Chaplin and Winter Sports
An article by Lisa Stein Haven, 2006
We’ve all heard and read the accounts of how much Charlie hated the cold—insisting on leaving Essanay Studios Chicago after only one month (January 1915) at the hands of old man winter on Lake Michigan or burning his traditional coals in the fireplace at Vevey even in the summer months. Lesser known and retold are the accounts of Charlie making the most of nature’s winter assets. I keep returning to the European tour of 1931-2 because it seems like so much BEGAN for Charlie on that trip—social consciousness, coming to terms with sound, writing as a creative endeavor and even the beginnings of a tentative appreciation for winter sports, especially skiing.
As a Chaplin scholar, I owe so much to Charlie’s brother Syd for all the pack-rat type of accumulation of papers, documents, correspondence etc. that he compiled from the early days of Charlie’s career. In this instance, it is again Syd who provides the best information on the subject. In a missive written on March 9, 1932 aboard the Suma Maru bound for Southeast Asia, Syd wrote a letter to R. J. Minney, author of The Immortal Tramp: The Life and Work of Charles Chaplin (1954), about Charlie’s tour escapades—a letter which landed nearly verbatim into the periodical Everybody’s Weekly shortly thereafter. In this “letter,” Syd describes both his own and Charlie’s debut experiences with winter sport:
“I found Charlie [in St. Moritz, Switzerland], looking well and madly enthusiastic about skiing. It was his first season and everyone told me of the great progress he had made. I was invited to go with he and Mr. Citroën and party on a skiing expedition the next day. We started off in two of Mr. Citroën’s special-built tractor cars, taking our lunch with us, which we thoroughly enjoyed in an out-of-the-way farmhouse, miles from anywhere and well off the beaten track of skiers. Of course, it would be exclusive. This was my second time on skis and the guide assured me I had nothing to fear. All I had to do was to keep my balance and put my trust in the Lord. This was good advice, for the latter knew more about gravity than I did, having made it. Twelve of us started down and eleven arrived. After I came to, I found myself buried in snow at the bottom of a ravine. The rest of the party had disappeared. I had visions of being left there for the night and frozen to death. I managed to pick myself up and continue on. I arrived an hour later at the station, just as the rest of the party were about to take the train back to St. Moritz. I was looking like a snowman. Icicles were hanging from my nose and eyelashes. Everyone roared with laughter and I was the joke of the evening. I had decided I had had enough of skiing and would confine my future activities to the bobsleigh, which I did. It’s funny the different fears that people have. Charlie would not go down the bob run for £1000, and no one could persuade him to and yet he would go on night skiing expeditions that I would not have for any sum and yet I have not the slightest fear of the curves in the bob run.”
While Charlie seems to have developed some proficiency in skiing during this stay in St. Moritz, it’s surprising to find out, given his documented roller-skating expertise, that he was not so good at ice skating. Polish opera star Ganna Walska, in her memoir Always Room at the Top (1943), recounts meeting up with Charlie in St. Moritz: “an after-dinner philosophical conversation with Charlie Chaplin easily compensated for the shortness of the day. And I had as a flirt the handsomest man Great Britain has produced! He was so very handsome! And his mentality did not overtire him at all! Wonderful—there was no possibility of getting into a discussion with him. We skated together. He skated badly but his skating suit was so becoming to him” (330)!
St. Moritz in 1932 proved to constitute the apex of Charlie’s winter sport expertise. It is known that he traveled to Yosemite, California on occasion with either Paulette Goddard or Douglas Fairbanks or King Vidor to ski there—in one instance regaling the return bus-load of winter sport enthusiasts with his bull-fight performance when their progress down the mountain was delayed due to a nasty storm—but, as Michael Chaplin relates in the new documentary Chaplin: The Forgotten Years, Charlie’s skiing expertise had deteriorated by the time he began taking his family skiing in the Alps in the early 1960s. Still, perhaps the first image that comes into our minds as Chaplin admirers concerns none of these instances, but rather the image of the Little Tramp in The Gold Rush, skiing without equipment down a short expanse of hill near Chilkoot Pass. Winter sport in Truckee, California in April 1924 involved a whole different set of skills and strategies.