Sydney Chaplin’s (1885-1965) birthday is today. As the elder half-brother of Charlie Chaplin, the world owes him much. Not only was he the person responsible for introducing Charlie to Fred Karno and getting him hired by that influential music hall impresario, he was later Charlie’s manager and negotiated amazing deals that allowed his young brother to create the works of genius we still cherish to this day.
But more than this, Sydney was a talented comedy star in his own right. His “Gussle” comedies for Mack Sennett were hugely popular, notably A Submarine Pirate, one of the top films of 1915, and Sennett’s 2nd biggest grossing film after Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914).
Sydney Chaplin also starred in many other hit films, including the first cinematic version of the Broadway hit Charley’s Aunt (1925) and The Better Ole (1926). And, he was also a valued member of Charlie’s stock company during the First National years, with memorable turns in A Dog’s Life, Shoulder Arms, Pay Day and The Pilgrim.
Towards the end of the twenties, our story gets racy. How could it not with a Chaplin involved? His last starring film was the naughty silent sex farce A Little Bit of Fluff, a.k.a Skirts (1928) about a mild-mannered husband’s run-ins with an exotic dancer. Just as he was about to make his second film for British International Pictures, Mumming Birds (presumably based on his old sketch with Karno’s Speechless Comedians), he was railroaded in a sex scandal, in which he was accused of assaulting an actress named Molly Wright and biting off her nipple! He was exonerated of all charges in this “cannibalistic attack” in the end, but his film career was finished. By 1930 he was bankrupt and wanted for tax evasion. He fled England. And this is why we don’t get the pleasure of seeing him in any talkies.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy, including influential masters like Sydney Chaplin, don’t miss my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube