Ralph Barton and Charlie Chaplin in the Jazz Age


Charlie Chaplin—an icon of cinema—flirted with the fine arts. He sketched on occasion, and he could converse about art and music in social situations, but his strongest connection to the world of art was his friendship with illustrator Ralph Barton. During the 1920s, Barton was a highly successful caricaturist and cartoonist, whose work was elevated by an understanding of design, line and composition. He served as an advisory editor for The New Yorker from its very beginning in 1924, which reflected the type of social circle Barton traveled in. Barton seemed to know everyone who gave the Jazz Age its flavor, from Mayor Jimmie Walker to actor Paul Robeson.

Barton looked like he belonged in the Jazz Age, with his tailored trousers, suspenders, striped shirts and cravat held in place with a tie pin. Known as the last of the dandies, he lounged at home in silk pajamas emblazoned with frogs. Despite Prohibition, Barton sipped champagne and drank fine wine.

Barton created illustrations and caricatures for all of the magazines that defined the 1920s. Like Al Hirschfeld, his forte was caricatures of show business figures from vaudeville, the stage or the movies. He loved the theater in New York and hobnobbed with the popular actors of the day. In his drawings, he recreated scenes from current plays, or depicted a group of well-known stars in a restaurant or café. He gave life to his figures with his thin, wiry lines that hummed with energy and vigor.

In 1921, Barton was invited to Hollywood by Rex Ingram, who thought Barton might enjoy designing the sets and costumes for The Conquering Power, starring Valentino. The illustrator with the unique style disliked filmmaking, partly because there were too many people working on the same design, leaving him little control over his contributions. The reviews for The Conquering Power did not mention his work, but Barton was listed in the credits as technical consultant.

Barton’s experience with The Conquering Power may have been disappointing, but his trip to Hollywood was not wasted because he met Charlie Chaplin. He had already caricatured Chaplin for a couple of magazines, and, according to Bruce Kellner’s biography of Barton, The Last Dandy, Chaplin knew and admired the illustrator’s work. The two hit it off immediately and became fast friends. Barton told his third wife, actress Carlotta Monterey, that Chaplin was “fine, modest, intelligent . . . quite frank about himself and absolutely unaffected by his fame and so on, a very charming person altogether, well-read, and of a rather somber turn of mind.”

In 1927, Barton defended Chaplin against the accusations of his soon-to-be ex-wife Lita Grey. Their drawn-out, messy divorce affected the production and distribution of his movies. At one point, Chaplin’s assets were frozen, and the footage for The Circus (1928) was in danger of confiscation before the film could be completed. Grey embarked on a smear campaign, accusing the Little Tramp of deviant sexual behavior, adulterous liaisons, degrading behavior and unpaid taxes. Theaters in small towns pulled Chaplin films, or they threatened to. Barton wrote a piece in The New Yorker defending his friend, believing the courts and public were treating him unfairly. Though The Circus was given a special trophy at the first Academy Awards ceremony, and it did well at the box office, Chaplin always associated the film with the stress of its production. The Circus is not mentioned in his autobiography.

Chaplin and Barton’s friendship is more than just a footnote in pop culture history. Chaplin motivated Barton to buy a movie camera. Like many amateurs, he coaxed his friends to cavort in front of the camera, except Barton’s pals included Somerset Maugham, Anita Loos, Theodore Dreiser and other luminaries of the Roaring Twenties. In 1926, he ambitiously constructed a 33-minute version of Camille starring his famous friends. Anita Loos starred as Camille, and Paul Robeson played Alexandre Dumas while Chaplin appeared in a couple of small bits as the bookkeeper and the cashier. Many in Barton’s social circle were crammed into the film, much like his figures were crammed into his compositions, including Sherwood Anderson, Ethel Barrymore, Richard Barthelmess, Clarence Darrow, Theodore Dreiser, Dorothy Gish, Sacha Guitry, Rex Ingram, Sinclair Lewis, H.L. Mencken, George Jean Nathan and Max Reinhardt.

Barton was allowed on Chaplin’s sets whenever he visited California. In 1930, he took his camera behind the scenes of City Lights (1931) and captured the only known footage of Charlie directing. Chaplin, a relentless perfectionist, did not make it easy for his costars, especially his leading ladies. For the scene in which the Tramp meets the flower girl, played by Virginia Cherrill, he shot more than 300 takes. At one point, he is angry because the extras are not where he thought they should be. He is captured in a moment of fury, hurling himself at an assistant responsible for the extras. The footage was not discovered until the 1970s when it was found among Barton’s personal belongings. Barton had another connection to City Lights in that his stylish fashion tastes may have influenced Chaplin’s characterization of the nattily dressed millionaire.

