To mark what would have been the 122nd birthday of Charlie Chaplin on 16th April, I present these three magnificent colour photographs of Chaplin, taken around 1917- 18 by Charles C. Zoller (1854 – 1934) and currently held in the George Eastman House Still Photograph Archive. They look like they were shot on a film set, and Chaplin looks relaxed in the first picture, and more definitely “in character” in the others. It’s a treat to see the tramp costume in colour, and to see Chaplin isolated and working under someone else’s direction. Such candid shots of Chaplin in costume, sapped of pantomime and the energetic grace he had when in motion, give a very different sense of so familiar a star. He looks even more vulnerable than usual, and in colour the outfit looks faintly silly, even more like a protective armour against the indignities of the tramp’s tumbling social status. Also, the faded quality of the pictures, which were taken using the Autochrome process patented by the Lumière Bros in 1903, looks now like a home movie or amateur portrait, offering us more immediate access to a glimpse of Chaplin at work.
I’m not sure which film Chaplin was shooting at the time these photos were taken, and the records for the pics don’t say so either. I would bet, though, that it’s A Dog’s Life. This was Chaplin’s first film following his contract with First National signed in June 1917, which matches the time frame, and the setting and costume (admittedly, they are very similar across a number of films), seem to match this wonderful footage: