Late in Charlie Chaplin’s life he was interviewed by longtime CBS reporter Morton. This was a dream interview for Dean — he idolized the great British filmmaker. A lifelong fan, the interview enabled Dean to ask things of Chaplin he’d always wanted to know. Among those questions was Charlie’s secret to success.
Chaplin’s famed Little Tramp character first waddled upon the silver screen February 7, 1914. Charlie was 24 at the time and the film helped springboard Chaplin to a place in cinema that enabled his work to boost the spirits of the world through and beyond World War I (and into World Ware II) without uttering a single word. He was the truest genius of all who graced the silent film era, a prolific filmmaker who would make the entire world laugh for five more decades.
Chaplin was a busy on the set and off. He sired 11 children by three wives over 43 years, eight arriving after the age of 55 thanks to his wife Oona, daughter of the great playwright Eugene O’Neill. She was 18 when they married, he was 54.
The genius of a genius is sometimes that he or she worries less about how they do something and more about diving in and doing it. Charlie was difficult to work for; he was a perfectionist who relied on mixing the improv performance skills of talented ensemble casts with storylines of sentimentality and character pathos.
A meticulous filmmaker, Chaplin shot too many takes to count — once needing over 100 to get one specific scene exactly the way he wanted. Until talking pictures came into vogue, Chaplin never shot from a script. He made movies from a storyline and sets that challenged him and his team to churn out inspired comedic moments. His first movie from a finished script came in 1940 when he made his first talking picture, the legendary comedy The Great Dictator. In it he skewered Nazism and Adolf Hitler.
As towering a figure as Chaplin grew to become in life, he remained a popular one in death. He died in Vevey, Switzerland on Christmas Day, 1977. Two months later his remains were dug up by grave robbers and held for ransom. The thieves, a small band of local mechanics, were eventually caught. Chaplin’s remains were recovered near Lake Geneva in June, 1978. He was reburied under six feet of concrete. He is going nowhere else any time soon.
In Morton Dean’s interview, the question Morton most wanted answered was how Chaplin did it. How did he make the whole world laugh, time and time again, movie after movie, year after year, decade after decade?
Chaplin sat back in his chair, pondered the question, and leaned forward with a slight smile and answer.
“You have to believe in yourself,” he said. “That’s the secret.”
Satisfied, Chaplin leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. Morton loved the answer. He finally understood what made the great man tick.
Decades after death Chaplin’s advice remains timeless. If we don’t believe in ourselves, why should anyone else? Achievement, pride, personal and professional growth — so many things spring forward out of steadfast self-belief that it’s a wonder we even leave room for self-doubt.
But Chaplin’s answer begs another question, one that Morton never asked but that we should ask ourselves: How much confidence in ourselves must we have before we have the guts to start something new or continue to persevere? How strong a success probability must we feel in order to try?
If it’s a percentage, what’s the number? Is it 100 percent? Or do we only need say, 51 percent, a majority of confidence that we can do something before we’re willing to try? What about 10 percent — the far fainter glimmer of a dreamer’s hope?
What is the magic number that triggers the will to try and parks the inertia of self-doubt?
The answer, of course, is not a number at all. Numbers are irrelevant. What matters is the conviction. Conviction begets confidence, and confidence comes when we align our head and heart in a specific, defined direction. Do that and energetic pursuits become easy. Never underestimate what this can do to power a more fulfilling life. Lives inspired are lives transformed.
Because Chaplin made nearly all of films without scripts, his advice is worth taking because life is lived precisely the same way. We are all improv actors, acting and reacting to the scenes we’re in, each without benefit of a polished script. We live that way and will die that way.We are our own film’s star, director, and editor. We own the final cut.
A tip of the bowler to Sir Charles; he remains so very right.
You have to believe in yourself. That’s the secret.
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