A vast and lively crowd outside the Los Angeles Theatre is swelling so large that store windows begin to smash. It’s early 1931 – the night of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights premiere. And the room erupts into a sea of camera flashes and fanfare when the famed actor finally arrives inside. But then the night’s guests grow wilder still, as their giddiness is stoked by the presence of yet another celebrity. There, believe it or not, stood cheek by jowl with the celebrated movie star, is none other than Albert Einstein – and it seems the two men know each other.
Yes, Chaplin arrived at the 1931 premiere for his silent picture accompanied by Einstein – one of the most hailed physicists of all time. But how could such an improbable pairing ever have arisen? After all, most would presume that the worlds of physics and showbusiness didn’t much intersect.
Einstein was, of course, a German, and he normally resided in the capital of Berlin. Chaplin, on the other hand, was a Brit living in California. What, then, were the pair doing standing before the roaring crowd of an L.A. cinema together? And beyond that, how did the famed silent movie star even come to meet the pioneering physicist?
As it turns out, Chaplin’s City Lights premiere was just one of many occasions in which he and Einstein graced the same room. The two stalwarts of their trade actually forged a long and unlikely relationship together – one that would play out across two continents and endure many trials and tribulations.
And yet, despite the eventual intertwining of their lives, the two men were cut from very different cloth. Chaplin was an Englishman who thrived in the public eye after a cruel childhood seemingly pulled straight out of Oliver Twist. And the young showman cut his teeth on stage by performing every which way he could. Einstein, however, took a very different path in life.
Meanwhile, Einstein was born into a relatively bourgeois household in Germany – finding joy in theatrics, science and math. When reflecting on his childhood in later life, the physicist recalled how a “sacred little geometry book” had become one of the “wonders” of his youth, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. Both he and Chaplin found their respective callings early in life, though their formative years were undoubtedly spent worlds apart from one another.
But what of the two men’s paths to fame? Well, Chaplin endured an arguably less turbulent journey than Einstein. The young actor appeared in a number of flicks into the 1910s and even premiered a new character around the middle of that decade. The persona – complete with flimsy crook and tiny tash – would soon garner near boundless acclaim. The role, of course, was that of a certain lovable outsider known as “the Little Tramp.”
Where Chaplin leapt to fame and success, though, Einstein crawled. The young thinker suffered harsh criticism from his superiors at college and – flailing to find professional work after graduating – was actually sacked from a humble position as a kids’ tutor. To make matters worse, the physicist’s theories would be overlooked by his peers for many years to come.
Eventually, however, Einstein was rightly accepted for the brilliance of his ideas – perhaps the most notable of which was the scientist’s theory of relativity. Soon after it had been finalized, British newspaper The Times ran the headline, “Revolution in Science – New Theory of the Universe –Newton’s Ideas Overthrown – Momentous Pronouncement – Space ‘Warped.’” The pioneering physicist then quickly accrued a Nobel Prize, intellectual support and global fame.
Chaplin’s genius also came into a world of its own around the same period. By the mid-1920s, in fact, the famed director had released The Gold Rush – a flick often regarded as his magnum opus. Certainly, much of the world was entranced by the Little Tramp and his on-screen shenanigans. But what did Einstein make of the showman and his pictures?
Well, it turns out that Einstein was never much of a movie fan. Indeed, biographers Dimitri Marianoff and Palma Wayne – who co-wrote the biography Einstein: An Intimate Study of a Great Man – contend that the physicist rarely visited the cinema at all. But that aversion to movies didn’t reach as far as Chaplin, it seems.
So, Einstein appeared to be uninterested in cinema, though he still afforded Chaplin’s films much respect. According to Marianoff and Wayne, the physicist would often talk “of the honesty and integrity of [Chaplin’s] work.” Given his affection for the famed director’s pictures, then, it seems feasible that the great scientist might have even sought out the Hollywood star – should the opportunity have arisen.
Before Einstein and Chaplin would cross paths, however, the two men would both become embroiled in complex – if entirely unique – professional predicaments. The Little Tramp, you see, bravely eschewed Hollywood’s shift away from silent movies towards talkies. Chaplin believed that the use of audio was destroying the beauty of theater, and navigating the obstacle of sound cinema proved quite testing for the renowned mime star.