City Lights premiered in New York City in February 1931. Chaplin dropped in on Barton and was dismayed at the depth of his friend’s depression. Having separated from his fourth wife, and not particularly close to his daughters, Barton had attempted suicide. Chaplin persuaded Barton to travel with him to Europe for the premiere of City Lights in London. They stayed in a luxurious suite in the Carlton Hotel and dined with the likes of H.G. Wells and Lady Astor. He and Chaplin visited one of his daughters, who had tellingly chosen a life the exact opposite of her father’s: As a nun, she taught in one of London’s poorest neighborhoods. Though in good spirits at first, Barton began to decline. He opted not to go with Chaplin on excursions and social events, preferring to stay alone in the Carleton, wandering the corridors at night. One evening, Chaplin’s press secretary found him playing with a revolver, and on another occasion, he cut the electric cords to all the clocks because he hated the sound of the ticking. When Barton revealed he wanted to go home, Chaplin and his secretary were somewhat relieved. Chaplin gave him £25, purchased a ticket for him on the next ocean liner to New York and then continued his European vacation. A caricature of Chaplin watching himself in the movies, which was printed in Delineator in December 1930, would be Barton’s last published illustration.

On May 19, 1931, Ralph Barton shot himself in the temple, committing suicide at age 39. He left a suicide note, which he labeled “Obit.” In the note, he singled out his third wife, Carlotta Monterey, as the only woman he had ever loved, though he had cheated on her. She had caught him in the act and divorced him. By the time of his suicide, “his angel” Carlotta had married renowned playwright Eugene O’Neill. Though Barton does not blame Carlotta, or say anything negative about her, the O’Neills were embarrassed and irritated by his comments, which were recounted endlessly in the press. I can’t help but think that Barton had intended this outcome for reasons he took to his grave. Carlotta’s associates speculated that Barton resented the actress for marrying someone more successful than he was.

Within months, Ralph Barton had been completely forgotten, a part of a frivolous decade supplanted by the Great Depression. But, fate is truly a trickster. Twelve years later, Chaplin would marry Eugene O’Neill’s teenage daughter Oona, which infuriated the playwright. Somewhere, a forgotten Ralph Barton was smiling.

Susan Doll

To view The Circus click here.

To view City Lights click here.

Comment Policy:

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20 Responses Ralph Barton and Charlie Chaplin in the Jazz Age
Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : August 21, 2017 8:10 am

I thought this was a blog about films. Is there any point to this article other than gossip? I’d never heard of Ralph Barton, and now that I have, I’m no better for it. It doesn’t further my appreciation for The Circus or City Lights, it doesn’t further my knowledge about Chaplin’s life or working process. (It almost makes Greg Ferrara’s writing seem insightful and original, but not quite.)

Posted By swac44 : August 21, 2017 10:07 am

Barton seems like a fascinating figure, I’d like to see some of his work, and any new insight into Chaplin the man or artist is always welcome.

Gossip, perhaps, but it’s hardly Hollywood Babylon.

Posted By Ben Martin : August 21, 2017 12:06 pm

I had no idea it was Ralph Barton who had filmed the behind the scenes footage of Chaplin directing City Lights. Fascinating. Any peak I can get into the era in which a film is being produced, I embrace it. Further, I love learning about the fringe characters in the world of film in its formative years. Love your blogs and this one in particular.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 21, 2017 12:21 pm

Ed: You put me on the defensive, a position that is never comfortable.

But, unlike you, the info about Barton and Chaplin’s friendship did further my understanding of Chaplin, especially descriptions of the footage of Chaplin directing–footage that Barton could shoot because they were close friends. Chaplin’s dictatorial methods as a director (esp. with female costars and assistants) surprised me, considering his sympathy for “the little guy” on the screen as well as the Little Tramp’s placement of women on pedestals. In contrast, Chaplin’s record with women is abysmal, i.e. his penchant for seducing his teenage costars. Two of them turned out to have mental or emotional problems–Lita Gray and, later, Joan Barry. Both of those relationships became very public scandals, which had an impact on his career—with Barton defending him in The New Yorker against the distraught Gray’s accusations. The New Yorker, a major publication, paints Gray as an unreasonable, lying, “hysterical” woman, thereby invalidating her. Made me re-think Gray a bit, though I have not drawn any conclusions from it. Still, all of that makes Chaplin’s treatment of Virginia Cherrill in the footage more disturbing to me. Plus, the friendship with RB offered a portrait of his lifestyle in the 1920s, which included a social circle of high-brow writers and artists that may have been indirect influences.

I could go on, but the point is that I didn’t consider it mere gossip, especially when Chaplin’s personal life was so directly connected to his films and career, which was also true of Barton’s work. Their lives were so intertwined during the decade of Chaplin’s creative peak. Yet, as you note, no one has heard of Barton because he fell off the radar so quickly after his death.

I thought it might be of interest to resurrect an unknown figure who was close to one of cinema’s biggest icons. I stand by my decision to do so, and unearthing and verifying info took more time than my usual post. But I recognize that some readers prefer specific discussions of films and are under no obligation to like this type of background info.

I cop to the O’Neill connection being so “Believe it or not,” but I couldn’t resist throwing it in.

Posted By Emgee : August 21, 2017 3:45 pm

@Ed Buskirk Jr:

“Comment Policy: we ask that all comments be respectful of our writers.”

