Showing posts with label Syd Chaplin. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Syd Chaplin. Show all posts

Sunday, September 4, 2016

THE COUNT, released 100 years ago today

The Count was a struggle for Chaplin from the beginning. He built a set, as he often did, "with not an idea in my head."1 This lack of inspiration caused him a great deal of anxiety: "When I arrive in the morning I'm usually gloomy, especially when I haven't any idea what I'm going to do in a scene...," he told journalist Grace Kingsley in August 1916, "tears bedew my eyes as I put on my makeup, and I weep sadly as I step out on the stage."2

His first plea for help went out to his brother, Sydney, who was in New York at the time. How much Charlie counted on him for brainstorming gags and scenario possibilities is evident in their correspondence when Syd was away.
Wiring him at the Hotel Bonta in New York City, July 31, while he would have been filming The Count, Charlie pleaded: "Have you any suggestions for scenes? Have dining room and ballroom. I am playing a count but an imposter to win an heiress but cannot get story straight. Wire me some gags if possible. Playing in Chaplin make-up in fancy dress ball." Charlie's problems with this story continued, however, causing him to film the mostly one-man-show One A.M. in the meantime. By August, the situation was so dire that Charlie's butler and Man Friday, Tom Harrington, wired Sydney again:
"Charlie is very depressed condition for past two weeks. Doesn't seem able to get mind around to his story. He wishes nearly every other day that you were here...Think it very important for his future success for you to drop everything in New York and come here immediately at least three or four weeks. Charlie hasn't been sick but whenever he gets into difficult situation, which doesn't work out satisfactorily, he always wishes Syd were here."
Five days later Charlie wired his brother himself: "The last two pictures have given me great worry and I need you here to help me. Drop everything and arrange to be in Los Angeles by August 12 to help me in directing next picture. Wire answer immediately."3
Why was Sydney tormenting his brother this way?  It seems Sydney felt "used" by Mutual and that they weren't paying him what he thought he was worth. A settlement seems to have been reached because Sydney eventually returned to California.4

The Count's ballroom scene appears to have caused Chaplin the most stress. He told Grace Kingsley:
"And as for these gray hairs"--indicating those about his temple over his right ear--"I got them all the other day trying to be funny in a ballroom scene. I think any comedian who started out to be funny in a ballroom would have his career blighted at the outset." 5
Illustration by Gale for Grace Kingsley article, Los Angeles Sunday Times, Aug. 20th, 1916 

Charlie wasn't the only one driven crazy by this scene. Chester Courtney, an old music hall acquaintance who had been given a job at the studio, recalled:
If anyone were to play "And They Call It Dixieland" in my hearing I should run, screaming! It nearly lost me my sanity, thanks to Charlie. He kept a studio band playing it for weeks learning to dance with Edna Purviance."6
Despite all the problems, The Count was well-received among critics and fans, who had been disappointed with his last film One AM.  The public felt that Chaplin had made a come back of sorts.
The inimitable comedian returns to the type of motion picture farce in which he gained his fame and is seen in his familiar baggy trousers, cutaway coat at least two sizes too small, his dinky derby, diminutive moustache and slender cane, not forgetting the celebrated brogans.7

1 Charles Chaplin,  My Autobiography, The Bodley Head, 1964
2Grace Kingsley, "Beneath The Mask: Witty, Wistful, Serious Is The Real Charlie Chaplin," Los Angeles Sunday Times, August 20th, 1916
3 Lisa K. Stein, Syd Chaplin: A Biography, McFarland, 2011
5 Grace Kingsley, "Beneath The Mask: Witty, Wistful, Serious Is The Real Charlie Chaplin," Los Angeles Sunday Times, August 20th, 1916
6Chester Courtney, "The Real Charles Chaplin," Film Weekly, Feb. 1931
7Moving Picture World, September 2nd, 1916

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Day By Day: 1936

A letter from Sydney

In this letter to Charlie, dated June 4th, 1936, Sydney gives a critical analysis of his younger brother's latest film, Modern Times, and suggests ideas for future projects, including a proposal to transform the Tramp into an animated character.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Chaplin boxes Benny Leonard, 1918

This was posted by the Chaplin Official Facebook page today. Most of us have seen this footage before but the part at the beginning (around the :30 mark) where they are all standing around and saluting was new to me. You'll recognize Syd Chaplin in the background.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Charlie and Syd, 1917

"He wishes nearly every other day you were here. Unless he pulls up within next couple of days am afraid he will miss release on this picture [The Count]. Think it very important for his future success for you to drop everything in New York and come here immediately spending at least three or four weeks.  Charlie hasn't been sick but whenever he gets into difficult situation, which doesn't work out satisfactorily, he always wishes Syd were here. Don't let Charlie know I wired this as it might make him feel badly, but it is my honest opinion he needs you and that you should take next train for coast." --Telegram from Charlie's butler, Tom Harrington, to Syd Chaplin, August 2nd, 1916 (Syd Chaplin: A Biography, Lisa Stein Haven, McFarland 2011)
Happy birthday, Syd

Saturday, February 27, 2016

100 years ago this weekend

L-R: Mutual president, John Freuler, Syd Chaplin (then serving as his brother's business manager),
and CC at the contract signing. 

