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Chaplin's Film Premieres

An article by Lisa Stein Haven

Program for the New York premiere of The Gold Rush, 1925
Program for the New York premiere of The Gold Rush, 1925

It’s probably no surprise that the first ever “over-the-top” film premiere in Hollywood took place at one of Sid Grauman’s showplaces. Douglas Fairbanks’ film Robin Hood held the first such event in 1922 at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. Being the crowned king of Hollywood (with Mary Pickford his queen, of course), Fairbanks set the precedent for subsequent events with this one. Chaplin decided to wait for a feature to start this tradition with his own films and so, his first premiere was held for A Woman of Paris in 1923 at the Criterion Theatre in Hollywood—a premiere he would not attend himself, but, as David Robinson notes in Chaplin: His Life and Art, glittered without him (318-18).

He chose instead to attend the premiere in New York City at the Lyric Theatre on October 1st, beginning a sort of routine in which he attended premieres of his more cerebral films on the East Coast (A Woman of Paris, Monsieur Verdoux, and The Great Dictator), and his more sentimental and fun-loving films on the West Coast (The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times). The New York Times report on October 7th gives us a glimpse into Chaplin in a role not well-considered—that of prologue creator/director. The prologue, which you may already know, was a short stage show that preceded the film itself and was often limited to the night of the premiere of the film or perhaps to the premiere week. The show usually reiterated themes or scenes or characters from the featured film. (If you’ve ever seen Jimmy Cagney’s Footlight Parade (1933), you’ve seen a whole film about the business aspects of the prologue.) In “What Chaplin Thinks,” the Times reporter tells us that Chaplin was “directing rehearsals of a spoken prologue to precede A Woman of Paris and of the incidental music when the interviewer found him. [. . .] He was all over the room, acting the parts of the prologue actors, making them live the parts as he showed them, mapping out the music plot so that it fitted in with all the varying moods of the film, and whenever necessary humming over snatches of old French songs for the musical director of the orchestra.”

For The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931), Chaplin attended premieres on both coasts (Hollywood first). In Hollywood, the premiere was to be held on June 26th at Sid Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre and so Grauman himself took the reigns as prologue director, even closing his theatre down for four days in preparation (LA Times 21 June 1925). A rotogravure photo from the New York Times shows us a Gold Rush float in the parade that opened the special “week” of celebration taking place throughout the country. By the night of the premiere, there were no tickets available and the front of the theatre had been elaborately bedecked in an array of colors and lights. Celebrated attendees were announced as they entered the theatre as if they were royalty attending some gala event. Grauman’s prologue began with Eskimo dancing girls and seals perched on a craggy arctic-looking glacier, followed by “impressively artistic dances by fascinatingly pretty young women wearing astoundingly rich and beautiful gowns all blending with the Arctic atmosphere and bespeaking the moods of the barren white country” (Los Angeles Evening Herald 27 June 1925). Other “turns” included artistic ice-skating, a balloon act, a Monte Carlo dance hall scene and a reading of poet Robert Service’s “The Spell of the Yukon” (1907):

“I wanted the gold, and I sought it;
I scrabbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy—I fought it;
I hurled my youth into a grave.
I wanted the gold, and I got it—
Came out with a fortune last fall,–
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,
And somehow the gold isn’t all. [. . .]”

The New York Times reported on the premiere night festivities on August 16th (both Chaplin and Edna Purviance were in attendance):

“Just before the curtain went up on the prologue there was a wave of applause and people stood up to behold the little film fun-maker struggling up the aisle, greeting old friends and being introduced to scores of people. He was a little nervous and appeared to be much relieved when he reached his seat in the body of the theatre. No sooner were the lights switched on after the finish of the picture—at twenty minutes past 2 o’clock yesterday morning—than the enthusiastic assembly appealed vociferously for a speech from the author-actor, and Mr. Chaplin, escorted by two friends, went to the stage and thanked the audience, ending his brief talk by saying he was very emotional.”

David Robinson reports in his book on the premiere night at the Tivoli Theatre in London, in which the BBC tried a sort of experiment—to record “ ‘a storm of uncontrolled laughter, inspired by the only man in the world who could make people laugh continually for the space of five minutes, viz., Charlie Chaplin’” (358-9), an achievement that proved to be an historic moment in film and broadcasting history. In Berlin, the premiere was positively remembered for an unprecedented encore, when the film was rolled back (no pun intended) so that the “Dance of the Rolls” sequence could be enjoyed for a second time.

Press clipping, City Lights premiere at the Los Angeles Theatre
Press clipping, City Lights premiere at the Los Angeles Theatre

Times and economics had changed by the time City Lights was to premiere in January of 1931. First of all, no one wanted to distribute Chaplin’s largely silent picture and so he was forced to go to great lengths in both Los Angeles and New York City to secure a venue for his film. In LA, he seized upon the financial ineptitude of H. L. Gumbiner, owner of the Los Angeles Theatre located downtown on Broadway. With Chaplin’s backing, the elaborately decorated theatre went up in five months. It was “anointed by a large sunburst over the lobby doorway to symbolize Louis XIV, the Sun King. Close by, angels guard each corner of the coffered ceiling, a nod to the theatre’s location in the City of Angels. A grand central staircase [led] to a crystal fountain, and beyond that, heaven itself . . . Anthony B. Heinsbergen’s trompe l’oeil murals climax[ed] the auditorium ceiling” (The Last Remaining Seats 43).

