Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Watching "Oh! What a Nurse!" in Paris

Just returned from what I hope is my last or near last research trip for this project--across the pond anyway. Besides uncovering a few gems at the Cinema Museum and the British Library, I got to see the inside of the overseer's house of the Lambeth Workhouse complex (location of the Cinema Museum, in fact) and received a private tour of the inside of St. John's Church on Larcom Street, the site of Hannah and Charles' wedding and Sydney's christening. It was a great trip.

I forget who gave me the information--was it Steve Massa? Uli Ruedel?-- that Serge Bromberg had a copy of "Oh! What a Nurse!" one of Sydney's five Warner's features, this one filmed in 1926 and directed by Chuck Reisner as were three of the others. This was one of Syd's cross-dressing films--in fact, it turned out to be crossdressing overload, in my opinion, in that he donned both widow's weeds and those of a nurse. It also turned out to be his LAST crossdressing film, a fact which he made emphatic in the advertisements for his next film "The Better 'Ole," in which he plays Old Bill, an aging World War I "Tommy." Perhaps it was the fear of being typecast, or just the cross-dressing overload that caused this change for Sydney, but, truly, the film as it exists doesn't offer much that I would call archetypal Sydney in terms of bits or humor, which is odd, really, seeing as how he was working with a tried and true bunch for the most part--except that the script is attributed to Bloch and Sherwood. In fact the many draft scripts that exist in the Chaplin archives diverge from this particular story greatly.

So, there we were, Kate, myself and Lenny, sitting in desk chairs in the basement of Lobster films next to the Steenbeck and six cans of film. Serge graciously threaded the first reel through and it became instantly clear that he was the only one of us that could make this thing work--due to the film's condition. We all huddled around the small screen, trying to translate the Flemish subtitles (Kate was quite good at this!) and discern the plot, but I have to say, that as frustrating as this must have been for Serge and possibly for the other viewers, there's nothing like seeing a rare film and seeing it this way made it even more of an adventure. Bless you, Serge, for providing us the opportunity.

The plot is easily provided by reviews of the film that are still available. Jerry Clark, who, by day is an advice columnist for the lovelorn called "Dolly Whipple,"discovers a plot afoot that involves a young rich girl, Lydia, played by Patsy Ruth Miller, who will be forced to marry a man who is only after her inheritance. Syd as Jerry, then, decides to go to her rescue, and must dress as a woman at different points in order to do so, because someone at the paper is involved (Edgar Kennedy's character, among others).

Mordaunt Hall gave the film a fairly bad review in the New York Times: "Sydney Chaplin is appearing in a boisterous bit of buffoonery called "Oh! What a Nurse!" the authorship of which is credited to Robert E. Sherwood, editor of "Life", and Bertram Bloch. It is only fair to state that none of Mr. Sherwood's usually brilliant wit is perceptible in this production, but at the same time, had he or Mr. Bloch been in the Mark Strand yesterday afternoon, they would have heard round after round of loud laughter."

In William Drew's book, "Speaking of Silents: the First Ladies of the Screen," he quotes Patsy Ruth Miller on the film: "I did 'Oh! What a Nurse!' with Syd Chaplin in 1926, but I never got to know him. That was a mistake. I should never have been put in that picture. That was one of the few times I was angry at the studio. It was silly. They were using my name because Syd Chaplin really didn't mean a thing. So I was forced to do it simply because they thought my name on it would make it amount to something. I didn't enjoy making it. I thought it was a stupid film, and I didn't think Mr. Chaplin had any personality. I thought he was rather common--sort of a music-hall type of comic--and we had nothing in common" (149). After my viewing, I'm not sure what Miller really had to complain about, because she was hardly in the thing. I think she should have been greatful at least that she escaped Syd's predations, but maybe she didn't and thus the rancor. She's mistaken, however, about her importance to this film. Sydney was well-established by this time and was making a lot of money for Warner's.

Probably the thing we noticed most by watching this film was Sydney's appearance. He had taken his new role as "male romantic comedy lead" to heart. Here, he is slim and trim--every bit as fit and wiry as Charlie ever was--and he has capped his teeth as well (not attractive, in my estimation). We all just kept commenting on his physique!

My original litho-ed "Oh! What a Nurse" poster, supposedly the only one in existence, arrived in the mail last week. Perhaps now I need to offer up some more money to have the film restored to go with it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

It's all over but the crying...

