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In which I see a near-tragedy which is a comedy on the films; meet my fellow actors, the red and blue rats; and prepare to fall through a trap-door with a pie.
THE little self-confidence I had been able to muster failed me entirely when the director dismissed me so crisply. The place was so strange to my experience, every one of the hundreds of persons about me was so absorbed in his work, barely glancing at me as I passed, that I felt helpless and out of place there. Still, the studio was crowded with interesting things to see, and I determined to remain and learn all I could of this novel business of producing cinema film before my own turn came to do it. So I assumed an air of dignity, marred somewhat by the fact that my collar was beginning to wilt and my nose burning red in the hot sunlight, and strolled down the stage behind the clicking cameras.
At a little distance I saw the front of a three-story tenement, built of brick, with windows and fire-escape all complete, looking quite natural in front, but supported by wooden scaffolding behind. Near it, on a high platform, was a big camera, and a man with a shade over his eyes busy adjusting it, and a dozen men were stretching a net such as acrobats use. A number of actors were hurrying in that direction, and I joined them, eager to see what was to happen.
"What's all the row?" I asked a girl in the costume of a nurse, who stood eating a sandwich, the only idle person in sight.
"Scene in a new comedy," she answered pleasantly but indifferently.
"Ah, yes. That's in my own line," I said importantly. "I am Charles Chaplin."
She looked at me, and I saw that she had never heard of me.
"You're a comedian?" she inquired.
"Yes," I answered sharply. "Er — do you go on in this?"
"Oh, no. I'm not an actress," she said, surprised. "I'm here professionally." I did not understand what she meant. "In case of accidents," she explained, plainly thinking me stupid. "Sometimes nothing happens, but you never can tell. Eight men were pretty badly hurt in the explosion in the comedy they put on last week," she finished brightly.
I felt a cold sensation creep up my spine.
In the "set" before us there was a great bustle of preparation. A long light ladder was set up at a sharp angle, firmly fastened at the bottom, but with the upper end unsupported, quivering in the air.
Men were running about shouting directions and questions. Suddenly, balancing precariously on the narrow platform behind the camera operator, the director appeared and clapped his hands sharply. "All ready down there?" he called.
"All ready!" some one yelled in reply. "Let 'er go!"
The windows in the brick wall burst outward with a loud explosion and swirling clouds of smoke. Up the swaying ladder ran a policeman and at the same instant, caught up by invisible wires, another man soared through the air and met him. On the top rung of the ladder they balanced, clutching each other.
"Fight! Fight! Put some life into it!" yelled the director. "Turn on the water, Jim!"
My eyes straining in their sockets, I saw the two men in the air slugging each other desperately, while the ladder bent beneath them. Then from the ground a two-inch stream of water rose and struck them — held there, playing on them while they struggled.
"Great! Great! Keep it up!" the director howled. "More smoke!" Another explosion answered him; through the eddying smoke I could see the two men still fighting, while the stream from the hose played on them.
"Let go now. Fall! Fall! I tell you, fall!" the director shouted. The two men lurched, the wires gave way, and, falling backward, sheer, from a height of twenty-five feet, the comedian dropped and struck the net. The net broke.
The scene broke up in a panic. The nurse ran through the crowd, a stretcher appeared, and on it the comedian was carried past me, followed by the troubled director and a physician. "Not serious, merely shock; he'll be all right to-morrow," the physician was saying, but I felt my knees shaking under me.
"So this is the life of a cinema comedian!" I thought, breathing hard.
I did not feel hungry, some way, and besides, I felt that if I left the studio for luncheon I would probably be unable to bring myself back again, so I picked out the coolest place I could find and sat down to await two o'clock. I was in a dim damp "basement set," furnished only with an overturned box, on which I sat. After a time a strange scratching noise attracted my attention, and looking down I saw a procession of bright red and blue rats coming out between my feet. I leaped from the box with my hair on end and left, saying nothing to any one.
At two o'clock, quivering with nervousness, I presented myself to the director. He was brisk and hurried as before and plunged immediately into a description of the part I was to play, pausing only to mop his perspiring forehead now and then. The heat had increased; under the reflectors the place was like a furnace, but my spine was still cold with apprehension.
"Is it an acrobatic part?" I asked, as soon as I could force myself to inquire.
"No, not this one. You're a hungry tramp in the country. We'll take the interiors here, and for the rest we'll go out on 'location,'" the director answered, ruffling the pages of the "working script" of the play. "We'll do the last scene first — basement set. Let's run through it now; then you can make up and we'll get it on the film before the light's gone."
He led the way to the basement set and began to instruct me how to play the part.
"You fall in, down the trap-door," he said. "Pick yourself up, slowly, and register surprise. Don't look at the camera, of course. You have a pie under your coat. Take it out, begin to eat it. Register extreme hunger. Then you hear a noise, start, set down the pie, and peer out through the grating. When you turn around the rats will be eating the pie. Get it?"
I said I did, and while the director peered through the camera lens I rehearsed as well as I could. I had to do it over and over, because each time I forgot and got out of the range of the camera lens. At last, however, with the aid of a five-foot circle of dots on the floor, I did it passably well, and was sent to make up in one of dozens of dressing-rooms, built in a long row beside the stage. My costume, supplied by the Keystone wardrobe, was ready, and I was reassured by the sight of it and the make-up box. Here at last was something I was quite familiar with, and I produced a make-up of which I was proud.
When I returned to the stage the camera operator was waiting, and a small crowd of actors and carpenters had gathered to watch the scene. The director was inspecting the colored rats and giving orders to have their tails repainted — quick, because the blamed things had licked the color off and would register tailless. A stage hand was standing by with a large pie in his hand.
"Ready, Chaplin?" the director called, and then he looked at me.
"Holy Moses, where did you get that makeup?" he asked in astonishment, and every one stared. "That won't do; that won't do at all. Look at your skin, man; it will register gray — and those lines — you can't use lines like that in the pictures. Roberts, go show him how to make up."
I thought of my first appearance in Rags to Riches, and felt almost as humiliated as I had then, while Roberts went with me to the dressing-room and showed me how to coat my face and neck with a dull brick-brown paint, and to load my lashes heavily with black. The character lines I had drawn with such care would not do in the pictures, I learned, because they would show as lines. I must give the character effect by the muscles of my face.
Feeling very strange in this make-up, I went back the second time to the stage. The director, satisfied this time, gave me a few last directions and the pie, and I mounted to the top of the set.
"Remember, don't look at the camera, keep within range, throw yourself into the part and say anything that comes into your head," the director said. "All ready? Go to it."
The camera began to click; I clutched the pie, took a long breath, and tumbled through the trap-door.