by Charlie Chaplin
Most of the little plays in which I have appeared in moving pictures I have written myself. I learn something new every day. All there is in moving picture comedy is to study the fundamentals. After all, that’s all there is in life, and it takes a lifetime to find them out. If I were to attempt to explain the method by which my share of success in moving pictures has been obtained, they would not apply for someone else to work out. My methods are my own, created and developed to reflect my personality, and what is best for me and my work. There may be technical rules in comedy, but I don’t think you could standardize them. Comedy is the most serious study in the world.
There is no study in the art of acting that requires such an accurate and sympathetic knowledge of human nature, as comedy work. To be successful in it, one must acquire the gift of studying men at their daily work.
When I write a new play for the screen, I lay out my plot first, then I put it aside, and I start out to find my characters in real life. First of all, of course, I search for the man I am going to represent myself.
When I find that man, I follow him, watch him at his work, and his fun, at the table, and every other place I can see him. Often, I will study one man for a week before I am ready to go on with the play. Generally, the best situations in a play, the funniest, will either be an exaggeration of such action in real life that I have seen my counterpart pass through, but which was not at all funny in itself.
I have always tried to avoid burlesque, or at least not to depend upon it. I strive for naturalness in all my action. One of the best instances of how I put a play together and how I worked to develop it, is in the story of one of my plays called “The Tramp.”
The inspiration for it came from an aceidental meeting with a hobo in a street in San Francisco. He had the usual symptoms of his class, he was suffering a little from !ack of food, and intensely from lack of drink. I made a cheerful proposition to him, offering him both, and asking him which he would have first.
“Why,” he said, “if I get hungry enough, I can eat grass. But, what am I going to do for this thirst of mine. You know what water does to iron? Well, try to think what it will do for your insides.”
We went into a barroom, be got the drink, and we sat right down then and there to have a bite of lunch. The food and the drink warmed him and brought to the surface the irresponsible joy of life possessed by the nomad and the ne’er-do-well. He told me the story of his life. Of long jaunts through the beautiful country, of longer rides on convenient freights, of misfortunes which attend the unfortunate who are found stealing a ride on a “side-door pullman,” and of the simplicity of the farmers who lived only a short distance from the city. It was a delight to hear him talk, to gather from it the revelations of his character, to watch his gestures, and his trick of facial expression. All these elements were carefully watched by me, and noted for future reference. He was rather surprised when we parted, at my profuse thanks. He has given me a good deal more than I had given him, but he didn’t know it. He had obtained a little food and drink and a chance talk from me. From him, I had a brand new idea for a picture.
(The Theatre, September 1915)