Friday, February 5, 2010

Syd and "The Great Dictator"

One of my google alerts for Sydney today quoted the line from Attenborough's "Chaplin," regarding "The Great Dictator," that "nobody wants to watch a film about Adolf effing Hitler!" Because I am writing the final chapter in Sydney's life at the moment and have just completed the section on his participation in this film, I thought I would prove to everyone here just how wrong this line was and how it would NEVER have been something Sydney would say about the film. Was he concerned with all the money Charlie was paying out on this production? Yes. Did he complain about that and do whatever he could to rectify it? Yes. Did Charlie heed his concerns. No. As Dan James is quoted as saying in David Robinson's biography, it was clear that Charlie had outgrown Sydney by this time. Sad to say, this seems to be true. Clearly, the long separation between the two brothers, brought on by Sydney's self-imposed exile on the French Riviera (they were separated five whole years at one point) and the death of Minnie Chaplin, who by all accounts may have been one of the biggest thorns in Charlie's side, resulted in Sydney being fairly un-influential in the later years of the brothers' lives. Mention of Sydney drops out of "My Autobiography" after the 1931-2 tour!

Anyway, here are a few quotes from letters I've uncovered of the period. Sydney kept up his correspondence with R. J. Minney, British journalist and playwright, into the 1940s and 1950s. In a letter written shortly after Sydney's arrival back in LA to work on "The Great Dictator" production, Sydney writes, "I think it will be one of the best pictures from an interest point of view." A month later, his perspective was even more positive: "I think it will be one of the funniest pictures Charlie has ever made, aside from the topical end of it, which should also be an additional attraction." This letter, written in March 1939, suggests that at least in this moment of writing Minney, Sydney is resigned to the fact of the expenses: "Of course, there are a lot of calamity howlers who are worried about the receipts, but I think the only one who should worry about that is Charlie. His money is going into it & he doesn't give a damn."

So, what was Sydney's role? Jack-of-all-trades, is probably the best description. A February 1939 letter suggests that he thought he might receive a speaking role in the film (Garbitsch), but that quickly died away. There is evidence that he was in on writing the script and gag-brainstorming sessions, that he was involved with casting. But a letter written from Havana, Cuba in March 1941 is graphically clear about his position on the production: "When I arrived, I found everything in a dilapidated, run-down condition. [...] I found the property room like a pig sty, filthy with dust and cobwebs. The Sunset house the same way, paper peeling off the walls & the place overrun with rats. You should see the difference now." And this seems to be just the beginning. Sydney found the still room in a shambles with glass plates strewn all about and some broken. He also claims to have had the supervising and letting of contracts for the erection of new buildings and the installation of sound equipment, amongst many other duties that obviously, no one else wanted to tackle. Needless to say, it made Sydney an unpopular character as well--with everyone but Charlie. An unnamed snitch reported him to Immigration and he was forced to escape to Cuba with Gypsy to try to get his paperwork in better order! And "The Great Dictator" marked Sydney's last-ever work on a film production of any kind.

I have about three more chapters to write and a deadline for doing so fast approaching. Better stop blogging and start writing!


Mr Pendlebury said...

Looking forward to reading the finished product.

Kevin Handy said...

This is going to be an EXCELLENT book. If the author tours the Dallas-Fort Worth area I would love to meet her! Wow what a tremendous opportunity to better understand Syd Chaplin. He was certainly an icon in his own right.

Snorre Mathiesen said...

I look so much forward to this book! And I'm glad you point out that Syd's comment about "Dictator" in the 'Chaplin'-film was false, I'm surprised Attenborough got away with that.