And Einstein, too, found himself estranged from his fellows come the dawn of the 1930s. Indeed, the great scientist had shunned certain schools of physics that he considered dubious. Einstein soon found himself, then, toiling in relative seclusion as he strove to uncover the truths of the lived world and beyond.
The two legends faced some tough times in their respective careers, but Einstein and Chaplin’s paths did eventually cross. The former, you see, made the long voyage from Europe over to the Golden State in 1931 to make a professional appearance there. And when disembarking, the physicist – with his spouse Elsa by his side – faced a big American welcome complete with much fanfare and theatricality.
Yes, after their long voyage to California, Einstein and Elsa were welcomed onto America’s Pacific shoreline by giddy onlookers and throngs of excited fans. So hyped was the couple’s visit, in fact, that a procession of the scientist’s supporters even disguised themselves as sea creatures to serenade his arrival.
And the hysteria surrounding Einstein’s visit didn’t end there. Indeed, it seems the famed physicist wasn’t spared much time out of the spotlight when in California; scholars sought answers to his legendary ideas, and the press seldom took their eyes off him. Yet despite all the hullabaloo, the scientist still afforded himself a little downtime.
One of Einstein’s breaks from work saw him enjoy a jaunt over to Hollywood. He had accepted the kind offer of Universal Studios chief Carl Laemmle to catch a flick, and the vacationing German found himself in Tinseltown watching All Quiet on the Western Front. The scientist subsequently reviewed the film as being simply “a nice piece” in his diary, though the excursion ultimately offered other rewards.
It was while on this outing to Hollywood that Einstein made a historic proposal: he asked if Laemmle would introduce him to Charlie Chaplin. And, sure enough, the studio head graciously made the physicist’s wish a reality. Soon after, the distant worlds of science and cinema entwined as the wild-haired German and the Little Tramp embarked upon a guided circuit of the Universal Studios lot together.
Einstein and Chaplin, by all accounts, got along handsomely during that first meeting. And before their first farewells had even been exchanged, a date was set for a second rendezvous between the two legends. This time, the movie star was to host a dinner party – with the Einsteins as his esteemed guests.
And so, Chaplin hosted the Einsteins for dinner and rallied all the fanfare you might expect from an international movie star. Certainly, the occasion was a far-cry from the plebeian woes of his on-screen persona the Little Tramp. The actor’s great mansion, in particular, aroused much praise from the visiting physicist.
Joining the Einsteins for the party was Cecil Reynolds – a doctor who Chaplin had invited along to ensure some scientific debate could be sustained throughout the evening. Whether the move was conducive to any intelligent discussion remains unclear, but what’s certainly known of the night is that Elsa Einstein offered a particularly memorable anecdote.
For her part, Elsa shared an iconic story with her fellow diners at Chaplin’s mansion. One day back in Germany, she explained, Einstein had been noodling at his piano when a thought struck him. The physicist then supposedly sealed himself behind closed doors to work – returning a whole fortnight later with some scrawled notes in tow. And what was written on those pages? The theory of relativity, no less.
Chaplin, meanwhile, certainly thought highly of Elsa’s company. He wrote of her in his autobiography, “Mrs. Einstein spoke English very well – in fact, better than the professor. She was a square-framed woman with abundant vitality. [Elsa] frankly enjoyed being the wife of the great man and made no attempt to hide the fact; her enthusiasm was endearing.” But what did the famed actor make of Einstein himself?
Well, Einstein also seemed to leave a strong impression on Chaplin. The actor recalled in his memoirs how the visiting German had breezily offered his opinion on the paranormal over dinner. The physicist had purportedly dismissed the idea with ease when probed on the subject. Einstein apparently quipped, “When 12 other persons have witnessed the same phenomenon at the same time, then I might believe.”
After that triumphant first dinner, it seems, Einstein and Chaplin’s friendship only grew stronger. Of course, the director welcomed his new pal the physicist along to the grand opening of his latest flick – 1931’s City Lights. And there, according to Einstein’s biographer Walter Isaacson, occurred “one of the most memorable scenes in the era of celebrity.”
