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CHAPTER XXXI

In which the moving-picture work palls on me; I make other plans, am persuaded to abandon them and am brought to the brink of a deal in high finance.

THE reorganization among the producers of motion pictures, which followed the era of mushroom companies sprung up overnight, making fabulous fortunes, wildly, in the first scramble for quick profits and going down again in the general chaos, was still under way when my contract with the Keystone company expired.

Millions of laughs, resounding every night in hundreds of moving-picture theaters had set producers to bidding for me. I received offers of incredible sums from some companies; lavish promises of stock from others. The situation, I felt, required the mind of a financier. I called in Sidney.

After a great deal of consideration, we decided to accept the offer of the Essanay company, as combining in due proportion size of salary and security of its payment. My contract called for a thousand dollars a day, also a percentage on my films.

A thousand dollars a day! Two hundred pounds every twenty-four hours! At the moment of signing the contract a feeling of unreality came over me. It seemed incredible. Only five years ago I had been cockily congratulating myself on wringing ten pounds a week from Carno!

I returned to Los Angeles in the highest spirits and set to work again. A small company, three actors and a score of "supers," was got together for me. The stage, a rough board structure large enough for a dozen "sets," built near the bridge of the street railway between Los Angeles and Pasadena, was turned over to me and my company. Here, on a little side street of tumble-down sheds half buried in tangles of dusty woods, I shut myself in behind the high wooden wall of the studio through the long hot summer and worked at being funny.

Every morning, as soon as the light was right for the pictures, I arrived at the studio and got into my make-up, racking my brain the while for a funny idea. The company stood waiting in the white-hot glare of the big canvas reflectors; the camera was ready; at the other end of the long-distance wire the company clamored for film, more film and still more. I must go out on the stage and be funny, be funny as long as the light lasted.

"The whole thing's in your hands, Chaplin," the managers said cheerfully. "Give us the film, that's all we ask."

I gave them the film. All day long, tumbling down-stairs, falling into lakes, colliding with moving vans, upsetting stepladders, sitting in pails of wall-paper paste, I heard it click-click-clicking past the camera shutter. At night, in the negative room, I checked and cut and revised it. And all the time I searched my mind for funny ideas.

Now, nothing in the world is more rare than an idea, except a funny idea. The necessity of working out a new one every day, the responsibility of it and the labor so wore upon me that by fall I had come to a stern determination. I would leave the moving pictures. I would leave them as soon as I had a million dollars.

"If this keeps up another year I will be a millionaire," I said to myself one evening, lying on the cement floor of the basement set, where I had gone in my search for a cool spot to rest. "Then I'll quit. I will quit and write a book. I never have written a book, and I might as well. But not a funny book. Ye gods, no!"

After all, I had had my share of the limelight, as I had always known, even in my worst days, that I would some day. I had made my success on the legitimate stage with William Gillette. I had made my success and my money in the moving pictures in America. I was still in my twenties. Why not leave the stage altogether, settle down on some snug little ranch and write? It might be jolly fun to be an author. By Jove, I'd do it!

My arrangement with the Essanay people had been for only a year Sidney's prudent idea. The contract was expiring in a few months; already I was receiving offers from other companies. I would refuse them all; yes, I would quit with less than a million dollars. Three-quarters of a million would be plenty. Lying there on the cool cement floor, still in my baggy trousers, with the grease paint on my face, I stretched my legs and waggled my floppy shoes contentedly. Jove, the relief of never being funny again!

"Charlie, old boy, don't be a gory idiot!" Sid protested, when I told him my project. "Why, you can make a fortune at this. Hutchinson, of the Mutual, is in town right now; I was talking to him last night. They'll make you an offer you can get fifty offers that will beat anything you've dreamed about. You can be the highest-paid movie actor in the world."

"What's a million more or less, old man?" I said airily, though I began to waver. "I've made my pile. I want to write a book."

"How do you know you can write a book?" Sidney returned. "Of all the bally rot! D'you want to go off somewhere and never be heard of again? Or have you got another notion that William Gillette's going to take you to America?"

It was the first time Sidney had ever mentioned that affair since the day he had bought me clothes and so got me out of the London hospital and taken me home. I had told him all about it then.

It struck me he was probably right. It has been my experience that he usually is.

"All right," I said. "Your contract's up with the Essanay, too. Come over and manage things for me and I'll stay with the moving pictures."

He agreed and we began to consider which company I should choose. The moving-picture business is standardized now; a few big companies practically divide the field between them. The various departments of the work have been segregated also, a producing company turning its films over to a releasing company which markets them. What we most desired was to make a connection with a big releasing company, since if I got a percentage of the profits which we meant to stand out for, the marketing of the films was most important.

I felt greatly relieved when my contract expired and I drove away from the studio for the last time, free for some weeks from the obligation of being funny. Sidney was busily negotiating with several companies, considering their offers and their advantages from our view-point. I was idle and care-free; I might do what I liked. I whistled cheerfully to myself, swinging my cane as I walked down to dinner that night, facing the prospect before me with happy anticipation.

In a week I discovered that the one thing I most wanted to do was to be acting. A thousand bright ideas for comedy situations rushed into my mind; I longed to put on my make-up again, to smell the piny odor of the studio in the hot sun, to hear the click of the camera. I looked regretfully at the old signs on the movie theaters; no new Chaplin pictures were being released. I was eager to be back at work.

Each night I discussed more eagerly with Sidney the different companies we were considering. At last, after a great many talks with Mr. Hutchinson, we privately decided on the Mutual as offering the best advantages. This decision, however, we prudently refrained from mentioning until after Mr. Caulfield, the personal representative of the Mutual's president, Mr. Freuler, should come to Los Angeles and make us a definite money offer.

Mr. Caulfield promptly arrived, and Sidney undertook the negotiations with him, keeping me in reserve to bring up at the proper time. I relied a great deal upon Sidney; I knew myself entirely capable in handling theatrical managers, but I had greater confidence in Sidney's handling of business men. I awaited somewhat nervously my share in the arrangements.

One night my cue came. Sidney telephoned up from down-stairs. "I'm bringing Caulfield up," he said. "He offers ten thousand a week and royalties. I'm holding out for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars bonus on signing the contract. Stick at that if you can, but whatever you do, don't take less than one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars."



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