Saturday, April 14, 2018

Charlie ♥s Edna

Charlie & Edna share a smooch in "Behind the Screen"
Of all the Chaplins I love, I confess to loving Keystone Chaplin (1913-1914) the least. Engaging, revolutionary, amusing – yes. Knowing what is to come, we see all of the ingredients of greatness there… all except one. This nasty, pushy, funny little Tramp has no soulfulness. He is not yet “Chaplinesque.” But soon, the Tramp would grow.

Keystone Charlie - the Tramp sans romance
When Chaplin moved from Keystone to Essanay in late 1914, he needed a new leading lady. As he would do throughout most of his career, he sought an actress with no experience, hoping to mold her into his vision of the perfect object of the Tramp’s attention. What he found was the perfect object for the Tramp’s affection.
While scouting out his muse, Chaplin met Edna Purviance in San Francisco.  Edna, 19 at the time, hailed from Lovelock, Nevada and was working as a stenographer. Legend has it that they were introduced by the owner of a café.  Edna was not a professional actress, but Charlie saw something there and, for the next 8 years and over 30 films, from Essanay to Mutual to First National, Edna Purviance became Charlie Chaplin’s exclusive leading lady and provided the missing ingredient that helped change the common comedian to a great artist. With Edna as the object of his affection, the Tramp became pathetic and sympathetic. We knew he had a heart, because it ached beautifully for the beautiful Edna.

More smooching in "The Champion"
Not surprisingly, for a time, Charlie and Edna were real-life lovers, as well as on-screen sweethearts. They were adorably happy for a time, witness this love note from Charlie to his Edna:
My Own Darling Edna,My heart throbbed this morning when I received your sweet letter. It could be nobody else in the world that could have given me so much joy. Your language, your sweet thoughts and the style of your love note only tends to make me crazy over you. I can picture your darling self sitting down and looking up wondering what to say, that pert little mouth and those bewitching eyes so thoughtful. If I only had the power to express my sentiments, I would be afraid you’d get vain…

But, by the time Edna attained the ripe old age of 28, Chaplin had had 1 ex-wife and was on the way to marrying 16 year old and pregnant Lita Grey, and he deemed her too matronly to continue in the role of his romantic muse. But Charlie was loyal and tried to help Edna continue a career independent of him, first as the star of 1923’s “Woman of Paris”, and later in the Josef Von Sternberg directed (but never released) “Woman of the Sea”. Von Sternberg remembered Edna as sweet and obedient, but unbelievably timid in front of the camera. Without Charlie, there would be no more Edna on the screen.

While both held a life-long affection for one another, Charlie went on to quite a few more loves while Edna, after being involved in an unfortunate New Year’s Day shooting scandal and as a peripheral witness in the William Desmond Taylor murder, finally found lasting love in her marriage to a pilot and airline executive.
But Charlie was never far from her mind. In 1956, Edna, now a widow and suffering from the throat cancer that would eventually take her life, wrote this little note to her old boss and ex-flame:

Dear Charlie,Here I am again with a heart full of thanks, and back in the hospital (Cedars of Lebanon) taking cobalt x-ray treatment on my neck. There cannot be a hell hereafter!... Am thankful my innards are O.K., this is purely and simply local, so they say. All of which reminds me of the fellow standing on the corner of Seventh and Broadway tearing up little bits of paper and throwing them to the four winds. A cop comes along and asks him what was the big idea. He answers, “Just keeping the elephants away.” The cop says, “There aren’t any elephants in this district.” The fellow answers: “Well, it works, doesn’t it?” This is my silly for the day, so forgive me.Hope you and the family are well and enjoying everything you have worked for.Love always,Edna

And Charlie, who famously kept Edna on his studio payroll until her death in 1958, wrote in his 1964 autobiography that the time they worked together at Mutual was the happiest of his life. Commenting on her death, he wrote: "And so the world grows young. And youth takes over. And we who have lived a little longer become more estranged as we journey on our way." 

Real love can be fleeting, but the heart of the reel love of Charlie and Edna still beats upon the screen.

This is my entry in the Charlie Chaplin Blogathon hosted by Little Bits of Classics and Christina Wehner. Check out their sites for more about the great man.


Caftan Woman said...

I was charmed by your article, the memories it awoke and the emotions that arose.


What a beautiful tribute!
Indeed, the earliest Tramp was so different - rude, in a bad mood, unsympathetic. He needed Edna, and we may imagine that the Tramp would never be such a success without her. His time with her, especially at Mutual, were not only happy times, but times that gave us marvelous little movies.

Unknown said...

That is a great point about how is onscreen romances with Edna Purviance made him far more relatable! I agree with Le...he could be rather cruel in his early films. Your lovely post has made me want to dash off and watch them in a film together. And how touching that he always kept her on the bankroll all her life.

Thanks so much for joining the blogathon and bringing such a lovely tribute!

Silver Screenings said...

I'm not a huge fan of Chaplin's Tramp character in his early films, although he can be very funny. He needed Edna Purviance to take some of the edge off.