Fact-checking a story about Charlie Chaplin, Universal and Buster Keaton

Update: Mystery solved! The truth about Charlie Chaplin and Universal

The Mail on Sunday ran a news story about Charlie Chaplin last weekend. I missed it at the time, but the story came to my attention when it was featured on Have I Got News For You (for non-Brits, that’s a satirical news quiz on the BBC). Panellist Paul Merton, who knows a thing or two about Chaplin, pulled quite a face when he heard it. You may too, when you read on.

The story, written by David Wigg, who seems to be an occasional correspondent for the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, mostly on showbiz stories, is about a set of correspondence from 1912. The papers were discovered in the archive of the Grand Order of Water Rats, and concern one of the society’s most famous members, Charlie Chaplin.

The story goes, and please put down your tea before continuing, that Charlie Austin of the Water Rats, well-connected in London theatre circles, had recommended Chaplin to the Universal film studio in America. The executives there wanted to replace Buster Keaton, as he had become far too demanding. A reply from Universal voices several concerns about Austin’s suggestion of Chaplin as a potential film star. He would, the letter says, have to change his appearance, his act and his name. The year, I remind you, is 1912.

The studio wrote: ‘The moustache must go and Chaplin will have to change name. Too easily confused with another comic Charlie Chase. Also Chaplin sounds Jewish.’

The memo added: ‘Please send in new ideas and new name in case tests are successful. Also, do not allow Chaplin to walk comically. This may look alright on English Music Hall stages but for mass audience we must try to avoid offending people who are bow- legged or cripples. DO NOT let him over-act. Try other hats and caps, possibly even beret.’

Hold up. Yes, I know.

In a further letter, Austin says that Chaplin “strongly objects” to changing his makeup and style (as if he has discussed the offer with the actor). Undeterred, Universal pays for Chaplin to travel to the US for a screen test in January 1913, but finds him to be unsuitable for screen work even though he apparently changed his “act” for the occasion:

Universal’s verdict was scathing: ‘Test unsatisfactory. Very bland style, no personality and too short. Please keep looking for comics. Keaton becoming impossible.’

It’s a classic story of the star who got away, like Dick Rowe turning down the Beatles, or that possibly apocryphal MGM screen test for Fred Astaire, which summarised: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” It also paints an unattractive picture of Hollywood types as both absurdly politically correct (concerns about mocking “cripples”) and either anti-Semitic or at least worried about pandering to that prejudice. It’s fun to look back with hindsight at fools in days gone by who couldn’t appreciate the talent that is clear to us now.

But if you have any knowledge of the facts of Chaplin’s life or of early Hollywood, this story is pretty much bilge from beginning to end – with just a smear of truth to make it believable. It’s almost impossible to know where to start with this nonsense. But let’s begin with this:

Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton in The Butcher Boy (1917)
Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton in The Butcher Boy (1917)
  • Buster Keaton did not appear in a film until 1917 (The Butcher Boy with Roscoe Arbuckle, made for the Comique Film Corporation and distributed by Famous Players-Lasky). It’s impossible that he was an unbearable film star diva, five years before he set foot in front of a camera. As far as I can see, he never worked for Universal at all.
  • Charley (yes, that’s how you spell it) Chase was not a star in 1912 either. He was playing bit parts for the Christie Company and then at Keystone (far further down the pecking order than Chaplin) for years. In fact, it was not until 1923 that he changed his name from Charley Parrott to Charley Chase, when he starred in his own series of comedies. He was probably trying to sound a little like Chaplin – it certainly wasn’t the other way around.
  • As Merton pointed out on TV, Chaplin created the “Little Tramp” character in 1914, on set at Keystone – the one with the moustache, cane, hat, bow legs etc. He wasn’t touting it around London two years earlier. He was best known for his “drunk toff” character at this time I think.
  • Chaplin first went to America on a tour with the Karno company in 1910. He returned for a second tour in 1912, and quit it for a career at Keystone in 1913. There are several different accounts of which Keystone connection first spotted Chaplin on the American stage and thought he would be a good fit for the studio, but in April 1913, he was summoned to New York for a test, which apparently went well enough for him to be offered a contract.
  • So here’s a funny thing. Chaplin was under the impression that Keystone hired him to replace Fred Mace, a big star for the studio, who was about to leave. Keystone’s Mack Sennett claimed in his autobiography that he actually wanted someone to replace Ford Sterling, who was becoming increasingly demanding, just like Keaton in this bizarre parallel history version on the pages of the Mail on Sunday.
  • So this is kind of true: the Universal Film Manufacturing Company was founded in 1912. It could have sent letters to London looking for new talent. But not to replace Keaton. And comedies were not part of its roster, until, I suppose it picked up Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in the 1920s (who by all accounts was a dream to work with, being made of ink).
  • One thing is certainly true: Charlie Austin was King Rat of the Grand Order of Water Rats in 1912, and 1913 (and 1918, 1927, 1928 and 1932). And this account I found as part of my research is quite touching: the story of how Charles Austin made Chaplin a member of the Water Rats in 1931.

The story ends with a clip from The Rink, mistitled “Little Tramp”. Well, why not, at this point? The article clearly hasn’t been fact-checked, which is unusual for a paper such as the Mail on Sunday, which has a rigorous and highly skilled team of subeditors.

According to this report, Mike Martin of the Water Rats plans to display these letters in the society’s museum on Gray’s Inn Road, London. I hope not. Or at least, I hope they have been misreported if so. Perhaps the letters come from a different studio, or the names were garbled? Perhaps the letters are an inside joke? Without more evidence, it’s hard to imagine that this is anything other than a scam, another instance of someone trying to cash in on the Chaplin legend.

Chaplin-and-Edna-Purviance-charlie-chaplin-30690823-500-407

  • I’ll try to stick to the facts on Sunday, when I introduce a Chaplin triple-bill at Tate Modern as part of the Merge Festival. Music will be provided by the wonderful Neil Brand and you can buy tickets (just £5) here.
  • Everyone has an opinion about the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday. They do at least cover classic and silent film more than most papers, but on this occasion they got it dead wrong. If you are interested in the Mail and its influence on UK politics, this Observer profile of editor Paul Dacre is grimly fascinating (the title is offputting, but it’s a parody of a Mail headline).
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5 thoughts on “Fact-checking a story about Charlie Chaplin, Universal and Buster Keaton”

    1. The only logical explanation to me is that the letter is a joke between friends. Sounds like Kanin would be a likely candidate. Hoping to hear more from GOWR soon.

  1. Well, John Cleese HAS noted that The Daily Mail has all the credibility of a person on a street corner yelling that he knows the exact date of the apocalypse.

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