The Place to Find All Things Churchill

Great Contemporaries: Churchill and Chaplin

FINEST HOUR 142, SPRING 2009

BY BRADLEY P. TOLPPANEN

Mr. Tolppanen (bptolppanen@eiu.edu) is a librarian and history bibliographer at Booth Library, Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, Illinois.

ABSTRACT
A PERFECT COMBINATION OR THE ORIGINAL ODD COUPLE? CHAPLIN FIRST THOUGHT CHURCHILL ABRUPT, BUT AFTER A DEBATE ABOUT THE NEW LABOUR GOVERNMENT THEY STAYED UP TALKING UNTIL 3 A.M. CHURCHILL THOUGHT CHAPLIN “BOLSHY IN POLITICS & DELIGHTFUL IN CONVERSATION,” AND WAS CERTAIN HE SHOULD PLAY THE LEAD A FILM ABOUT NAPOLEON—AND IF HE WOULD, WSC PROMISED TO WRITE THE SCRIPT.

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In 14 December 1940, as Britain struggled alone against a triumphant Nazi Germany, the British Prime Minister briefly set aside his heavy responsibilities to watch “The Great Dictator” with his family and advisers. They were at Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire, placed at his disposal by its owner, Ronald Tree MP, on nights when the full moon made Chequers, the PM’s official country house in Buckinghamshire, too inviting a target.

An avid film lover, Churchill enjoyed this pre-release viewing of a production that not only lampooned Hitler but starred and was directed by his friend Charlie Chaplin. He laughed through it, especially the scene where two dictators threw food at each other. It ended and he returned to his immense workload, composing another secret cable to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.[1]

Churchill had met Chaplin over a decade earlier, during WSC’s tour of North America, shortly after the Conservatives had been defeated in the 1929 election and Churchill had resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Despite sharp political differences, he and Chaplin had come to admire and appreciate each others’ qualities, and Chaplin had twice been Churchill’s guest at Chartwell.

Churchill in 1929 was a world renowned soldier, war correspondent, historian, author, journalist and Member of Parliament, not to mention painter, bricklayer and traveler. Accompanying him on his trip were his 18-year old son Randolph, his brother Jack, and his 20-year-old nephew Johnny. WSC dubbed the party the “Churchill Troupe.”

Welcoming them in Los Angeles was newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, their host in southern California. Hearst introduced the Churchills to the city’s film industry, which Winston later called “a strange and an amusing world.”[2] They attended receptions in their honor, toured movie studios, and met several film stars, including the actress Marion Davies, Hearst’s long-time mistress and a former chorus-girl.

Davies, whose parties were legendary, quickly arranged for the Churchills to be entertained at a star-studded festivity. It was probably she who convinced her close friend Charlie Chaplin to come; the other celebrities were delivered by Hearst, who had told Randolph and Johnny to prepare a list of all the stars they wished to meet and leave it to him. The only notable to elude him was the reclusive Greta Garbo.[3]

On September 21st, after a day of touring Los Angeles, the “Churchill Troupe” motored north to Ocean House, Davies’ opulent mansion in Santa Monica. Hearst had spent $7,000,000 expanding the villa to 110 rooms, importing furnishings from European castles.[4] Eighteen columns lined its beach façade, prompting Chaplin to quip that there were “more columns than the Supreme Court building.” An impressed Churchill called it a “palace on the ocean.”[5]

After bathing in Davies’ heated Italian marble swimming pool, Winston and his party dressed for dinner with sixty glitterati, including Mary Brian, Billie Dove, Bessie Love, Bebe Daniels, Dorothy Mackaill, Wallace Beery, Harold Lloyd and Pola Negri.[6] The most famous guest was certainly Chaplin. After a Dickensian childhood in London he had built a long career as a comedian and filmmaker, and was declared by some newspapers the most famous figure in the world, known to millions through his unforgettable performances as the “Little Tramp.”

Chaplin was milling about with other guests when Churchill arrived, accompanied by Hearst. Chaplin recalled the future prime minister standing apart, “Napoleon-like with his hand in his waistcoat” as he watched the dancing.[7] He seemed lost and out of place, so Hearst waved Chaplin over and introduced him to the English statesman.

At first Chaplin found Churchill abrupt in manner, but when he started talking about Britain’s new Labour government Churchill brightened. “What I don’t understand is that in England the election of a socialist government does not alter the status of a King and Queen,” Chaplin remarked.

“Of course not,” Churchill replied with a quick glance that Chaplin thought “humorously challenging.”

“I thought socialists were opposed to a monarchy,” Chaplin persisted.

