Thursday, June 4, 2015

When Marlon, Sophia and Charlie Got Together

Today I'm turning over my blog to a former writer for Life Magazine. 
Her name was Dora Jane Hamblin. She died in 1993, in a retirement home in Rome, at the age of 73. 

But on April 1, 1966, she wrote an article about the new movie being produced in London. Written and directed by Charlie Chaplin and starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, the film was generally panned by critics as being "out of date." During pre-production, Chaplin suffered a great personal loss when his brother, Sydney, died in Nice, France at the age of 80. 

Two esteemed visitors to the set during shooting were Gloria Swanson and the film historian Kevin Brownlow. Kevin wrote about his experience that day, which David Robinson included in his magnificent biography of Chaplin. 

Sadly, this was Chaplin's final film.

But, right now, let's listen to Dora Jane Hamblin. These are excerpts of her article. The "Sydney" she refers to here is Charlie's son.

"Walking onto Charlie Chaplin's set at England's Pinewood Studios feels quite a bit like trying to tip-toe into church after the service has started. There are, to be sure, a lot of slamming doors and exploding champagne bottles and actors leaping around like scalded cats, but between the bangs and the crashes there is a silence quite unlike the perfunctory quiet of the ordinary movie set. Everybody's watching Charlie teach some new tricks to a trio of old pros - Sophia, Marlon and Sydney Chaplin. The stars sit rapt, like well brought-up children, hanging on his every word. That is much easier than hanging onto him.

"Marlon is supposed to chase Sophia around the furniture? Charlie takes off in a frantic deadpan dash, to show Marlon how he wants him to do it. Sophia is supposed to flee? Charlie skitters around uttering little yelps of alarm and casting arch looks back over his tweedy shoulder. Sydney Chaplin is supposed to puff on a cigar and make himself sick? Charlie Chaplin wraps his small hand around an imaginary cigar, tilts his head, and everybody not he set can smell the nonexistent smoke.....

"The new picture, though it is the 81st of Chaplin's 52-year movie career, is a first in a couple of significant categories: it is Chaplin's first film in color; it is the first time he hasher directed established stars, let alone a pair of Oscar winners and staggering personalities like Loren and Brando; and it is the first time in years that he has worked for a company not his own. Universal is bankrolling this one at an estimated production cost of $4 million and will distribute it. But Chapin is clearly running it. .... Hardly a day passes that Charlie doesn't mutter 'We're using too much film.' Actually, Charlie's first feature-length film, the six-reeler Tillie's Punctured Romance in 1914, had almost exactly the same shooting time as this present film, 14 weeks.

"'That was very, very difficult, that scene,' Sophia says. 'It was a charlie Chapin scene, you see. Silent, and subtle. He has the timing exactly right when he does it. Charlie never does the obvious thing, like most actors. He turns it all upside down, thinks of the opposite from the obvious thing.' "...

"'In the next few days I thought I had gone raving mad, Charlie had gone raving mad, and it was impossible,' says Brando. 'I can't do fades and triple-takes and things like that, and I was wanting to go to Charlie to say, 'I'm afraid we've both made a horrible mistake. But then it all started to work out. With Charlie it's chess, it's chess at 90 mph.' ...

"He (Charlie) plays one scene in the film. The morning he did it, he hopped onto the set grinning from ear to ear. He slid into the white jacket of a ship's chief steward, and he combed his hair and muttered his lines under his breath and gave that old familiar half-apologetic look just over the left shoulder. His assistant director called 'Action!' and Chaplin opened the door. He put on the walk of an aging chief steward and then the look of a seasick chief steward He made straight for a porthole and tripped over something that wasn't in the script. Just before the assistant director could call 'Cut' he stopped, bent down, picked up an imaginary object and slipped it intones pocked, adjusted his shoulder, walked on. It was very funny.

"'Well, that's my contribution,' he said as he walked off the set. Kona gave him a big kiss and everybody told him the scene was wonderful. The only reason there wasn't a round of applause was that everyone in the place was afraid he might snap at them. 'Quiet, now let's all be adult!'"

And so ends the article. I've included photos from the magazine, which were shot by famed photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Also included is an ad from that same issue which features another very funny man.

1 comment:

  1. I've always liked this film, it used to be shown on WPIX in New York in the late sixties/early seventies. Sure it has issues, Brando was mis-cast, but it has a lot of charm, and Sophia Loren is wonderful. Sydney Chaplin is so much more relaxed than he was in Limelight. Margaret Rutherford's small part is a delight. The music I think is very good. I think it has been appreciated more as time has passed. Great article Gerry, many thanks.