A brief overview of "Assistants to Mr. Chaplin", an article about Chaplin's writing and directing collaborators which will be appearing in a forthcoming volume of The Chaplin Review, to be published in early 2007.
Although Chaplin billed himself as the total filmmaker, a careful examination of his canon reveals that he owed a special debt to collaborators who helped him with the directing and writing chores. Often these collaborators worked without proper billing. And when they did receive screen credit, it was usually for lesser duties than what they actually carried out. Assigning Chaplin exclusive credit for his films ignores the perceptible, although admittedly not linear, correlation between his creative output and the qualities and capabilities of the assistants he always had on hand. It is time for the contributions of the Chaplin assistants to be more widely recognized and studied.A brief overview of "Assistants to Mr. Chaplin", an article about Chaplin's writing and directing collaborators which will be appearing in a forthcoming volume of The Chaplin Review, to be published in early 2007.
Although Chaplin billed himself as the total filmmaker, a careful examination of his canon reveals that he owed a special debt to collaborators who helped him with the directing and writing chores. Often these collaborators worked without proper billing. And when they did receive screen credit, it was usually for lesser duties than what they actually carried out. Assigning Chaplin exclusive credit for his films ignores the perceptible, although admittedly not linear, correlation between his creative output and the qualities and capabilities of the assistants he always had on hand. It is time for the contributions of the Chaplin assistants to be more widely recognized and studied.
Normand was Chaplin's first true collaborator on film, after a series of failed attempts to get him to work under the direction of others. Although their work together got off to a difficult start with Mabel at the Wheel, they soon forged a fine working relationship, with Chaplin eventually assuming the upper hand and ultimately taking sole writing and directing credit for the films they made together in 1914 at the Keystone Studios. In later interviews, Normand discounted her contribution to the collaboration, claiming that the importance of the director in film's earliest days was far less than what it eventually became.
Thanks to the research of Bo Berglund, we now know that Chaplin had Dan Albert as assistant director on many of his later films produced at the Keystone Studios in 1914. Albert assisted Chaplin on some of his most successful efforts, including Dough and Dynamite and His Musical Career. Albert can also be spotted in many earlier Chaplin Keystones, going as far back as Chaplin's fourth film, A Film Johnnie, produced in February of that year. Albert died at the age of 28 in 1919, so we know very little about him, but what has been discovered to date will be shared with readers by Bo Berglund in a piece written for the Spring, 2006 volume of The Chaplin Review: Chaplin's Limelight and the Music Hall Tradition.
A prolific lyricist and hopeless heroin addict, Vincent Bryan was perhaps the most talented, and most tragic, of Chaplin's collaborators. He joined Chaplin as a writer in 1915, when Chaplin was going through one of his temporary artistic ruts, helped him recover, and then assisted in bringing forth some of the most remarkable films of Chaplin's career in late 1915, 1916 and early 1917. Bryan's wife Leota, who was a bit player in the Mutuals, later claimed that Bryan also served as Chaplin's co-director. Bryan's tragic life will be spotlighted in an upcoming Chaplin Review volume dealing with Chaplin's years at the Mutual Studios.
Chaplin's half brother was also a well-known stage and screen comedian, and is best known as Charlie's brilliant business manager. But he also served as a critical advisor on Charlie's films, beginning with the Mutual series in 1916-1917. Outtakes from The Pawnshop reveal that Sydney was practically the director of that film, and his influence remained strong throughout Charlie's First National period (1918-1923), in which he also appeared in supporting roles. He retired to Europe in the late 1920s, but returned to help his brother one last time as an advisor on The Great Dictator in 1940.
Bergman served with Chaplin for thirty years, beginning in the Mutual period in 1916. He was a bit part actor, often appearing in multiple roles in any one given film. More a "yes-man" than a true collaborator, Bergman's enthusiasm for any gag Chaplin came up with was always welcomed by his boss. Bergman appeared in every Chaplin film from The Pawnshop to Modern Times, and was lobbying hard to appear in Monsieur Verdoux at the time of his death in 1946.
A friend of Chaplin dating back to their stage days at Karno, Austin was reunited with Chaplin in 1916 at Mutual and soon became a featured actor in the Chaplin films and a trusted adviser. Outtakes from The Adventurer, produced in 1917, show him and Henry Bergman working out plot details with Chaplin, but Austin did not receive screen credit as a Chaplin collaborator until City Lights in 1931. Austin went on to moderate success as a director after parting with Chaplin, but ended his days as a studio guard at Warner Brothers.
Chuck Reisner started with Chaplin at First National in 1918, and made his mark immediately by assisting on and appearing in Chaplin's first masterpiece, A Dog's Life. When Reisner had to take a break from assisting Chaplin due to family reasons, there was a precipitous drop in the quality of Chaplin's output. Reisner returned to the fold in 1920 and contributed as Assistant Director and gagman on three additional masterpieces: The Kid, The Pilgrim and The Gold Rush. After parting with Chaplin, Reisner went on to a distinguished career directing virtually every comedian in Hollywood and his son, Dean Reisner, who appeared in a standout role in The Pilgrim, went on to become a highly sought-after screenwriter.
