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.