I saw my first Charlie Chaplin film on a vintage hand-cranked Mutoscope at the Penny Arcade on Main Street USA during my first trip to Disneyland. It was an appropriate place to dip my toe into the Chaplin waters, which soon became an immersion, because Charlie Chaplin and his character, “The Little Tramp,” were major influences on Walt Disney, and on his animated character Mickey Mouse.
Walt Disney was a young man in Missouri when Chaplin first hit the silver screen in 1914. Young Walt idolized the Englishman entering several Chaplin impersonation contests in Kansas City. Years later, after choosing animation for a career and relocating to Southern California, Disney turned to his idol for inspiration in the creation of a new character.
“We felt that the public, and especially the children, like animals that are cute and little. I think we are rather indebted to Charlie Chaplin for the idea. We wanted something appealing, and we thought of a tiny bit of a mouse that would have something of the wistfulness of Chaplin – a little fellow trying to do the best he could.”
(“How to Be Like Walt: Capturing the Disney Magic Every Day of Your Life”)
In the 1930s Disney and Chaplin became business partners for five years when all of the Disney shorts were released through Chaplin’s company, United Artists.
Their paths crossed often in Hollywood and in remote sites like the Lake Tahoe region where Chaplin filmed the opening of The Gold Rush in 1925. Disney came to the same spot a few years later to invest in what is today known as the Sugar Bowl Ski Resort. One of the highest peaks at the resort is named Mt. Disney, which is next to the setting where a line of prospectors climbed to the gold fields in Chaplin’s 1925 epic.
The Santa Clarita Valley contains sites related to both men.
Disney bought a ranch in Placerita Canyon in the late 50s that is today known as Golden Oak Ranch. It has been used in dozens of productions for the company, including Spin and Marty from the Mickey Mouse Club. The company plans to expand the facility into its second major California studio complex over the next few years.
Chaplin also spent time in the SCV going back to 1923 when he filmed The Pilgrim in the Saugus Train Station. A dozen years later he returned to film the final scenes for Modern Times on Sierra Highway.
Modern Times premiered on February 5, 1936 in New York and made its West Coast debut a week later at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Before the show, the crowd was entertained by a Walt Disney Mickey Mouse cartoon. Disney inserted a note into the program to honor his childhood hero that said, “In appreciation of the pantomimist supreme whose inimitable artistry and craftsmanship are timeless.”
It was signed, “Mickey Mouse and Walt Disney.”
BTW, we will be honoring the 75th anniversary of the release of Modern Times in the SCV on February 5, 2011 by placing a historic plaque at the site of the final scene. We will be hosting a Chaplin Festival in Newhall that weekend, which includes a screening of The Pilgrim in the Saugus Train Station where part of it was filmed. Keep in touch for details.