On Saturday, February 26th, 1916 at the Hotel Astor in New York City, Chaplin signed a contract with the Mutual Film Corporation for the unheard of amount of $10,000 a week plus a $150,000 bonus. The deal made him the highest paid filmmaker in history up to that time.

Shortly after the signing, Chaplin made a statement about his salary and what it meant to him:
"A great many people are inclined to make wide eyes at what is called my salary.  Honestly, it is a matter I do not spend much time thinking about. Money and business are very serious matters and I have to keep my mind off of them. In fact I do not worry about money at all. It would get in the way of my work. I do not want people to think that life is all a joke to me, but I do enjoy working on the sunny side of it. What this contract means is simply that I am in business with the worry left out and with the dividends guaranteed. It means that I am left free to be just as funny as I dare, to do the best work that is in me and to spend my energies on the thing that the people want. I have felt for a long-time that this would be my big year and this contract gives me my opportunity. There is inspiration in it. I am like an author with a big publisher to give him circulation." (Motography, March 11, 1916)
Chaplin looking serious on the day be became the richest man in Hollywood.
"It's got to be earned, you know," he said of the money.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A brief look at Charlie's new "workshop," which opened this month in 1918

The Chaplin Studios, 1918. (Panorama photo: Silent Traces by John Bengston)

The Chaplin Studios, still located at 1416 N. La Brea in Hollywood, were built on a five acre lemon orchard, a fact that pleased Chaplin. Showing off his brand new studio to reporter Grace Kingsley, he pointed out his "lucky" lemon trees:
See, here's a lemon orchard back of the stage. Think lemons must be my lucky fruit--can't escape 'em--had a lemon orchard back of us at Essanay, and one at the Lone Star--hope they keep the lemons in the orchards, though.1
"A Lemon."

When Chaplin purchased the land for the studio, a 10-room mansion, located at the north end of the property, was part of the deal. But Chaplin did not want to live at his studio. Instead, he told Kingsley, "Brother Sid and Mrs. Sid are going to try it."

Here's a postcard showing Syd outside his residence on the Chaplin Studio property. He lived there for several years.

Chaplin went on:
[There will be] none of the put-out-the-dog-and-let-in-the-cat-and-lock-the-cellar-door stuff for me at my workshop....But see, I've got a beautiful apartment--it's a large corner room, where there are bay windows and odd little dormer windows--this is to be a combination office and reception room, and there's a door I can dodge out of and climb a tree in the lemon orchard if I want to get away from anybody.
(Chaplin's office can be seen at the far right end of the studio in the top panoramic photo)

Charlie escaping from everybody

Kingsley noted that "for exercise and fun," Chaplin liked to "climb all over the skyscraping girders of the new stages."

Chaplin posing atop the scaffolding of the outdoor stage. 

This activity was confirmed in photographs and a letter Syd Chaplin wrote to First National Exhibitor's Circuit, Charlie's distributor, in which he describes seeing his brother lose his balance while doing a stunt high atop the 40-foot steel roof frame of the outdoor stage:

From Moving Picture World (Feb. 2, 1918):
A letter from Sid, the comedian's brother, ...caused no little apprehension on the part of the Circuit's officers. It stated that Charlie, while doing a bit of wire walking on the steel roof frame of the new studio lost his balance and came mighty near canceling his contract by a tumble to the hardwood studio floor, forty feet below. Charlie had gone aloft to get a look over the neighbor's back fences, and while up top was doing a bit of funny business for the benefit of the workmen employed on the floor below. He slipped, but caught himself. Sid says his heart almost quit work. When he found his voice he gave his valuable brother a "calling down" in more senses than one. He adds that he has been sticking closer than a brother ever since and that he finally induced order to keep him out of mischief.

From Moving Picture World, 2/2/1918
Chaplin left his footprints and signature on a cement path at the studio on January 21st, 1918.
Evidently the footprints are still there but the signature and date were taken out and moved to
 Red Skelton's home during the time Skelton owned the studio from 1958-62. 

