The Search For Chalie Chaplin

Excerpt:

1.   THE SHOCK OF DISCOVERY

 

In September, 1977, David Gill and I were involved in producing

Hollywood, a series about the American silent film, for Thames Television.

Our base was at Teddington studios, just outside London. Since

this was over an hour’s journey from my home in Belsize Park, David

sometimes took pity on me and drove to my place to work on the scripts.

“Scripts” is too grand a description for what we produced. “Cutting

order” describes them better; we compiled them to give our editors some

idea of what to put together.

 

This particular morning, neither of us was in a mood to write. David

was not long back from holiday, and he had arrived late. He was always

late, unless it was really important, when he was even later. But always

with excellent reason. However, one was so glad to see him, one always

forgave him. In his late forties, he had been with commercial television

since its inception in 1955. A greater contrast to the stereotyped image

of the TV director, however, would be hard to imagine. His background

was ballet – he had been a dancer himself; his wife, Pauline, taught at the

Royal Ballet School; and one of his daughters, Judith, was a dancer. His

ability to perform dance steps enlivened his stories. He could leave

people helpless with laughter, and I often thought that his skill as a

physical comedian manqué proved of value again and again during the

making of the Chaplin series.

 

But you would hardly connect him with ballet, either, at first sight.

His half-moon glasses and broad forehead gave him the comforting look

of a doctor, which is what his father had been. (His uncle was Eric Gill,

among the greatest of British artists.) His mind, however, was that of a

barrister. If you engaged his interest, he gave you his complete attention,

and woe betide you if you lacked the facts. He would adopt the role of

devil’s advocate, and dissect your narrative, as though only after the

most intense spotlight had been directed on it could he believe it. And no

one could interrupt him until he had finished. He had an astonishing

capacity for concentration and his relentless thoroughness was one of his

prime virtues, although, with unimportant subjects, it could be a hindrance.

But it had sustained him through several years of directing the

investigative programme This Week, and it would sustain us through our

most difficult stages.

 

I had come from a different world – the world of independent

film-making, where money was spent with the greatest reluctance, and

everyone worked for nothing. I had no idea about expenditure in

television. David was not only a director; he was a skilful producer, and

it was soon apparent that he was going to occupy the driving seat on the

Hollywood series.

 

He did so with such tact and consideration – and such outstanding

results – that it maddened me when certain papers gave me sole credit

for its success. But he needed a long runway to launch an important

project. For the first few weeks, we did nothing but view silent films. It

was like being back at school again. For both of us had become

interested in films through watching them at boarding school. In

David’s case, he was given the job of choosing records to accompany

the silent films – one of the most useful skills he could possibly have

learned as far as the series was concerned. This particular morning, we

had to face the numbing task of writing the episode on comedy. Of all

thirteen, this was probably the most difficult, simply because there was

so much of it. Hundreds of books had been written on the subject,

thousands of articles – and an amazing proportion of the films had

survived. How do you compress the silent era’s richest output into

fifty-two minutes?

 

Comedy, of course, meant Chaplin. We could easily have devoted

an episode to Chaplin, but we had been told that the rights to all his

copyrighted films had been tied up. (“Copyright”, in this case, means

post-1917, when Chaplin became independent and started making his

finest pictures.) The earlier comedies, made for companies like Keystone,

Essanay and Mutual, were out of copyright, but you’d be lucky

to find a decent print. Most had been copied and recopied until they

were a strain to watch. The distribution of all copyright films was

controlled by a company called Black Inc., which had licensed the TV

rights in the UK exclusively to the BBC, our rivals. The head of Black

Inc. was Mo Rothman, one of the toughest entrepreneurs in the business.

Mo Rothman made it quite plain that there was no hope. The BBC

had the UK rights until 1988. Complicated licensing arrangements had

been made with each country and Black Inc. would not consider

untangling them, nor would they permit us to do so.

 

So we were faced with the absurd situation of having to illustrate

Chaplin’s work with the films he made before 1917. We knew one

person who might be able to help us over this impasse: David Robinson,

film critic of the Times, was also a Chaplin devotee and had spent many

years researching his career in the music halls.2 When A Woman of

Paris was reissued, Robinson wrote a review into which he drew all

sorts of obscure references to Chaplin’s theatrical origins, and as a result

he received a Christmas card from the great man. This eventually led to

a meeting.3 David Robinson told us that the Power Behind the Throne

was a lady called Rachel Ford, who occupied the role of business

manager, although her responsibilities were much wider. He suggested

we write to her and David and I composed as heartfelt a plea as we

could. No reply. We sent a reminder. We got no reply to that for a long

time, and then came a letter confirming that what Black Inc. had told us

was unfortunately correct. This, from Miss Ford’s secretary, Mme

Arène, was followed a few days later by one from Miss Ford herself:

“I have obtained Sir Charles and Lady Chaplin’s permission

to produce some little snippet for you. For reasons too

complicated to explain, I would want our distributor, Mr

Rothman, to know of our desire to help you. I wrote to him

last June, but recently learned that as a result of some slight

accident which occurred end July he all but died. I understand

he has made a complete recovery and is convalescing

in California. I have again written to his office with your

request. In any case, nothing can be done until I get myself

to London, maybe during September. By then I hope to have

had some favourable reaction from Rothman, and be able to

show you what I have in mind.”

 

September had arrived and we had heard nothing more. We sat down

and began to struggle with the mass of material. We wrote an outline for

the Mack Sennett sequence, but the logical end to Sennett was the start

of Chaplin. “It’s hopeless to go on like this,” said David, throwing down

his pen. “We’ll have to try and speak to Miss Ford.” He dialled her Paris

 

2. He has since written the definitive biography of Chaplin.

3. David Robinson attended the music recording sessions of A Woman of Paris and

was able to talk to Chaplin. He also intervened on our behalf in many different

ways with Rachel Ford and Oona Chaplin, and we owe him an enormous debt.

 

office direct, and was told she was already in England. He had no

sooner replaced the receiver, than the phone rang. It was our researcher;

Miss Ford had been trying to call us, at our Teddington office, at the

precise moment we had been calling her.

 

David relayed the instructions: call Denham Laboratories, ask for

the vaults, and then ask for her. “So that’s where the Chaplin vaults

are,” I told myself as I dialled the number. “And I always thought they

were in Switzerland.” Once through to the vaults, I heard a beautifully

modulated, upper-class English voice which managed to infuse a great

deal of suspicion into the simple word “Hello?” I explained who I was,

and Miss Ford announced: “I have a little snippet for you. It may be no

use at all. Could you come here this day and see it? Or perhaps send

someone to pick it up?” “We will come at once,” I said. I checked my

watch, and saw that it was midday. “Perhaps we could take you out to

lunch?” “No,” she said. “There is a little pub we always go to for lunch.

It gets a little crowded and we like to get there just before one. Denham

is about an hour’s drive from London. Come down as fast as you can.

But don’t break the speed limit.”

 

David drove down to Denham in a mere forty minutes, parked at

the labs, next to the historic old Korda studios; a lab technician guided

us to the vaults. We entered a hangar-like shed packed to the roof with

old film cans, with titles like Lady Hamilton, Above us the Waves, and

new ones, with titles like Valentino, Jesus, Genesis… Filtering through

these fascinating corridors of cans, we emerged into a brightly-lit

passageway where we met Miss Ford.

 

Miss Ford was in her sixties, I judged (she later told us she was

seventy-four). She was trim and neat, protecting her sensible clothes

with a dust-jacket and white gloves. At first sight, she was somewhat

formidable, despite her slight build; one sensed she was accustomed to

being obeyed. The vault was as neat as she was. I was a trifle disappointed

at the sight of rows of gleaming cans, the famous titles stencilled

on sheets of typing paper proclaiming one pile to be THE GOLD

RUSH, another CITY LIGHTS and another THE GREAT DICTATOR.

I had hoped for jumbles of rusty tins, cobwebbed corners and

some fascinating surprises.

 

Miss Ford explained that she was now working for us, looking for

a short sequence we could use for our “snippet”. David and I exchanged

doleful glances. A snippet would scarcely sustain a fifty-two minute

programme; even if we reduced the Chaplin section to half an episode,

we still needed a sequence from The Kid. We had interviewed Jackie

Coogan in Palm Springs, California, and he had spoken movingly of his

experience with Chaplin on that picture. Without it, we were lost. And

Miss Ford made it clear that The Kid was within Mo Rothman’s domain

–        she was in search of material that lay outside it.

“I have found a can from The Circus,” she said mysteriously, as we

travelled to a second vault. “And now we’re looking for a can from

Modern Times. But I should have realised – you are only concerned

with the silent film era.” We explained that since Chaplin had extended

the silent era by making silents well into the 1930s, it would be marvellous

if we could acknowledge that fact in the series.

 

We entered the second vault. The same system, the stencilled labels,

the gleaming cans. But suddenly my eyes fell on an unfamiliar title.

“What was The Professor?” I asked. “Oh, that was a fun film,” she said

dismissively. “You can have that, but it isn’t funny. It was made in the

studio, just for fun, and I saw it and it isn’t very good. I asked Charlie

about it and he said ‘Oh, that means nothing’.”

 

Both David and I were stunned. “You mean there are films here that

were never released?” “Oh, yes,” said Miss Ford, as if it were the most

natural thing in the world. She managed to find a partial list of the

contents of these cans: one batch was called Visitors to the Studio. We

noticed it included General Wood, Maxine Elliott, Max Linder and

Jackie Coogan! Miss Ford must have read our expressions, even though

we tried to remain cool, calm and poker-faced. “First, lunch,” she said.

In the Land of Liberty pub, Miss Ford recalled coming to Denham

Studios in the 1930s, when they were owned by Alexander Korda,4 and

watching Charles Laughton at work. It was her only visit to a studio.

She was more interested in the theatre and music than in the cinema. We

gathered that during the war, Rachel Ford had been an officer in the

French Army Medical Corps. She sounded so English we were puzzled

by the French connection. “My father was half Irish and half French,

and he married a French woman, who died when I was six, so I’m

three-quarters French. But I came to a London school in the First World

 

4. She said the film he was making was The Private Life of Henry VIII which was

not made at Denham.

5. When researching the private papers of Sydney Chaplin at Vevey, David

Robinson discovered a document, signed and witnessed, proving that the

negative of The Sea Gull had been destroyed in the ’30s.

 

War and lost my French and had to start all over again afterwards. My

father always maintained I spoke no known language.”

She was head of a French (Red Cross) Army Medical Service near

Metz at the Fall of France. “I had the fantastic good fortune to run into

my father in Bordeaux – we reached London quickly and I found

General De Gaulle’s Free French forces.” She went on the Dakar

Expedition and served in the Free French Medical Service in London-

Normandy, ending up head of 2,000 French ATS (AFAT: Auxiliares

Feminines de 1’Armee de Terre), attaining the highest rank possible for

a woman in the French Army. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre in

1940 with “palme” and the Legion d’Honneur in 1944. She worked for

five years in the European Movement, organising conferences, before

being introduced to Chaplin.

 

The Chaplins were in Switzerland for a house-hunting expedition.

They moved into the Manoir de Ban at Vevey in early January, 1953,

just before lunch and Rachel arrived at 2 pm. “I was a terrific fan, and

I only went to see him because I wanted to meet him, not because of the

job. I told him I couldn’t be a secretary because I couldn’t spell and

couldn’t type and was hopeless with figures. I was wearing one man’s

ski boot and one woman’s shoe, having suffered a burn, and I had lost

my dog’s lead. I kept saying ‘I couldn’t help you… I’d be no use at all.

I know nothing about films’.” Chaplin hired her but said: “I must warn

you, you’ll be mixing with the scum of the earth.”

 

Referring to the “fun films,” she said that Chaplin had told her to

burn them. “He didn’t say that because he didn’t want anyone to see

them. He honestly felt that no one would be interested in seeing them.

He is a genuinely modest man.” Chaplin had jokingly signed a paper

assigning them to Miss Ford. I seized the opportunity of asking the

question all film historians argue about: did Chaplin destroy the negative

of the film von Sternberg made for him, The Sea Gull?5 “I am

convinced it was burned. I not only look after the films – and there is

no sign of it in the vaults – I also look after his private papers. I am sure

I would have come across a reference to it somewhere, but there is

nothing.”