Chaplin with his guests, Mr. and Mrs. Einstein, at the premiere of City Lights in Los Angeles
Chaplin with his guests, Mr. and Mrs. Einstein, at the premiere of City Lights in Los Angeles

On the day of the premiere, January 30th, police were required to control the crowds in the area of the theatre from the earliest daylight hours. Traffic came to a halt and nearby department store windows were broken simply by the massive size and enthusiasm of the crowds. Celebrated guests were many, but Chaplin’s own personal guests—Mr. and Mrs. Einstein—were perhaps the most enigmatic and interesting. Chaplin’s own reminiscences from My Autobiography paint the scene:

“The proprietor had built a beautiful theatre but, like many exhibitors in those days, he knew little about the presentation of films. The picture started. It showed the credit titles, to the usual first-night applause. Then at last the first scene opened. My heart pounded. It was a comedy scene of the unveiling of a statue. They began to laugh! The laughter increased into roars. I had got them! . . . Then a most incredible thing happened. Suddenly in the middle of the laughter the picture was turned off! The house lights went up and a voice over a loudspeaker announced: ‘Before continuing further with this wonderful comedy, we would like to take five minutes of your time and point out to you the merits of this beautiful new theatre.’ I could not believe my ears. I went mad. I leaped from my seat and raced up the aisle. . .” (330).

City Lights was unique for many reasons, but a lesser-known one is that it was the film Chaplin traveled around with during 1931 and 1932. He probably attended far more “premieres” of this film than any other. He traveled to New York City and attended the premiere there on February 6th at the George M. Cohan Theatre, the only venue he could acquire for the event. Then he chased it overseas, attending the first of many foreign premiere nights there in London at the Dominion Theatre on Tottenham Court Road on February 27th. The New York Times reported that

“Certainly Londoners left no doubt in Chaplin’s mind that he is their hero. It might have been Armistice Night outside the Dominion Theatre, where the film was having the first European showing. Thousands stood in the drenching rain waiting for a glimpse of him and the police and ticketholders were helpless in the crush until he had made his appearance. Inside the theatre hundreds crowded in front of the stage until they spied him shaking hands with Shaw and waving at the crowd.”

Chaplin and George Bernard Shaw at London's Dominion Theatre for the City Lights premiere
Chaplin and George Bernard Shaw at London's Dominion Theatre for the City Lights premiere

While Chaplin missed premiere nights in both Paris and Berlin, much to the consternation of his fans in those cities, he was to attend premieres of the film in other smaller venues, such as Nice and Biarritz. The program for the premiere run of the film in Paris at the Theatre Marigny is worth mentioning, however, because it offers the first visual link between The Little Tramp and Mickey Mouse, for the Shell Oil Company’s advertisement illustrator incorporates the two in a several-page-long illustration that runs throughout the booklet.

Later premiere nights also had their noteworthy moments. The premiere of The Great Dictator in New York City on October 15, 1940 was attended by Chaplin and Paulette Goddard (having arrived separately from each other) and his remarks following the film included his only reference to Paulette as his “wife.” It was also the only premiere that required engaging two side-by-side theatres because of viewer demand (the Capitol and Astor Theatres). The premiere of Monsieur Verdoux in 1947 was a completely different experience, however, and noteworthy because of it. Followed the next day by his butchering at the hands of the New York press, the film’s premiere on April 11th was supposedly peppered with hostile audience reaction. Even the presence of Oona and Chaplin’s on-again off-again friend and business partner Mary Pickford failed to save the evening. The premiere of Limelight, of course, was marked by the re-entry permit debacle, and so proved to move the location of premiere nights to Europe—permanently. Chaplin was supported at the London premiere of Limelight by his young family, his older son Sydney, Claire Bloom and Princess Margaret. This premiere started a trend for the remaining premieres of Chaplin’s career in that the occasion was a charity event—this time for The Royal London Society for Teaching and Training the Blind.

Press clipping: "Premiere of UA's "The Men" drew such notables as Charles Chaplin and his wife, Oona, rarely seen at such events"
Press clipping: "Premiere of UA's "The Men" drew such notables as Charles Chaplin and his wife, Oona, rarely seen at such events"

It’s clear from newspaper research that simply attending one’s own premiere was not enough; a star of any status had to be seen at other such events as well. It seems that Chaplin’s appearance at others’ premieres was often taken as a sign of approval and his attendance was often recorded through photos or newsreels that were accompanied by his personal reaction to the film. In the hoopla surrounding Scorcese’s The Aviator, for instance, Turner Classic Movies showed Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels on several occasions—always advertising it a week beforehand with a newsreel from its premiere night in 1930. And there he is, of course, accompanied by Georgia Hale and happily providing his approbation for the film, for all the world’s a stage, my friends, and Chaplin an unparalleled master of the game.

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