Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

'Perfectionist' Charlie Chaplin demanded 342 takes for one movie scene

updated 7:49 AM EST, Tue December 10, 2013
Charlie Chaplin performs in 1931 film "City Lights." New behind-the-scenes footage reveals the actor and director made his co-star, Virginia Cherrill, re-do one scene 342 times. Charlie Chaplin performs in 1931 film "City Lights." New behind-the-scenes footage reveals the actor and director made his co-star, Virginia Cherrill, re-do one scene 342 times.
HIDE CAPTION
Flower power
Lights! Camera! Action!
Bright lights
A dog's life
Fanfare
Off stage
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 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

Art of Movement is CNN's monthly show exploring the latest innovations in art, culture, science and technology.

(CNN) -- 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."

342 takes: Charlie Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill perform in "City Lights."
United Artists

"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."

Creating magic with physical theater
Meet the world's greatest clown

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.

Watch the scene here

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?

Mongolian girls drawn to contortionism
'War Horse' puppet comes to life
Art and innovation of puppetry

"Chaplin rehearsed on film -- he'd try out an idea and do it over and over again," explained Mehran. "And since he was the director, he couldn't see his performance so he had to record it."

Read: The street kid who grew into a 'Snake Man'

At the time, sound had also started to come into movies, and Chaplin worried "City Lights" would be his last silent film -- he wanted to make it a masterpiece. As producer, he invested all his own money into the film -- had it been a flop, it could have destroyed him. Luckily, it turned out to be a box office success.

Rags to riches

Growing up in an impoverished London home -- his mother was committed to a mental asylum, his alcoholic father died from liver failure -- Chaplin spent his early years in orphanages.

"He identifies his mother as his greatest influence," said Mehran. "As a child, they would sit in their apartment and she would mimic all the people who were walking down the street.

"It's no coincidence that "City Lights" is about a blind woman -- a lot of Chaplin's heroines have a physical disability, which comes back to his mother."

Cut!

After joining various theatre troupes as a teenager, Chaplin was taken on by the prestigious Fred Karno comedy company. He toured America, gaining the attention of Keystone Studios -- and launching his career on the big screen.

He became the master of physical comedy, with his exaggerated facial expressions, silly walks, and bumbling demeanor influencing generations of slapstick artists; from Abbott and Costello to Lucille Ball, and Mr Bean. Yet despite his blundering on-screen persona, Chaplin was also disciplined director.

Watch this: Meet the world's greatest clown

"He was very tough on set," said Mehran. "He knew exactly what he wanted and he would have preferred not to have any other actors in his films -- he even tried making a film once where he was the only person in it."

Chaplin was a perfectionist, the king of the re-take
Hooman Mehran, historian

It was a style Marlon Brando apparently struggled with on the set of Chaplin's 1967 film "A Countess from Hong Kong."

"Brando was a method actor and really wanted to understand what his character was feeling. He said to Chaplin: 'I don't understand my character's motivation in this scene,' and Chaplin said: 'Forget about motivation, just do it as I tell you to do it, that's your motivation,'" said Mehran.

Time capsule

After leaving the U.S. in the 1950s and moving to Switzerland with wife Oona O'Neill -- the couple remained married until his death in 1977 and had eight children -- Chaplin ordered many of his outtakes to be destroyed.

"We're very lucky to have this "City Lights" footage," said Mehran.

"It was shot by his friend Ralph Barton, who committed suicide not long after, and certainly Chaplin would not let anyone else, other than his brother, film on set."

For a legend of silent cinema, Chaplin's actions spoke louder than words.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:09 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Ever since musician Eduardo Miranda met a patient with locked in syndrome 11 years ago, he has been on a mission to create a way for the paralyzed to make music.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Jason Hullinger, a computer security architect in Los Angeles, went to Joshua Tree National Park in December to catch the Geminid meteor shower.
For thousands of years, man has looked to the stars in search of answers. Who are we? Why are we here? Are we alone?
updated 10:10 AM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
From the realms of science fiction to science fact, Rosetta mission's scientists succeeded in landing a washing machine-sized probe named Philae on a moving comet.
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Fri October 10, 2014
Greek technical diver Alexandros Sotiriou discovers an intact
Armed with the most advanced marine technology available, archaeologists have recovered new treasures from the ancient shipwreck.
updated 9:43 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Meet KAO=S, a band of spellbinding musicians fusing Japanese cultural icons against a backdrop of rock and musical theater.
updated 6:34 AM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Earthbound audience captivated as surreal Twitter conversation takes place 300M miles away.
updated 7:43 AM EST, Fri December 5, 2014
Andris Nelsons conducting the Boston Symphony at Symphony Hall.
The slightest movement by this man's hand can change the behavior of at least 100 people.
updated 10:41 AM EST, Tue November 11, 2014
"A living painting is many things," says artist and designer Aerosyn-Lex Mestrovic. "It's a painting in process, it's a work of film, it's an actual tactile painting."
updated 5:38 AM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
For half a century, "Alvin" has quietly traveled through the seven seas, uncovering the ocean's mysteries.
updated 3:43 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
solar flare july 2014
From Earth, the sun appears as a constant circle of light, but when viewed in space a brilliant display of motion is revealed.
ADVERTISEMENT