In honor of my mother who died ten years ago today, I was able to get a query package off to my first-choice publisher, complete with well-polished sample chapter. So, Syd is on the road, so to speak. Does this mean I sit on my laurels or buff my nails? No. I have three more chapters to write--and an intro and also, I mean to submit queries to at least two more publishers this month. It's kind of like applying for a job, though, in that each one wants something different from you. The other two I'm interested in want a traditional type of prospectus and one also wants the introduction, which I haven't written. So, what with my other responsibilities--an article for the Ohio Historical Society on Charlie and a presentation for Iola coming up next month--I think it may be October before I can get the other two in the mail. Ballpark four months waiting time to hear from any of them, so that puts me into early 2010. It would truly be nice to have the book finished and a publisher interested well BEFORE the Chaplin conference comes along next October, but I truly doubt that's going to happen. Who knows.

My next chapter will be on Syd's old age years. I probably have the least amount of day-to-day information on that time period, so it shouldn't be terribly taxing to get that completed. That will leave two chapters for which there is the MOST information--the ones involving Syd's working at the Chaplin Studios as business manager and then embarking on a solo career, so 1916-1927 or so. These were ten very busy years for Sydney, and I have a lot of information I've collected that needs to be organized before I begin writing.

Over winter break, which is still six weeks, thankfully, I will be traveling one last time to London to try to find some specific bits of information, mainly about Sydney's time at British International Pictures. I have a couple of days of appointments at the BFI and then I hit the court records. I'm also hoping to interview at least one of the two great nephews of Minnie's that have contacted me lately. (Thanks to these men, I now have a lot more information about Minnie).

So, after a summer of spotty writing and research, I'm not totally unhappy with my progress. People ask me, after all this time, how I really feel about Syd. The answer is complicated. As a biographer, you spend so much time researching and getting to know your subject--both the good and the bad about him--yet, despite it all, you can't help to find something endearing. I can say that's true for Sydney. I know his nieces and nephews loved him very much, his wives did as well--despite everything--and it is clear that Sydney and Charlie's relationship was one for the ages. So, who am I to judge Sydney Chaplin as this or that. He had the love of his family, and not everyone can say that. Yes, I'm quite fond of him now and expect to remain so after this is all overwith.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Syd in Nice

I decided earlier this year that I needed to go to Nice for a couple of reasons. Next to the area in Switzerland around Vevey (namely Montreux), Nice is the place Sydney spent most of his adult life after 1929. He owned a flat there in the Palais Rosa-Bonheur, one that was in Minnie's name while she was alive, but was later in his name. In his later years, he lived in Montreux during the summer and Nice during the winter, staying at the ritzier hotels in both places. He died on Charlie's birthday in 1965 in Nice, at the Hotel Ruhl, which has since been replaced by a very ugly casino. Minnie also died in Nice. So, I needed to go there. I felt, if nothing else, that perhaps I could channel Sydney there more than in any other place.

So, this summer I went. Lucky for me, a year earlier, I met a resident of Nice online. Jean-Paul Woodall, freelance maker of books and films, contacted me about a film he was making on the former Provencal Hotel in Juan-les-Pins. Lucky for him, I had quite a few candid photos of Charlie at this hotel, because in the 1930s it was owned by Gould and so, Charlie stayed there with May Reeves for free during his European tour. I provided the photos for the film and an accompanying book. I was already hatching a plan to go to Nice for the aforementioned reasons, so I mentioned these to Jean-Paul. He immediately offered his help. A year went by. I contacted him again and he was still willing to help. So, he became my guide and research assistant during the week I just spent there in late June.

Jean-Paul helped me navigate the local archival collections. There are two municipal archives in Nice, both just like you might picture--old buildings with ancient archivists rattling around the dusty halls. Well, I got no help at either one, mainly because what I was looking for was not to be found there. Instead, the Archives departmentales des Alpes-Maritimes was the place for me. It was well out of town, about a 35-minute bus ride, but once inside it had a great range of databases, including many of the newspapers of the period. I began looking, not just for Syd, but for any mention of Minnie's demise or death. I had a range of dates--late July to early September, 1936, but no specific date. I managed to search every day between those endpoints while I was there, to no avail. Obviously Sydney managed to keep Minnie's death out of the papers.

An archivist there asked me to fill out a form that would provide him Sydney's name and dates, and the same information for his two wives. One of the services he provides then is to look up anything and everything in his collection on these people and send them to me--free of charge. But, immediately he ran into problems. There seemed to be no record of Minnie's purchase of the Palais Rosa-Bonheur flat in 1931, or any other legal record in the system. Later, we were to find out that part of the problem was that Minnie was Minnie Gilbert, not Minnie Chaplin. So, more intrigue. But Jean-Paul was unable to find her death certificate for me until after I had already departed. Yes, it was that difficult.

