Syd Chaplin is often dismissively referred to as Charlie’s half-brother, or given some marginal attention for having helped secure Charlie Chaplin’s high paying contracts during the late teens. In fact, Syd had a comedy career of his own, had discernible talent as a comedian and director, enjoyed a variety of accomplishments in several fields, and, according to Lisa Stein’s massive and thorough biography, was a more troublesome individual than his legendary half-brother.
Stein’s biography reveals that Syd and Charlie shared a lonely, frightening existence as homeless children in the London slums, struggled through success and failure on the music hall stage, and eventually found their way into films. However there are surprisingly few parallels, as Charlie became perhaps the most important figure in comedy movies, while Syd simply held his own in a career that might have enjoyed greater success if not for his off-screen indulgences. Syd enjoyed some discernible success with his Gussle character at Mack Sennett’s Keystone studios, where he secured a comfortable niche among the bulging eyes, blatant gestures, and wild pratfalls that were the slapstick norm for the production company. While his brother constantly fought for greater creative control throughout his 36-film tenure at Keystone in 1914, Syd was initially more interested in exploring the intricacies of comedy. His gags were more complicated, less superficial, and Stein explains in some detail how Syd’s comedy requires greater attention from the viewer. Stein also recounts how the Gussle comedies improved under the direction of veteran actor and filmmaker Charles Avery, who was noted for allowing the starring comedian some level of creative input beyond performance. Syd rose to the occasion by contributing to the directorial process — experience he would find useful later on. Some attention is given to what is arguably Syd’s finest Sennett production, the four-reel A Submarine Pirate (Charles Avery, Syd Chaplin, 1915), which was a hit in its time, and remains a minor classic. While the Gussle character has the same comically unrefined approach as many of the Keystone stalwarts, by the time of A Submarine Pirate, Syd had modified his approach to settle more comfortably within the changing mode of comedy that had been initiated by brother Charlie. By this time, Charlie was making his transitional comedies at the Essanay studios, reinventing slapstick as one that stems from a central character that has some depth and substance.
Stein also describes the period between 1916 and 1918 when Syd was off-screen helping to manage his brother’s affairs, securing his successful contracts for Mutual Studios and, later, First National. It was at Mutual where Charlie Chaplin would make some of his finest two-reel comedies, including The Pawnshop (1916) and The Adventurer (1917). Charlie would later refer to this period as his happiest time making films. Syd managed to secure an enormous signing bonus of $150,000 and $10,000 per week, along with the sort of creative control that allowed him to fully supervise each production without regard to budgetary limitations. Charlie maintained this salary when going to First National in 1918, Syd arranging he get a $200, 000 signing bonus.
It was at First National when Syd returned to acting, appearing in small roles in some of Charlie’s films, including A Dog’s Life (1918) and Shoulder Arms (1918). This eventually led to a stronger return to on screen performances, Syd directing, co-writing, and starring in such popular comedies as King, Queen, and Joker (1921), which includes a barber shaving sequence that later inspired a similar turn in Charlie’s iconic first talkie The Great Dictator (1940). After achieving some real success with a screen version of the stage comedy Charley’s Aunt (Scott Sidney, 1925), Syd went over to Warner Brothers to star in such features as The Better Ole (Charles Reisner, 1926) and The Missing Link (Charles Reisner, 1927). By 1928, Syd’s film career was over due to sordid activities with a younger woman who accused him of biting off one of her nipples during a violent sexual encounter. By 1931, Syd Chaplin was bankrupt, rejoining brother Charlie as his publicity manager. He lived until 1965.
Stein’s book is about Syd Chaplin’s entire life, including a rather interesting period where he ran his own aircraft company, the first domestic airline in America. However, much of the book concentrates on his film work both on his own and with his more notable half-brother. Arguably the most interesting aspect of Stein’s study is how she effectively makes a case for Syd as both a comedian and filmmaker whose work deserves greater notice and should not be overshadowed by his more accomplished half-brother. Still, the gist of the book is the fact that Syd Chaplin’s intractable behavior was such that it forced him to move from one venture to another, and never really establishing himself completely in any of the myriad of occupations he attempted. While Stein indicates, with sufficient evidence, that Syd was an accomplished comedian, filmmaker, pilot, and businessman, she admits that this impressive array of successful ventures were necessary due to his behavior forcing him to move from one occupation to the next, sometimes leaving an entire country to avoid repercussion.
As a result, there is a fascinating, titillating aspect to Syd’s story, with all its sordid details. Stein reports without exploiting, saving her deeper assessments for his contribution to cinema, but offers every aspect of his life in a readable, engrossing manner. The book carefully offers reference for each of the facts Stein presents, and while it is filled with information, it never appears crowded or stilted. It is a testament to Stein’s writing ability and excellent research. A reasonable number of Syd Chaplin subjects survive, including the readily available A Submarine Pirate and Charley’s Aunt as well as several of the better Gussle efforts, and some of the Warner features. Stein’s book successfully inspires its readers to seek out some of the better work from the other Chaplin.
Lisa K. Stein Syd Chaplin: A Biography, McFarland and Company: North Carolina, 2011.