Posted by David Kalat on July 2, 2011
[Slapsticon, the greatest film event of the year, has been canceled this year. To grieve it, I am devoting the entire month of July to posts about slapstick comedy.]
It’s mid-summer 1928. A California District Court of Appeal is considering a case involving alleged fraud. On one side stands Charles Millikan, the lawyer representing Charlie Chaplin. On the other are Ben Goldman and J.J. Lieberman, representing Mexican actor Charles Amador, AKA “Charlie Aplin.”
Amador’s lawyers are putting forth the argument that, yeah, no question about it, Amador was ripping off Charlie Chaplin’s appearance and persona. But, they contend, that’s OK, because Chaplin himself had ripped it off first—and therefore he had no viable claim of ownership.
I won’t leave you in suspense: Amador lost this argument. He lost the original trial, he lost this appeal—and when he tried to get the Supreme Court to listen to him, they shrugged him off. The ruling in Chaplin v. Amador established that, as far as the Court was concerned, Chaplin was the creator of his comic identity and therefore had intellectual property at stake. But. . .
Charlie Chaplin did his best work amidst a swarm of parasites—copycats and impersonators who profited from his comic gifts. His resentment of them knew no limits. He excoriated them in the press, he sued them in the courts, and when he died he bequeathed his enduring hatred of them to the succeeding generations of film buffs and scholars who would chronicle his art.
But this self-imposed prejudice does us no good service. There’s a different story waiting to be told, if we can for a moment consider Chaplin’s mimics on their own terms.
Chaplin himself was inconsistent in his treatment of copycats, and his response evolved over time. There were several categories of legitimate copies, which Chaplin himself tended to overlook if not forgive, and even the illegitimate ones had a positive role in developing Chaplin’s artistry.
The first thing we have to wrap our heads around is that Charlie Chaplin’s rise to success was meteoric in every possible sense.
As a teenager in England he was shuffled between orphanages and institutions, living in slums and starving. Less auspicious roots can scarcely be conceived. Yet even in his earliest roles on the stage, minor supporting parts in minor plays, he garnered critical attention and favorable reviews.
When he joined Fred Karno’s troupe in 1908, he was just one comedian amongst an ensemble of equals, yet once again distinguished himself from the pack in the eyes of critics and audiences. (Karno’s US tour folded after Charlie left–no one was even interested in booking the rest of the show without him) This emerging fame got him a movie gig with Mack Sennett, where once again he was employed as one funnyman among multitudes—Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle, Fred Sterling, etc. And yet once again he earned a disproportionate share of the lauds. In just months he had become not only Mack Sennett’s MVP, but one of the biggest movie stars in the world.
It is against this backdrop of astonishing success that his competitors must be judged. Everyone’s doing the same thing, but here’s a guy who does it so much better—naturally they try to follow his lead. In any other field of human endeavor this is the approved approach. If someone is winning, you observe what they’re doing to win and appropriate their techniques into your own. In business it’s “benchmarking,” not plagiarism.
The first time audiences saw Chaplin in a movie was on February 2, 1914, in a short titled MAKING A LIVING. The Little Tramp character didn’t surface until the following week, KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE (which I explored in my Morlocks debut). Just eight months later (roughly coincident with Chaplin’s 28th Keystone short), the first faux-Chaplin film arrived: LOVE AND SURGERY, starring Billie Ritchie.
Ritchie looks like Chaplin, but his performance isn’t very Chaplinesque. Ritchie plays an identically costumed tramp, and copies some of Chaplin’s mannerisms (like that waddling walk), but emphasizes the violent slapstick and aggression that Chaplin was already starting to weed out of his own performance.
Ritchie isn’t merely a Chaplin mimic—he’s specifically a mimic of Keystone-era Chaplin. Except Ritchie insisted that in fact he was not a Chaplin imitator, Chaplin was an imitator of his.
To understand this claim, we have to skip back to the turn of the century in London where Fred Karno inaugurates the latest installment of his “birds” sketches—Jail Birds, Early Birds, Mumming Birds . . . (no Angry Birds, though).