Besides the ambiance of Nice that I was enjoying, one of my other great discoveries was the apartment building itself. It still existed, sitting as it does just half a block from the ocean, way down on the Promenade des Anglais. It's a beautiful Art Deco building. Jean-Paul, however, working some of his usual magic, called everyone in the phone book listed for the building and actually connected with the current owner, a M. Berthoud, who was the same owner at the time Syd and Gypsy lived there. Well, the current owner is probably the grandson of that person. Anyway, he contacted the elderly couple living in Syd's apartment--the penthouse apartment on the sixth floor--and low and behold, they invited us in! It was an amazingly beautiful place with mosaic tile floors, crown molding and a balcony going all the way round the apartment. It was very spacious too, and even with the new building development between it and the ocean, it still had a fine view. It was an amazing afternoon for me.

Really, just being in Nice (my first visit) was an amazing experience for me and helped me to understand my subject more than I have. He truly lived a life of affluence--and leisure, despite the demise of his film career. I don't think I truly understood that until I came here.

So, now I'm home again, after a productive trip, ready to continue writing. My goal now is to have all but two chapters completed by the end of the summer, and this goal is in sight. The childhood chapter is done and the Karno chapter is on the road. It's almost time to send sample chapters to publishers, I think.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Family Interviews

One of the most enjoyable and challenging resources for the book has been the family, or at least those members of it that have so selflessly agreed to have me grill them with my inane questions. Family members I have been lucky enough to interview over the past few years include Michael and Christopher Chaplin, both of whom I interviewed during the Cinema Ritrovato Festival in 2007, Pauline Mason who is Charlie's cousin Aubrey Chaplin's youngest daughter and Betty Tetrick's half-sister, in December of 2007 and then Geraldine, just recently at her home in Miami Beach. Each of these interviews gave me a unique perspective on Sydney, that I wouldn't have been able to get from any book, letter, or archival document.

Michael's interview was interesting, because although he started it by saying he really remembered very little, as the questions continued, it was clear he was remembering more and more--like Sydney's fondness (and ritual with) cigars and he and Gypsy's habit of visiting the pawnshops each morning around the casinos--their method of adding to a large collection of gaudy jewelry very cheaply.

Christopher, who would have been three when Sydney died, talked to me about family folklore regarding his uncle. I especially appreciated this perspective, because it helped me to see how much of this folklore had made it verbatim into the scanty literature already in existence about Syd--say in David Robinson's wonderful bio or Charlie's own autobiography. One question I can't get anyone to confirm to me is why everyone thought that Syd was Jewish. There seems to be absolutely no confirmation of this anywhere, and in fact, Syd himself liked to tell jokes about the race. Christopher told me that the folklore included a belief that Sydney's second wife was also Jewish. Amazing how these rumors are proliferated!

Pauline Mason, who was in her early 80s when I interviewed her, looked positively wonderful. She had big beautiful photos of both Charlie and Betty throughout her house and really only wanted to talk to me about those two folks. I know from his correspondence that Sydney and Minnie did quite a lot for Betty and Pauline herself had several wonderful photos of Syd, perhaps passed along from her father Aubrey, but she could remember very little about him, or his second wife Gypsy, with whom she visited quite often after Sydney's death. I mean, she remembered the great honor of being invited to stay with Gypsy at the famous Beau Rivage hotel where Gypsy lived and all of that, but remembered very little of Gypsy's stories. She did remember Josephine's wedding, however, in incredible detail--obviously one of the few Chaplin family events she was invited to attend. Anyway, I enjoyed meeting Pauline and her daughter that cold December day outside London, I enjoyed our lunch at the local pub, and an afternoon of conversation, but I gleaned very little about my subject for all my trouble.

Finally, I have recently had the honor of interviewing Geraldine about her uncle. I took along two full pages of questions and, in the end, came home with an entirely different collection of information than I expected. She couldn't answer the questions about all the scandals that I had. Unbelievably, that information just doesn't seem to have made its way through the generations, and I think Sydney would be very happy about that. She provided me, however, with some very vivid and detailed stories of Sydney's visits during her childhood, complete with a couple of verbatim jokes of his. Gypsy she remembered clearly as well. And it is these sorts of stories that will help me to fill out the final chapters of the book, making the elderly characters "Sydney and Gypsy Chaplin" fully fleshed out and realistic ones.

