Monday, October 23, 2006

My Brother Syd - The Other Chaplin

by Geoff Collins

Drat! Isn't it always the way? The Chaplin Collection, a massive nine-or-ten DVD set of all Chaplin's post-1918 output, including acres of goodies such as out-takes, home movies and deleted scenes, is now available in Great Britain at a fraction of its original price. Double drat. I should have waited. I should have realized that despite Chaplin's stature as The Greatest Comedian Of All Time (let's argue!) nobody actually wants to watch any of his films. He's so historical that there's only ever going to be a limited demand for these relics of a gentler age. I purchased most of the set a couple of years ago at the full price (except for the ones I harangued Ivy, as a fellow south-Londoner, into buying me as Christmas and birthday presents) - but there is some good news: one DVD had eluded me, and I bought it this week at a mega-low price: The Chaplin Revue, comprising all Chaplin's 1918-22 First National output with the exception of The Kid. Despite astonishingly clear prints, these films look ancient - but they are clearly the work of a genius - and they are very, very funny. There was only ever one Chaplin.

Whooaaa! Hold on there just one cotton-pickin' minute, buster! There was only ever one Buster, but there sure as heck was more than one Chaplin. Scott Eyman expressed it perfectly in The Speed of Sound: "Syd Chaplin was a gifted farceur who had the considerable misfortune to be brother to a genius". Exactly right. But this is no hard-luck story. Syd used his considerable misfortune to make a considerable fortune, for himself as well as Charlie, to such an extent that he was able to retire from the screen in 1928 without even having to bother about whether or not his voice was "suitable for talkies". He didn't disappear entirely: for example, his recently-unearthed home movies from the set of The Great Dictator provide a unique colour record of Charlie at work as director and performer. But Syd eventually lived very comfortably in Nice until his death in 1965 at the age of eighty; it's hardly a tragedy in financial terms.

The tragedy lies in the fact that whenever anybody says "Chaplin" we automatically think of Charlie, the Little Tramp. Syd Chaplin wasn't unique in his Considerable Misfortune. "There was only ever one Jolson"; tell that to Harry Jolson, who struggled and failed throughout his career to match his brother's incandescent glow. Frank Sinatra sang with "the Dorsey band" - i.e. Tommy Dorsey. Who listens to Jimmy Dorsey's records now? Jimmy Dorsey, Harry Jolson and Syd Chaplin should have formed the Brothers To a Genius Club; the British branch could have been managed by Tommy Fields (brother of Gracie) and Frank Formby.... on second thoughts, delete that last one.

Quite tellingly, most of Syd Chaplin's movies weren't made at Charlie's studio; nor were they preserved in Charlie's archive. Syd came over to California late in 1914 to replace Charlie at Keystone, possibly making his first screen appearance as a policeman in His Prehistoric Past. He soon established his brusque, aggressive, pot-bellied, heavily-mustached Gussle character, and he was up and running; but he temporarily abandoned performing in order to help Charlie in an administrative capacity, enabling Charlie - and himself - to become fabulously wealthy via their deals with Essanay, Mutual and First National. During the First National period, however, Syd pops up in several of Charlie's movies in supporting roles; and typically, as Albert Austin and Henry Bergman so often did, he plays several characters within the same film. Audiences at the time probably didn't notice; but we notice, and we can enjoy.

It's been said, quite incorrectly, that "selfish, autocratic" Charlie never worked with a "comedy partner" between Ben Turpin in 1915 and Buster Keaton in 1951. Yet Charlie populated his movies with a multitude of old pals as well as comedians of equal stature [i.e. 5 feet 6 and a half inches] with whom he shared some memorable scenes: Chester Conklin, Hank Mann, Jack Oakie, Martha Raye - and his brother Syd.

Charlie's first movie at his own custom-built studio was A Dog's Life; and it's a beauty. We could say "let's argue" again, but this is easily Charlie's finest film. Just watch it once and you'll see what I mean. Ten or twelve minutes in, we have the Lunch Wagon Scene. Charlie, more trampy than usual and accompanied by his hungry dog Scraps, spends three minutes nonchalantly thieving various items of food from under the nose of the lunch wagon proprietor, played by Syd in bowler hat and droopy moustache. It's Syd's scene; lugubrious and suspicious, he's trying to prepare more food but has to keep darting around, never quite in time to catch Charlie or his dog. Scraps, having finished off a whole string of sausages, licks his chops contentedly. Syd gives him the full eyebrow-wiggling glare: "I know you took 'em but I can't prove it". He swoops around the counter with ever-growing anguish as his food disappears before his eyes. This has all the elements of a Fred Karno music-hall sketch, and the idea was repeated in the TV drama Young Charlie Chaplin in 1989, as if "young Charlie really did this and remembered it years later".

Typically Syd plays two parts in Shoulder Arms. He's the Kaiser; and in a role reminiscent of Bruce Bairnsfather's Old Bill [and as a warm-up for his later Warners feature The Better 'Ole] he's Charlie's heavily-mustached army pal, asleep in a flooded dugout with only his face above the water level, and a toad perched on his foot. Charlie can't resist making waves and giving him a damp awakening. In a later scene Charlie uses the bullets flying overhead to open a bottle of beer and light his cigarette, all of this done with great panache. Syd registers "aghast" and shares this with us in a series of hilarious "camera looks".

Syd's also in The Pilgrim in a variety of roles, and he's very funny, but it was obvious that supporting his talented brother wasn't getting his own career anywhere; so he starred in some comedy features at Warner Brothers, directed by Charles "Chuck" Reisner who was a family friend and a "tough guy" supporting actor in Charlie's movies. It's now known that Martha Raye called Charlie "Chuck". Can you imagine that? Chuck Chaplin? In 1952 it was "Chuck Chaplin Out"!

In the late 1920s Syd briefly returned to England and appeared in A Little Bit Of Fluff. As we all know, British silent films hardly exist at all, but a slapsticky night-club fight sequence from this can be seen on the Pathe website [yes, readers, I've mentioned it again] as part of the unreleased Sid James compilation Laughter and Life. Syd's Warner features are elusive, although The Better 'Ole has been meticulously preserved. Kevin Brownlow saw the restored print in its proper setting - in a full cinema with a receptive audience - and rated it "among the best comedies I have ever seen" so clearly there's more to Syd Chaplin than The Man Who Made Charlie Chaplin Even Richer. As Syd spent his placid retirement in Nice, you can't help wondering what he thought about the drastic changes in public opinion about his brother, the one everybody refers to as "Chaplin". Let's not forget that there was another Chaplin, a fine English music-hall comedian who was briefly a top movie star in his own right. For a good look at Syd Chaplin, a true Third Banana if ever there was one, The Chaplin Revue is a good place to start.

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