So that includes Greg Ferrara, whose posts i always look forward to reading. Is there any point to yourpost other than complaining? I’m sure there are lots of other sites where you can rant at your heart’s content. Let’s keep this site troll-free.

Posted By Doug : August 21, 2017 6:44 pm

We who visit here are guests-who should always temper our comments with respect-the same respect our hosts have shown us.
With that said, hearing that Barton worked for The New Yorker in it’s early days sent me to my bookshelf for James Thurber’s affectionate biography of Herbert Ross, its publisher: “The Years With Ross”. Haven’t read it in a while, but I’m sure that Barton is in there.
I did find a noteworthy letter online which shines more light on Ross than Barton but is still interesting.


Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 21, 2017 8:00 pm

I think Susan’s writing is always insightful. While a part of our intent here is to write about a particular movie or artist, generally speaking, we are not constrained by a rigid template of how to do so. We give our own thoughts and reactions, yes, but also info and history on the film that may offer insight from a different angle, something Susan is doing here. At least that’s my unoriginal take on it. Also probably not very insightful but I do my best.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 21, 2017 11:13 pm

Like Emgee, I look forward to your posts. And, I find your unoriginal takes original in their unoriginality.

Posted By Adenoid Hynkle : August 22, 2017 3:52 am

Ed Buskirk Jr should be forced to eat an old shoe.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : August 23, 2017 10:04 am

Yes, I know, this blog is a mutual admiration society, free of dissent or criticism, where everyone’s opinion is praised, and everyone’s insipid prose is fawned over, and never a negative word is heard. Not only is it the only such place on the internet, it’s the only such place in the universe.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 23, 2017 11:19 am

Ed, I have had disagreements with so many readers here over the years I have long since lost count. I have never had a problem with people disagreeing with me or my posts. You yourself have had many astute observations at this blog that have made me rethink my position. I believe most of our commenters here are engaging and insightful and if they want to take me to task, I am always eager to have the conversation. But it was your ad hominem attack on me in your initial comment that stung. It wasn’t a critique of my position on any particular piece or even a critique in the comments section of one of my pieces. It was thrown in at the tail end of a comment on one of Susan’s pieces in which you, for whatever reason, felt it necessary to insult me as an unoriginal writer. Hey, I may well be. I’m not holding my breath for a Pulitzer Prize anytime soon.

But I love what I do here, and I love working with writers like Susan and Kimberly and Pablo and Jill and every other writer that’s been here. And all of us are writing quite a bit about a wide range of subjects. Taking in my blog posts here, my articles for TCM, and my freelance work elsewhere, I’ve written thousands of movie articles and if occasionally I can’t be the most insightful writer in the world or the well runs dry once in a while, I apologize. But I would appreciate a give and take, not name calling. That’s all. As for what you wrote about Susan’s piece initially, I think she acquitted herself quite well and I won’t intrude there in her defense.

And again, Ed, please keep commenting. You’re a thoughtful and intelligent reader who knows one hell of a lot about the art of cinema. All we ask is that we’re all civil with each other. That really is it. Nothing more. Look forward to reading you again in the future in the comments section and I’ll try to be on my toes for any counter-arguments! Thanks!

Posted By robbushblog : August 24, 2017 12:50 am

And here I thought it was an interesting look into a friendship of Chaplin, which offered information about Chaplin I had never heard before. Sure, there was some gossip, but it informed the overall post. It wasn’t pointless in its inclusion.

And sure, Greg can be derivative at times with his silly topics, but they’re fun and unique among the other writers here. He has a certain style. Heck, Ed Buzzkill- your criticism lacks originality. We ALL know Greg writes unoriginal stuff sometimes. If his posts bother you, you could skip them.

Okay, so I got some dissent in there, and some criticism, and I even made fun of someone’s name. I’m sure I won’t be praised by anyone, although Ed should praise me because my comment was different. :)

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 24, 2017 10:02 am

Rob, um… thanks? I think.

Posted By robbushblog : August 24, 2017 10:05 am

We’re old buddies, Greg. You know I support your writing. I enjoy it thoroughly.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 24, 2017 11:58 am

Oh, I know, I was just joking. I’ve been off Facebook so long now I haven’t any contact with any of you outside of this blog in years. Hope all is well!

Posted By swac44 : August 24, 2017 12:46 pm

Quitting Facebook, how original


~Yer fave Canadian snowflake

Posted By robbushblog : August 24, 2017 1:07 pm

Ha ha! SWAC got you there.

All is good and well on my front, Greg. I hope all is well with you and the family.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : August 24, 2017 2:56 pm

Hey, when I quit Facebook, it was original. Everyone copied me!

Posted By George : August 25, 2017 6:36 pm

Ed’s Waldo Lydecker imitation has become tiresome. One of the reasons why I don’t post here as often as I used to.

Posted By robbushblog : August 25, 2017 8:36 pm

Dang, George! I wish I had thought of that Waldo Lydecker comparison!

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