1Grace Kingsley, "Charlie Chaplin Begins Work In New Studio," Los Angeles Times, January 20th, 1918

Friday, September 18, 2015

The brothers arrive at the Excelsior Hotel in Rome, March 1932

See sound footage from this occasion here (Charlie talks directly to the camera, and do we hear Sydney's voice as well?)

May Reeves is standing at far left (in a hat and fur coat, looking down). This was at the end of her year-long romance with Chaplin. They would part ways in Naples the next day. 

Read more about Charlie's arrival in Rome and his last evening with May here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Rare photos of Chaplin with Rob Wagner & his family

Many thanks to Wagner's great-grandson, Rob Leicester Wagner, for sharing these wonderful photos with me & for giving me permission to post them here.

With Wagner's wife, Florence. Behind them is Tom Harrington,
Chaplin's secretary.
On the set of The Adventurer (1917). At far right is Syd Chaplin. Next to him is Rob Wagner.
In front of Charlie, in white, are Wagner's sons Leicester (left) and Thornton (they are not twins).
Please comment if any of you can ID the other people.
Another on The Adventurer set. Charlie with Leicester (right) and "Thornie."

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Chaplin brothers' bios in Stars Of The Photoplay, 1924

The inaccuracies found in these bios are not necessarily the fault of the writer but of Charlie and Syd themselves who, in early interviews, often fabricated their background to reporters. Unfortunately, these fabrications were repeated over and over again for many years. Neither place of birth is correct (both brothers were born in London). Syd was born March 16th, not 17th (he liked to give St. Patrick's Day as his birthday). Charlie's height, as usual, is wrong (and Syd's, too, perhaps). Charlie was closer to 5' 6 1/2" & the brothers were about the same height (see here). Charlie usually underestimated his height to reinforce his image as the "Little Fellow." To clarify some of the other information. Syd's role in Sherlock Holmes was obtained for him by Charlie who was playing Billy, the Page Boy at the time. The company never toured America. Charlie did more than just "some clog dancing in a London Theater." He toured the provinces with the Eight Lancashire Lads for two years.

The bios include beautiful photos of the brothers by Albert Witzel (Charlie) and Clarence Sinclair Bull (Syd).

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


Released April 14th, 1918, this was Chaplin's first "million dollar comedy" for First National and the first film he made in his newly built studio in Hollywood.

"Scraps--A Thoroughbred Mongrel." His real name was Mut (or Mutt). The story goes
that when Charlie left for a Liberty Bond tour shortly after filming was completed, Mut,
who had become very attached to him, died of "a broken heart."
 He was buried on the studio grounds.
This was the first of Charlie's film to feature his brother, Sydney,
 who had already made several successful films for Keystone including
the "Gussle" films and The Submarine Pirate.
Syd's first wife, Minnie, (far left) appears in the dancehall scenes usually dancing with
Albert Austin (with mustache) who is getting ready to cut in on Minnie
and her dance partner in this scene.

The dance hall drummer (Chuck Reisner) thinks Charlie has a tail.
 This was Reisner's first film with Chaplin.
"A new singer sings an old song"
...and makes everyone cry
including Henry Bergman, dressed as a woman, and Loyal Underwood.
Edna's singing inspires the bartender, played by Andy Anderson,
 to put back the money he stole from the cash register.
 Anderson later became the skipper of Chaplin's yacht, Panacea
 This was also the first film in which Granville Redmond appears.
Redmond was a deaf painter who kept a studio on Chaplin's lot. 
"I'm flirting"
Poor Mut was plied with alcohol for this scene. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Harry Carr describes a day on the set of Chaplin's final short comedy, PAY DAY, released April 2nd, 1922

The following is an excerpt from "Speech Of Gold" by Harry Carr, Motion Picture, May 1922
Hanging over the edge of a scaffolding, midway between me and the blue California sky, were the two most famous feet in the world.

Charlie Chaplin was directing a new comedy, and his far-famed and eloquent extremities were expressive of his emotion.
Brother Syd, his fastidiousness smothered in plasterers' overalls with a broken Billycock hat on his head, was sitting curled up in an iron wheel-barrow looking up at Charlie with very much the same affectionate look that you see on the face of an admiring little dog squatting down to watch a Saint Bernard.

On another scaffold, perilously hugging the edge of a new brick building sat Mack Swain heavily engaged in being funny. If there is any forlorn, desolate, heart-rending picture of woe and agony, it is a scared fat man teetering on a dizzy roost and trying to be gay and joyous.
Mack was supposed to be eating a comic tin-pail dinner that kept mysteriously disappearing. Charlie kept telling him. it was funny, but Mack did not seem to be convinced. When he grabbed for the fugitive sausage, Charlie politely shrieked with glee and wiggled his feet over the edge of the platform in an ecstasy of merriment, but Mack only looked at him reproachfully and sighed heavily. Down in the wheel-barrow, Syd chortled loyally like an amiable echo.

