Photographing Charlie

James Abbe photographed Charlie Chaplin several times over his career, including a series of still images for “The Pilgrim,” in 1922. One of the portraits (below), in a Parson’s hat with arms outstretched, is included in the exhibit: “Charlie Chaplin: A Vision,” produced by the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland, and now showing at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai, through October 7, 2018.


Charlie Chaplin from ‘The Pilgrim’, 1922, by James Abbe, © James Abbe Archive 2019. The image was featured in an exhibit at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai, China in 2018, a co-production of the Musée de l’Elysée of Lausanne, Switzerland.

The Yuz Museum is screening four films, including “The Kid,” (1920) starring Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan. James Abbe’s photos of child star Coogan on the set of “The Kid,” capture both the fearful and defiant nature of life on the streets. Coogan later became a successful adult screen actor, notably appearing in the 1960s American television show The Addams Family as “Uncle Fester.”


Jackie Coogan, “The Kid,” 1920 © James Abbe Archive

Abbe penned an article for the New York Herald Tribune in April 1931 (full text below) about photographing Chaplin in his Paris suite after the comic was awarded the French Legion d’Honneur. Abbe noted, “For the first time since I have known him I saw Charlie, himself, in the same light as his screen personality.” Chaplin proudly told Abbe and Charlie’s valet, “They say it is the first time it has been given to a foreign actor.” He then tried to read the proclamation, which was in French. “His expression and his ever-so-slight pantomime as he showed Togo and me his Cross of the Legion of Honor was identical to that of the little vagabond of the screen, who was so touched by the friendliness of the blind flower girl…as Charlie tried to decipher what was inscribed on the diploma I was impelled to come to his rescue—as every one feels like doing at the sight of him in one of his screen predicaments.”


Chaplin in Paris 1931, originally published in Photoplay Magazine.

“While his newest comedy, “City Lights,” has been having its premiere in America and Europe, Charlie Chaplin has been making a triumphant tour of England and the Continent. Everywhere he has attracted wide attention…” Photoplay — April 1931


Photographing Charlie

The Elusive King Charles of Screenland, Touring France in State, Agrees in Paris to Pose for a Wandering Photographer Who, He Learns, Is Also an Alumnus of Mack Sennett’s Comedy College—and Finally Fulfills His Promise After Only a Week of Waiting

By James E. Abbe

New York Herald Tribune, Sunday, April 26, 1931


During the entire last week my camera was set up in one of the sumptuous salons of the suite which Charlie Chaplin occupied at the historic old Hotel de Crillon.

Togo, Charlie’s Japanese valet, informed me that it was stumbled over by the most distinguished members of Parisian society, literati, diplomats and whatnot, as well as by the Duke of Westminster on behalf of the British Empire.

Charlie, himself, upon the day of his arrival, told me to get set up, that he would pose for me at his first opportunity. This was because he had posed for me ten years ago on the set in Hollywood and we were both alumni of Mack Sennett’s comedy college.

While my camera waited stoically for Charlie, I, myself, sat in an outer salon next to the bi-lingual secretary who responded in one way or another, to a telephone call a minute for seven days.

Disposed as he was to be gracious to any and everybody in Paris, Charlie, after all, was only one man and could not be everywhere he was invited, or see everybody who wanted to see him. It devolved upon this efficient and diplomatic Mademoiselle Lachat to be considerate of all who telephoned without committing the elusive “Charlot” to anything.

Carl Robinson, who bears the title of Charlie’s “personal manager,” hovered around receiving from the secretary a sotto voce interpretation of the applicants’ requests and social standing and, as best he could, deciding who might penetrate as far as the outer salon to be given the once over.

Photographer James Abbe with Charlie Chaplin at his Hollywood studio while filming The Pilgrim, 1922.

Photographer James Abbe with Charlie Chaplin at his Hollywood studio while filming The Pilgrim, 1922.

Liveried page boys entered unannounced with one calling card after another, and mail by the bundle.

