February 5, 2011 wasn’t widely noted in the media, but at William S. Hart Park in Newhall, California, a group of dedicated film buffs and local-history enthusiasts gathered to honor the 75th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, which rang down the curtain on the silent-film era in Hollywood. Six to seven years after the rest of the movie industry embraced talkies, Chaplin dared to swim against the tide with his Little Tramp character—while using sound in his own ingenious way. His wonderful movie debuted on February 5, 1936 in New York City, followed by a Los Angeles opening a week later and general release two weeks after that. And it was a hit.
The anniversary date might have gone unnoticed but for a dedicated fellow named E.J. Stephens and his wife Kimi, who decided many months ago that a plaque should be installed at the spot where Charlie and his leading lady, Paulette Goddard, walked away from the camera…and into movie history. The exact spot wasn’t known, even to the most dedicated Chaplinphiles, for many years, until Gerald Smith—
—drove around with David Totheroh, whose grandfather Rollie photographed most of Charlie’s pictures, and vaguely remembered the general area where it was shot. Amazingly enough, the two men found the precise spot, on Sierra Highway near the town of Acton, near Santa Clarita. It was chronicled for the first time in John Bengtson’s wonderful 2006 book Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin. (Incidentally, John’s latest book, Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd, is due from Santa Monica Press any time now.)
Although a last-minute hitch made it impossible to install the plaque on a timely basis, E.J. and Kimi would not be deterred: the celebration took place on its intended date, the plaque was unveiled, and it will later be moved to the appropriate spot. The Stephenses also enlisted the support of the William S. Hart Park and Museum, the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, along with local elected officials.
In a further bit of serendipity, it turns out that the Saugus train station, which was saved from demolition some years ago and moved alongside the Hart museum in 1980, was used by Chaplin for location work on his 1923 silent short The Pilgrim. John Bengtson was thus able to present a slide show of relevant locations for both that film and Modern Times in the very building the great comedian used so many years ago. (You can see John’s then-and-now location feature on the excellent new Criterion DVD release.)
One of the highlights of the event was a display of Chaplin props, and one indelible costume, from Modern Times, loaned by the Natural History Museum. One look at Charlie’s overalls, accompanied by the oil can and wrenches he used on the assembly line in the movie’s opening scenes, was enough to give any movie lover goosebumps. (The Museum was almost certainly the first institution to collect movie artifacts and memorabilia, beginning in 1930, and has an extraordinary collection of donations from Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and many other Hollywood pioneers. Its movie exhibit hall was shut down in the 1940s, but some key artifacts will reappear when the Museum opens its new Los Angeles exhibit in late 2012.)
The day was filled with activities, followed by dinner in Hart Hall. David Totheroh spoke, and I interviewed the delightful Tippi Hedren, one of the handful of people still around who can say they were directed by Charlie Chaplin. (She played Marlon Brando’s wife in his final film, A Countess from Hong Kong.) Tippi told some wonderful stories, and reaffirmed what others have said over the years—that Charlie would act out each part, which Brando found off-putting but others found charming. Following our conversation, the recently-discovered Chaplin short A Thief Catcher was screened, followed by Modern Times.
It was a most congenial gathering, and I met a great many nice people that day. Charles and Maria Sotelo of High Desert Monuments, who normally make headstones and memorials, were so enthusiastic about the event, which showcased their Chaplin monument, that Maria baked three commemorative cakes to serve after dinner.
I first saw Modern Times when I was eight years old and Chaplin reissued his classic films theatrically; I’ve been in love with it ever since. Chaplinfest may not have been an A-list Hollywood event like the Oscars, but it was a rousing success, celebrating one of the greatest films of all time. I’m awfully glad I was able to take part in it.