I can't thank these folks enough for allowing me to usurp their time and memories in hopes of enhancing this project with the results. And, I can't thank Kate Guyonvarch enough for making most of these contacts possible.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Minnie Chaplin's Film Career

While I'm in the midst of the long first chapter on Syd's childhood, education and career with Karno, I thought I would take a bit of a break and present some information on Minnie Chaplin's film career. It is known that Syd and Minnie performed together with Karno, especially in the show called "Skating," written by Syd, but there is also a photo of the cast of "The Hydro" in which she appears, suggesting that she may have also been a part of that cast as well. Surely, as a part of the Karno troupe of comedians, Minnie received at least a fraction of the tutelage the Chaplin brothers received in every sort of stage business. Even if she hadn't been Sydney Chaplin's wife, she would have been the sort of skilled comedy actress Keystone would have found very useful.

What's surprising, perhaps, is that she was not utilized by Keystone more. But, as it was, Minnie appeared in only five Keystones, all while Sydney was on contract. Her first was a location film, Gussle Rivals Jonah, in which she plays a sort of prudish young woman who is completely disgusted by the sleeping gentleman slouching over onto her. In fact, she plays a similar character in many of the films. She also appears in Gussle's Backward Way, Gussle Tied to Trouble, and Lover's Lost Control. In this last film, she is given a several-minute sequence on her own. Having rebuffed Gussle's flirtations, Minnie's prudish young woman receives his revenge, when he spins a long petticoat to her backside and she, in agitation, must try to figure out how to rid herself of it. Then her final Keystone appearance was a brief second-long glimpse of her in the beginning of A Submarine Pirate--an appearance brought to my attention by Brent Walker.

Then, of course, Minnie appears in the cabaret scene in A Dog's Life, in which plays one of the anonymous dancers. One wonders what Minnie thought of life as an actress, and whether or not she missed it.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Winter Break

Check out my new research assistant!

Since I'm about to head back to school tomorrow, I thought I would write briefly about the progress I made over the break. It's always amazing to me that six weeks can go so quickly. Despite all of my procrastinating and two weeks in Seattle, I managed to finish two chapters. What I'm calling chapters at this point are really only circumscribed time periods of Syd's life that I can get my mind around. So, some are like 20 pages and some 50+ pages. I envision that the demarkations of the chapters that comprise the finished biography will be quite different from what I'm calling "chapters" right now.

Anyway, I first finished a chapter covering 1932-1937. This is the period following Syd's participation in Charlie's world tour and his becoming comfortable with life in Nice, France following that tour. Much has been made of the fact that Syd never owned property, that he preferred to live in hotels, but that's simply not entirely true--as seems to be the case with much that I'm discovering. Right now I'm having a war with some idiot on wikipedia, who insists on including the nipple-biting incident in Syd's wikipedia entry. But the truth is just not that simple. Matthew Sweet, who wrote the article that appeared in the UK on this issue based his contentions on the hearsay evidence of a ninety-something Betty Tetrick. And that's all. As Syd's biographer, I really wish the story was that simple, but it isn't. It seems good old Monty Banks was involved in a way that none of us may ever be able to figure out, but that's not the only gray area. Anyway, back to my original assertion. It turns out that, in fact, the Chaplins owned a flat in Nice for many years--probably up until Syd's death or shortly before. Of course, it was in Minnie's name initially, which could be the source of confusion, but the address was Palais Rosa-Bonheur and one of the great letters I accessed in Milan, Italy last April gave a lot of information about it and when it was acquired. This has really been my biggest challenge in writing this book: old questions are answered, just as new questions arise. This chapter tries to cover the period up to Minnie's terrible death from breast cancer in 1936, and luckily, the Milan correspondence helped to fill in most of this period.

The next chapter and one I'm still tidying up is the Keystone Chapter. This one is 50 pages and still going strong. Not only am I pleased to say that all Syd's Keystones exist (except for most of Fatty's Wine Party), but a lot of information about this period I was able to get from Motion Picture News, Moving Picture World and a great database of small-town newspapers called NewspaperArchive. As I mentioned before, one of the greatest discoveries for this chapter was Minnie Chaplin's film career. She seemed to be included only in the location films: Gussle's Backward Way, Gussle Tied to Trouble, and Gussle Rivals Jonah. Actually, it's amazing to me how many books have been written on the Keystone studios in general. Two new ones have come out just in the past few months and then, of course, we're all waiting for Brent Walker's book with baited breath. Thankfully, Brent already shared most of his Syd information with me for the book (another gracious colleague), but I think I may try to get up to Madison, Wisconsin to the Aitken Bros. Collection spring break, just to make sure I haven't missed anything.

My next chapter will be about Syd's childhood and I'm more than ready to begin writing it. I think I've come up with some interesting tidbits for that period of time that everyone will be interested in. Happy New Year everyone!