The Sunday Intertitle: Sydney Failure

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I first realized how gifted a comedian Sydney Chaplin was when I noticed his interplay with his brother in A DOG’S LIFE — he’s the street vendor Charlie robs of cookies. The pair’s timing is exquisitely worked out, and the central conceit, that the number of cookies keeps diminishing and Charlie is the only suspect but Syd doesn’t feel able to make an accusation without catching him at it, is priceless.

I was disappointed, then, to learn that Syd was a rapist and a cannibal — and was caught at it. The story is gone over in Matthew Sweet’s Shepperton Babylon — Syd was preparing for the second of his British films when he assaulted an actress, Molly Wright, and bit her nipple off. He fled the country, leaving unpaid taxes (I know: infamy upon infamy) and the studio paid her a settlement.

It’s hard to imagine any way Wright could have made this story up (and certainly the studio acted like they believed her, in an era when movie studios were quite prepared to cover up sex crimes by their valued associates); it’s equally hard to imagine anyone biting off a body part unintentionally. It’s all horrific and creepy in the extreme, so much so that it’s not only surprising this isn’t better known, it’s slightly surprising that this story about the half-brother isn’t the first thing people think of when they think of Charlie. I guess that’s a measure of how his fame surpassed any scandal that came near him.

Sydney doesn’t seem to have done anything like this again, that we know of.

In THE MAN ON THE BOX (1925), made before the career-ending incident, Sydney is called a back-biter by a jealous husband, and makes the following denial —

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It’s an odd film. A MacGuffin about plans for a new helicopter leads to millionaire’s son Chaplin disguising himself as a coachman (in 20s California?), getting hired as a groom, pressed into service as a butler and then disguising himself as a maid (like his semi-sibling, he’s very convincing in drag — CHARLIE’S AUNT was one of his biggest hits). Syd is able and agile — there’s some ferocious knockabout involving him and the film’s director, Charles Riesner (best known for skippering STEAMBOAT BILL JR) who co-stars as an enemy agent. Another future director, David Butler, also appears, and is just the kind of guffawing hearty you might expect from his later work.

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“That’s right, Barrymore, pull them funny faces. HAW HAW!”

Syd is, as indicated, a skilled comedian, but he’s also an attractive and sympathetic screen presence, and at times his use of his eyes — flashing signals across a room like twin aldous lamps — is startlingly reminiscent of the better-known brother. For some reason, the squarer jaw-line makes his feminine side seem stranger — Charlie could be coquettish and it somehow seemed absolutely in keeping with his other qualities — imp, innocent, ruffian.

I guess if he ended up working in Britain his career was already on the slide, and there’s no reason to assume audiences had enough enthusiasm for him to want to see him move into talkies, so his career was going to be cut short by film history anyway. But it seems it should have been cut short by a prison sentence.

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10 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Sydney Failure”

  1. When I saw “Sydney Chaplin” I thought immediately of Charlie’s son (who I saw on Broadway as Nicky Arnstein in “Funny Girl” opposite Barbra Whatshername) I heard there was a brother but this information is rather astonishing. Calling Kenneth Anger!

  2. The son — a quite appealing and talented actor — was named after the brother, who mainly worked as Charlie’s business manager. Ilder Syd was quoted as saying that Charlie was crazy like their mother and he was just waiting until Charlie cracked up for good so he could sell the studio to a supermarket and retire on the proceeds. Nice guy.

    Younger Syd was a bit of a Hollywood bad boy for a while, wasn’t he?

  3. Jeff Gee Says:

    It’s only cannibalism if he ate it.

  4. Details, details.

    I used to have a small pile of clips from Variety about Syd’s “disappearance” from England in the late ’20s. No mention of any incident precipitating it, of course.

  5. No doubt part of the studio’s settlement with the victim was to ensure her silence. I imagine the British press would have been all over it, they made hay with the stories about Tallulah Bankhead and the rugby team, or whatever it was.

  6. In The Good Ship Venus, a book about the Olympia Press, Parisian purveyors of pornography and avant-garde literature, there’s an account of an author apologising for missing a deadline because her clitoris had been bitten off.

  7. DBenson Says:

    On the DVD of “Great Dictator” they have some color home movies taken on set, credited to Syd. Also, recall reading somewhere Charlie’s kids were surprised to find out their uncle had any onscreen career outside his appearances in Charlie’s films.

    Young Sydney starred on Broadway in “Funny Girl” and “Bells Are Ringing”, replaced in the movies by Omar Sharif and Dean Martin respectively. Aside from interviews, last thing I saw him in was “The Adding Machine,” an adaptation of a heavyhandedly symbolic play. He also produced; in an interview he described his father pitching giddy ideas for the film’s version of heaven (Free hot dogs! They used that).

    In the biopic “Chaplin”, Syd is presented as a normal guy in contrast to Charlie. He’s usually accompanied by a nice girl we assume is his wife; there’s no hint he ever went before the camera. The film also introduces Edna and promptly forgets about her. I wish they could have scaled down to a single period of Chaplin’s life rather than sprinting through (Hey, I think that’s Stan Laur — What?)

  8. William Goldman’s fault: Attenborough was most interested in the childhood, he was drawn to old age and the return to America (more moving in the actual archive footage); so they ended up trying to cover 80 years.

    But not ALL Goldman’s fault: Attenborough had brought in his League of Gentlemen buddy Bryan Forbes to write the initial draft. Goldman, still smarting over Forbes rewrite of Stepford Wives, was delighted to rewrite, and invented the worthless biographer scenes with Tony Hopkins as a “structural device” (really these just eat up screentime which could have been devoted to who everyone is and why they’re in the movie at all).

  9. I think the Limelight DVD has Syd’s holiday films (relevant since Chaplin’s trip outside the US allowed the FBI to rescind his passport). Mostly shots of topless native girls, which takes on a more sinister aspect now.

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