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The truth about Charlie Chaplin and Universal

There is little so dispiriting as a joke that has to be explained. I don’t pretend to speak for Charlie Chaplin as a rule, but I am fairly sure he would agree with me on that one.

A joke that takes people in, that fools them into swallowing impossible truths? Well that can be funny, but dangerous too – we tend to hope national newspapers won’t fall for them.

A week or so ago I posted about a story in the Mail on Sunday that didn’t add up. The newspaper claimed that Chaplin had been offered, rather grudgingly, a screentest by Universal in 1912, to replace the misbehaving Buster Keaton, but having seen him in action, decided he wouldn’t do, certainly not with that hat, that moustache, that silly walk and that name. If it quacks like a duck and all that – the story sounded like nonsense, and it was, too. Almost.

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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:

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