“A man’s true character comes out when he’s drunk. Me, I’m funnier.”
—Calvero (Charlie Chaplin) in “Limelight”
For a man who by all accounts hardly imbibed alcohol in his life, Charlie Chaplin’s big break in show business owes a tremendous debt to the swill he was thrilled to avoid. While many comedians over the years have turned to vices to unleash their inner Puck, Chaplin was the opposite. He made being drunk funny by playing the role completely sober.
As any Chaplinphile knows, Mack Sennett “discovered” the man who would become “The Little Tramp” after Sennett saw Chaplin playing a drunk in Fred Karno’s music hall sketch “Mumming Birds.” As far as I know, no footage exists of Chaplin’s much-ballyhooed exploits in the theater, but one gets a good idea of what the performance might have looked like by watching the Essanay short film “A Night in the Show” that debuted in 1915. (Also, Robert Downey Jr. did an amazing job portraying Chaplin in the Sir Richard Attenborough film simply titled “Chaplin”; there’s a re-creation from the music hall that really steals the show.)
However, as David Robinson writes in his excellent biography “Chaplin: His Life and Art” regarding “A Night in the Show”: “Chaplin added new material, set in the foyer and auditorium of the theatre, to the original Karno scenario; a flirtation with Edna [Purviance], altercations with the orchestra, much changing of seats, and the precipitation of a fat lady into the foyer fountain.”
Interestingly, Chaplin does not mention the film in “My Autobiography,” although “Mumming Birds” gets a few nods.
Chaplin plays two characters in the film—both of whom have had more than a few too many. What I enjoy most about Chaplin’s performance in “A Night at the Show” is how he’s able to play the two distinct drunk characters so convincingly: one, Mr. Rowdy, is a completely out-of-control, over-the-top drunk who almost looks like a Little Tramp impersonator. Among his many escapades from the gallery is when he hoses down a fiery performance and other audience members to boot—including the dignified drunk Mr. Pest, also played by Chaplin.
Mr. Pest is just that. He sits in a box that denotes wealth and high character, but then proceeds to remove the plumes from a woman’s hat. He then returns them before removing them again and giddily throwing them toward the performers on the stage.
A year after “A Night in the Show,” Chaplin played perhaps his most famous and most beloved drunken role as simply the “Drunk” in “One A.M.” The character reminds us of Mr. Pest in many ways. In fact, if it weren’t for Pest’s slicked-down hair, the little fellow in “One A.M.” would be his doppelganger.
Outside of a cameo from Albert Austin as the no-nonsense taxi driver who pays for his insistence on getting paid by getting paid with a cigarette ash in the palm, Chaplin is the show in this classic film. Chaplin plays a seemingly wealthy bachelor who enjoyed his evening out a little bit too much. Even getting into his house is an adventure. When he realizes he doesn’t have his key, he cleverly breaks into his home through a window but then immediately realizes he had the key all along. Of course, he decides to go back through the window to unlock the door and enter his abode the proper way. Here’s hoping no goldfish were injured in the bowl that he repeatedly steps in to get in and out of the window!
Once inside, Chaplin performs some of his most magical bits as just about every inanimate and sometimes even animate object stands in his way from getting upstairs and into bed—from the taxidermy to the twirling table. Even when he makes it up those menacing stairs, he often finds himself back where he started. And note to interior decorators everywhere: Don’t ever install a large clock with a supersized pendulum in front of a door. That would be hazardous for even nondrunk residents! As for the bedroom, we learn from Chaplin the perils of using a Murphy bed to add space to the room: If you’re drunk, it’s hard to find. Of course, this particular bed seems to have a mind of its own!
Perhaps it was a necessity at the time for audiences still getting used to moving pictures, but to me the one flaw in this near-perfect short flick is the subtitles, such as “I’ll try another route.” They are completely unnecessary to promote the high jinks that are happening, and, if anything, they distract from it.
Keep in mind that “One A.M.” came out four years before Prohibition took hold in 1920, and one wonders if teetotalers in the U.S. House and Senate watched with horror at the tomfoolery and less than dignified exploits of Chaplin’s drunk character and vowed to pass the 18th Amendment come hell or high water.
Compare these portrayals with Chaplin’s Tramp who gets drunk in “City Lights” after the “eccentric millionaire” (Harry Myers)—who Chaplin saves from taking a permanent dip—befriends him. Interestingly enough, while many people drink to forget, the man seems to drink to remember. The Tramp reluctantly has a drink with the man, and then, shortly after, the two arrive at a club in the “Spaghetti Scene” sufficiently soused. Unlike the previous drunk characters he played, Chaplin plays the drunk in “City Lights” as a novice. He finds smoking a cigar difficult and causes all types of unintentional chaos along the way. Chaplin’s previously mentioned drunken characters seem like natural rabble-rousers, and you get the distinct impression they’d been more than tipsy before—likely many times before.
Skipping ahead a few decades, Chaplin begins to bring his career full-circle in the funny, philosophical and personal film “Limelight.” To keep the thread of this post going, in my mind I like to think of Chaplin’s character of Calvero as the same drunk from “A Night at the Show” and “One A.M.”—still trying to navigate his way through a door with a nasty keyhole that won’t sit still. While it’s highly unlikely that Calvero, a once famous stage clown, would have been the same well-to-do chap three decades prior, it just seems so fitting to tie the three together.
Although, it’s lucky for Terry (Claire Bloom), Calvero’s leading lady in the film, that the 1950s Calvero comes to save her; I’m not sure the fellow in “A Night at the Show” or “One A.M.” could have pulled that off in his inebriated state of mind.
While “Limelight” might not be Chaplin’s funniest film—outside of the historic pairing of Chaplin and Buster Keaton on a stage on the screen for the first and only time—it has always been one of my favorites. The reason being that it does a marvelous job of tying his career and personal life together into one compelling film.
In my opinion, Calvero’s quote about drinking, which appears at the beginning of this post, does not offer an accurate portrayal of Chaplin himself—but of his father. In the late 19th century, Charlie Chaplin Sr. (pictured below, right) was, himself, a famous music hall entertainer. He was also a well-known alcoholic. As Chaplin wrote in his autobiography, “[A] number of stars were paid large salaries not alone for their talent but because they spent much of their money at the theater bar. Thus many an artist was ruined by drink—my father was one of them. He died of alcoholic excess at the age of thirty-seven.”
While the senior Chaplin never made it into his 60s as Calvero does in the film, it seems clear that the character is at least somewhat based on his father who sadly chose the life of an alcoholic over family life.
“Limelight,” which I consider his last great film, also, just like this blog post, shows how Chaplin’s career came full circle. It all began and ended with alcohol as Calvero pours himself a strong one before he returns to the stage for his final performance—similarly to how Chaplin, that rowdy “audience member,” acted before wowing audiences with his comedic drunk portrayal a half-century earlier.
Indeed, Calvero’s quote about being “funnier” when drunk is a smokescreen, an intentional misnomer. Chaplin never needed alcohol to get laughs. The funny thing is he seriously never needed a drink to be funny. However, as is often the case with Chaplin, his drinking characters are injected with a healthy dose of pathos. But this time the underlying sadness was all too real, and much like the eccentric millionaire in “City Lights,” Chaplin had these fascinating characters drink so that he, himself, could remember.
James Tehrani is an award-winning editor and writer based in the Chicago area. He is also a lifelong Chaplin fan. Follow him on Twitter at @WorkforceJames.
All images from Chaplin films made from 1918 onwards, Copyright © Roy Export S.A.S. Charles Chaplin and the Little Tramp are trademarks and/or service marks of Bubbles Inc. S.A. and/or Roy Export