Picking on Charlie Chaplin

In 1927 silent film star Charlie Chaplin was working on his latest film, The Circus, when his second wife, Lita Grey, filed for divorce, accusing her husband of infidelity, abuse, and of harbouring “perverted sexual desires.” Life imitated art, and Charlie’s own life became a circus.

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July 23, 1927 cover by Stanley W. Reynolds.

The New Yorker’s Ralph Barton, who contributed countless illustrations for the magazine, wrote about Chaplin’s latest travails in a column titled “Picking on Charlie Chaplin.”

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LIFE ON THE HIGH WIRE…Charlie Chaplin in The Circus (1928). (MoMA)

The “2” Barton mentioned were teenaged actress Lita Grey and her mother, Lillian Parker.

In 1924 the 35-year-old Charlie Chaplin married the 16-year-old Lita Grey in a discreet ceremony in Mexico — because Grey was pregnant, Chaplin could have been charged with statutory rape under California law (it was Chaplin’s second marriage, and his second to a teenaged actress). Chaplin and Grey had two sons from their brief union–Charles Spencer Chaplin, Jr., was born in 1925, followed by Sydney Earl Chaplin in 1926.

The divorce made headline news as Chaplin was reported to be in a state of nervous breakdown. Filming for The Circus was suspended for ten months while he dealt with the mess:

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Chaplin’s lawyers agreed to a cash settlement of $600,000 – the largest awarded by American courts at that time (Roughly equivalent to more than $8 million today). Groups formed across America calling for his films to be banned (no doubt the same groups that had earlier protested his marriage to a pregnant, teenaged minor). Barton mused that the protests might cause Chaplin to abandon America for the more permissive atmosphere in Europe:

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HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU…Chaplin first became acquainted with the 12-year old Lillita McMurray (later Lita Grey) during the filming of The Kid (1921).
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PRATFALL…Charlie Chaplin and Lita Grey during their brief, tumultuous marriage. (The Artifice)

The Circus was released in January 1928 to positive reviews, and during the first-ever Academy Awards Chaplin received a special trophy “For versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus. Despite the film’s success, he rarely spoke of it again. For Charlie, it was a time best forgotten.

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And now, an advertisement from the July 23 issue urging readers to buy the 1920s equivalent of “Smart Water” endorsed by the Sun King himself…

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…and a cartoon by Reginald Marsh, portraying a distinctly American view of the grandeur of Niagara Falls…

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On to July 30, 1927 issue, in which the New Yorker once again takes a poke at our 30th President…

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July 30, 1927. (Cover is unsigned, but I suspect it is by John Held Jr.)

…and his latest adventures in the wilds of South Dakota’s Black Hills:

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BIG CHIEF CAL…President Calvin Coolidge donned a headdress while being named an honorary Sioux chief (“Leading Eagle”) in Deadwood, South Dakota. His advisers cautioned that the headdress would make him look funny, but he apparently replied, “Well it’s good for people to laugh, isn’t it?” (AP)

Safely back in the environs of the big city, the New Yorker continued to take stock of summer sports such as tennis, polo, and the yacht races at Larchmont (but still no mention of the legendary ’27 Yankees). This illustration of the races (unsigned, but I guess it is Reginald Marsh) graced a double-spread below “The Talk of the Town”…

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(click to enlarge)

…and if you were attending the races, or wanted to look stylish on your yacht (or if you just wanted to dress this way to appear that you owned one), you could check out the selections at B. Altman’s…

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…looking smart was everywhere in the issue, from multiple ads for fall furs, to this come-on from Buick, which suggests that even though it is no Cadillac, and certainly not a Rolls, its smartness will prevail “on any boulevard”…

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The Buick ad is somewhat revolutionary for an early automobile ad in that it doesn’t actually show the product advertised.

As for those not among the smart set, and not enjoying the races at Larchmont, there were other summer diversions, as rendered here by J.H. Fyfe:

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Next Time: Babe Comes Home…

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Mr. and Mrs. Little Tramp

Screenshot 2015-03-17 12.29.14“Charlie Chaplin is in trouble again.” So began the next item in “The Talk of the Town” for the March 21 issue.

Over his head hangs a sword that was forged in the Californian sunshine of the cold metal that entered the souls of the native sons when they lived in Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska. It is the sword of righteousness, the flaming blade of moral indignation.

The New Yorker, in its modesty of the times, refers to the “trouble” as Chaplin’s home life, which “has been a trifle irregular.” The magazine was referring to his sudden and secretive marriage to a much younger woman, Lillita McMurray.

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Charlie Chaplin and Lita Grey (The Artifice)

According to the website The Artifice, Lillita McMurray was Chaplin’s second and youngest wife (he had four in all). In 1920 McMurray landed a small role as a “flirting angel” in Chaplin’s The Kid. When she landed another small role in The Gold Rush four years later (changing her name to Lita Grey) a serious relationship between Grey and Chaplin developed. Grey, just barely 16, soon became pregnant, and Chaplin, seeking to prevent scandal (and possible criminal charges), secretly married Grey in Mexico (She gave birth soon after to Charles Chaplin Jr. on May 5, 1925).

Not surprisingly, Chaplin was uncooperative with the story-hungry media, which The New Yorker noted took revenge by casting Grey as a innocent victim of a “rapacious roué.”

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The 12-year old Lillita McMurray (later Lita Grey) in The Kid (1921) (Image from the flickchick1953 blog A Person in the Dark)

The The New Yorker noted that the California Women’s Clubs called for a boycott of Chaplin films, and even the famed L.A. theatre proprietor Sid Graumann bowed to their pressure and cancelled his booking for The Gold Rush (which the “Talk” writer calls an “extraordinarily good comedy”).

The magazine observed that it was the goal of Chaplin’s detractors to drive him out of the movies—“That way lies Fatty Arbuckle” (alluding to sex scandal that destroyed the career of one of the most beloved silent film stars three years earlier).

A footnote: Chaplin’s marriage to Grey soon crumbled, and a divorce was granted August 22, 1927. According to The Artifice, it was a bitter, public ordeal with rumors of affairs and sexual misconduct clouding Chaplin’s fame and reputation. In the end, Grey was awarded a massive $600,000 settlement and $100,000 for each child. After the scandal Grey became reclusive and was featured in only a few small films before her death on Dec. 29, 1995.

Another item of note in the March 21 issue: a review Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis (“good, but not as good as Babbitt”).

And how about a little cartoon to end our segment on the March 21, 1925 issue:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)