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283: Chaplin with Scott Eyman

Classic film historian Scott Eyman’s new book is out today! It’s called Charlie Chaplin vs. America: When Art, Sex and Politics Collided, so today we’ll be chatting with Scott about Charlie Chaplin’s life as it was depicted in the 1992 biopic from Richard Attenborough.

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Note: This transcript is automatically generated. There will be mistakes, so please don’t use them for quotes. It is provided for reference use to find things better in the audio.

Dan LeFebvre: Before we dive into some of the details of the movie, if you were to give 1992’s Chaplin a letter grade for its historical accuracy, what would it get?

[00:02:34] Scott Eyman: C plus B minus. It’s not a Fantasia, but it’s not terribly factual in a lot of details because well, his problem, Richard Attenborough, the director, and it was one of his passion projects problem was that he committed himself psychologically and emotionally to telling the whole story.

from childhood to basically senescence. In chapel of 88 years. So how do you get an 88 year lifespan into two hours and 20 minutes? It can’t be done. You’re gonna be hop, skipping and jumping around. The way to do a biography of important world figure, it seems to me is the Lawrence of Arabia idea.

You take three or four or five crucial years. You focus on those crucial years. And you try to intuit psychologically where they come from and where they’re going at the end of them. And it seems to me that’s the best way to do it. But Attenborough was, it was his movie, he made his choice, and he wanted to do the whole war.

But correctly, he believed that the key to Chaplin’s character was his childhood. Which is very true. Because Chaplin had a childhood of utter chaos and deprivation and… want essentially psychological and at times emotional and certainly physical. There was a short period when he lived on the streets, and he had what asked for a social services of Victorian London, which is to say, good luck.

So he grew up with an absolute attitude of self reliance. He cared, not a, not anything about what conventional society thought was civilized or what conventional society thought or cared about. He realized that his survival was going to depend on him alone and so he was there was no way to convince him.

Given the first 12 years of his life, 15 years of his life.

[00:04:32] Dan LeFebvre: Mentioning his childhood, that’s a great segue into my next question, because the movie does begin with Charlie Chaplin’s childhood. And we learned quite a few things from the movie. We learned that money was very tight for them, as you alluded to.

His father was not in the picture. Mother didn’t seem to do well on stage. We see her once on stage, but she mostly earns a living doing patchwork, like making gloves, try to put food on the table. We see Charlie’s older brother, Sid, being sent off to a training ship. We don’t really see that, but it’s mentioned.

And then Charlie was sent to a workhouse for a year. We also see Charlie’s mother, Hannah being committed to an asylum when Charlie is maybe 12 or so. The movie’s a little vague on that timeline. But that’s ultimately why the movie explains Charlie getting into vaudeville to try to earn money to get his mom into a better place.

How well does the movie do setting up Charlie Chaplin’s early years?

[00:05:23] Scott Eyman: Reasonably well. It shortchanges Sid, his older brother, by two years. They were half brothers theoretically. Charlie’s mother and Sid’s mother, they shared a mother, fathers were different theoretically. Charlie’s mother was adjudicated insane when Charlie was a child.

She also had syphilis. We don’t know, there’s no way of telling whether the madness or her mental condition derived from tertiary syphilis or whether it predated the syphilis. We just don’t know. In other words, what was the extent of her emotional difficulties before the syphilis got a hold of her.

But Sid was… The only real center of gravity that Charlie had as a child. Sid’s two years older. Nobody was ever a hundred percent sure who Sid’s father was. The lifestyle of the English musical was, shall we say, sexually free and easy. And both of Charlie’s parents grew up at where we’re musical performers.

Charlie’s father, Charles Chaplin senior, their middle name was different. So Charlie Chaplin is not as technically a junior, although they have the same first and last names, but a different Charlie’s father was considerably successful, but he was an alcoholic and died before he was 40. Charlie’s mother lived into her sixties, but she was mad.

But Sid was the only person upon whom he could depend essentially. It was Sid who took Charlie in hand when he came back from his training mission on a ship and found Charlie living on the streets, their mother had gone insane and been adjudicated a ward of the state. Sid had saved up some money because Sid had decided he didn’t want to be a sailor.

He wanted to be in show business and he’d saved up several dozen pounds, which was a fair amount of money at that point. We’re talking about 1903 or so, 1902, 1903 had saved up some money from his time on the ship and had determined to go into show business. Which he did Charlie had dabbled in show business when his father was still alive, his father had gotten him a job as a clog dancer with a group of child dancers called the Lancashire lads, the aid Lancashire lads, and so Charlie had stuck his toe in show business in the English bottom but he hadn’t really, I don’t think thought about pursuing it as a lifestyle, but Sid became reasonably successful with the cartoon, the red cartoon company, which was the.

English comic vaudeville troupe. I don’t know, had multiple Karno. It was like a Broadway show with had six road companies. Okay. Hamilton has a road company in Chicago. They’ve got one in Palm Beach. They got all these road companies circling the world. That was what Karno’s had. They were, he had five, six, seven backs and they just toured all over England and the continent and Sid got a job with Karno.

And after a couple of years where Sid felt stable, he got his brother, he had asked Karno to take a look at his kid brother, Charlie, and Charlie was at this point about 18 and looked like a scared doe, and Karno basically took him on as a favor to Sid because he didn’t think he had any particular ability but he blossomed and he became the star of the Karno show, far out outrunning Sid but that was only the first.

of the mitzvahs that Sid did for his brother. Sid adored Charlie. Charlie adored Sid. They were always there for each other. And they could always depend on each other. And Sid was a, I think, fair to say, a louche character. He was always trying to devise methods for outwitting income tax. He was hellacious with women, far more than his brother, actually.

