THE SILENT SCREEN
Remembering the Funny Man With a Cane and Derby
IN 1918, my first teacher kept her primer class informed on advancements in science. We learned about Guglielmo Marconi and his invention of wireless telegraphy, and ships equipped with radio. One day she startled us by prophesying that in our lifetime man would go to the moon, our world would communicate with another planet, and people would watch movies in their own homes. We were on the edge of our seats imagining such marvelous events.Once I mentioned this teacher's predictions to my grandson, who was absorbed in a science-fiction magazine. He was hardly impressed by the first two. To him, they were simply passe. He had already seen men on the moon, a remarkable achievement but now old hat. Through his science classes and magazines, he was familiar with the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, which searched for intelligent signals on distant planets. It was easy for him to believe that the discovery of a space civilization was just around the corner. Only the prophecy of movies in the home prompted him to lay his magazine aside. It was pretty hard for him to conceive of a home without movies, day or night. Thinking further, he wanted to know how often I saw movies in my boyhood and what they were really like. He felt certain that I had been starved for entertainment. Thus I brought up the subject of the silent screen and for me its most fascinating character, the inimitable Charlie Chaplin. My naming of the little tramp elicited a smile, for my grandson had seen a couple of short Chaplin films on television. They were hardly exciting, he thought, and wondered how Chaplin appealed to me. I assured him that Charlie Chaplin had rated as high as Robinson Crusoe and Tarzan, other characters fulfilling the necessity for joy and pleasure. I recalled the very first time I laid eyes on Charlie; he appeared in a commercial for a toy motion-picture machine, waving his derby and stealing my heart, never to let it go. No greater entertainment existed than the antics of a funny man with cane and derby who wore baggy pants and big shoes. He gave delight and inspired affection. The laughter he provided was a sustaining influence that helped to cushion hard knocks of prairie-farm life. Seeing a Chaplin comedy during tense World War I days was a treat indeed. While trying to compose a letter to our soldier relative in France, I asked Mother to give me some ideas. She suggested that I tell him about a Chaplin comedy I had seen. Unfortunately my family never attended movies regularly, and when we did see a motion picture, a Chaplin film was rare, probably because of high rental fees. Our village theater, two and a half miles from home, was a renovated seed house on a cotton-gin yard, seating a few more than a hundred people. The high-school student who operated the projector by turning a crank was the envy of us all. SOMETIMES a film broke and the audience waited for its repair by watching slides projected on the screen. They featured village enterprises. A cafe might invite patrons to eat at Ruby's, the message reading, "Fresh Turkey Sandwiches/Lemon Meringue Pie, 15 cts a Slice." Homer's confectionary invited customers for "Milk Shakes, 20 cts." We might see a Western serial like "Hands Up!" featuring Ruth Roland. As cowboys raced their horses chasing cattle thieves across the mesa, a local musician at the piano just below the high screen played all the faster. You hoped the rude fellow reading the titles aloud would stop. Western idols like Ken Maynard and William S. Hart were popular. Often a melodrama headed the bill, replacing serials with their cliff-hanging endings. The heyday of animated cartoons had not arrived. Though I always hoped to see Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle was perhaps the most popular comedian for our audience. My grandson asked if Charlie ever "let me down." I had to confess that he was indirectly responsible for a disappointing event in connection with my ninth birthday. I had begged my parents to forget about presents and instead take me to the theater in our county seat for "Shoulder Arms," a three-reel film starring Charlie Chaplin. I had seen a newspaper ad showing him as a doughboy loaded down with rifle, pots, and pans. My proposal asked a lot. A trip to town over 15 miles of bad roads, some of them dirt, "just to see a picture show" was unthinkable. At first Father rejected my "whim." But liking movies herself, Mother helped to bring him around. On an unforgettable winter afternoon, Mother, my little sister, and I waited anxiously along with a small group at the ticket booth for the theater to open. Eons seemed to pass before an usher appeared to apologize for the delay. He hoped we wouldn't mind waiting a little longe r. Mechanics were working on the projector to get a clearer picture. Then Father, who had been visiting with old cronies, rushed up with worse news. Dark clouds threatening a deluge made it necessary for us to leave for home at once. If we were caught in a rainstorm, the Maxwell would slip off the muddy road and land us in a ditch. A previous unhappy experience told us as much. Father remembered walking in rain for a pair of mules to tow the car home. WE reached safety before a downpour, but dark clouds hung over me for a day or so. They lifted when we made the trip again but on a clear day. The whole family saw "Shoulder Arms" with Charlie in heroic action. Among other feats, he rescued a French girl and captured the Kaiser - all before waking up from a dream in a training camp! Since my grandson had met his favorite actor during a personal appearance, he asked if I had met Charlie in person. That had never been my good fortune, but in 1974 I met and talked with Chaplin's first leading lady, Minta Durfee. She had become a businesswoman and was then on a tour sponsoring a personal-banking service for women. A spry little lady, she delighted in discussing silent-film days and remembering the enchantment of working with Charlie Chaplin. Minta Durfee acted in his first film, "Making a Living," a one-reel Keystone comedy released in 1914. Here Charlie portrayed an Englishman with high hat, frock coat, monocle, and drooping mustache. For his second picture, "Kid Auto Races at Venice," he donned the famous costume he would wear for 30 years. I showed my grandson a page in "The Films of Charlie Chaplin" on which Miss Durfee had autographed her picture and written "Keep Smiling." Smiling himself, he returned to the magazine.