Charlie’s London: Sydney Chaplin

Sydney Chaplin
Sydney Chaplin

This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.

Today I am going to look at the importance of another figure in Charlie’s life, his brother Sydney, whom I feel should never be overlooked.

Until the groundbreaking biography by Dr Lisa K Stein (Syd Chaplin: a biography), Sydney’s story was only really told as a piece of the Charlie Chaplin jigsaw puzzle. She has completely changed this, showing Sydney as an individual who helped to create his brother’s career. Stein’s book allows us to see Sydney like never before. Her work is a testament to the extensive resources in the Chaplin archives in Bologna, as well as her own personal collection and enthusiasm for her subject. For me, it shows that the information is all very much still there for us to all see, it’s just a question of knowing where to look, having the guts to challenge what is already known, interpret it differently and give a new dimension to further Chaplin research.

Four years older than his famous brother, Sydney would look out for his younger brother for the rest of his life. Born in 16 March 1885 to the 19-year-old Hannah Hill, and originally known as Sidney John Hill, Syd become a Chaplin when he was a few months old upon the marriage between his mother and Charlie’s father. The bond these brothers or the rest of their lives was a powerful one. Their shared time in south London workhouses and poorhouses, while their mother suffered with mental illness, required great courage. These events would later shape the brothers’ outlook on their art and their lives – although in different ways. Sydney Chaplin junior, Charlie’s son by his second wife Lita Grey, would reportedly later joke that his father’s choice of name for him was very apt. Whereas Charlie lived and breathed his work until its completion, Sydney senior would adopt a much more laidback approach and enjoy the fruits of his labour. In my humble opinion, Sydney felt he worked hard so he could play hard, Charlie however felt he had to hold on to his tragedy, because it helped mould his comedy.

It was Sydney who introduced Charlie to the theatre impresario Fred Karno in 1908, who hesitated to hire the scrawny youth at first but would soon consider him to be one of the best on the books. At this time, though, it’s worth remembering that many did consider Sydney to be the better comedian. In 1914, Charlie helped Sydney to establish himself as a motion picture comedian with Mack Sennett and his Keystone Studios. Sydney worked at Keystone on the GussIe films such as GussIe’s Wayward Path, GussIe Tied to Trouble and GussIe’s Rival Jonah. Yet as Charlie’s star continued to rise, Sydney began to something that many siblings would find difficult, he began to act as his brother’s manager, putting his own career on the back-burner. It was Sydney who negotiated Charlie’s million-dollar contract with First National in 1917, it was often Sydney too who handled personal correspondence and the business matters while Charlie did what he did best: made the world laugh.

Sydney Chaplin would appear in many of Charlie’s films, including A Dog’s Life, Shoulder Arms, The Pilgrim, The Bond and Payday. He was a fantastic character actor, often adopting so many different personas it is easy to miss him in many of Charlie’s films. I always find his portrayal of Kaiser Willhelm II in The Bond bore an uncanny resemblance. He is virtually unrecognisable in Shoulder Arms as the hapless Tramp’s trench mate and the frustrated sausage-stand owner in A Dog’s Life. But it is his character in The Pilgrim who has me in stitches every time I watch it. It’s all in the eyes with Syd, and this is visible too in Shoulder Arms. The Pilgrim sees Sydney playing the father of a mischievous son who is invited round to tea, while the Tramp is masquerading as a clergyman. I don’t want to ruin it for any readers who haven’t had the opportunity to see the film, but what transpires between all parties involved, a bowler hat and misplaced dessert will have you laughing for ages. His expressions and mannerisms really make that scene for me – a statement I am sure any other Chaplin fan will agree with.

One of Sydney’s best-known characterisations is the Bruce Bairnsfather character Old Bill in the 1926 film The Better ‘Ole. Old Bill and the other characters created by humorist and cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather were favourites of Syd and Charlie’s – anyone familiar with Shoulder Arms and The Bond will be able to see this straight away.

Away from the cinema industry Sydney tried his hand at various other business ventures such as clothing boutiques and even aviation. The Sydney Chaplin Airline Company, which sadly was in business for just a year, was the first privately owned American domestic airline and was responsible for the first aeroplane trip made Charlie and many a Hollywood star.

The Better 'Ole (1926)
The Better ‘Ole (1926)

Sydney was married twice and unfortunately did not have a child of his own, but he was a loving uncle to all of the Chaplin clan in Switzerland. His first wife Minnie died of cancer and his second wife Gypsey outlived him. Both Sydney and Gypsey are buried together near Vevey in Switzerland. The Chaplin brothers’ story and unquestionable bond would take one more dramatic twist. Sydney died in 1965 aged 80 years and one month on his younger brother Charlie’s 76th birthday. Poor Charlie probably had mixed feelings in regards to his birthday for the rest of his days, very much like his own children felt about Christmas. Charlie of course died on 25 December 1977.

Ayse with her grandmother
Ayse with her grandmother

I watched an interview with Geraldine Chaplin once and she reminisced about a time she heard her father and her uncle Syd speaking in backslang, an old London language adopted by street traders and music hall artists. If this is indeed true, then it is an immensely important and heartwarming tale for only any Chaplin historian but particularly one interested in his roots. I know backslang very well and I can assure you that it’s absolutely gobbledygook. It’s a way to jumble up the letters of a word that only the trained ear can identify. The first one or two letters of a word will be switched to the end of it, or the whole word will be reversed. One of the most famous examples is “yob” for “boy”. The first person in my life whom I heard speak backslang was my grandmother and it has stayed with me all my life. Can you imagine the brothers them chatting away in a board meeting, neither wanting anyone else to know what they were saying? How wonderful that would be? So comical and so Chaplinesque. So wonderfully London.

Don’t forget everyone, if there is anything else you want to know, or just want to give feedback on anything you see in the blog you can email me at Charlie’s London is also now on Facebook and Twitter.

Ayşe Behçet

2 thoughts on “Charlie’s London: Sydney Chaplin”

  1. How refreshing to read a post on Sydney. Yes, Lisa Stein has written the definitive bio of him, and what an important part he played in Charlie’s life and career. I enjoyed the Sydney short and your insights and comments on his life. Thanks.

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