Charlie had the reputation, but Sid was really lethal. And not socially acceptable, particularly. But none of that made any difference because Sid is always there for Charlie. And they were extremely loyal to each other until Sid’s dying day. Sid died first, on Charlie’s birthday accident, actually.

Which I’m sure casts a pall over the day. But, Sid barely appears in the, because Attenborough’s only got so much time. Very important things like Sid’s presence, like the bond between them, the way that Charlie could always count on Sid, and Sid could also always count on Charlie just doesn’t appear.

[00:09:55] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah, that makes sense. You mentioned that it was Sid’s father that helped him get into vaudeville, so the father was in the picture a little bit, or was that just real

[00:10:03] Scott Eyman: Charlie’s father helped get him. But then Charlie’s father died at the age of 37. Charlie was stuck with his mother, which was to say with nothing at all.

Charlie adored his mother worshipped her to his own dying day. But in any practical sense she wasn’t of much use. She had psychotic episodes. She had psychotic breaks. She would go into demented ravings. She would threaten people, never her children, never her two children, but she was, you couldn’t depend on her for anything.

So Sid getting Charlie into the Karnot troupe, into high end English vaudeville, was his his salvation, really. Because it gave him a professional identity, it gave him a center, it gave him a place to earn money. It also provided him the entry into movies.

[00:10:55] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah. Speaking of Karno, we do see that in the movie.

And according to the movie, his act, Charlie’s act with Mr. Karno is he’s a drunk guy falling all over the place. And it seems to be a hit with the audiences. It

[00:11:08] Scott Eyman: huge hit. That would, that’s a very factual, that was exactly he, Charlie did a comic drop. That was his comic character. Yeah, that was one of the Karno stock playlets as it were.

Where charlie is a drunk and he breaks up a vaudeville house vaudeville within vaudeville destroys all the, everybody else’s act within this vaudeville premise, and it was a very successful show. It was very successful all over England. It was successful on the continent and it was successful when they brought it to America.

[00:11:39] Dan LeFebvre: So was that, cause that was going to be my question cause that’s how the movie shows. His success in that show being how he got to tour America with Karno. And so that sounds like that’s actually how he got to America

[00:11:51] Scott Eyman: then. Yes, that is. Max Sennett caught Chaplin’s act was it Philadelphia? It was someplace in the East.

Chaplin spent two years basically touring America. And he adored America from the beginning. He saw every, he went to Cleveland he played Minneapolis, he played Butte, Montana. He, they covered, it wasn’t just the big cities in the east, they covered small towns, they covered everything. And he made some friends along the way, Groucho Marx, and he Groucho Marx saw Chaplin’s act, the Karnot Act and thought he was by far the greatest comedian he’d ever seen in his life.

And Groucho Marx had been exposed to a lot of great comedians. Now they’re both the Marx Brothers just starting out at this point, but Marx always said he was astonishingly funny. Everybody said Chaplin was astonishingly funny on stage. Marx would talk about that to his own dying day. The greatest comedian he ever saw was young Charlie Chaplin and middle aged Charlie Chaplin and old Charlie Chaplin.

But Chaplin was extremely successful when he came to America. And Max Sennett had seen that show called Night in the English Music Hall. I believe in Philadelphia, and when he lost his star comic at the Keystone Company, he thought that guy might be able to work, work for me. And he offered Chaplin a contract, and there was a lot of back and forth, because Chaplin was very security oriented, given his childhood.

And there’s two contracts that survived from Chaplin’s year with Mack Sennett and Keystone. The one I think it’s 150 a week which is a good salary in 1913. But there’s a, he could be cut loose with two weeks notice at any point. And Chaplin didn’t sign it. He held out for a full year contract, no cut contract.

He didn’t know if he was going to be good or not. But he wasn’t going to, he wasn’t going to quit a sure thing like the Karnot company. To get fired two


[00:13:46] Dan LeFebvre: later, right? The security was obviously a very important thing to him, which makes sense since explaining his childhood. That makes sense that the

[00:13:53] Scott Eyman: security is a security was crucial financial security.

He was very nervous about money for most of his life, even when he was very wealthy He was still a friend of his named max eastman. I quote eastman, in my book said that it wasn’t that he was cheap. He was anxious about money He was more conscious of the possibility of losing it than he was with the security that having millions of dollars gave him, and that’s a psychological thing and you couldn’t, it’s not a logical thing.

It’s a psychological thing. And he was always a little nervous about money, even when he was very well.

[00:14:29] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah. Which, yeah, again, makes sense. That’s one of those things that if you grow up in poverty like that’s probably, you’re going to have that their entire life.

[00:14:40] Scott Eyman: It’s almost, it’s like a suit of clothes.

You’re going to be wearing that the rest of your life, to one degree or another. Very few poor people. about money, even if they make a lot of it, it’s always an, it’s always going to be an issue. And that was certainly the case with Jeff.

[00:14:56] Dan LeFebvre: So one of the things that we see in the movie you mentioned with Butte, Montana and in the movie, it’s Butte Montana in 1913 when First is when he gets the letter from Max in it with the offer for $150 a week.

But that also seems to be the first time that Charlie has ever even seen a movie or the flickers as they call it, in, in that in the movie, and he’s fascinated by it. He just watches the same film over and over again. Was that when he was introduced to movies himself?

[00:15:25] Scott Eyman: No, he wasn’t really interested.

He’d seen them, of course, everybody had seen movies by 19 12, 19 13. If you were in, especially if you’re in the theater. Cause you’re looking at your competition because the movies are already starting to leech audiences away from vaudeville by that time. So he’d seen them, but he wasn’t terribly impressed.

