Simon Louvish : It’s quite clear that Chaplin in The Tramp becomes very popular very very quickly… and Mack Sennet realises that people are asking for more of these Charlie Chaplin pictures – Who is this guy in the tramp costume ? We want to see more movies of him… and then Chaplin understands this and wants more money… and Sennet doesn’t want to pay anybody more money, and therefore Chaplin goes and signs with Essanay where he starts at the beginning of 1915.
In 1915 somebody, some unspoken public relations person at Essanay who is a genius managed to make him into the most recognizable person in the world within a period of less than six months. Between February 1915 and about July, Chaplin becomes immensely famous all over the world… and all these issues of merchandising – Charlie Chaplin dolls, Charlie Chaplin cartoons, everything starts to appear and within a very short time he’s extremely famous because somehow that character’s caught fire all over the world. But it must also be that somebody in the company knew how to exploit this and we don’t have that person’s name.
Matthew Sweet : How many years are we moving forward?
Kate Guyonvarch : This is still the same years… 1916… 1917… This is the album you wanted to see…
MS : Ah yes, this weird moment of mass hallucination (reads) Psychical phenomenon in Chaplin wave which swept United States. The Boston Society for Psychical Research has sent out circulars to its members in numerous cities throughout the United States seeking information concerning an extraordinary psycho-pathological psychic phenomenon that obsessed the country from Atlantic to Pacific and from the Canadian boundary to the Gulf on November the Twelfth…
Glen David Gold : What was claimed to have happened on November 12th 1916 – Charlie Chaplin was spotted in over 800 places at the same time … at different sorts of resorts, and hotels, and train stations … and he was allegedly seen doing different things all at the same time.
What’s indisputable, at that moment he was going from being a well regarded comedian to becoming the most famous man in the world.
And in a way this was a literal apotheosis.
He was the first person who in order to become famous … you had to see him through a machine. He wasn’t on stage, he was somebody that you went into a theatre and saw via this kind of magic eye… and there was something psychologically different about that, that I think the world was just catching up with.
I think that its inseperable from the War, and I think that its also inseperable from the motion picture as a narrative form of entertainment.
If you think about it … lets say around 1913 or so the only forms of popular entertainments were on stage and through newspapers and through sitting in your parlour and entertaining each other.
When the advent of film came along at first it was very primitive … but because people were interested in going along and seeing images of the War – newsreels – the middle classes started going to see the motion pictures… and this was roughly at the same time that Chaplin was starting as a comedian himself.
And there was something about him – he understands just about better than anyone else making pictures at that time, that audiences weren’t really going there to see a character , they were there going to see a stand-in for themselves.
People really felt that they could be Chaplin in a way … If only they were much, much funnier.
And this I think is why he wasn’t just the most famous person in the world , but he was a new kind of most famous person in the world.
In the Nineteenth Century to become the most famous person in the world you were royalty, you were a pope, you were Lord Nelson, in other words you’d actually done something. But by the Twentieth Century you became the most famous person in the world by reflecting something back to the audience about themselves.
If you talk about Houdini for instance, who was the most famous person in the world before Chaplin, there are all kinds of psychological understandings about why he was so famous, but Chaplin was even more famous than Houdini because he understood that the audience was intimately involved with him on an emotional level.
There’s a terrific set of psychological studies by Hugo Munsterburg collected in 1916 called The Photoplay.
He’s the first psychologist to really study and understand the cinema… and his theory was that what he called the bust shot, which is what we would call the close up, was a new development in art and psychology that we’d never seen before, in that, unlike on the stage, we were actually brought into the actors face, and we saw our own emotions reflected with the actor…
And Chaplin got this … and when there was a close up on him, you could see every passing fancy on his face. And no other actor really understood as well as he did that the audience was looking to him to see themselves.
MS : What’s the story of Chaplin and the First World War?
GDG : It was an incredible idea that you could, because of being an actor, be excluded from service … the idea that your value to the world would be more, by being you know, a buffoon was so incredible that I don’t think the British Military really publicly admitted to it…
But it seemed that they really understood that he was a moral booster above anything else. There was the famous study about showing shell shocked veterans Chaplin movies. When they couldn’t even sit up in bed, and they couldn’t even recognize their own mothers, they recognized him.
KG : The last thing I wanted to show … was this beautiful picture
MS : The front page of the Illustrated London News, New York edition, Saturday August 24th, 1918, and this shows wounded American soldiers in a field hospital in France, they’re liying on their backs… they’re all bandaged up and a film, a Chaplin film – is being projected on the ceiling because that’s the most comfortable way for them to see it, and in the background is a pianist accompanying this work as the projector sends this film playing upon the roof of the field hospital. That’s an extraordinary image.
GDG : What you have to understand is that when someone walked into a theatre and saw him at that particular time they were seeing him after some atrocities, and they were seeing him as an incredible relief to a terrible time in world history. To really understand World War One – that was the first war that was ever recorded on film, it’s the first time that people felt like they were on the battle field and the emotional change to go from seeing Ypres to seeing Chaplin within a few seconds … the relief that people felt was … overwhelming… I think…