 

On the way back to the vaults, Miss Ford declared that the one type

of person she couldn’t abide was the film collector. (This made me

blanch, for I was a film collector.) Evidently, she was constantly suing

them. “Charlie is very reasonable about most things,” she laughed, “but

whenever he hears about someone pirating his films, he says ‘Put them

in prison. They’re my films, and that’s that’.” She added that The Kid

was the one film she found most difficulty in rounding up, and suspected

that it must have been duped (copied) before it was released. “I cannot

tell you how much has been spent suing pirates,” she said, and she told

us about the longest court case, against a collector and distributor called

Raymond Rohauer. He had discovered that when Chaplin reissued The

Gold Rush with narration and music in 1942, this constituted a new

version. Chaplin had a staff to take care of this sort of thing. Apparently,

the person who looked after such matters thought that reissuing a film

automatically protected the original copyright. When he realised the

copyright on the 1925 version had lapsed, Rohauer decided to distribute

it himself. The lawsuit against Rohauer dragged on for twelve years,

consuming thousands of dollars. He had become Miss Ford’s bête noire.

The curious thing about Rohauer was the antipathy he had aroused.

I, too, was one of his sworn opponents. I objected to the way he bought

up vast tracts of the silent cinema, secured some kind of rights over

them, and denied anyone access except at vast cost. He had formed a

partnership with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to control the Fairbanks Senior

films, and forced film appreciation societies, like the British Film Institute

and the Museum of Modern Art, to withdraw all their Fairbanks

films from circulation. He followed this with the Keaton, Langdon and

Sennett films. I had helped John Baxter research an article about him in

the Sunday Times. (Rohauer sued, won and settled out of court for an

undisclosed sum.)

 

If there was one thing I was determined to prevent on the Hollywood

series it was any sort of contact with Raymond Rohauer. And I had

succeeded for the first few months, until we ran into the problem of the

Fairbanks films. We had an excellent interview with Douglas Fairbanks

Jr., and we needed first-class quality extracts from his father’s films.

“All you have to do,” he had told us, “is talk to Raymond Rohauer. He’ll

give you anything you want.” I gave up.

 

Our executive producer, Mike Wooller, made the initial approaches;

David Gill had taken over. Not having the backlog of distrust, and not

being a collector, he was able to meet Rohauer as a normal human

being. He was relieved, he told us, not to encounter an ogre. David

greeted him warmly with “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” and he could see

the surprise in his eyes. He formed a relationship which produced a

great deal of rare footage for the series. But this was not the time to

acquaint Rachel Ford with such facts. Another of Miss Ford’s bêtes

noires was Mo Rothman – “the bandit”, as she called him with admirable

bluntness. The two of them were constantly involved in quarrels,

and for this reason she was anxious not to trespass on his domain. And

she was quick to pay tribute where it was due: “Mo did a marvellous

job with the special shows,” she said. “They couldn’t have been better

done. The Piazza San Marco in Venice was black with people. He

brought a special projector from Sweden and showed City Lights on a

huge screen – it was magnificent. I mean to say, the man’s a crook, but

I would never say that I regretted him having the films. Charlie had

terrific pleasure out of them at the end of his life, and what’s $200,000

more or less to him? It wouldn’t make much difference. Roy Export –

Charlie’s company – owns it, but Mo has the licence. And it would be

very difficult for me, since he has sold the rights to the BBC, to ask him.

Whereas there is no question that Roy owns the private material, and

we can give you a snippet from that. You don’t want much, after all, do

you? A minute should do…” David and I made anxious noises. “Well,

perhaps two minutes. Anyway, the snippet I have in mind is one of my

favourite moments. Absolutely delightful. He does a little dance. But

I’m not quite sure where it is…” We returned to the vaults, and Miss

Ford selected four cans. We carried them to the projection room

(suppressing a desire to run for the street), exhilarated by the extraordinary

personality we had just met, and by the prospect of what was

before us.

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