He thought they were tacky because most of them were just one reelers, 10 minutes, eight or 10 minutes. And he didn’t think there were any competition and he didn’t think they were anything to worry about. And he wasn’t terribly interested in them as an art form or going to work

[00:15:55] Dan LeFebvre: for them.

Okay. Okay. Yeah, that seems to be a little

[00:15:59] Scott Eyman: different guy. He was very much a theater guy.

[00:16:02] Dan LeFebvre: Okay. Okay. I one thing before In the movie before he even leaves to come to America He does meet Hettie Kelly for the first time and almost instantaneously. He asks her to marry him She turns him down. She’s like I’m only 16 and plus we don’t even really know each other But charlie seems smitten.

Did he fall for her as fast as the movie

[00:16:23] Scott Eyman: implies in later life? He said I might have met her four times maybe six it was but He said the word he used was fetish. It was a fetish In other words, he was emotionally prepared to fall in love and she happened to be standing there. Oh, okay Yeah, god, he was beginning to feel comfortable on the stage.

He was making a living He didn’t have to worry about where his next meal was coming from anymore. What’s the next step? But what he doesn’t really, he does refer to it, not so much in the film. It’s not a factor in the film. It’s a huge factor in his life. He was incredibly shy about women.

There’s a wonderful story in my book that Groucho Marx tells, told. They’re in Salt Lake City. The Marx brothers are coming in. The Karnotroop is leaving. Sunday was the switch day because you didn’t have performances on Sunday because of blue laws. Because it was, everybody was supposed to be in church, especially in Salt Lake City.

No. So the Karno troops last performance was saturday. The marx brothers first performance is going to be on monday. But so on sunday you did your laundry. You relaxed, you got a good meal, you caught the train for the next gig. That was sunday in a lot of the life. So the marx brothers are in town and they know charlie from previous crossings, ships in the night things.

And the marx brothers looking for a go looking for cat house. Mhm. Now, I didn’t even know there were any in Salt Lake City, but clearly there were. So the Marx Brothers invite Chaplin to come with them to the House of Prostitution in Salt Lake City. He’s got nothing else to do. He’s not, his train doesn’t leave till that night.

So they go to the House of Prostitution. And Groucho told a story that the Marx Brothers immediately took girls. And went to the back to do what they were going to do, Charlie was so shy that he stayed in the front of the house in the parlor, playing with a dog, playing with the madam dog. He couldn’t work up the courage to choose a girl and take her in the back.

The Marks Brothers went and did everything. He stayed, he just waited for him in the front of the house. He said that was, and now Charlie becomes famous in a couple of years. He doesn’t have to ask anybody anymore. People ask him women ask. And that was like a huge set of doors opening for him because he was so painfully shy, possibly because that was his nature, possibly because of his background and because he never really got over the idea that he was a poor child in London, psychological.

But he didn’t pursue women so much. But the Eddie Kelly thing was what he called his word was a fetish and he barely knew her. But to, and even in his old age, he still thought about her. He still thought about it because it was just one of those instantaneous things where you look and you think this most beautiful creature was like, and she was just what are you talking about?

Who are you? You want to marry me? What? When? Now, she just was, she was sensible. She died in the 1918 flu epidemic and chaplain employed her brother, whose name was Arthur Kelly as his representative at United artists for 30 years. I’m sure the fact that he was Eddie Kelly’s brother had everything.

[00:19:50] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah, I’m sure that was not a coincidence.

[00:19:52] Scott Eyman: No. So she meant a great deal to him on some deep psychological level that he probably couldn’t even articulate. It went beyond the status of a teenage crush. It was more than a teenage crush.

[00:20:05] Dan LeFebvre: In the movie, we see the creation of Charlie Chaplin’s most famous character, the Tramp.

And the way the movie shows him coming up with the Tramp, it almost seems accidental. Mack Sennett is the director and he tells Charlie, To get changed one day, and he seems to be taking quite a bit of time to do that, but then Charlie comes out with the hat, suit, fake toothbrush mustache that we all know now as the tramp character, and he takes so long in the wardrobe that Mac just starts shooting the film without him, and then Charlie burst onto the set, and the whole film from then on out just seems to be improvised.

Was that really how Charlie Chaplin came up with the tramp? Yes

[00:20:42] Scott Eyman: and no. In his memoir, Chaplin was very specific about it. Senate had seen him on stage and Chaplin was made up as an old drunk on stage. He had on a mustache that added years to him, a kind of a handlebar mustache. He just looked older and he was made, they put lines on his face to make him look like he was at least 40 or 50 years old.

Chaplin’s 24 years old at this point. So when he showed up at Senate studio, Senate said, You can’t be that guy I saw in Philadelphia. You look, you’re a kid. And chaplain said, I am that guy, but anyway, they wanted to put him to work and said, it said, just put on a makeup, put on a funny makeup while chaplain wasn’t going to put on the makeup he used to carnel because it made him look old.

So we went to the prop room and he looked around and there was fair fatty, our buckles pants and chaplain was five foot six and weighed about 130 pounds, maybe. And Fatty Arbuckle weighed about 250 260, so the pants were huge, so he needed a belt and the pants were huge and baggy. He put on a pair of shoes that were a bit too big for him and because the pants were so baggy, he just maybe a coat that’s tight, do a contrast thing.

The coat was too tight, then he remembered that Senate thought he looked too young, so what puts age on a guy’s face? Facial hair. So then he pasted a little mustache on. A little toothbrush mustache and he put the bowler hat on, which was also sitting in the Brock room. And it took probably a half hour and it was all spur of the moment and improvisation, essentially the costume was an improvisation and he went on the set and no, they weren’t already shooting and he runs into the scene while the camera’s grinding.

That’s Richard Evans. But. The costumes and improvisation and Senate’s films were almost completely improvisations. They would make a movie off a one page synopsis. There was no script per, what we could call script. It was just basically a couple paragraphs of where it starts and where it finishes.

And how it was broken up in the shots was the director’s business. And it started and the audience laughed. The crowd behind the camera laughed and chap, Senate was not sure it was going to work because you can’t really judge. But when chaplains film started rolling out, the audience immediately responded and they started, the exhibitors wanted more prints because the demand grew very quickly, like a prairie fire.

And instead of making 15 or 20 prints, they had to make 50 or 50 prints for a chaplain, for instance. So you could tell that something was working with this character, with this comedian to such an extent, although he couldn’t hold onto it. It was a one year contract. And after three or four months, Chaplin started getting other offers.

He said the contract is your contract’s up in eight months. We’ll talk to you then. And so he was making, as I said, 275, I believe because they negotiated up from 150, but 175 a week at Senate. And his next job a year later was for 1, 500 a week. And in 1915, that’s a lot of money, that’s serious money because taxes were back, non existent really.

So it’s almost pure gross no, it’s actually pure debt, because you’re not really spending the over, his overhead was real low and from then on, it was just a constant ascension until. The 1940s, basically.

[00:24:15] Dan LeFebvre: It sounds similar to what the way that the movie shows him catapulting into fame is because of the tramp, but then the disconnect between Mack Sennett and Charlie Chaplin, according to the movie, is money.

We see Sid coming to America to be Charlie’s manager, and he asks for 1, 000 a week. You mentioned 1, 500 a week. And Mac just isn’t having, according to the movie, Mac isn’t having a thousand dollars a week because that’s more than he’s making. And so that’s the reason why, according to the movie, Charlie cuts ties with Mac Senate and then he forms his own company with Bronco Billy Anderson.

And then there’s voiceover where Charlie is explaining that all this, all the while he’s saving up money. For his own studio so that he can have full control. And then of course, later on in the movie, we do see him opening up his own movie studio. Does the movie do a good job of showing the way that Charlie went from acting to then directing?

We saw that Max and it let him start directing some films as well. And then to finally owning his

[00:25:16] Scott Eyman: own studio. Pretty good. Yeah, actually, they did a nice job of recreating what the atmosphere of early Hollywood is and chaplains part of chaplains chaplains background. Basically impelled him to take control of his own life, wherever it was, abs, wherever it was possible.

And because he didn’t trust anybody else. Yeah. , he didn’t trust, really trust anybody else. So when it becomes clear that this is not just a nine days wonder that this could, he could actually make a career outta this, and that the public is enchanted with him and is willing and there’s a great deal of money drifting his direction.

He begins to realize and he seizes the means of production as Karl Marx would say it within a couple of weeks of working prosthetic, he’s already agitating to direct. literal couple of weeks. And that would never change. That would never change. He never really trusted anybody else to take control of his life.

He would have in control of his life. He wouldn’t find anybody he trusted absolutely until he married O’Neill in 1942 or three. For he trusted her, he would never worry about he trusted her judgment. He trusted her intellect. He became a slavishly devoted husband for the first time in his life.

Until then he had to be in control at all times. Did he bring

[00:26:45] Dan LeFebvre: Sid on to be his manager? Like we see in the movie, cause you mentioned they trusted him. So did he trust him as his manager then? He acted

[00:26:51] Scott Eyman: as his agent basically for a couple of years. And to keep Sid close, he would tell, he in the book, there are these cables back and forth.

Sid, I need you. Sid would be in New York doing whatever Sid was doing in New York. And Charlie would be trying to turn out a film in L. A. And things weren’t going well. And he said here’s my premise. I’m wearing the Tramp costume, and I need the, Tramp does this, and this. Wire what you can.

He wanted gags. He wanted Sid to come up with premises, gags scenario, a rough scenario. And then a week later, he’d say, I need you here. Eden Cable, I need you here. And Sid would always come. He would drop whatever he was doing and show up in L. A. and help Charlie with… Whatever, whatever he needed help.

Sid was like a psychological crutch, an emotional crutch I think chaplain could have done without Sid. And there were periods when SSID would be in Europe for 10 years at a time because SSID relocated after 19 31, 30 31, the south of France. And he lived there until the war came, until World War II came.

Then he came back to America to get away from the war. After the war. He lived in Palm Springs for a while on a trailer. But then he went back to the South France and will stay there till he died. But he always dropped everything to come help Charlie when Charlie needed help. And when Charlie started making The Great Dictator, his first sound film he asked Sid to come over and help.

And Sid did a lot. Sid was basically, he wasn’t credited, but he was essentially acting as an associate producer. It was his idea to hire Jack Oakey to play Mussolini, the film’s version of Mussolini, Napoloni, Benzino, Napoloni. That was Sid’s idea. And Sid was very good in gag meetings and kept kept Charlie happy, kept Charlie bubbly.

Cause Charlie could be moody and not bipolar, but he had down period. Instead was more the happy vulnerability.

[00:28:51] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah. Yeah. It sounds like just again, going back to Charlie’s childhood he needed somebody that he could rely on there. And even if Sid, no matter what he gave, giving that, having that support system, there was something that Charlie.


[00:29:06] Scott Eyman: and relied on presence. I think made Charlie feel everything’s okay. And there are people that are in their lives like that. A lot of us have someone like that. Sometimes it’s a wife, sometimes it’s Oz, but there’s people that you simply trust with your life, and that was what Sid was to show.