It was a self-referential show-within-a-show in which some of the Karno company played the goofy vaudevillians performing on stage while the others played rowdy audience members heckling the show or otherwise getting into mischief. The lead heckler, called “The Inebriate” or “The Tipsy Swell,” was first played by a comedian named Billy Reeves. Reeves then passed the role to Billy Ritchie, who then was replaced by Charlie Chaplin.
It was Ritchie’s contention that much of Chaplin’s screen persona and costume were in fact his innovation from the Karno days, and Chaplin took over these from him. That famous waddling walk I just said Ritchie copied from Chaplin? Well, evidently Chaplin himself copied it from Karno’s Fred Kitchen.
Here are the facts: Chaplin’s first film at Keystone was such a misbegotten disaster it was abandoned and destroyed, Charlie was benched for weeks, and Sennett considered firing him.
Ritchie’s claim is that it was in this troubled debut that Chaplin feared he’d blown his Hollywood chances. He was discouraged and full of self-doubt. Ritchie, being Chaplin’s friend, told his buddy to rely on what had worked at Karno, and gave him Ritchie’s own Tramp costume. Ritchie added that while he bears his friend no ill will for his success, he also did not feel constrained from continuing to play that role himself as well.
Now, it is not a hard thing to poke holes in Ritchie’s story. Many of Chaplin’s most distinctive mannerisms predate his time at Karno and were part of his actor’s DNA all along (there are pre-Karno press clippings to establish this). Let’s also note that the Tipsy Swell role was originally Billy Reeves.’
In interviews and his autobiography, Chaplin claims to have devised the costume himself—and while his story sounds like a self-serving myth, a better-researched and more detailed account by Denis Gifford also credits Charlie with the costume.
The thing is, a fair number of Chaplin-o-philes stop there, assuming that once they’ve established Ritchie’s story as an exaggeration, or worse, they’ve resolved the issue. But there’s another issue, wrapped up inside the question of who invented the costume, which nobody addresses.
Ritchie had not only worked alongside Chaplin at Karno, but both men worked at Keystone together, too. When Chaplin first started in films, he was directed by others, like Henry Lehrman. Lehrman was the director of that first abortive misfire of Charlie’s, he directed the first released film in which Chaplin appears, and he directed the first film in which the Little Tramp appears—and by that point their working relationship was profoundly soured.
Lehrman quit. He had been one of the principal architects of the Keystone studio, its comedy brand, its corporate identity. But he was sick of Chaplin and his growing influence, and left to start his own studio, L-KO where he could do things his way. And he hired Billy Ritchie to come with him. L-KO was basically created to be a factory for fake Chaplins, and he encouraged Ritchie to push the imitation.
And this is where our story gets complicated—because Lehrman had been involved in developing Chaplin’s screen persona. As the director of several of Chaplin’s earliest films, not to mention his role as a guiding creative force at the studio independent of his specific screen credits, Lehrman undoubtedly influenced Chaplin. Just as Ritchie, having played Chaplin’s role in Mumming Birds before him, had some influence as well. These guys overstated their case, but they were an undeniable part of Charlie’s early development, and that gave them some legitimacy to adapt the role on their own terms.
If you disagree with my logic, bear in mind that it is the same logic that Chaplin himself used in laying artistic claim to ideas and material that he had a tangential connection to.
At Essanay, he would make a film version of the Mumming Birds sketch, entitled A NIGHT IN THE SHOW, without paying royalties to Karno. He continued to feel entitled to use that sketch, which he did not write or originate: in the early sound era, Syd Chaplin was planning a talkie feature version to costar him and his brother.
Also at Essanay, Chaplin remade THE ROUNDERS as A NIGHT OUT, replacing Roscoe Arbuckle with Ben Turpin. He remade THE NEW JANITOR several times, as THE BANK and THE FLOORWALKER. And if you think he was entitled to remake those films because he’d made the originals, that doesn’t quite explain how he could remake THE KNOCKOUT as THE CHAMPION, when THE KNOCKOUT had in fact been written and directed by Charles Avery and Chaplin merely played a small role in it. For that matter, he took a key gag from Roscoe Arbuckle’s FATTY AND THE BROADWAY STARS and put it in his unfinished short HOW TO MAKE MOVIES as if it was his. The legendary bread roll dance from THE GOLD RUSH had been filmed nearly a decade earlier by Arbuckle in THE ROUGH HOUSE.