“If you were in England we’d cut your head off for that remark,” Churchill countered with a laugh.[8]

The dinner party was a great success. Davies persuaded Chaplin to join her in impersonations. She did Sarah Bernhardt and Lillian Gish, he played Napoleon, Uriah Heep, Henry Irving, and John Barrymore as Hamlet.[9] The Davies-Chaplin duo then performed a complicated dance, during which Johnny Churchill noticed that Charlie’s feet were small enough to fit into Marion’s shoes.[10]

In a sure sign of favor, Churchill kept Chaplin up until three in the morning. He wanted Chaplin to take on the role of a young Napoleon as his next film; if Chaplin would do it, Churchill promised to write the script.

“You must do it,” Churchill pressed, describing the opportunities the role presented for drama and comedy. “Think of its possibilities for humour. Napoleon in his bathtub arguing with his imperious brother who’s all dressed up, bedecked in gold braid, and using this opportunity to place Napoleon in a position of inferiority. But Napoleon, in his rage, deliberately splashes water over his brother’s fine uniform and he has to exit ignominiously from him. This is not alone clever psychology. It is action and fun.”[11]

Randolph Churchill had not immediately recognized Chaplin, but wrote in his diary that the actor was “absolutely superb and enchanted everyone.”[12] Chaplin in turn was impressed by Randolph’s father, whom he thought dynamic with “a thirst for accomplishment” as well as a wonderful talker who could “rattle off brilliant epigrams.”[13]

Chaplin met Churchill several more times during the visit to Los Angeles, including an evening when he dined with the Churchills in their suite at the Biltmore Hotel. The actor spent a delightful evening listening to Winston and Randolph pleasantly bantering.[14]

On September 24th, Chaplin hosted the Churchill party at his studio at Sunset Boulevard and La Brea Avenue. After lunch, Chaplin showed them around and provided a private screening of his 1918 film “Shoulder Arms,” one of his great movies, followed by the rushes for his upcoming silent classic, “City Lights.”[15]

Churchill and Chaplin discussed the revolution in progress by the introduction of “talkies.” Chaplin acknowledged the popularity of the new form but was unwilling to concede the demise of the silent film, which he called the true “genius of drama.”[16] Churchill said “City Lights” was Chaplin’s attempt to prove silent films superior to talkies, and predicted an “easy victory” for the production.[17]

“City Lights” was followed by film from Chaplin’s archives that had never been produced. Johnny Churchill, in his memoirs, described one scene considered particularly unsuitable. Chaplin had wanted to film the rapid harnessing of a horse-drawn fire engine, but found that putting a harness on a horse took too much time; so he filmed the harness being taken off (a quicker process), intending then to reverse the film. Alas the horse relieved itself while the scene was being filmed, and when the footage was reversed Johnny saw “the horse’s matter” leap off the ground and disappear back inside the animal![18]

That evening the Churchills and Chaplin accompanied Marion Davies to the premiere of “Cock-Eyed World” at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where a crowd including an array of film stars had gathered for hours. The hoopla did not prevent Randolph Churchill from loudly denouncing the film as the worst he had ever seen. Davies apparently forgave him, hosting a dinner at the Roosevelt Hotel where sherry and champagne were served despite the strictures of Prohibition.[19]

A few days later, after leaving Los Angeles, Churchill recounted his, Randolph’s and Johnny’s fascination with Chaplin: “a marvelous comedian—bolshy in politics & delightful in conversation.”(Although a common enough expression, this is the only occurrence of “bolshy” in Churchill’s 15 million published words.[20])

n February 1931 Chaplin came to England for the premiere of “City Lights,” the first leg of a world tour. Welcomed by excited crowds, he met a host of public figures, and lunched at Chequers with Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald.[21]

Inevitably Chaplin was invited to Chartwell, on February 25th; Churchill asked his onetime Parliamentary Private Secretary Robert Boothby MP to accompany the actor from London.[22] Chaplin was accompanied by his friend Ralph Barton, an artist and cartoonist who had joined him for the early part of his tour.

They arrived on a bitterly cold evening, but Chaplin thought Chartwell a beautiful country residence, “modestly furnished, but in good taste with a family feeling about it.”[23] He bathed and dressed in Churchill’s own bedroom, noticing that it was piled high with papers and had books stacked against every wall. Among the volumes were a set of Plutarch’s Lives, the Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), and several books on Napoleon. Chaplin mentioned the latter to Churchill, who replied, “Yes. I am a great admirer of his.”[24] Probably they again discussed Chaplin’s prospective role as the young Emperor, though Churchill never wrote the script, which he had hoped to do for the producer Alexander Korda.

Along with Boothby, Churchill had invited Brendan Bracken, another young MP and loyal follower. Though Clementine Churchill was away, Winston’s brother Jack and nephew Johnny were on hand, along with two of Winston’s daughters: 21-year-old Diana and eight-year old Mary, who was allowed to stay up for the occasion by what WSC termed a “special arrangement.”[25]

The evening had a difficult start when Chaplin remarked that Britain’s return to the Gold Standard in 1925 (under Churchill as Chancellor) had been a great mistake, and then launched into a long soliloquy which Johnny Churchill deemed “pacifist and communist.”[26] Winston fell into a moody silence and Johnny felt badly for Chaplin.

