The Sunday Intertitle: Sydney Failure
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 —
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.
“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.