Fraternal Filmmaking: Biography Reveals Syd Chaplin’s Role In Early Hollywood

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He starred in box office hits, conceived the idea for the original United Artists, and brokered lucrative film deals that made Charlie Chaplin famous.

Syd Chaplin may not be a household name today, but the brother of the high-profile actor made a notable mark during the golden era of Hollywood, according to a new book by Lisa Stein Haven, an assistant professor of English at Ohio University’s Zanesville campus.

“Syd wanted to be a film star too, but he didn’t quite have the magic his brother did. And he knew that,” says Haven, the author of Syd Chaplin: A Biography.

Syd Chaplin did have a strong knack, however, for business. Haven describes him as a savvy entrepreneur always looking to make a good deal. “He got Charlie the first multi-million dollar contract in 1916,” she says. “That was really important—not only for Charlie, but for other actors, too.”

Appalled at the cheap rates that production companies offered actors, Syd Chaplin proposed creating the company United Artists. Launched in 1919 by Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford, the company allowed actors to distribute their own films at more competitive pay. “It set in stone the huge salaries that stars still get today,” Haven says.

Though Syd Chaplin was the business whiz of the family, he also enjoyed a brief film career in the 1920s. His initial film with the Paramount studio tanked, but he soon built a good reputation for comedic character roles that drew on his early experiences as a music hall entertainer. His 1924 film Charley’s Aunt surpassed Charlie Chaplin’s now-classic Gold Rush in box office ticket sales. The success led to a five-picture deal with Warner Brothers studios. He performed in 37 films during the course of his acting career, which was cut short in 1929 by a sex scandal.

Syd Chaplin spent the next several decades in Europe, managing his brother’s business contracts and deals from abroad. He kept meticulous records, which became the basis for the Chaplin family archives.

His nieces and nephews, several of whom Haven interviewed for the book, recalled him as a “great guy with a bawdy sense of humor,” she says. “He was a magician who enjoyed entertaining them with his tricks, even in his old age. And he was very generous to them.”

Though Haven had good access to the official Chaplin archives and members of the Chaplin family, the project prompted additional travels to fill gaps in her research. She flew to Milan, Italy, to review 100 letters purchased at auction by a Milanese collector. The information contained in the correspondence became essential to the book, she notes. A visit to Syd Chaplin’s former apartment in Nice, France, illustrated his wealthy lifestyle leading up to his death in 1965.

Haven’s book illuminates a character important in the story of early Hollywood, but also provides a whole new perspective on Charlie Chaplin’s career, she says. There’s been much conjecture about what role Syd Chaplin played in Charlie Chaplin’s career—such as whether he wrote his brother’s screenplays or taught him to act, she says.

“The main difference between the two brothers was that Charlie was the artist, and Syd was more of an actor who excelled at visual comedy,” she says. “Syd really provided a situation in which Charlie, the artist, could pursue his own thing, and provided moral support to him.”

This article will appear in the Autumn/Winter 2011 issue of Perspectives magazine, which covers the research, scholarship, and creative activity of Ohio University faculty, staff, and students. Follow Ohio University Research News on Twitter and Facebook.