Dressed to the nines, Einstein and Chaplin arrived at the premier alongside one another – tethering the distant worlds of science and cinema together in a hugely public display of friendship. Furthermore, the remarkable spectacle caused a fervour of excitement from the crowd, as photographers snapped away and onlookers bellowed their approval.
Some accounts of the pair’s arrival advance that, as guests hailed their entrance, Chaplin turned to Einstein with a fabled line. The actor clocked the physicist’s astonishment at being faced with such excitement and reportedly quipped, “They’re cheering us both. You because nobody understands you, and me because everybody understands me.”
A different recollection of events, however, posits that the charming quote wasn’t actually uttered by Chaplin at all. The actor contends in his book A Comedian Sees the World that the comment was actually spoken way over in Germany – and not by the esteemed actor but by either Hans or Eduard Einstein. Though which of the scientist’s sons was said to have made the comment wasn’t specified.
Nonetheless, whether uttered by Chaplin, one of Einstein’s offspring or simply apocryphal, the quote is certainly an intriguing facet of the two great men’s story together. And their iconic friendship was one not lacking in memorable incidents; it actually endured many years after that first meeting at Universal Studios and played out across multiple continents.
Chaplin later found himself in Berlin some time after Einstein’s sojourn to California. The scientist’s abode was lacking in some of the lavish luxuries of Hollywood, but the Little Tramp was nonetheless wowed when he stopped by. Indeed, the great actor’s visit allowed him to witness the exact spot where the theory of relativity had allegedly been drafted.
And the two great celebrities shared yet more dinners and meetings together. For instance, when Einstein returned to the Golden State in 1932, Chaplin rallied together a fresh crowd of colleagues and companions to join the visiting German for a meal. But the night would be marked by at least one notably sour incident.
Apparently, the mood took a cruel turn that night at Chaplin’s party. The meal commenced smoothly, though that jovial atmosphere soon descended into an uncomfortable quiet. Einstein, it seems, found himself short of conversation when faced with press baron William Randolph Hearst. But it wasn’t just a drought of gossip that hampered the evening.
Also present at the party was a companion of Hearst’s: the comedienne Marion Davis. And according to Chaplin’s biography, Davis went from being visibly cold towards Einstein – shutting him out of her witticisms – to acting downright rude. The movie star apparently leaned across the table, grabbed hold of a clump of the physicist’s wild locks and queried, “Why don’t you get your hair cut?”
Although Einstein shouldered the slight with ease and responded with a smirk, Chaplin saw fit to hastily expel the crowd from the table with a promise of demitasse in the parlor. But it’s unclear what became of the evening and the two great men’s friendship thereafter. Certainly, though, the famed physicist had a lasting effect on Chaplin.
In Chaplin’s autobiography, he would reflect fondly on his time spent with Einstein. The famed actor said, “[Einstein is the] typical alpine German in the nicest sense – jovial and friendly.” And the movie star continued to sing his fellow celebrity’s praises.
“… Although [Einstein’s] manner was calm and gentle, I felt it concealed a highly emotional temperament, and that from this source came his extraordinary intellectual energy,” Chaplin continued. Certainly, then, the physicist left his mark on the Little Tramp, who cherished their encounters for many years after the fact.
But what came of the bond between the two great men later in their lives? Well, whether the pair continued to meet late into their lives is indeed unclear. But what is known for sure is that Einstein fled to America after the Nazis tightened their grip on Germany. The scientist faced persecution in his home country, so he took up residence in Princeton, New Jersey.
And Chaplin surely knew of Einstein’s struggles with Germany’s fascists. He mused in his book, “I have often wondered what became of the piano. Possibly it is in the Smithsonian Institution or the Metropolitan Museum – possibly used as kindling wood by the Nazis.”
From hostile dinner guests to Nazi persecution, then, Chaplin and Einstein’s relationship endured many a turbulent time. Nonetheless, their rapport was one of camaraderie, understanding and – as should only be expected of two true masters of their craft – brilliance. By nurturing a bond that defied any binaries of nationality and profession, the two great men forged an alliance of remarkable rarity.