And in a bigger sense, by contemporary standards of intellectual property rights, Chaplin should never have had the right to take his Little Tramp character with him when he left Keystone, because that role and its distinctive costume were developed at Sennett’s studio using Sennett’s time, money, and resources, for use in films by Sennett (unless you agree with Ritchie and conclude that the Tramp predated Sennett altogether).
The point I’m trying to make is not that Chaplin was a plagiarist, but that in the era in which he lived and worked the rules of authorial ownership of creative products was very loosey-goosey, and that lassitude worked to his benefit.
Chaplin took these iffy claims and made of them great art we now love. I’m glad he did, we all are the better for it—but the same logic does bestow a certain legitimacy upon the copycat antics of Billy Ritchie working for Henry Lehrman.
And apparently Chaplin understood that. Even when he sent his lawyers storming after his other impersonators, he never sued Ritchie. After Ritchie’s untimely death Chaplin employed the guy’s widow to make sure she was taken care of.
So we can establish one category of Chaplin mimics as semi-legitimate—the kind of thing analogous to the arguments over Pink Floyd, when you had competing band lineups each laying claim to the band name and music catalog.
To continue our music analogy, another category of Chaplin mimics that he seemed OK with would be tribute bands—performers who adopted his likeness in situations where he did not perform. Tribute bands perform all the time for small-scale venues like local bars, and the real acts rarely get riled up because it doesn’t really qualify as competition.
Dan Kamin noted that Mabel Normand could be counted as the first Chaplin mimic, imitating Charlie in MABEL’S MARRIED LIFE. And he’s in that movie with her!
Motion Picture Magazine in July 1915 published a piece by Charles McGuirk that insisted that imitating Chaplin was the way fans showed their appreciation for their hero–and that to the extent other comedians imitated him, that was the highest possible form of screen comedy!
In early 1915, Stan Laurel played a Chaplin-a-like in a stage show called The Keystone Trio, with his co-stars aping Chester Conklin and Mabel Normand. They toured the vaudeville circuits and survived on the strength of Stan’s mimicry of his former Karno costar. At almost the exact same time, Bert Wheeler, later of the Wheeler and Woolsey comedy duo, played a Chaplin clone on stage that won critical raves—and the real Chaplin even signed to Wheeler a photo of Wheeler in his Tramp costume, inscribed “to my worthy imitator.” Chaplin also seemed more touched than threatened by circus clown Charlie Rivel’s impersonation, an act which Rivel kept doing for over a decade. In 1927, the Royal Albert Hall hosted a competition for Chaplin mimics, in which Chaplin himself secretly participated.
In 1917, cartoon pioneers Otto Messmer and Anton Sullivan launched a series of unauthorized animated shorts starring a caricature of Charlie the Tramp. According to Messmer and Sullivan, their animators worked from a series of photos of Charlie which the comedian gave them expressly for that purpose (at least Messmer and Sullivan said that’s what happened).
And before we tackle the lawsuits, there is one last category of Chaplin imitator that escaped his wrath—the fellow travelers. And to keep with the music analogy we can compare them to the kinds of musicians whose style is dictated by the successful performers of the day. When the Beatles hit it big, you had a slew of British Invasion acts with a similar sound. In the wake of the Clash and the Sex Pistols, countless small punk acts modeled their sound on the chart-topping punk pioneers.
1915 saw Harry Watson as the tramp Musty Suffer, not a Chaplin clone per se but again a figure drawn from the same raw ingredients.
Harold Lloyd started his solo career in a character devised to mirror Chaplin’s—unlike the other mimics, he did not copy the costume, but inverted it, but his Chaplin-inspired character appeared in films in the spring of 1915. Around the same time, Charlie’s own brother Syd brought his Gussle character to Sennett—and like Harold Lloyd it wasn’t a direct clone but a character whose appearance and mannerisms were derived from Charlie’s.
The tipping point for the Chaplin imitators, and the moment when Chaplin’s response to them profoundly changed, was 1916, his time at Essanay. And it had to do with money.