But the actor was himself no mean judge of human reactions. Suddenly changing course, he began to perform. Sticking forks into two bread rolls, he did a dance from his film “Gold Rush”; the ice melted, everyone relaxed, and an enjoyable dinner ensued.[27] Chaplin thought the evening “dialectic,” as Churchill harangued his guests with humor and wit.

In a momentary lapse back into contentious subjects, Bracken declared Gandhi a “menace” to the peace in India. Chaplin replied forcefully that “Gandhis or Lenins” do not start revolutions, but are forced up by the masses and usually voice the want of a people. (Later in the year, Chaplin would visit Gandhi in London.) “You should run for Parliament,” Churchill said with a laugh.

“No, sir, I prefer to be a motion picture actor these days,” Chaplin replied. “However, I believe we should go with evolution to avoid revolution, and there’s every evidence that the world needs a drastic change.” He later noted that both he and Churchill were all for progressive government, and that even Churchill believed much had to be done to preserve civilization and guide it safely back to normal after the Depression ended.[28]

To his wife, Churchill wrote that Chaplin had been “most agreeable” and had performed “various droll tricks.” Both Churchill daughters enjoyed the actor’s performances, young Mary being “absolutely thrilled.”[29]

Two nights later Chaplin premiered “City Lights” in London at the Dominion Theatre. Churchill probably did not attend the film, but was present at a party for 200 guests afterwards at the Carlton Hotel. Here Churchill proposed the toast, saying Chaplin was “a lad from across the river” who had “achieved the world’s affection.”

Speaking in reply, Chaplin stumbled by referring to Churchill as “my friend, the late Chancellor of the Exchequer.” Churchill laughed: “The late, the late! I like that—the late.” Embarrassed, Chaplin replied: “Pardon me. I mean the Ex—the Ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer.” Amid laughs he started over again with the more appropriate, “My friend, Mr. Winston Churchill.”[30]

Eric Whelpton, a Conservative back-bencher, told a whimsical story that must have occurred during Chaplin’s London visit. He was approaching the St. Stephens entrance to Parliament when he was approached by an interesting trio, arms linked. Churchill was in the centre, Chaplin on one flank and Bracken on the other. “Apparently oblivious of bystanders, they were in high spirits, as if someone had just told a droll story,” wrote a Bracken biographer.

Whelpton, who had been with Bracken at their public school, Sedbergh, smiled across in recognition as the trio sauntered past. “It was then that the unexpected happened. Without releasing his arm from Churchill’s, Bracken looked across at Whelpton and said tersely and without a hint of amusement, ‘I don’t wish to know you, so kindly bugger off.'”

Evidently Bracken, the arch-Conservative, had fallen like Churchill for Chaplin’s charms. Whelpton dined out on that story for weeks.[31]

From London, Charlie Chaplin made a triumphal tour across Europe, opening “City Lights” to enthusiastic crowds in Vienna, Berlin and Paris. He probably met and lunched with Churchill at Biarritz in August, where Churchill had arrived on a research trip for his biography of John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough.

The following month, with both of them back in England, Chaplin again visited Chartwell, probably arriving on Friday, September 18th, and staying through Sunday. Clementine was present, along with all their children. Bracken, Winston’s brother Jack, the young Lord Birkenhead, Tom Mitford, Venetia Montagu, Rudolf Kommer, and Gabrielle L’Honore also signed the visitors’ book.[32] Sarah Churchill said she and her siblings were surprised by the actor’s appearance: a “rather good-looking, desperately serious man with almost white hair.”[33]

At lunch that weekend Churchill attempted to talk about films and acting, but Chaplin was again eager to discuss politics, a disappointment to the others at Churchill’s so-often-political table. Eventually WSC asked what Chaplin’s next role would be. “Jesus Christ,” Chaplin replied with all seriousness.

After a pause Churchill asked, “Have you cleared the rights?” There was a silent pause before Clementine returned the conversation to politics.[34]

Chaplin was amused by Churchill’s family sitting unmoved at the table while WSC held forth, despite being interrupted by telephone calls from Lord Beaverbrook, and other demands.[35]

During the visit, Chaplin expressed interest in Churchill’s hobbies, painting and bricklaying. Examining one of his host’s paintings over the fireplace in the dining room, Chaplin said, “But how remarkable.” Churchill replied: “Nothing to it—saw a man painting a landscape in the South of France and said, ‘I can do that.'”[36]

On a stroll along the brick walls Churchill had constructed, Chaplin remarked that bricklaying must be difficult. “I’ll show you how and you’ll do it in five minutes,” said his host. And he did.