[00:29:24] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah you mentioned Uno O’Neill and before we talk about her more we, there are some other wives that we see Charlie having in the movie. According to the movie, when he’s 29, he marries Mildred Harris. She’s 16 at the time. They get divorced after Charlie finds out that Mildred lied about being pregnant.

And then before long, Charlie gets married to another underage girl named Lena Gray. We don’t find out much else about her. The movie mentions that they had two kids together and for whatever reason, Charlie hated her. And then the movie mentions Charlie’s third wife, Paulette Goddard, jokes around by saying that she’s way too old for him.

She’s 21. His fourth and final wife. Then you mentioned is Uno O’Neill and the movie doesn’t mention her being underage, but it does show her as being significantly younger than Charlie is.

[00:30:11] Scott Eyman: He was, I think, 53. She was 18 when they.

[00:30:15] Dan LeFebvre: Okay. That’s significantly younger. So I get the impression that Charlie Chaplin liked younger women.

Is that true?

[00:30:21] Scott Eyman: Yeah, it’s a motif. It’s a motif. And that’s not to say he had exclusive taste for younger women. He had age appropriate affairs as well. Relation to any number of actresses. Pola Negri, Marion Davies. And they were all 27, 30, whatever. So it wasn’t an exclusive thing where he would only was attracted to younger women.

But younger women were clearly an attraction.

[00:30:48] Dan LeFebvre: One of the things that I got from the movie is with Hettie Kelly and then Una O’Neill in the movie, they’re played by the same actress. And so the impression I got was the movie was telling this idea of maybe Charlie is Seeing Una as Hedy, as you mentioned, Hedy passed away in the flu epidemic.

Did Charlie see some sort of similarity between Una and Hedy that we know of, or is that just a movie thing?

[00:31:16] Scott Eyman: I think it was a movie thing. I don’t see it. Looking at Hedy and looking at Una I knew Charlie’s son, Sidney, named after his brother. And Sidney was loved his father. He was the one of the children by Lita Gray, second Charlie’s second parent.

And Sidney adored Una. And he said, the thing about Una was she was extremely intelligent. And he said, my in my mind’s eye, she’s always walking around with a Philip Roth novel. She was well read. She was articulate. They had eight kids together. But she was no vapid. She had a brain.

She was Eugene O’Neill’s daughter. Although he was a, Eugene O’Neill was a catastrophic father and not much of a human being for that. Una had two brothers. Both of them committed suicide. Both of Eugene O’Neill’s sons were suicide. And I, it’s possible that Una escaped suicide because she married Charlie Chen.

Because he gave her, each of them gave the other. The completely responsive love that they’ve been searching for their entire lives because O’Neill was forbidding and judge judgmental. And Charlie was looking for someone to be like his mother, but not crazy. He wanted complete acceptance and complete love.

And she gave, and Una gave him that. And in return, he gave her the feeling of security and warmth and a place to come to that she’d never had because of her upbringing.

[00:32:53] Dan LeFebvre: It sounds like they had similar childhoods in that they were both looking for that security and giving that to each other is well, they both

[00:33:00] Scott Eyman: had deprived childhoods chaplain economically.

UNA psychologically and emotionally.

[00:33:06] Dan LeFebvre: Another controversial part of Charlie’s story that we see happening in the movie is centered around the political themes in his films. For example, in the movie, we see Charlie making a silent film where he shows an American immigration officer being kicked on the backside.

That was during World War I, and it was something that we see J. Edgar Hoover criticizing Charlie, to Charlie’s face before Hoover becomes director of the FBI. And then many years later, you mentioned just before World War II, Charlie making his first talkie, as they call it where he’s making fun of Adolf Hitler in the movie The Great Dictator.

Does the movie do a good job of showing the political themes in Charlie Chaplin’s movies? It’s a, it’s

[00:33:43] Scott Eyman: a kind of, on a hit and run basis. Charlie, there’s no evidence that Chaplin and Hoover ever met, for one thing. Let alone exchange to had an argument over dinner table. And that just, that never happened.

They may have met glancingly at some point with a handshake, but they never. He got involved. Hoover’s antipathy was political and social. It wasn’t it wasn’t based on anything personal.

[00:34:10] Dan LeFebvre: Well, there was that side of kind of the political aspect, but then his first talkie in the movie he’s saying that this, the advent of sound is going to, Do away with the tramp.

And so it seems like a, there’s more to him going into sound with the first hockey being the great dictator.

[00:34:33] Scott Eyman: There’s two parts to this. The tramp was recognized worldwide as a symbol of the underclass. Basically in Japan, he was taken as Japanese in French. He was taken as French in France.

He was taken as French. He wasn’t perceived as an American character. If Chaplin made a sound film with the tram, the minute he opened his mouth, the tramp becomes English because chap and a soft, attractive. An English accent. And so the tramps universality disappears in five seconds. If it’s a sound film, if he talks.

So when sound rolls in at the end of the twenties, he’s got a real crisis of conscience. Now he’s a great actor. He’s a superb actor. It’s not that he didn’t couldn’t play anything else. He eventually did, but he was comfortable with the character. The world was comfortable with the character. So he decided to face it down by making, by surrounding the tramp with sound.

But not have the tramp talk. So he composed the musical score. There’s sound effects, there’s car horns, the tramps in the modern world, but the tramp that we don’t hear the tramp speaking. Okay. And everybody thought he was nuts because he’s making two silent films, sea lights in modern times, years after sound rolls in and obliterates silent movies, and those two films are extremely successful.