Some numbers: The first acting contract Chaplin had ever had, at the age of 17, was the equivalent of roughly about $15 or 16 a week. When Karno signed Charlie to a one year commitment in 1908, he paid him the equivalent, more or less, of $25 a week. Keystone started him at $150 a week. Essanay wooed him away with a staggering $1250 a week.
In 10 years, Charlie’s pay had rocketed from $15 to $1250 a week, increasing almost tenfold in just one year. And, on top of this, Essanay offered him a $10,000 signing bonus!
Or, did they? George Spoor, the S part of S&A (get it? S&A=Essanay), balked at the contract. He said he didn’t owe that kind of bonus to anyone, and he hadn’t even heard of this Charlie Chaplin guy, and how in the hell could he be worth 15 times what the company was paying anybody else?
From today’s perspective we can see he was a genius, waiting for the chance to shine, but Spoor in 1915 had no way to know that. Essanay would only pay such sums if they thought it would rebound to them as profit—and Spoor’s hesitance suggests he was unsure of Chaplin’s ability to make them that kind of profit.
Flash-forward a year. Chaplin’s contract at Essanay is nearing its end, and he negotiates a better one at Mutual. In March of 1916—14 months after starting work for Essanay—he signs a deal with Mutual for a mind-reeling $670,000 for one year—that’s more than ten times what Essanay was paying. And there was a $150,000 signing bonus.
In two years, Chaplin had jumped his earnings by over a hundredfold. He would now be the highest paid entertainer in the world. Some reports say his Mutual contract represented then the highest salary ever paid to anyone in the world in any field.
Look at it from George Spoor’s perspective: he dug deep into his pockets to pay Chaplin the big bucks when such a thing represented a genuine act of faith. He believed in Charlie when it was a gamble, when it was hard to do. And now that the gamble was starting to pay off, Chaplin was going to take away the stardom that Essanay created and give it to a competitor.
Let’s add this to the mix: I suggested that it was of questionable ethics for Chaplin to take the Tramp character with him from Keystone to Essanay, but really all he took from Keystone was the costume. It was at Essanay that the Tramp as we know him evolved—the personality, the social critique, the tragic dimensions, the sense of grand cinematic aesthetics—all of that was created at, by, with, and for Essanay.
It was every bit the messy divorce—and like a spurred and angry ex-lover, Spoor became enraged and jealous.
Because, there’s one last detail I haven’t mentioned. When Chaplin left Essanay for Mutual, he still contractually owed Essanay four shorts.
Obviously with Chaplin gone, their ability to get those remaining shorts was FUBAR, as they say. The last thing Chaplin had finished before departing for Mutual was his two-reel BURLESQUE ON CARMEN. Looking to get some of theirs back, Spoor withheld CARMEN from distribution in order to turn it into a mini-feature, with which he could get more profits than from a two-reeler.
Spoor tasked the project to Leo White, one of Chaplin’s stock company, who shot additional material with Ben Turpin, another of Chaplin’s regular costars. The expanded version of CARMEN came out in April of 1916, just in time to compete head-to-head against Chaplin’s first short at Mutual.
And this is where Charlie sues, and where the whole thing goes off the rails. Chaplin argued that he had a contractual stipulation that no film could go out with his name without his approval, and that this bastardized version of CARMEN would harm his reputation because negative critical response would be directed at him, and people wouldn’t make the distinction that he hadn’t made it.
Essanay responded: a) Chaplin invalidated his contract when he walked out early, so they aren’t held by its terms; b) The film clearly identifies Chaplin as the star, not the filmmaker; c) The reviewers and audiences like the longer version, so there’s no harm to his reputation on that count; d) Oh, and since we paid for CARMEN in the first place, we own it and can do anything we friggin’ well want to with it.
The court agreed, and eventually got around to ordering Chaplin to pay them damages. But as damages go, Chaplin felt that just letting the altered version of CARMEN slide was the worst thing that could happen to him. Because at the moment that the court agreed that Spoor was permitted to make Chaplin films without his approval, the flood gates opened. Emboldened by the verdict, Essanay took the scraps of footage Chaplin had left behind for LIFE, and outtakes of other projects, had Leo White shoot some new footage, and assembled the result as another film, TRIPLE TROUBLE.
At the time, it was not standard practice to officially copyright motion pictures. Doing so cost money, and with short films pouring out of movie companies like water from a spigot for an intended theatrical life that was measured in days, it didn’t seem worth it. While Chaplin had been at Essanay, some pirates had taken to copying his films. Jules Potash and Isadore Peskov had gotten a hold of a print of THE CHAMPION and overprinted its footage onto footage of Annette Kellerman’s undersea fantasy flick DAUGHTER OF THE GODS, to make a seeming new pastiche about Chaplin interacting with mermaids. This they called CHARLIE CHAPLIN IN A SON OF THE GODS. They did the same thing a short while later to create another overprinted patchwork they called CHARLIE IN A HAREM.
Meanwhile, a film called MISS MINERVA COURTNEY IN HER IMPERSONATION OF CHARLIE CHAPLIN was a remake of THE CHAMPION starring the actress in full Tramp makeup and costume playing Charlie’s role.
Chaplin didn’t own THE CHAMPION, and Essanay didn’t seem to care. These ripoffs vexed Chaplin, but he had little recourse. His attempt to sue Essanay over CARMEN misfired. Charlie was now actively competing against himself.
In 1917, he unleashed a wave of lawsuits against his copycats—suing Potash and Peskov’s New Apollo Feature Film Company, suing the makers of THE FALL OF THE RUMMY-NUFFS which also recycled actual Chaplin footage to make an unauthorized new film, and other companies who tried to pass off their work as actual Chaplin films.
And then there was Billy West. Russian-born Billy West played a Chaplin mimic on the vaudeville stage in an act he called The Real Charlie Chaplin. That should have been a provocation, but remember Chaplin tended to overlook his stage imitators. West did something that virtually none of his competitors in the Chaplin mimicry business did—he observed his subject so closely as to capture all of the minute details of his performance. West didn’t just copy the costume—he cloned his body language, his physical grace, his nuances.
A Chicago-based film start-up hired West to bring his act in front of the cameras, and managed to film a single short, which was subsequently purchased by a tiny outfit called Unicorn. Unicorn lasted for about three films before West’s contract was bought up by the newly formed King-Bee organization, in the summer of 1917.
Seeking to avoid a head-on confrontation with Chaplin’s lawyers, King-Bee never rechristened Billy West in a name meant to sound Chaplinesque, they merely copied everything else. They hired top-notch comedy directors like Arvid Gillstrom and Charley Chase to direct. They hired Leo White to bring his intimate knowledge of Chaplin’s style to the team, they hired Oliver Hardy as the heavy.
West nailed Chaplin’s mannerisms perfectly—which was an accomplishment too easily underrated. If copying Chaplin this closely was so easy, more of the minics would have done it. Instead, most of them settled for copying the costume. Secondly, West’s films are genuinely well-made. And lastly, he copied Chaplin’s settings, plots, and themes. He copied Chaplin’s tragic notions, his social satire. He was Chaplin margarine.
24 films into the 26-film contract, West retired from his Chaplin clone role. He moved on, trying out a new (failed) comic creation, and eventually establishing himself as a producer of other comedians’ films. His former producers sued him, much as Essanay countersued Chaplin for the same reasons, and replaced him with Harry Mann—an actor hired to play Billy West playing Chaplin.
Mann was no Chaplin, though—he wasn’t even a satisfactory West mimic. So the producers found a new guy—Mexican actor Charles Amador.
And here’s where we came in: Amador, billed as Charlie Aplin, made his debut in the film THE RACE TRACK in 1920. It was the first of a proposed series of 12 shorts, but using the name “Charlie Aplin” had the very effect that canny Billy West had successfully avoided. They got themselves sued.
For the film that effectively ended the faux-Chaplin business, THE RACE TRACK is a historical anomaly. We have the title, we have the effect—but no film. It was never publicly shown, so we have little documentation about what it contained. It is a “lost film” as far as the terminology goes—but that word doesn’t capture the fate of this thing. When Amador lost his suit, the court ruled the film must be destroyed. Yeah, this is a “lost” film, just like an ash tray is full of “lost” cigarettes.
