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In which I introduce an innovation in motion-picture production; appropriate an amusing mustache; and wager eighty dollars on three hours' work.
"WELL, what are we going to do about it?" Mr. Sennett asked, when the flicker of the second film had ceased and we knew it a worse failure than the first. "Looks hopeless, doesn't it?"
"Yes," I said, with a sinking heart, for after all I had had a flicker of hope for success this time. We had both worked hard, and now we were tired and discouraged. I went alone to my dressing-room, shut the door and sat down to think it over.
The trouble with the films, I decided, was lack of spontaneity. I was stiff; I took all the surprise out of the scenes by anticipating the next motion. When I walked against a tree, I showed that I knew I would hit it, long before I did. I was so determined to be funny that every muscle in my body was stiff and serious with the strain. And then that confounded clicking of the camera and the effort it took to keep from looking at it — and the constant fear of spoiling a foot of film.
"So you're a failure," I said, looking at myself in the mirror. "You're a failure; no good; down and out. You can't make a cinema film. You're beaten by a click and an inch of celluloid. You are a rotter, no mistake!"
I was so furious at that that I smashed the mirror into bits with my fist. I walked up and down the dressing-room, hating myself and the camera and the film and the whole detestable business. I thought of haughtily stalking out and telling Mr. Sennett I was through with the whole thing; I was going back to London, where I was appreciated. Then I knew he would be glad to let me go; he would say to himself that I was no good in the pictures, and I would always know it was true. My vanity ached at the thought. No matter how much success I made, no matter how loud the audience applauded, I would always say to myself, "Very well for you, but you know you failed in the cinemas."
With a furious gesture I grabbed my hat and went out to find Mr. Sennett. He was on the stage watching the work of another company. I walked up to him in a sort of cold rage and said, "See here, Mr. Sennett! I can succeed in this beastly work. I know I can. You let me have a chance to do things the way I want to and I'll show you."
"I don't know what I can do. You've had the best scenarios we've got, and we haven't hurried you," he said reasonably. "You know the rest of the companies get out two reels a week, and we've taken three weeks to do what we've done with you — about a reel and a half."
"Yes, but the conditions are all wrong," I hurried on. "Rehearsing over and over, and no chance to vary an inch, and then that clicking beginning just when I start to play. And I miss a cane. I have to have a cane to be funny."
It must have sounded childish enough. Mr. Sennett looked at me in surprise.
"You can have a cane, if that's what you want. But I don't know how you are going to make pictures without rehearsing and without a camera," he said.
"I want to make up my own scenarios as I go along. I just want to go out on the stage and be funny," I said. "And I want the camera to keep going all the time, so I can forget about it."
"Oh, see here, Chaplin, you can't do that. Do you know what film costs? Four cents a foot, a thousand feet of film. You'd waste thousands of dollars' worth of it in a season. You see that yourself. Great Scott, man, you can't take pictures that way!"
"You give me a chance at it, and I'll show you whether I can or not," I replied. "Let me try it, just for a day or so, just one scene. If the film's spoiled, I'll pay for it myself!"
We argued it out for a long time. The notion seemed utterly crazy to Mr. Sennett, but after all I had made a real success in comedy, and his disappointment must have been great at my failure on the films. Finally he consented to let me try making pictures my way, on condition that I should pay the salary of the operator and the cost of the spoiled film.
That night I walked up and down the street for hours, planning the outlines of a scenario and the make-up I would wear. My cane, of course, and the loose baggy trousers which are always funny on the stage, I don't know why. I debated a long time about the shoes. My, feet are small, and I thought perhaps they, might seem funnier in tight shoes, under the baggy trousers. At last, however, I decided on the long, flat, floppy shoes, which would trip me up unexpectedly.
These details determined upon, I was returning to my hotel when suddenly I discovered I was hungry, and remembered that I had eaten no dinner. I dropped into a cafeteria for a cup of coffee, and there I saw a mustache. A little clipped mustache, worn by a very dignified solemn gentleman who was eating soup. He dipped his spoon into the bowl and the mustache quivered apprehensively. He raised the spoon and the mustache drew back in alarm. He put the soup to his lips and the mustache backed up against his nose and clung there.
It was the funniest thing I had ever seen. I choked my coffee, gasped, finally laughed outright. I must have a mustache like that!
Next day, dressed in the costume I had chosen, I glued the mustache to my lip before the dressing-room mirror, and shouted at the reflection. It was funny; it was uproariously funny! It waggled when I laughed, and I laughed again. I went out on the stage still laughing, and followed by a shout of mirth from every one who saw me. I tripped on my cane, fell over my shoes, got the camera man to shouting with mirth. A crowd collected to watch me work, and I plunged into my first scene in high spirits.
I played the scene over and over, introducing funnier effects each time. I enjoyed it thoroughly, stopping every time I got out of the range of the camera to laugh again. The other actors, watching behind the camera, held their sides and howled, as my old audiences had done when I was with Carno. "This," I said to myself triumphantly. "This is going to be a success!"
When the camera finally stopped clicking all my old self-confidence and pride had come back to me. "Not so bad, what?" I said, triumphantly twirling my cane, and in sheer good spirits I pretended to fall against the camera, wringing a shout of terror from the operator. Then, modestly disclaiming the praises of the actors, though indeed I felt they were less than I deserved, I went whistling to my dressing-room.
"How soon do you want to see the film, Mr. Chaplin?" the operator asked, tapping at my door while I was changing into street clothes.
"Just as soon as you can have it, old top," I replied cheerfully. "Oh, by the way, how many feet did we use?"
"Little over two thousand," he called back, and I heard the sound of his retreating feet.
A little over two thousand! At four cents a foot! Eighty dollars! I felt as though a little cold breeze was blowing on my back. Nearly a month's salary with Carno wagered on the success of three hours' work! After all, I thought, I was not sure how the film would turn out; the beastly machine might not see the humor of my acting, good as it had been. I finished dressing in a hurry, and went out to find Mr. Sennett and show him the film in the dark room.
I sat on the edge of my chair in the dark room, waiting for the picture to flash on the screen, thinking of that eighty dollars, which alternately loomed large as a fortune and sank into insignificance. If the picture was good — But suppose it, too, was a failure! Then I would be stranded in California, thousands of miles from home, and where would I get the eighty dollars?
The shutter clicked open and the negative began to flicker on the screen. I saw myself, black-faced, with a little white mustache and enormous white shoes, walking in great dignity across the patch of light. I saw myself trip over my shoes. I saw the mustache quiver with alarm. I saw myself stop, look wise, twirl my cane knowingly, and hit myself on the nose. Then, suddenly in the stillness, I heard a loud chuckle from Mr. Sennett. The picture was good. It was very good.
"Well, Chaplin, you've done it! By George, you've certainly got the comedy! It's a corker!" Mr. Sennett said, clapping me heartily on the back as we came out of the dark room. "You've wasted a lot of film, but hang the film! You're worth it! Go on and finish this up. I'd like to release it next week."