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When Jane Peters tried to strike gold



The "little tramp," the comedic creation of Charlie Chaplin, is arguably the most important character in movie history. His overwhelming popularity from the mid-teens on spurred the entire motion picture industry, just as Mary Pickford had. (They, along with Mary's husband, Douglas Fairbanks, and director D.W. Griffith, would form United Artists in 1919.) Moreover, Chaplin's sheer artistry added sophistication to the infant medium.

Today, Aug. 2, Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. is showing 24 hours of Chaplin, beginning at 6 a.m. (ET), as part of its "Summer Under The Stars" series. For the day's entire schedule, go to http://www.tcm.com/schedule/index.jsp?startDate=08/02/2008&timezone=EST&cid=N.

At 1:45 p.m., one of Charlie's unquestioned masterpieces, "The Gold Rush," will be shown:



When watching it, try to picture a young Carole Lombard -- so young, in fact, that at the time she was still known professionally under her birth name, Jane Alice Peters -- as Chaplin's leading lady. It could have happened, because she tried out for the part.

According to Lombard biographer Larry Swindell, in the spring of 1924, a representative of Chaplin's production company was on hand at Fairfax High School when Jane was chosen "Queen Of The May" and presided over the school's May Day carnival. He arranged for her to meet Chaplin the day after the carnival -- and while her mother, Bess Peters, normally gave Jane her space, she had heard about Chaplin's lascivious reputation, and thus uncharacteristically accompanied her daughter to the interview.

As Lombard later recalled, Chaplin was "civil and polite to mother without disguising his displeasure that she was there in the first place. He was sincerely committed to the picture he was going to make. It didn't sound like a comedy as he described it. If he tested a girl, it was for the leading role, but there were several other parts for girls -- all of them entertainers at this fun house in the Klondike. Every girl that got a part had tested for the lead."

Had it been the other way around, that "fun house" would've needed to be huge...and 15-year-old Jane would have been in the picture. But Chaplin never got back to her, although someone spread a rumor that Chaplin wrote "too pretty" on a card with her name on it.

Nevertheless, her test for "The Gold Rush" paid off. According to Swindell, Jane was hired by struggling Vitagraph that summer, although nothing came of it -- other than a new name. Vitagraph officials wanted something with more pizzazz than Jane, who came up with Carol, for her school friend Carol Peterson. (The "Lombard" part would come some months later.)

Who ended up as Chaplin's leading lady in "The Gold Rush"? A woman named Georgia Hale:



Hale, born in Missouri in 1905, got the role only because Chaplin's first choice, Lita Grey, became pregnant (by Chaplin), and she and Chaplin hurriedly married. Hale gained stardom from this, and appeared in "The Great Gatsby" in 1926. But her only talkie experience was in a 1931 Rin-Tin-Tin serial. She died in June 1985, a few weeks before her 80th birthday.
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