But we know these things about it: F.M. Sanford and G.B. Sanford, the producers, had made just this one pilot for the proposed twelve-film series, and then headed off to New York to screen it for some state’s rights distribution chains. They had sent out announcements publicizing their new hire “Charlie Aplin,” “in this famous character.” And this was what Chaplin and his attorneys objected to—the idea that the mimics wouldn’t just fool the public, but fool the film business. If anyone was going to be selling “Charlie ***plin in this famous character” films, he wanted to be the one making the sale.
At this point, the Sanfords and Amador made a startling and potentially game-changing declaration: “We have no desire to use the name Charles Aplin or Charlie Aplin or any other name similar in spelling or pronunciation or appearance to the plaintiff’s name,” they told the judge.
They were prepared to sign an affidavit to that effect. Suddenly a huge proportion of Chaplin’s case had just been taken off the table. But, the defendants continued, although we’re more than happy to give up on any confusingly similar name, we stand firm on all other aspects.
The nature of the case had changed. It was now no longer about whether the fraud consisted of the misleading promotion—but about whether Chaplin could establish that he had intellectual property rights in the vagueries of clothing and performance.
Amador’s lawyers started to lay out the story that I described above: the first appearance of the Tramp costume and characterization on stage, in the form of Billys Reeves and Ritchie, the role of Lehrmann in developing the character, the aspects borrowed from other comedians. Their assertion was simply that the burden of proof was on Chaplin to prove he had originated the role and therefore had the standing with which to police who else got to play it. The judge was indeed worried by all this, and even the appellate court (which upheld Chaplin’s win) agreed that the evidence was conflicting as to whether Chaplin had created the character. But, the trial court and appellate court agreed, there was sufficient evidence that Chaplin originated that character in movies. So, while he may not have been the sole author of the role, he was the first one to do it in a movie, and the courts decided to draw a tight line around that narrow sphere.
Thus, Chaplin had won a legal ruling that said he had the right to control that character in movies. It was the end of the Chaplin copycat business—or, rather, it would have been, if there was still such a thing.
Chaplin’s final legal victory came in September 27, 1928, when the United States Supreme Court refused to hear Amador’s appeal. By that point, the copycats had long ago piffled out all on their own.
What ultimately killed the mimics wasn’t the strong arm of the law, but Chaplin’s own artistry. As we saw with Ritchie, putting other folks in the same clothes is easy, but doesn’t necessarily rise to a full-blown imitation. Chaplin was a moving target—constantly adding to and improving on his creation.
Chaplin softened his portrayal, moving away from violent slapstick; the mimics softened theirs. Chaplin started imbuing his films with social commentary; the mimics tried to follow suit. Chaplin made grander films with more cinematic flourish; the mimics improved their aesthetics. And then, in 1921, Chaplin made THE KID, a feature film of (maudlin) emotional intensity. The mimics gave up. There are two-reel Chaplin-alikes that are as good as some of the Keystone and Essanay shorts, but no Chaplin copycat ever came close to copying the achievement of THE KID. Chaplin simply out-competed the competition.
Which leaves us with an interesting question: would Chaplin have evolved so far, so fast, if not forced to compete against himself? Without the influence of the copycats, pressuring him to constantly top himself, would Chaplin have matured to his fullest? In other words—do we owe the mimics a debt of thanks?
(Oh and by the way–I yanked several of the stills in this week’s post from The Faux Charlot, which you really should visit if you want to know more about Chaplin mimics. And if you’ve read enough by now and just want to watch ‘em, then lemme tell ya that most of the clips this week are from my DVD AMERICAN SLAPSTICK VOL. 2)
Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.
Actors Alfred Hitchcock Bela Lugosi Bette Davis Boris Karloff British Cinema Buster Keaton Cary Grant Charlie Chaplin Citizen Kane Comedy Criterion Dracula DVD Elizabeth Taylor Film Film Noir FilmStruck Frankenstein Fritz Lang Hammer Horror Horror horror films Horror Movies Humphrey Bogart James Bond Joan Crawford John Ford John Huston John Wayne Joseph Losey MGM Movie movies Night of the Living Dead Orson Welles Peter Lorre Psycho Roger Corman Screwball Comedy Steve McQueen TCM The Exorcist Warner Archive Westerns