Edna Purviance was sitting on the aerial plank next to Mack Swain. She was sitting on her feet; one of them had gone to sleep and she was afraid to budge. When the audience laughed and the illustrious feet wiggled by way of applause, Edna smiled a wan, scared smile.

Charlie was determined they were going to do it in the proper spirit of joy, but it was the distinguished feet and Syd who seemed to get most hilarity out of Mack and his disappearing lunch.

"Mack, you move around too much, you want to make it more subtle. You see, you don't know what on earth became of that hot dog and it bewilders you."
"Yeah, but Charlie," remonstrated Mack, looking with a shudder down over the edge of the scaffold, "when I get funny I have to do it with my hands and my face--everything."

Charlie's feet suddenly vanished. The next thing I saw he was sitting up on the scaffold with his hat cocked down over his eyes and his feet stuck out in front of him.
"This is how you want to do it, Mack," he said. "See, like this. It's a lot funnier, Mack, if you just sit still and let it get over with your thoughts. Just try it, Mack; it'd be funny."
Mack had relaxed into gloom. Someone joggled the scaffold and he gave a wild look of alarm, then sank into fat despair again.
"Get him a new sausage," said Charlie with vivacious cordiality. But Mack declined to be moved to exuberance by a new sausage. Out of the depth of his dejection he said he would get along with the old sausage. And so the comedy went on with Charlie bubbling with gleeful encouragement and Syd echoing from the wheel-barrow ; and Mack Swain and his sorrow--fat and. forlorn on the scaffold. Presently the winter sunshine began to fade, and to his unspeakable relief they let Mack come hobbling stiffly down from the scaffold. One of his legs was asleep and he was bursting with "prop" sausage, but his soul was at peace. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Essanay representative Jess Robbins, Syd Chaplin, and Charlie at the Majestic Studios, 1915

Syd Chaplin in Gussle's Wayward Path (1915)

The character of Gussle was created by Syd and is a version of Archibald Binks the character he (& Charlie) played in a number of Fred Karno productions (including Skating). Despite claims that the character was based on his brother's Little Tramp persona, Gussle was really the opposite of the Tramp. As Syd's biographer Lisa Stein Haven notes: "He was obviously bourgeois middle class, a homeowner, employed, and with a wife and sometimes a dog, although no children. The British might refer to the character as a fop--a sort of pretentious and pompous individual who wears the adornments of affluence in such a way as to show their particular hilarity and who attempts to behave with an upper-class decorum that is not so much ill-fitting but employed with a sense of rogue entitlement that results in violence, insult and outright thoughtlessness." (Syd Chaplin: A Biography, pg. 48-49)  Syd made roughly a dozen movies as Gussle during his year with Keystone. This film is noteworthy for being Syd's first stint as co-director (along with Charles Avery). You'll also see a familiar face or two including Phyllis Allen who plays Gussle's wife.

Happy birthday, Syd.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

THE PILGRIM, released February 26th, 1923

This was Chaplin's final film for First National and as usual it has an "escape-from-prison" theme (see The Adventurer, his last film for Mutual, and Police, his last film for Essanay.)

"May be disguised. 30 to 35 years of age. About five feet four inches in height.1 Weight about 125 pounds. Pale face. Black bushy hair sometimes parted in the middle. Small black mustache. Blue eyes. Small hands, large feet. Extremely nervous. Walks with feet turned out."

Charlie (aka "Lefty Lombard" aka "Slippery Elm") grabs the bars at the train station as if they were a cell.  There is a similar joke in The Adventurer where convict Charlie wakes up in a strange bed with bars on the headboard and wearing someone else's striped pajamas.

Syd Chaplin plays two roles in the film: one of the elopers (above) & the brat's father.

"Convict Makes Daring Escape"

After Charlie passes around the collection boxes, he gives a thankful look to one side of the room and an accusatory look to the other side who apparently didn’t give as much.

"The sermon--the sermon!"

Pass the Dutchie on the left hand side.

The brat ("Dinky" Dean Reisner) shoves a piece of flypaper into his father's face.
Reisner said in an interview years later that the fly paper was real.
"I still feel it on my skin. It was awful!" he said.

Syd describes his missing hat to Charlie.

That moment when you realize your missing hat is part of the pudding.

 Charlie transforms himself into a riverboat gambler right in front of the camera.

"Mexico--a new life--peace at last"
 (Nitpicky note: there is no Rio Grande River separating the U.S. and Mexico)

1In real life, Chaplin was closer to 5' 6 1/2."