A successful but unhappy actor, Sutherland willingly gave up a steady income to become Chaplin's assistant for $50 per week. Sutherland is the first collaborator to publicly complain about Chaplin's mistreatment of his staff, but the directing skills he learned on the set of Chaplin's A Woman of Paris and The Gold Rush set him on the course for a prosperous career as a Hollywood director. He was modest about his work with Chaplin, telling interviewers late in his life that only Chaplin directed Chaplin films.
Like Sutherland, D'Arrast also assisted Chaplin on A Woman of Paris and The Gold Rush, but he focused on the non-comedy elements and plot details. Chaplin looked to D'Arrast and Jean de Limur to help provide the proper French atmosphere for the former film. D'Arrast's tenure with Chaplin was extremely unhappy, and he maintained a lifelong hatred for his mentor after their parting, becoming by far Chaplin's most embittered former associate. At the premiere of the updated and revised version of The Gold Rush in 1942, he was angered, but not surprised, to see that his name had been removed from the film's credits. In 1967, the year before his death, he took particular delight in the failure of Chaplin's last film.
Crocker was initially hired by Chaplin as a writer, actor, and companion, but eventually worked his way into the Assistant Director's chair for The Circus. Like D'Arrast, he helped Chaplin resolve complicated plot situations, and he also suggested some of the best gags in the film. He played several roles in The Circus, but was most prominent as Rex, the tightrope walker. Crocker also had an acting role in Chaplin's next film, City Lights, but was suddenly and inexplicably fired in mid-production. While his acting scenes were removed from City Lights, he retained his credit as Assistant Director. Two decades later, he and Chaplin reconciled, and Crocker became the director of publicity for Limelight in 1952.
Carter De Haven was a talented vaudevillian, performer and filmmaker during the 1910s and 1920s, and sublet space at the Chaplin Studios beginning in 1918 to work on his own films. When Chuck Reisner temporarily left the studio, De Haven was announced as his replacement, but he does not appear to have actually contributed to any Chaplin film until Modern Times in 1936. After that, he was retained for The Great Dictator in 1940, this time as an actor, playing the Ambassador from Bacteria.
Dan James was credited as one of the three Assistant Directors on The Great Dictator, but his primary contribution seems to have been transcribing Chaplin's steam-of-consciousness ideas at story sessions, and then subsequently dictating them back to a secretary who would transcribe them. A dedicated leftist, James helped Chaplin fine-tune the political aspects of the film and had to lobby hard to have Stalin removed as one of the personalities satirized.
Chaplin's strangest collaborator was his younger half brother, Wheeler Dryden. Raised by his father from infancy, Dryden was not reunited with his brothers until adulthood, after writing this bizarre letter (held in the bfi archives) to Edna Purviance to establish his claim as a Chaplin relative. Chaplin eventually recognized and accepted him, and brought him into the studio as what Robert Florey described as "actor, stage-manager, producer, secretary, wardrobe keeper, drudge and scapegoat". But he was also billed as an Assistant Director on Chaplin's last three American films, ironically the one role that he does not appear to have actually filled.
Robert Florey was the only established director that Chaplin brought on to assist him - and that proved to be a terrible mistake. Florey had been a close friend of Chaplin since the 1920s, but when they finally worked together on Monsieur Verdoux in 1946, the friendship could not survive the strain. Florey was appalled by how primitive and outdated Chaplin's filmmaking had become, and how all his suggestions to bring the film up to modern standards were either ignored or overruled. To add insult to injury, Florey got wind before the film's release that Chaplin planned to lessen his contribution in the credits, so he successfully lobbied the Director's Guild to force Chaplin to acknowledge him on the screen as the film's Assistant Director.
In contrast to Florey, Robert Aldrich was just embarking on a successful filmmaking career when he apprenticed for Chaplin on Limelight in 1952. They quickly realized that they had two very different styles, with Aldrich pushing for active, fluid camera movement, while Chaplin had long preferred stationary shots. At one point, Chaplin complained to his assistant that they appeared to be making two entirely different films. Instead of fighting Chaplin, Aldrich eventually accepted his place as an order taker, waiting patiently for his next assignment, where his creative input would be more welcomed.
Chaplin's last major collaborator was Jerome "Jerry" Epstein, whom he had met at the Circle Theater, a repertory acting company that Chaplin's son, Sydney, became affiliated with after the war. Epstein was a sympathetic assistant who gave his aging boss unconditional help and his support on his last three films. Occasionally, he became passionate about a particular idea and would lobby hard for it being retained if Chaplin were on the verge of discarding it. Even though he did not help Chaplin write the film dialogue, he would come to learn every line in the film by heart, and would feed the lines to the actors - including Chaplin himself! - when they were forgotten. Epstein was inexplicably identified as Producer of Chaplin's final film, A Countess from Hong Kong, an honor Chaplin had never bestowed on anyone else.
Of all that has been written about Chaplin and his work over the years, only one study has looked closely at the able help Chaplin received from others: Jack Spears' "Chaplin's Collaborators", written at first for Films in Review magazine in 1962, and then revised and reprinted in his 1971 book, Hollywood: The Golden Era. When "Assistants to Mr. Chaplin" is published, it will provide update to, and fill in the missing blanks in, Spears' seminal work.