anyway, much as Dickens, the writer, loved to act. Dad told me once that he tried to make a practice of putting down five hundred words a day on any subject, just to keep in practice. But by the time Syd and I first started going up to the house, Modern Times was heading for the home stretch. It was to go into actual production the next October.
As the press of ideas came faster and faster, and Dad’s writing began to take up more and more of his time, Syd and I became familiar with that strange, inwardly directed concentration which had made life so difficult and lonely for Mildred Harris and my mother. Now when we came home from school Dad would be down in the living room ostensibly to greet us. But ten to one some idea would have caught him just before we came in and he would be sitting at his table working.
The great closing scene between Paulette Goddard and Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, set to Chaplin’s song ‘Smile’
I remember the first time, one Friday afternoon, we burst in on him that way.
“Hi, Father, what’s new?” we shouted, expecting him to reply cheerfully, as always.
He only looked up with an irritated frown and a dazed shake of his head.
“Don’t bother me. Don’t bother me,” he said in a brusque monotone. “I’m in the middle of something. Go on, go now. Play with your friends.” And with a flourish of one hand he indicated the door.
Amazed and mortified, Syd and I stole off.
“What’s the matter with Dad anyway?” we asked each other a little resentfully.
We wandered around outside and the resentment began to die away. Instead I kept thinking of him sitting at the table, his head bent, the brown-rimmed glasses perched on his nose, his hand racing with the pencil over the yellow, lined notebook paper. I stole back to the living room and peeked around the corner of the hall door.
Dad was still working. Once he stopped to stare into space, absent-mindedly caressing the top sheet of the pad between his fingers with the same tender, absorbed expression on his face that I saw when he was eating. He treated the pad as lovingly as though it were something precious, a rare old parchment perhaps.
I stood there in the doorway uncertainly but he didn’t even look at me. I stole in quietly and sat down and waited. Dad had gone back to his writing. Then suddenly he finished with a flourish and jumped to his feet and saw me.
He grabbed up the paper and hurried over and stood before me just as though he had expected me to be there all the while, as though it were natural for me to be with him, waiting, just waiting silently and wishing him well.
“Now what do you think of this, Charles?” he exclaimed. “It’ll be in the next picture.”
And before I had a chance to say anything he launched into a description, reading his idea aloud, acting it out as he went along, as if I were a whole audience. “The birds will be singing…the woods will be calm and quiet…the Little Fellow…”
“How do you like it?“ he asked anxiously when he had finished. And he added as if he were speaking of someone else’s work. “Isn’t that a lovely thing?”
“It’s great,” I answered him quickly. I could only think that Dad had read his work aloud to me. He had asked me my opinion of it. I had a place to fill—to listen.
After that, when Dad was working I would often sit quietly in the room with him. Sometimes he would go out and walk, with head bent, along the meandering paths of his hill, wrestling with his ideas. And I would tag along behind him, sometimes Syd with me, just waiting for that glorious moment when Dad would whirl around, his eyes sparkling, his voice jubilant.
“I’ve got it, boys. Just listen to this.”
Chaplin sings in Modern Times: ‘When Dad was happy he sang. How he would sing!’
Another phenomenon of which Syd and I were made painfully aware during this period was our father’s increasing absent-mindedness. We would get permission to engage in some venture. But when we started to carry out our plans, Dad, who always kept his word with us if possible, would suddenly explode without warning, and then, to his chagrin, discover that he had forgotten all about his promise. It added to the uncertainty of life around the house.
Syd and I quickly learned, for purposes of self-preservation, how to read the signs and govern our conduct accordingly. When Dad was happy he sang. How he would sing! Snatches from operas, from his favorite ditties, or stand-bys from his old music-hall days. One of his favorites ran, to the best of my recollection, something like this:
“Oh, ever since that fatal night
Me wife’s gone made
Awfully queer, touched just here.” (With this he would point to his head.)
“Bad, bad, bad!
In the middle of the night
She’s sneak the sheets and walk around my best post,
Singing ‘Hamlet, Hamlet, Hamlet,
I am they father’s ghost.’”
He liked to sing his own tunes also. “Will You Buy My Pretty Flowers” from City Lights was a favorite of his.
He would sing in the shower. He would sing while he was getting ready to out of an evening. You could hear him all over the house—away downstairs, even outside. You could hear his voice all over the top of the hill. And Syd and I would relax. We knew it was going to be a wonderful week end.
Then there were those unhappy days when we would find our father plunged in one of his peculiar spells of moodiness, with which everyone who knows him well is familiar. Dad never had the habit of talking to himself unless he was reading some lines aloud which he had just written. When he was depressed he was usually just quiet—very quiet. Anything might bring on these spells—even the account of a tragedy in a newspaper could upset him—but they usually visited him when he felt deserted by the creative impulse, when he would wait in vain for ideas that wouldn’t come. It was as though he were bound hand and foot in some dark dungeon of the mind. Then the pencil would lie motionless, the yellow pad unused. Sometimes he would walk over his paths, but there would be no spring in his step. He would drag himself along.
