Archive for Shepperton Babylon

The Sunday Intertitle: Sydney Failure

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2015 by dcairns


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.

Alfred his cock presents

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on April 29, 2009 by dcairns


There’s a story, which I have trouble believing, that to get a shocked reaction from Madeleine Carroll for one particular close-up in THE 39 STEPS, Hitchcock unbuttoned his fly and startled her with the sight of his partial namesake. (The shot above looks to me like the only reasonable contender. The expression on Carroll’s face is hard to read: concern? Pity?)

When asked, by a subsequent interviewer, if this tale were true, Hitch is supposed to have confirmed it (I can believe that much), and said that he had used this technique on a number of actresses.






For the record, Madeleine Carroll is awesome in THE 39 STEPS, and I don’t believe such a technique would be either necessary or productive, to say nothing of the legal implications. Hitch did claim to have pranked her mercilessly, partly for fun and partly to get her to, er, unstiffen. That’s almost certainly true. But the story of the nob, which Matthew Sweet seizes upon so eagerly in his book Shepperton Babylon, strikes me as a stretch.

Also, it reminds me of Churchill’s comment when told his fly was undone: “Dead birds don’t fall out of nests.”

Final Cut

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on February 11, 2009 by dcairns

I belatedly thought of checking Matthew Sweet’s Shepperton Babylon for any interesting insights into Hitchcock’s silent period, and was very glad I did. When I first read the book, I didn’t know who Lillian Hall-Davis was, but I was moved by her story. Now I’ve seen her in THE RING and THE FARMER’S WIFE, and her story breaks my heart.


LHD was born, without her hyphen, in Mile End, a working class area of London. As a silent movie star, she was able to affect a more high-class persona, but when sound came in, her accent gave her away. Work dried up. In 1933, she turned on the gas taps and cut her throat.

Quite apart from the tragedy and horror of this tale, there’s a point to made about Britain and its cinema. In both Hitchcock films, Lillian played working-class characters. But it was not acceptable for her to SOUND like one. This may be a small part of why Britain struggled while Hollywood thrived. Authentic working-class accents were scarcely heard in British films, except in regional comedies, and even then, they were often music-hall concoctions. Leading men and leading ladies always sounded like upper-middle-class tennis-playing toffs. The stage informed British acting, whereas in America, a purely cinematic approach seemed to evolve naturally. As we approach the period of Hitchcock’s early talkies, this subject may come up again…