Just before Chaplin left, he asked, “Is there a walking stick?” He was directed to a cupboard, only to emerge moments later with a bowler hat and stick, instantly transformed from the serious guest to the endearing “Little Tramp.” His “enchanting performance” impersonating other actors included his John Barrymore in Hamlet’s “To Be or Not To Be”—while picking his nose! “The day was made for us,” Sarah wrote, “and we were sorry to see him go.”[37]

Chaplin, who had really come to know Churchill on this visit, concluded that WSC had a charming family, lived well and had more fun than most people. Although poles apart politically, Chaplin considered him a “sincere patriot” who had played for the highest stakes and had sometimes won, though his friend’s political future was at that time doubtful.

That weekend visit was the last substantial meeting between Churchill and Chaplin. They remained friendly, but at a distance. In 1932 Chaplin joined Bracken and other Churchill friends in contributing to a gift for WSC after his car injury in New York City: a new Daimler, which had cost £2000, and presented to Churchill upon his return from America.[38]

Churchill made use of his personal knowledge to pen an article on Chaplin in 1935, writing of the actor’s film-making brilliance.[39] The following year Randolph Churchill visited Hollywood and had tea with Chaplin and Paulette Goddard. They had long been rumored to be secretly married and Randolph was apparently given permission to reveal this was indeed true. The scoop was transmitted worldwide with Randolph Churchill’s name attached. Randolph’s sister Sarah became an actress herself, and visited Chaplin after World War II.[40]

A final, brief meeting between Chaplin and Churchill occurred on 25 April 1956, after Churchill had retired and Chaplin was living in Switzerland, having been barred from reentering the United States at the height of the McCarthy era in 1952. They met at the Savoy Grill in London: a rather strained encounter, Chaplin said, because he had failed to respond to a letter Churchill had sent congratulating him on his film “Limelight” two years before.

Chaplin told WSC he thought his letter was charming but did not think it required a reply. Somewhat mollified, Churchill accepted his explanation, adding, “I always enjoy your pictures.”[41]

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ENDNOTES

1. John Colville, The Fringes of Power, 2 vols. (Sevenoaks, Kent: Sceptre Publishing, 1986-87), I: 375.

2. Winston S. Churchill, “Peter Pan Township of the Films,” Daily Telegraph, 30 December 1929, 8.

3. John Spencer Churchill, A Churchill Canvas (Boston: Little, Brown, 1962), 90.

4. Anne Edwards, “Marion Davies’ Ocean House,” Architectural Digest 51:4, April 1994, 171-72.

5. Martin Gilbert, editor,Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume V Part 2, The Wilderness Years 1929-1935 (London: Heinemann, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), 97.

6. Randolph S. Churchill, Twenty-One Years (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965), 89. John Spencer Churchill, 91.

7. Charlie Chaplin, My Autobiography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964), 339.

8. Ibid. 339.

9. Randolph S. Churchill, 89-90.

10. John Spencer Churchill, 91.

11. Charles Chaplin, “A Comedian Sees the World,” Woman’s Home Companion, 60:10, October

1933, 15.

12. Randolph S. Churchill, 90.

13. Chaplin, “A Comedian Sees the World,” 15.

14. Chaplin, My Autobiography, 340.

15. Randolph S. Churchill, 90.

16. Winston Churchill, “Peter Pan Township,” 8.

17. Gilbert, 97.

18. John Spencer Churchill, 92-93.

19. Randolph Churchill, 90.

20. Richard M. Langworth, Churchill by Himself (London: Ebury Press, 2008), 331.

21. “Mr. Charles Chaplin: A Visit to Chequers,” The Times, 23 February 1931, 9.

22. Robert Boothby, Recollections of a Rebel (London: Hutchinson, 1978), 51.

23. Chaplin, My Autobiography, 340.

24. Ibid., 341.

25. Gilbert, 282.

26. Boothby, 51. John Spencer Churchill, 133.

27. Boothby, 51.

28. Chaplin, “A Comedian Sees the World,” 15.

29. Gilbert, 282.

30. Chaplin, “A Comedian Sees the World,” 15.

31. Andrew Boyle, Poor, Dear Brendan (London: Hutchinson, 1974), 174.

32. Chartwell Visitors’ Book.

33. Sarah Churchill, A Thread in the Tapestry (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1967), 35.

34. Ibid., 35.

35. Chaplin, My Autobiography, 341.

36. Ibid., 340.

37. Sarah Churchill, A Thread in the Tapestry, 35-36.

38. Gilbert, 394.

39. Winston S. Churchill, “Everybody’s Language,” Collier’s, 26 October 1935, 24.

40. “Randolph Churchill Says Chaplin Is Wed,” The New York Times, 11 November 1936, 55. Sarah Churchill, Keep on Dancing: An Autobiography (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1981), 130.

41. Chaplin, My Autobiography, 484 
 

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