by Bruce Cherney (part 3)
In other segments of his famous role as the “Inebriate,” Charlie Chaplin chases an awful singer off the stage, groans at a ham actor, imagines a pretty soubrette is singing directly to him, and finally accepts a challenge from Marconi Ali, “the Terrible Turk,” to wrestle him for a handsome purse. The drunk (the press often called the character, the souse) simply tickles Ali until he falls helplessly to the mat. “This leads to a general melee of food throwing, yelling and clothes ripping that ends the act,” wrote Dan Kamin in his book, The Comedy of Charlie Chaplin: Artistry in Motion.
At the time, despite the role he played on stage, Chaplin was commonly referred to by the press as a teetotaller — although he wasn’t — who, unlike other vaudevillians, such as W.C. Fields, who also starred in Winnipeg, avoided the saloons in the cities his tour company visited.
“Off stage, with the paint washed off and garbed in civilized attire, he looks quite harmless and good looking; in fact, he might almost pass for a floor-walker from a department store” (Winnipeg Tribune, September 8, 1911). Ironically, he played such a role in his 1916 film entitled, The Floorwalker.
In an August 4, 1913, issue of the same newspaper, Chaplin was described as “a small little fellow with quite a serious face and an earnest desire to carefully study everything he sees, and if he cracks a joke, it is in the same occasionally off-handed way as other men. Thus it is that Charles Chaplin has been aptly named by his associates ‘The Paradox.’”
On stage, Chaplin wore a thin, fake mustache, but was clean-shaven when not performing.
The skills required for the physical comedy was partially honed while he was with the English troupe, the Lancashire Lads, managed by John Jackson, Chaplin told a Tribune reporter (published November 29, 1912). Dance rehearsals were long and physically demanding under the direction of Jackson.
“Those were tough days, sure enough,” said Chaplin. “Sometimes we would almost fall asleep on the stage, but catching a glimpse of Jackson in the wings, we would see him making extravagant grimaces showing his teeth, pointing to his face, and making other contortions indicating that he wanted us to brace up and smile. We would very promptly respond but the smile would fade away again until we got another glance from Jackson. We were only kids (Chaplin was 10 years old when he joined the troupe) and had not learned the art of forcing energy into listless nerves.
“But it was good training, fitting up for the harder work that came before the goddess of success began to throw her favours around.”
Fred Karno was also a demanding task master. Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy film fame, who was on the North American tour with Chaplin, said: “Fred Karno didn’t teach Charlie and me all we know about comedy, he just taught us most of it. Above all he taught us to be supple and precise. Out of all that endless rehearsal and performance came Charlie Chaplin, the most supple and precise comedian of our time.”
When Chaplin graduated from the “inebriate” to “The Tramp,” it was a reflection of his hard training as a vaudevillian that he was able to introduce the “supple and precise” character to the silent screen, 100 years ago in 1914. It was a character that he would make famous and endearing to the movie-going public, and it is his role as the “Little Tramp” that Chaplin is so closely associated with to this day.
“The years of stage apprenticeship taught him timing, the importance of the characteristic gesture, and, most important, pantomime,” (The Weekly Standard Book Review, October 27, 2014, a review of Peter Ackroyd’s book, Charlie Chaplin, by Elizabeth Powers). “He studied the clowns and comedians appearing on the same bills. His artistic inheritance included such characters as waiters, tramps, and men down on their luck, some of whom dressed oddly, walked comically, or made use of umbrellas, canes, and other props. The audiences were raucous and often inebriated, and it was necessary to impress them with that ineffable trait, personality, as well as with expertly directed custard pies. He perfected the ‘funny run’ and halting in the middle of a run. The boy who began his stage career at 10 in a rough-and-tumble clog dancing troupe went on to become graceful, precise, balletic.”
It was Chaplin’s role as the vaudeville “drunk” which first attracted the attention of Groucho Marx (his real name was Julius Henry Marx), another vaudeville comedian, who would later become famous on the screen as a member of the Marx Brothers. Groucho happened to be in Winnipeg in August 1913 when he first set eyes on Chaplin during a performance. In his autobiography, Groucho and Me (1959), the comedian known for his wisecracks, exaggerated stooped posture, glasses, cigar, and thick greasepaint mustache and eyebrows, said he and his brothers were on their way from Duluth to Calgary and had a three-hour stopover in Winnipeg.
“We stashed our hand baggage in the depot (Union Station) and all the boys, except me, automatically headed for the nearest pool hall. In recent weeks I hadn’t been too hot with the cue, and I decided that I needed a brief sabbatical from the green cloth.”
It should be noted that most vaudevillians, even some of the stars, weren’t that well compensated financially — although some top Broadway performers were paid thousands of dollars a week to switch to Vaudeville — and did whatever they could to pick up a little pocket change while on the tour. In the case of the Marx Brothers, they played pool, primarily backing Chico, who was a bit of a sharp and could earn them a few bucks when playing against local shooters.
“I left the boys and the depot in that order, and walked up the main street. A half block away from a frowsy-looking theatre I heard roars of laughter. I decided I had better go in and see who could possibly be that funny.
“On the stage were eight or ten characters in a set called ‘A Night at the Club.’ One of the actors wore a very small mustache and very large shoes, and while a big, buxom soprano was singing one of Schubert’s lieder, he was alternately spitting a fountain of dry cracker crumbs into the air and beaning her with over ripe oranges. By the end of the act the stage was a shambles.”
(Next week: part 4)