Sometimes he would be standing at the living-room window, perfectly motionless, staring out, with his hands behind his back, the fingers on one hand tap, tap, tapping upon the wriest of the other, or, if he were sitting, tapping his knees in the same abstracted manner. He would not see us when we came in, nor hear us when we went out.
Finally, when he had stewed within himself long enough he would make a move to break the spell. The cure was simple. He would put in an urgent call to a friend to come up and have a game of tennis with him. I don’t know what Dad’s form is like now, but he was a delight to watch on the tennis courts in those early days. A left-handed player—Dad is left-handed in everything except writing—he played as gracefully, as effortlessly as he performed his most intricate pantomime routines.
Not only did Dad practice tennis every afternoon at home, but he made a point of fitting it into his life when he traveled. Dad went to New York about twice a year, usually accompanied by Tim Durant, whose former home is in the East. When they went by train they would sometimes go aboard in their tennis clothes. As soon as they hit Chicago, between trains, Dad would telephone and find a place where he could play. He’d play one game and then go back to the train. It was the same when he reached New York. He’d stay at the River Club, and as soon as he got there he’d be right out on the courts.
What liquor, sex, religion are to other men, tennis has always been to my father. He seems to find some kind of mystical release in it. I have seen him dragging himself down to the court, gloomy and depressed, and begin to play. But with the first lob of the ball over the net Dad would change. He would become alert, graceful, concentrated. It was impossible for him to focus his attention both on a tennis game outside and on the core of darkness within him. By the time the game was over that darkness would be completely dissipated and Dad would be his old self again—especially if he had won the game.
My father is egocentric, but only those closest to him realize on how sensitive a base that egocentricity rests. A word, a gesture can deflate him, a fear that his creative powers have forever deserted him can plunge him into the depths of gloom. At times like these, to win a game of tennis always bolstered him immeasurably, and his friends, who usually gave him a run for his money, would take care not to put up too much of a game, so that he would be sure to win.
As the bright spring days lengthened toward the hot California summer, Dad moved at a faster and faster tempo. His dark moods became more pronounced, his flashes of anger more frequent. The air of suspense and tension affected everyone in the house. We were all one in the great push ahead. It was as though our father, with us as his timorous army, were heading for Waterloo. Fear of failure, the perennial curse of the perfectionist, was plaguing him.
With the near-completion of his script, Dad took on another chore, coaching Paulette for the part she was to play. I remember those long hours he spent with her, either in the living room or down at the tennis courts. It was Paulette’s first big part and she was grateful for the chance. And Dad was patient in his role of teacher.
The factory scene in Modern Times. It inspired…
…the classic candy wrapping scene in the I Love Lucy episode of Sept. 15, 1952 (Season 2), ‘Job Switching’(begins at 3:07)
But of course it was something far more fundamental than his pleasure in teaching that motivated my father. It was his almost ruthless determination for perfection. He and Paulette would go through the same scene over and over. Dad pounding and pounding away after the effect he wanted. Paulette was game. She would work until she was ready to drop with weariness. Dad never seemed to get tired. So far as I can recall, though he lost his temper on so many other occasions, he would never lose it or even raise his voice while coaching Paulette, no matter how many times they had to repeat the scene. But his nervous intensity was more wearing, perhaps, than a sudden explosion might have been. And he absolutely refused to be satisfied with second-best, even in the most minute gesture or facial expression.
“Try it again. Try it again. Try it again.”
That phrase must have hounded Paulette even in her dreams. Sometimes he was reduced to tears at the sense of her own inadequacy.
“Oh, Charlie, Charlie, I’m not an actress,” she would cry out. “I’m just not an actress.”
And Syd and I, peeking from our hiding place at the tableau, would long to rush out and protect her, to snatch her away from Dad’s ruthless coaching. For she was normally so gay, so young, almost like us, and we could not bear to see her unhappy. She really didn’t need to be perfect, we told ourselves. She was pretty enough to make up for everything.
But Dad didn’t share our view. He just went doggedly on, day after day, week after week, fashioning the beloved pixie gamin of Modern Times.
Excerpt from My Father, Charlie Chaplin by Charles Chaplin, Jr. with N. and M. Rau (1960; Longmans, Green and Co Ltd., London)
Modern Times: written and directed by Charlie Chaplin; music composed by Charlie Chaplin, conducted by Alfred Newman; photography by Rollie Totheroh and Ira Morgan. Principal characters: A factory worker (Charlie Chaplin); A gamin (Paulette Goddard). ‘A story of industry, of individual enterprise—humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness.’ (1936)