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Syd Chaplin: A Biography Paperback – 1 Dec 2010

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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Syd Chaplin - What a Character! 22 April 2011
By Carl Wilson - Published on
Format: Paperback
Writing a biography on a character as illusive as Sydney Chaplin must have been quite a challenge. The author, Lisa Stein spent four years trotting the globe to put this, Syd Chaplin's only biography together, all with the blessing of the Chaplin family.

Sydney was the older brother of the more famous Charlie, but in this well written biography, we discover that he had a period of being quite a famous screen comedian himself and even rivaled some of his brother's box office success. For the uninitiated, a few of his films can be seen on You Tube.

Aside from being a vaudeville and screen comedian, Chaplin was also an innovator in many fields and his accomplishments were many. From being the first owner of a domestic airline in America, to starting a woman's clothing line, to negotiating Charlie's massively successful film contracts to being the brain child behind the founding of United Artists. He was truly a man of many and diverse talents. This biography gives equal and in-depth treatment to all these facets of Sydney's life.

Stein has shed new light on a man that has been all but forgotten, but whose innovations still resonate in the entertainment industry today. Even though Sydney is well known to most Chaplin enthusiasts, a wealth of new knowledge is presented here. Sydney appears to have been a prolific writer of letters, and much of this biography is peppered with Sydney's written correspondence. These letters provide insight into the man and offer his perspective on certain incidents and his occasional twists on the truth. It is almost as if the author had a chance to interview her reluctant subject.

It turns out that the proclivities of both Sydney and his brother Charlie leaned towards very young girls. I bring this up because ultimately, while the public never fully rejected Charlie for his dalliances and marriages, it turns out that a shocking and rather brutal encounter with a young actress proved to be Sydney's undoing and ended his film career. You'll have to pick up this biography for yourself to find out what happened. How this incident was kept out of the newspapers is a mystery of monumental proportions. Perhaps it was just not fit for print. Needless to say, the author adroitly hints at this impending episode in Sydney's life to the point that it's hard to put the book down as you race to the moment.

I recently read Kevin Brownlow's "The Search for Charlie Chaplin", a book about the making of the critically acclaimed Thames series "Unknown Chaplin". Much of the material for the series was provided by collector Raymond Rohauer who, according to an interview in the book, was also in possession of over 400,000 feet of Syd Chaplin's outtakes from his films. It's a shame the author didn't appear to have access to this bit of Syd's history.

Sydney and Charlie grew up in the most brutal of poverty in Victorian London. With his and Charlie's success, and with the memory of poverty all too clear in their conscious, both of them took steps, many times outside the law, to protect their vast wealth. Even with most of Sydney's business ventures eventually going belly up, he lived the life of a man of leisure in the South of France and spent his retirement years traveling the globe and frequenting nude beaches. Yep, you read that right.

In the end, Sydney does not come off as the most likable of characters. The biographer is occasionally a bit put-off by her subject, but how could she not? Sydney was a multifaceted man who, when standing at moral cross roads, usually chose the path of self indulgence, often to the detriment of himself and those around him. Some things just cannot be sugar coated.

I would recommend this one for anyone interested in who Sydney Chaplin was and the legacy he left behind. This book also better defines the brotherly relationship between Syd and Charlie than any I have read before. The story of the immortal tramp's older brother will leave you speechless at certain points. Much of it can be forgiven when viewed through the lens of his wretched childhood, but much of it cannot. Ultimately, this biography lets you be the judge.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
An unexpected gem 12 May 2013
By Silentsiren - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I'd only known a few snippets of info about Charlie's brother Syd, but this book changed all that, providing a fleshed out and superbly well-written account of what turned out to be a character as interesting (if not more so) than his more-famous brother. A thoroughly enjoyable and eye-opening read! I highly recommend it. With this book, Syd Chaplin leaves the shadows at last and walks out into the light.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Charlie's significant other 4 Dec. 2013
By Dan Kamin - Published on
Format: Paperback
Anyone who worked, played or slept with Charlie Chaplin could cash in on it by writing, telling, or selling their story, and an extraordinary number did, including several children, one ex-wife, and a mistress. Jim Tully, a well-known writer employed by Chaplin in the early twenties, later wrote several tart articles about his former boss. "His early years wrote with a heavy and terrible hand upon him," Tully said in one. "Not physically brave, he was a tyrant towards his half brother, Sydney. Without Charlie's capacity, Sydney remained a varnished cockney...(with) the manner of a promoted bank clerk."

Perhaps. But this "varnished cockney" played a crucial role in Charlie's life and art that has never been fully explored. Lisa Stein's remedies that in her splendid biography. All Chaplin fans know about the landmark movie contracts Syd negotiated for his brother in 1916 and 1918, contracts that made Charlie the highest paid entertainer in history and guaranteed him the artistic independence he needed to create the masterworks to come. They also know Syd from his brilliant supporting roles in several of Charlie's First National films. Less well known is the ongoing role he played behind the scenes as an important member of Charlie's creative team during that heady period.

Stein also gives Syd his due by recounting his stage career, which ran parallel to Charlie's, and by providing a valuable overview and critical insights into his once popular series of starring films. Like Jim Tully, she doesn't gloss over the less savory aspects of her subject. She unflinchingly examines how Syd sabotaged his successful film career through greed and bad behavior, and also follows him through a series of ambitious but doomed business ventures, including establishing the first domestic American airline service.

His early years wrote with just as terrible a hand upon Syd as they did upon Charlie, and Stein paints the portrait of a tormented soul with a personal life that was every bit as messy as his brother's. She makes wonderful use of her unprecedented access to Syd's letters, which prove to be a treasure trove of surprisingly frank and often eloquent prose. Stein skillfully incorporates excerpts from these letters into her narrative, allowing Syd to tell his own story, and, occasionally, dig his own grave. Her own excellent writing, along with the compelling and sometimes lurid nature of the tale, make this book a highly entertaining read. In addition, it's a significant contribution to the literature on Charlie. While primarily a book about Syd, the relationship between the brothers haunts every page. As Tully noted above, that relationship was often strained. But, as Stein's book movingly demonstrates, it was essentially a love story, and one that ultimately stood the test of time.
Illuminating 22 Oct. 2014
By John Bengtson - Published on
Format: Paperback
Intelligently written and meticulously researched, this comprehensive work shines a deserving spotlight on one of silent film’s most consequential but previously unheralded figures, Syd Chaplin, while illuminating, with its reflected glow, further recesses of Charlie’s life and times as well.
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