They’re successful critically, they’re successful commercially. So he’s proven right. Once again, his absolute detrust of conventional wisdom can be ignored. Ignore conventional wisdom, they don’t know what they’re talking. But along comes Adolf Hitler. And this tickles every angry nerve ending in Chaplin’s body.

Because it, Hitler is a fascist. Chaplin is emotionally and psychologically and politically anti fascist. And he knows an authoritarian when he sees one. Hitler’s a raving anti Semite, and they take Chaplin in Germany to be a Jew. He’s not a Jew, but he refuses to acknowledge the fact that he’s not a Jew because he feels that would be giving aid and comfort to anti Semites.

So he’s determined to make this satire of Hitler. And everybody in Hollywood thinks he’s insane. Everybody. Because he starts shooting this movie in September 1939.

And in America in 1939 is what, probably 65, 75 percent isolationist. That’s Europe’s pro Hitler is Europe’s problem. The Jews are Europe’s problem. If Hitler takes over Europe, we’ll just make a separate peace with him and we’ll be fine. Pearl Harbor doesn’t happen until December 1941, which drags us into the war.

Up until that point, where it’s just we’re at arm’s length from the, from all that michigas over in Europe. And here’s chaplain risking a million five or so of his own money to make his first sound film that everybody in show business, including his brother, I might add, thinks is nuts.

The only, but again, Chaplin didn’t care what other people thought. He just did. And he had one, one person telling him to go ahead and make the film, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He thought Chaplin making a an anti fascist satire might help turn some of the public to Roosevelt’s own point of view, which was that Hitler was going to have to be fought at some point, there was no way we were going to get away from fighting Hitler.

He had to be killed. So he sent word he had Harry Hopkins his right hand man come to the chaplain studio and buck chaplain up because the British foreign office didn’t want the film made. And they told chaplain that Germany’s man in LA, a man named guessing warned the motion picture association that the chaplain make cause a great deal of problems for the motion picture industry in Europe.

And at this point, you got to remember Germany was not just Germany. There was fascism in Italy. There were the Germans had taken France and Germans owned most of Europe outside of it at this point. So a lot of losing the 60 or 70 percent of the European market was no small thing to Holly because that’s where the profit you broke even in America, you made your profit in Europe.

That was the rule of thumb or vice versa, but you couldn’t do without Warren. And here chat and chaplain said, I don’t care if they will. And He had no guarantee that the film would be shown here because the theater hours didn’t want to get into it. He said that I’ll rent halls, I’ll put up tents, I’ll show the movie intense, I’ll do whatever it takes, and I don’t doubt he would have done it.

I have no doubt he would have because he had the money. And he was fired up. He was really fired up. He made the film and it was a huge hit. Everybody in Hollywood thought he was crazy. Everybody. And it was another hit. And that gave him a huge wind in his back because it was a sound film. He managed to integrate the tramp kind of, he made the tramp a Jewish barber and the tramp basically talks in monosyllables until the end of the movie where he makes a speech.

But the tramp doesn’t really have much conversation. As Hitler, he could harangue the crowds in this wonderful vaudevillian gibberish, German gibberish, which is completely nonsensical, but it’s funny, especially if you’ve never seen photographs. Movies of Hitler talking and ranting and raving.

And the film is a huge hit and it’s a pretty good film even now. Especially the parody of Hitler. But it put a lot of wind at chaplains back and in retrospect it probably gave him a feeling of being bulletproof when he actually wasn’t nobody’s bulletproof. And it did antagonize the far right wing in America, a great extent.

And that would increase with his activities during the war. When he proselytized for opening up a second front to aid Russia, who are now our allies in the fight against Hitler. And the right wing in America didn’t see Russia as our allies. They saw Russia as an enemy and waiting, and they didn’t want to open a second front to aid Stalin.

In his fight against Hitler, because after all, Stalin and Hitler had signed a non aggression act before

[00:41:08] Dan LeFebvre: Right before the aggression. Yeah before

[00:41:11] Scott Eyman: before launching in yet another round of aggression so you can’t trust Stalin Chaplain’s point of view was you might not be able to trust Stalin But we’ve got to trust one one party the other in this we might as well back stalin because hitler is unthinkable But the right to the right saw this as tandem out to treason And another factor was the chaplain never became an american citizen he’d always retained his British citizenship.

And what Max Eastman pointed out, and I think correctly, was that they misinterpreted the fact that if Chaplin had been born in America and gone to England and become rich and famous, he wouldn’t have taken out British citizenship either. He didn’t really believe in patriotism. He thought patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel.

He thought patriotism was the basis of most wars. Look at Germany and he didn’t want any part of it. You don’t want any part of it. He was grateful to America. I didn’t see all this, but I pay a hundred percent of my taxes in America, even though only 70 percent of my income comes from America. The rest came from overseas.

But he he didn’t see that this could be a problem because again, he didn’t care what anybody else thought. And as I write in the book, this made his films much better. It complicated his life considerably.

[00:42:29] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah, I could see how that would be the case. If we go back to the movie in 1945, we see Charlie’s career take a dive.

He’s taken to court by a woman named Joan Barry. Even though the blood test. 1940. 1943 1943. But in court or the blood test proved that Charlie was not the father of Joan Barry’s child, but he still ordered to pay 75 a week in child support.

[00:42:56] Scott Eyman: It was raised to about 100 and a

[00:42:57] Dan LeFebvre: quarter. Was it? Okay. Okay.

We see a montage of clippings from the FBI and this is in the movie. At least we talked about earlier the conversation with Hoover and chaplain. And it gives the idea that Hoover’s always keeping tabs on him and. We see the clippings in the movie go from talking to the Joan Barry case to tying Charlie Chaplin with communism and then being married to Uno O’Neill, a much younger woman, and the impression I got from the movie is that all of these things swirled together to tank Charlie Chaplin’s public perception, and then in 1952, according to the movie, that there’s a final straw, As something you just mentioned where he takes vacation to London and, but he’s not because he’s not an American citizen.

The movie is very vague in this, but it, we see Hoover smiling when he finds out they’re out of the country. And then we see that Una tells Charlie that they’ve been kicked out of America. Can you give a little more explanation on the demise of Charlie’s movie career?

[00:44:00] Scott Eyman: Yes, he had this. He had two court cases in 1943.

One after the other. First one was the Mann Act. He was tried. He had a girlfriend named Joan Barry. She was 23 of them. And she wanted to get in the movies. And they had a relationship that lasted a year and a half. She was very erratic. She was probably bipolar. And then she shows up pregnant.

She asserted that Chaplin was the father of the child naming the date of conception, which was, I think, two days before Christmas. And Chaplin knew that he wasn’t the father because they hadn’t had sex that day. So he was willing to take the blood test. And as I say in the book, if he knew they’d had sex, he wouldn’t have volunteered to take the blood test.

He would have tried to dodge it somehow, you just, you don’t hand them the rope that they’re gonna hang you with anyway. He was first tried for the MAN Act, violating the Man Act, which was transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. His lawyer was a brilliant leg a magician named Jerry Giesler, who was the go-to guy in Hollywood whenever you were in water up to your chin, Errol Flynn’s rape trial,

everybody got giesler. Whenever you, a movie star was in deep trouble or you had a nasty divorce. And Giesler got the verdict was not guilty after a jury deliberated for an hour and a half because Giesler’s defense was essentially, why would he transport her across state lines when he could have had her any place in California for the cost, for the price of a car ride, of a taxi ride.

Not particularly flattering for the lady in question. Logically. Okay. So it was acquitted. Then came the paternity test about up there. John Barry’s child, even though the blood test proved he was not the father, he lost the case and the courts, the appeals courts in California wouldn’t hear the appeal.

They simply turned the appeal down. So he was obligated to pay child support till the child was 18 years old. And at this point, the child was about a year and a half old year and a half which graveled him no end, as it would anybody. But the combination of the the open a second front with Russia for Russia during the war, the paternity suit, the Man Act lawsuit All conspired to basically cut the ground out from under him with the public, with the American public to a great extent.

And then in 1947, he made his first film since the great dictator seven years before, about a guy who marries women and bumps them off obeying a Frenchman who is a blueberry, essentially marries a succession of obnoxious women and bumps them off for the money. And it’s a social satire. And he’s aiming for kind of Shavian comedy of the subtitle of the film is A Comedy of Murders he’s aiming for a kind of George Bernard Shaw thing, and there was a great deal of controversy about it then, there was a great deal of controversy about it in the 60s when it was reissued right after Dr.

Strangelove, it was completely rejected by audiences and critics in 1947, it was his first commercial flop, his first critical flop, he’d never had a flop, and at this point he’s 58, 59 years old, and it’s a shot to the chops, it’s He thought, based on making silent movies in 1931 and 1936, based on his satire of Hitler, all of which were films that everybody told, God, don’t do this.

Do not do this. And he succeeded. He probably thought there was an element of being bulletproof in his character. And out comes Monsieur Verdoux in 1947. But the context has changed. The context of World War II, the context of his two trials, the context of rising tide of anti communism and McCarthyism in America at the end of the 1940s, the social fabric is completely altered around him.

And he didn’t understand that because he’s got blinder vision, because he’s Charlie Chaplin, because he’s insulated, he’s got his own studio on La Brea. In Hollywood, he’s got plenty of money. He’s got a beautiful marriage and growing family and he thought he could just continue on as before. So it was a huge blow psychologically, I’m sure he anchored down while all this is going on.

The government is crawling all over him in every way possible. The IRS is going through years of income tax returns for him personally to the studio. The INS is interviewing him about his support of Russia. Basically there’s all this groundwork being done to figure out a way to get him out of the country.

Basically the entire security apparatus of America is being devoted to, to railroading a motion picture comedian. All this comes to fruition in 1952. Now, the thing of it is, the Hollywood blacklist begins in 1947, the same year as what Schubert do. By this time, the FBI had informers within the Communist Party in Los Angeles, which was a legal party, I might add, it wasn’t.

They knew exactly who was in the Communist Party. That’s why the Hollywood Ten, the first people that were subpoenaed to appear before Congress. They, the reason they subpoenaed those 10 guys was because they knew they either had been in the party or they still were in the party as of 1947, as of the date of the hearings, because they had the lists of the membership roster.

They knew Chaplin had never been a communist. They knew Chaplin had never donated a dime to the government, but it didn’t matter. As far as they were concerned, he was still. Dangerous, politically dangerous, socially dangerous, a threat to womanhood. Who knows? He made a film called Limelight in 1952, a totally apolitical film, which is basically the story of Charlie and Un told through the prism of the edu, Edwardian Music Hall.

He plays a, an old busted up, broken down music or comedian who saves a young girl from suicide. She falls in love with him, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Completely apolitical. He’s, it premiers in London. He takes his wife and children on the Queen Elizabeth from New York to London, two days out of New York.

The i n s rescinds his reentry. Now the ironic thing is that as the documents in the F B I file proof, the I n S knew that if he decided to come back, they couldn’t keep him out. He’d never been convicted of a crime. And they really had nothing on it other than this kind of miasma of disreputability that descended on him during the war because of the Joan Barry case, because of his support for a second.

