Obituary: Sydney Chaplin



Sydney Chaplin, eldest surviving son of the most important single figure in cinema history, died on March 3rd at the age of 82.
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His mother was Lita Grey, Chaplin's second wife, but their virtual shotgun marriage proved so unsuccessful that she is not mentioned once in Chaplin's autobiography.
They had met when she was signed, at the age of 12, to play one of the nymphets leading the Tramp astray in the curious fantasy sequence towards the end of The Kid. They didn't meet again until she was offered the lead, at fifteen, in The Gold Rush. 
By the time shooting was underway they had begun an affair, and production had to be halted when she fell pregnant. Her scenes were reshot more than successfully with Georgia Hale, but the hastily-arranged marriage was a disaster from the off.

Sydney, who would grow to become a dashing and very likeable actor, more successful on stage than film, was their second child. Raised by Lita, he had little contact with his father until he entered the acting profession after the Second World War.
Chaplin gave him two good roles in his films, as the rival to his failed music hall comic for the affections of ballerina Claire Bloom in that beautiful film Limelight, and a lighter supporting turn, as Brando's roguish buddy, in Chaplin's critically savaged swansong A Countess From Hong Kong.

To viewers coming fresh to Countess, unaware of its reputation, the film is obviously the charming, often delightful comedy its few supporters (most of them in France) hailed it as at the time, and Sydney's relaxed and urbane performance is one of its many pleasures. (Ironically, many accounts cite Chaplin's harsh on-set treatment of his son as the main reason why relations broke down between Chaplin and Brando, the film's hopelessly inadequate star and its only real liability.)
As Sydney himself predicted in an interview in the early seventies, the film's main failing - the fact that it was not fashionable - has come increasingly to be seen as its greatest asset, while so much that seemed cutting-edge in late-sixties culture now looks worthlessly immature:

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Sydney inherited more than enough of his father's talent to make it as a star, but rather less, perhaps, of his ambition:

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In later life, Sydney became a keen and tireless custodian of his father's legacy, appearing at numerous film festivals and celebrations of his life and art.
How both would have wept at the implications of this (Times, March 16th):


Hindu extremists wreck plans for statue of 'Christian' Charlie Chaplin

He fought Fascism in the 1940s armed with little more than a crumpled suit, a bemused look and funny walk. Now Charlie Chaplin is embroiled in another battle of beliefs, this time with India’s Hindu extremists.
Radicals in the southern state of Karnataka have stymied plans to erect a 20m (67ft) statue of the film star because he was a Christian. The move comes amid a campaign against Western culture that has raised concerns that parts of India are being “Talebanised” by Hinduism’s far Right.
The Chaplin sculpture, which would have shown him in his baggy trousers and bowler hat, was being built at a cost of about 3.5 million rupees (£48,600) near the town of Udupi, the site of several important Hindu temples. It was to form part of a set for a dance routine in a film but work ground to a halt when Hindu activists chased the workers away and buried the materials.
Hemant Hegde, the film-maker, told local reporters that he abandoned the project after being threatened by a mob of 50 people whose leader told him: “We will not allow you to construct a statue of a Christian actor.”
The protesters were said to belong to the Hindu Jagarna Vedike (Hindu Enlightenment Group), a group linked to an attack on a Christian school in the same state last May. They demanded that Mr Hegde instead erect a statue of Swami Vivekananda, a 19th-century Hindu missionary to the West.
Mr Hegde told a local TV channel: “I’m really surprised that people would associate Charlie Chaplin with being a Christian and not allow the statue.” Chaplin, whose 1940 masterwork The Great Dictator mocked Hitler and Nazism, might also have been confused: the British-born actor was baptised into the Church of England but later avowed himself agnostic...
The local head of the Bharatiya Janata Party, a Hindu nationalist and India’s main opposition party, said there was no place for Chaplin in the region. “If the locals are against such a statue, I am also against it,” he told The Times of India. “Why should one bother so much about Charlie Chaplin, who was not even an Indian?”
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"I am a citizen of the world," Chaplin used to say. To think that this man, who was once the most famous in the entire world, who literally brought continents together in the commonality of laughter, whose famous speech at the end of The Great Dictator spoke of the need for nations and men to throw aside all petty distinctions that drive them apart... that this man of all men should be the one on the receiving end of this latest eruption of the dark age revivalism currently dragging the entire planet backwards towards oblivion...
Perhaps history is having its way, arranging things for us. Perhaps in the long run it is better that it should be no other man, no less a man. This giant figure, this transcender of all boundaries and labels, reduced by the madness of an age of pygmies to definition by categories, or by their absence.
A Christian. Not even an Indian.
Indeed not.
Not 'an' anything. Much, much more.
We live in times that need spirits like Chaplin's more than ever.
Do you see any around? Because I don't.