As the days passed I became more and more reconciled to waiting to photograph Charlie—reconciled by having been allowed such proximity to the most sought after man in Paris.

Now and then I would break down at the sound of disappointed voices and saunter over to the big French window to gaze out over the balcony on the Place de la Concorde, where Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and their pals had been guillotined during the Revolution.

It was from this balcony that Charlot himself greeted his French subjects upon his arrival, and every day about noon I myself would hang over the rail to watch Charlie run the gantlet [sic] of French admirers and newspaper photographers, after having just put me off until “later.”

Merely having the price won’t get you into this special suite in the Crillon. It reeks of tradition. General Pershing, Colonel House, the King of Egypt, Lloyd George, the Sultan of Morocco, the Bey of Tunis—to mention only a few latter day celebrities—have occupied it.

At the time of Louis XVI it was reserved for the more important guests of the King.

Carl Robinson informed me that it was just one of Charlie’s little unaccountable whims which prevented my camera, my lamps and me from being thrown out onto the spot where better men and women than I had had their heads cut off.

Carl Robinson’s title of “personal manager” is misleading, from what I observed. I guess no one has ever managed Charlie. Nevertheless, he is a privileged character, as far as the French are concerned, for being Charlie’s right-hand man.

Few persons have the distinction of not going to jail if they have socked a French agent de police in the jaw. When Charlie stepped off the train at the Gare de Lyon some ten thousand Parisians were waiting to greet him. A phalanx of picked police battered a path through the gesticulating mob for Charlie to get to his auto. Somehow the personal manager got separated from Charlie, and discovering a lieutenant of police barring his way with outstretched arms, he let the lieutenant have one on the jaw. Jaw, lieutenant and all went down for the count. But only for the count of two.

By the time the infuriated lieutenant had caught up with his assailant, Carl was linked arm and arm with Charlie, and it was the lieutenant who did the apologizing.

One of the most important jobs of Charlie’s personal staff is to prevent the most colorful instances of Charlie’s trip from getting into the hands of press correspondents. Charlie is obligated to hold back at least 50,000 words of anecdotes for his own story of the trip, which he is to write at $1 a word.

A layman might think, from the grand manner in which Charlie and his entourage travel, that $50,000 wouldn’t cover the cost of the trip. But all Charlie has to do is to accept breakfast, luncheon and dinner dates, gifts from admirers, receipted bills from hotel managers and private cars on the trains, and what he will put out in actual cash might not be more than you or I would pay on an “all-expense” tour.

Lady Deterding, the wife of the Shell Oil King, who had the apartment next to Charlie’s gave a dinner in his honor one night. There were ninety guests. This must have cost as much as the Crillon Hotel did when it was purchased by Monsieur de Crillon from the family of the Princess de Polignac in 1870.

The miracle of Charlie’s visit abroad (up to now), is that he hasn’t got married again. So far the English press has given much space to photographs of a beautiful bare-back English girl whom Charlie has selected for his next picture.

The front cover of a Berlin illustrated weekly was adorned with the head of an undeniably ravishing German creature who had been selected by Charlie for the same role.

Then, in Vienna, Charlie selected a Rumanian beauty who has been in Paris all the last week, and, according to the ever watchful press, has been undergoing numerous motion picture tests with a view to being Charlie’s leading lady in his next picture.

If Charlie goes through with the trip as planned, does Spain, Russia, China, Japan and a few hundred other countries, one might assume that “his next picture” is going to be a story of the old Hippodrome chorus with each chorus girl a glorified foreign beauty.

The willingness of these prospective leading ladies to forsake their native lands, firesides and whatnot on the chance of future fame, fortune, or even alimony, is evidenced by an incident at the front door of the Hotel de Crillon at 10 a. m. one day last week.

