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In which I taste success in the movies; develop a new aim in life; and form an ambitious project.
"WE'LL use the third scene," Mr. Sennett said to the camera operator. 'How long will it run?"
"About two hundred feet," the operator replied.
"Well, keep it and throw away the rest. Think you can finish two good reels this week?" Mr. Sennett asked, turning to me.
"Watch me!" I responded airily, and my heart gave a great jump. They were paying me two hundred dollars a week and were willing to throw away thousands of feet of film in addition to get my comedies. "There's a fortune in this business! A fortune!" I thought.
My ambition soared at that moment to dazzling heights. I saw myself retiring, after five or ten years in the business, with a fortune of ten thousand pounds — yes, even twenty thousand!
The comedy was finished that week; I worked every day, during every moment when the light was good, not stopping for luncheon or to rest. I enjoyed the work; the even click-click-click of the camera, running steadily, was a stimulant to me; my ideas came thick and fast. I sketched in my mind the outlines of a dozen comedies, to be played later. I remembered all the funny things I had seen or heard and built up rough scenarios around them. I woke in the night, chuckling at a new idea that occurred to me.
When my first comedy was released it wad a great success. The producers demanded more, quickly. I was already working on Caught in the Rain. I followed it the next week with Laughing Gas. They all went big.
Every morning when I reached the stage in make-up the actors who were to play with me stood waiting to learn what their parts were to be. I myself did not always know, but when I had limbered up a bit by a jig or clog dance and the camera began to click, ideas came fast enough.
I told the other actors how to play their parts, played them myself to show how it should be done; played my own part enthusiastically, teased the camera man, laughed and whistled and turned handsprings. The clicking camera took it all in; later, in the negative room, we chose and cut and threw away film, picking out the best scenes, rearranging the reels, shaping up the final picture to be shown on the screens. I liked it all; I was never still a minute in the studio and never tired.
The only time I was quiet was while I was making up. Then I thought sometimes of my early days in England, of Covent Garden, and my mother and my year with William Gillette. "Life's a funny thing," I said to myself. Then I made up as a baker, ordered a wagonload of bread-dough and flour and went out and romped through it hilarious, shouting with laughter whenever I was out of range of the camera. The result was Doulli and Dynamite, and it clinched what I then thought was my success in the movies.
At first when my pictures began to appear in the moving-picture houses I took great delight in walking among the crowds in front of the doors, idly twilling my cane and listening to the comments on my comedies. I liked to go inside, too, and hear the audiences laugh at the comical figure I cut on the screen. That was the way I got my first real ambition in moving-picture work. I still have it. I want to make people chuckle.
Audiences laugh in two ways. Upon the stage, in all the tense effort of being funny behind the footlights, I had never noticed that. But one night, packed with the crowd in a small, dark moving-picture house, watching the flickering screen, listening for the response of the people around me, I suddenly realized it.
I had wedged into a crowded house to see my latest film. It was a rough-and-tumble farce; the audience had been holding its sides and shrieking hysterically for five minutes. "Oh, ho!" I was saying to myself. "You're getting 'em, old top, you're getting 'em!" Suddenly the laughter stopped.
I looked around dismayed. I could see a hundred faces, white in the dim light, intent on the picture — and not a smile on any of them. I looked anxiously at the screen. There was Charlie Chaplin in his make-up standing still. Standing still in a farce! I wondered how I had ever let a thing like the get past the negative. The house was still; I could hear the click of the unrolling film.
Then on the screen I saw myself turn slowly; saw my expression become grim and resolute; saw myself grip my cane firmly and stalk away. I was going after the husky laborer who had stolen my beer.
Then it came — a chuckle, a deep hearty "Ha! Ha! Ha!" It spread over the crowd like a wave; the house rocked with it.
"That's it! That's what I want, that's what I want!" I said. I got put quickly to think it over. I had to crowd past the knees of a dozen people to do it, and not one of them glared at me. They were still chuckling.
I walked back to my hotel with my cane tucked under my arm and my hands in my pockets. That was the thing — the chuckle! Any kind of laughter is good; any kind of laughter will get the big salaries. But a good, deep, hearty chuckle is the thing that warms a man's heart; it's the thing that makes him your friend; it's the thing that shows, when you get it, that you have a real hold on your audience. I have worked for it ever since.
After that I visited the picture houses night after night, watching for that chuckle, planning ways to get it. I was never recognized by strangers, and more than once some one asked me what I thought of Charlie Chaplin. I do not recall that I ever told the truth. In fact, I was not thinking much about Charlie Chaplin in those days; I was thinking of his work and his success and his growing bank-account.
I had come into the business at the height of its first big success. Fortunes were being made overnight in it; producers could not turn out film fast enough to satisfy the clamoring public. The studios were like gambling houses in the wild fever of play. Money was nothing; it was thrown away by hundreds, by thousands. "Give us the film, give us the film! To hell with the expense!" was the cry. I heard of small tailors, of street-car motormen, who had got into the game with a few hundred dollars and now were millionaires. In six months I was smiling at my early notion of making fifty thousand dollars.
Sidney, who was still in vaudeville, came to Los Angeles about that time, and I met him at the train with one of the company's big automobiles. The same old reliable Sidney with his sound business sense. He had figured out the trend of affairs and was already negotiating with the Essanay company for a good contract with them, going deliberately into the work I had blundered into by accident.
"There's a fortune in this if it's handled right, Charlie," he said.
"A fortune? If this holds out, if I can keep up my popularity, I'll have a cool half million before I quit, my lad! Keep your eye piped for your Uncle Charlie!" I said gaily.