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New behind-the-scenes footage reveals Chaplin's demanding directing style
Comedic legend made "City Lights" co-star do scene 342 times
Marlon Brando struggled to accept Chaplin's method on set
Rare black-and-white footage survived Chaplin's orders to destroy all outtakes
Repeat after me: “Flower sir?” Now say it again – 341 times.
Virginia Cherrill must have been on the verge of tears after director and actor Charlie Chaplin made her perform one scene – in which she says just two words in a silent film – an excruciating 342 times.
To be fair to Cherrill, she was not a professional actress, but a 20-year-old socialite Chaplin had spotted in the crowd at a boxing match.
The comedic legend, who defined the silent era with his trademark bowler hat, shuffling gait, and toothbrush mustache, hadn’t even spoken to Cherrill when he hired her as the love interest in one of his most successful movies of all time – 1931’s “City Lights.”
“Chaplin was a perfectionist, the king of the re-take,” said Hooman Mehran, historian and author of “Chaplin’s Limelight and the Music Hall Tradition.”
“This was just a three minute sequence in the finished film,” he added. “But he took her to task – even though it was a silent film.”
Now for the first time we can see the making of the memorable scene – in which blind flower girl Cherrill mistakes Chaplin the tramp for a wealthy man – in rare behind-the-scenes footage released by film archive the Criterion Collection.
Practice makes perfect
It’s a remarkable insight into the Oscar-winning comedian’s work ethic, perhaps better known for his iconic role as the loveable “Tramp,” than director.
“He was a one man show – not only was he the director, he was the writer, he was the producer. When music came in, he was a composer too,” said Mehran, who narrates the flickering black-and-white footage.
In a career spanning 75 years – from Victorian England to 1950s Hollywood – Chaplin became one of the most recognizable screen stars in the world, negotiating a $670,000 film deal when he was just 26, a phenomenal amount at the time.
It was not uncommon for Chaplin to re-do one scene 10 or 20 times. But 342? “This was extraordinary even by his standards,” said Mehran.
Why so many attempts at such a seemingly simple scene?