Friday, August 3, 2012

After some three years, the publishing of "Syd Chaplin: A Biography" in December, 2010, the "Charlie in the Heartland: An International Charlie Chaplin conference" in Zanesville, OH and much more (including my marriage), has been updated at last.  It's funny how you strive and strive and strive to finish something, then once it's finished, you forget about all the things you should probably do to follow up.  Anyway, the website is updated, Syd's bio has been out quite a while, and I am on to new adventures (in some respects).

Reviews for the book were overwhelmingly positive, which provided me a lot of satisfaction.  Thanks to all of you who have contacted me with your comments.  Keep them coming!

I still have some hopes of a traveling exhibit in Syd's honor, possibly focusing on the airline, and then maybe a documentary and film collection on DVD down the road, but I'm not sure any of this is possible.  We'll see what opportunities present themselves.

Posts here will remain few and far between and will be written only to update readers on scholarship (my own or others') on Syd that is new and/or upcoming.

My next project will be on Charlie.  Prospectus in the works!

Lisa Stein Haven
3 August 2012

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Nearly Done--Time for Vacation?

Although I turned my manuscript in about three weeks ago, it is only now, at this point in time, that I'm able to reflect on it and offer some near-concluding thoughts.

The writing experience, to me, is a difficult one, largely because of the public scrutiny it requires. No matter how many eyes I allow to gaze at the pages before I mark them "done," no one was ever as pleased as I felt they should have been. So, I conclude this writing project full of doubt about how it will be viewed.

Granted I was working according to a set of parameters that are probably not either understood or valued by the average reader. This had to be an academic book and as such will not read like a David McCullough or even a Scott Eyman. I still want to write a biography in their style--in other words, a biography that utilizes literary techniques in order to make the material more readable and more enjoyable. The Syd book, however, although containing a wealth of new and interesting information, was a book I wrote for tenure--a scholarly treatment of both his life and career. As such, I am very proud of it and I hope others will enjoy it, too. It certainly presents Syd Chaplin in a way never before attempted anywhere.

The title of the book will be "Syd Chaplin: A Biography," as simple as that. I kind of like it. Unlike Sydney himself, there is no doubt here of the book's subject matter. There's no mystery. I think it's going to be a large paperback (7" X 10") and around 400 pages. I have been told that it will also be released in an e-book version, which is kind of exciting. As one who embraced technology before others, Sydney would have appreciated that, I think.

We're already listed on the McFarland site and I think I was told it would be in the Fall catalog, but I'm not sure what that means. I look forward to traveling around with Sydney next spring and summer, talking about him to whomever will allow me. Will pass on other information as I receive it.

I always learn something about myself after completing a project. This one was especially daunting. I got a contract well before the book was completed and I had (unwisely) left the most intense chapters for last. Some of them ended up being 50 pages in length. I don't recommend it for everyone, but my particular mania always seems to thrive on procrastination (at some level) and so I wrote 135 pages in three weeks, working every spare moment I had beyond my teaching and other academic duties (and planning the Chaplin conference!). I hope these particular chapters aren't discernible in the text itself.

And then post-book, there is always a sort of mourning period, which I'm still experiencing somewhat. Up until this week, I couldn't bear to go into my office and face the piles of books and articles heaped on the floor, following the writing. I am now able to try to re-order them all, because I know that soon I will be working on the index. When that is completed, my work will be mostly over.

Stay tuned for updates.

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!

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.