And they said, if he comes back, it can be, it’ll be a stink, but we’re going to have to let him back in the country. But he never came back because he got his back up and he was offended and he said, I’m never going back there. His problem was that everything he had in the world. Was in Los Angeles, his money, his stocks, his bonds, his cash, his studio, his films, his house, everything’s in America and he can’t get back in without going through the process and he didn’t, wasn’t going to go through the process.

Luckily, Oona was a citizen, so she came back and cleaned out everything, the safety deposit box. Sid was also here and he took care of the studio, he cleaned up the studio and shipped the films. And to give you some idea of how determined Chaplin was to take control of his life again. This happened, he got kicked out of the country in September 1952.

By January, he’d bought a house in Switzerland. He wasn’t, he was very determined, clearly, psychologically, to take control of the situation. And he lived in the house of the Manoir du Bain, which is now a Chaplin Museum. He lived there for the rest of his life and he only came back to America once to get his honorary Oscar in 1972.

73. And he said he was perfectly prepared to come back to America. And he’s prepared to be shot. But nobody took a shot at it.

[00:52:42] Dan LeFebvre: Yeah. Yeah, so it sounds because at the very end of the movie, we do see him coming back and it almost, the way the movie portrays this, it seems almost like some sort of redemption for his career, because he does come back to the U.

S. to accept the Special Academy Award. The movie, according to the movie, it’s on his 83rd birthday. But he doesn’t say he ends up going back to home to his home in Switzerland. Does the movie do a pretty good job summarizing the end of his life then? It’s,

[00:53:09] Scott Eyman: it’s fair. It’s fair. He made two more movies in Europe.

He wrote a memoir, which is still in print. It’s quite a good book, actually. And he attended his family, it was and he had a series of small strokes towards the end of his life, which gradually enfeebled him. But yeah it’s fair. That’s fairly accurate. But again, the film hops from high point to high point.

Without ever really developing a a real rhythm of its own. I almost thought Kevin Kline is pretty good as Douglas Fairbanks and Robert Downey. is good as chaplain, but Robert Downey is verbally funny. He’s not physically funny as an act. He’s not, you don’t think of Robert Downey and think, my God, he’s, so there are times when he’s doing chaplains bits where I can almost see him counting the beats, because he’s memorized it through rehearsal and he’s okay, but it’s not chap doesn’t have that quick silver thing where chaplain didn’t have to count out the beats.

He just did it, you can see the difference between a trained physical comedian and someone who’s imitating a trained physical comedian. They don’t have the, they don’t have the limberness that the natural.

[00:54:17] Dan LeFebvre: You mentioned it throughout with your book. While you were working on your book, is there something there that didn’t make its way into the movie that you wish had been

[00:54:25] Scott Eyman: included?

The relationship with Sid I wasn’t even completely aware of it until I started the chaplaincy gave me permission to rummage through their archives. And where you find these letters back and forth between the two, especially after Chaplin’s kicked out of the country. Sid is here trying to, and the thing about Chaplin was, one of his quirks was he didn’t write letters.

He didn’t write a lot of letters. You couldn’t put, you could not put a volume together of Chaplin’s letters because he wrote maybe 150 in his life. He just didn’t write letters. Partially, I think it’s because he was badly educated. He didn’t have much schooling and he was worried about misspelling.

Although his letters are in Switzerland, the spelling’s fine, anyway, he didn’t write letters and Sid is constantly saying, What do you want me to do about this? What do you want me to do about that? Talking about the hardware at the studio, the camera cranes, the music recording device, the, this, the that.

And he’s writing Charlie what I could, he’s, I can sell this or I can hold onto it. We could rent it. What do you want me to do? Silence. and write. He said and then three weeks later he writes, Charlie, another a slightly more irritated letter. . Gotta let you know what you want me to do. Try and do.

Do his brother’s bidding, but his brother won’t tell him what his bidding is. Yeah.

[00:55:38] Dan LeFebvre: Makes it hard.

[00:55:40] Scott Eyman: Yeah. And finally Chaplin writes him a letter. Sell this, sell that. If I make another movie, I’ll make it in London. I won’t need the camera crane. Sensible stuff. But he wouldn’t tell Sid until Sid’s like building a fire underneath him.

But I wasn’t aware of how intimate the relationship was and how Sid felt so aggrieved because Charlie wouldn’t write letters. Until I really went through the documents, because Charlie didn’t write about this in his own memoir. He talked about how much he loves Sid and how devoted they were, but he didn’t go into chapter and verse, but when you see it, you realize that the intense love they had for each other and how annoyed Sid could get because of Charlie’s quirks, but he put up with it.

[00:56:24] Dan LeFebvre: Thank you so much for coming on to chat about Chaplin. Your brand new book we talked about has just been published. It’s called Charlie Chaplin vs. America and I’ll make sure to include a link to it in the show notes for this episode. But before I let you go, can you share an overview of your new book for listeners who want to learn more about the true story?

[00:56:42] Scott Eyman: It’s the story of Charlie Chaplin’s life. Basically from birth to He’s entering the film business to the FBI, beginning to keep tabs on him in 1923. Before J. N. Culver even got to the FBI. That’s when they opened their file on him. A dangerous radical that he was, or wasn’t. And it’s a social history of a comedian’s life.

In 20th century America and what this one specific comedian had to go through and his boundless amount of courage and occasional foolhardiness in living his life.

[00:57:20] Dan LeFebvre: Thank you again so much for your time, Scott.

Scott Eyman: Thank you, Dan.



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