Out of the elevator stepped a young beauty in a gorgeous evening gown and wrap. Hall boys sprang to be of service. It seemed she had been waiting all night outside Charlie’s apartment in the hope of being “selected.” Three of the boys procured her a taxi, and the press photographers, who were camped on the sidewalk the entire week, were so astonished at the apparition that they didn’t even shoot when they saw the whites of her eyes.

“City Lights” opened in Belgium while Charlie was in Paris. The King and Queen were present. A two-column story of the opening appeared on the front page of Belgium’s biggest daily paper the following morning. It was full of praise, complimentary comments of the King and Queen, and only a paragraph deploring the fact that Charlie had not made the three-hour train ride from Paris to appear at the performance in person.

However, King Albert, having heard that Charlie was extremely fatigued because of demands made upon his time when he had come abroad only for a rest, grabbed an airplane and came to Paris to congratulate Charlie in person.

King Albert received King Charles, at the request of the former, at the Belgian Embassy. That no taint of publicity might possibly be connected with the meeting, it was mutually agreed that no photographers be allowed in. That same dignified avoidance of documentary publicity was observed during the luncheon with Briand. We photographers were barred.

Even though I put in a week to get six photographs, at least I got to talk with Charlie on several occasions.

The first time was when he had just come in from having lunch with Briand and was all aglow with the latter’s pet idea of a United States of Europe. Evidently the veteran diplomat had made Charlie feel absolutely at home on this almost state occasion, because Charlie said, “It wasn’t at all the formal affair I’d feared it would be. As a matter of fact, it was so pleasant I even enjoyed the food.”

I was sitting in the salon with my camera, in conference with Togo, whole Charlie was out getting his Legion d’Honneur decoration. It was the sixth day of my vigil. Togo was telling me that I had gone about it wrong to get Charlie to pose for me, that I should have come to him first. I was about convinced that Togo was right when Charlie walked into the salon through a secret and private entrance.

Charlie called us over to the window, naively produced a little leather case from his pocket and opened it to show us the gorgeous Cross of the Legion of Honor, which is “le plus beau geste” which the French can make to an individual.

Turning to me Charlie said, almost blushing, “They say it is the first time it has been given to a foreign actor.” Togo and I both congratulated him. Turning the cross over in his hand as if it were a sacred relic, he noticed that it did not have his name engraved. For a second we were, all three, crestfallen. Then Charlie suddenly bethought him of a mailing tube which he had under his arm. I held the cross while he extracted from the tube his diploma, which he unrolled. Then we all bucked up. For there it was in black and white—that Charlie Chaplin was a “Chevalier du Legion d’Honneur.” “‘Chevalier’ is the first grade,” Charlie said to me. “You have to be a Chevalier first, then if you are promoted you become an officer or a commander or something.”

I thought to myself—well, anyhow, it’s a start. For the first time since I have known him I saw Charlie, himself, in the same light as his screen personality.

His expression and his ever-so-slight pantomime as he showed his valet and me his Cross of the Legion of Honor was identical with that of the little vagabond of the screen, who was so touched by the friendliness of the blind flower girl.

There is nothing particularly pathetic in not knowing how to read French, but as Charlie tried to decipher what was inscribed on the diploma I was impelled to come to his rescue—as every one feels like doing at the sight of him in one of his screen predicaments.

Is it possible that Charlie’s appeal is derived from the source which a famous French journalist, Marcel Espiau, stated in a recent article—that he is not an entertainer, but a symbol of his race throughout the ages, a race which still has its wailing wall, and which, on occasions when it has protested, has always done so with humility?

Charlie is known and loved by the French as the great poet of the screen, but it was as a Chevalier de Legion d’Honneur that he posed before my camera after he had handed Togo the insignia of his office to be locked up for safe keeping.

Judged by the standards of my Broadway and Hollywood days, the last week, devoted to making a half-dozen shots, has been a wash-out. And yet, in the eyes of local photographers, newspaper and magazine editors, I am considered “Photographer, by appointment, to His Majesty King Charles of Screenland,” with the privilege of displaying the Chaplin coat of arms on my bill heads, if any.


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