This is the third article celebrating Chaplin’s 125th birthday and 100th anniversary of his films. Read my others here (Doctor Who and Chaplin comic book review) and here (matching music to his unreleased “How to Make Movies”)
Chaplin as Billy, age 14 (though he looks 12 to me.
When I became a Charlie Chaplin fan in 1991, one of the *very first things* I learned about him was his role in the 1901 Sherlock Holmes play written by William Gillette and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I had been a Sherlockian for 5 years by then and was thrilled that my new “obsession” had a connection, one of many (and growing!) I would later discover.
William Gillette, in his Holmes garb
Chaplin was born on April 16,1889, in Lambeth, London, England, at the beginning of the Sherlock Holmes publishing era. the year before the publishing of the second Holmes story, “The Sign of Four”. After living for some time in poverty, he gradually got work as a child actor (both his parents were stage performers). He wrote in his My Autobiography (1964) how he lied about his age to get a part in a H A Saintsbury play, A Romance of Cocknaye, saying he was 14, when he was actually 12 1/2. The manager of the production and cast liked him so much they offered him the Billy the Pageboy role. So from July 1903 to February 1906 he traveled the country performing the part. (Holmes trivia: The pageboy in the original stories did not have a name until after the play was made. It would have been interesting if Doyle named him Charlie!)
The argument over “Who’s the best Sherlock Holmes?” is nothing new, though the names change over time. Back in his day, Chaplin worked under two of the starring Holmes’: William Gillette and H A Saintsbury. He wrote in his “My Autobiography” that while he liked both, he felt Saintsbury was closer to the “real” Holmes.
List of the cast (including Chaplin as Billy), as they performed at Duke of York’s Theatre, circa 1905
Want to see the play? Here it is, performed in 1981 for HBO. Frank Langella plays Holmes (very well, I must say!) My favorite scene (Act 3, pt 2), which includes some great interactions with Billy, is embedded below:
(side note – the boy playing Billy in the above performance is a young Christian Slater)
The Great Dictator (1940) – Chaplin as Hynkel (center), Reginald Gardiner (left) as Schultz, and Henry Daniell as Garbitsch (right)
While he had other roles in his early childhood showbiz career, none seemed to have stuck with him later in his life than the Billy role. Decades later in 1939 when he was shooting his Hitler satire, “The Great Dictator”, he would re-enact scenes from the Holmes play in-between scenes for the movie to entertain the cast and crew.
One of the actors in Dictator was Henry Daniell, who later who appear in three of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films: Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943), and The Woman in Green (1945, playing Professor Moriarty, the role I best remember him for.)
Which also brings us to Nigel Bruce. Chaplin hired Bruce for his 1952 film, Limelight. Bruce was hired not only because of his talent but mainly because of his strong connection with the Holmes franchise having famously played Dr. Watson.
Basil Rathbone (left) as Holmes, Nigel Bruce (back, center) as Watson and Henry Daniell (right) from Voice of Terror (1943)
In the film Limelight, Bruce plays Mr Postant, an homage to the real life who was William Gillette’s stage manager, and who had played an important role of keeping an eye out for the young Chaplin during the Holmesian days.
I have often felt that if he played Watson like he later played Postant, Watson would have been considered less bumbling. Below is a clip from Limelight which not only includes Bruce, but also Claire Bloom (many years later she would costar with David Tennant in Doctor Who, “The End of Time”), and Buster Keaton who plays Calvero’s partner (Keaton’s Holmes connection is making the brilliant 1924 silent film Sherlock Jr.)
One of the reasons why I picked using the name Calvero on the internet, and have kept it for almost 20 years, is the Holmes connection (along with Keaton, and the later Doctor Who connection,
To Modern Times
In 1992 came Robert Downey Jr playing the title role in Sir Richard Attenborough’s “Chaplin”. Absolutely brilliant! And he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor (he was ROBBED! ROBBED, I tell you!). Downey did such a great job, that most of the time I forgot I was watching someone else playing Charlie.
Fast-forward 17 years and he was picked by Guy Ritchie to play the lead in Sherlock Holmes, which, honestly, sounded a little weird. For Chaplin, he played someone who was about 5’4″. And years later he plays someone who is described by Watson as being at least 6 feet tall. Either way, I did (and still do) enjoy his take on the Great Detective. He did win a Golden Globe for “Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy” for his portrayal of Holmes (a category I still don’t understand how he won, but he won it. So, YAY!)
Chaplin and Holmes meet once again
On season 2, episode 1 of BBC’s excellent show Sherlock, “A Scandal in Bohemia”, John Watson’s girlfriend Jeanette is played play by Charlie’s granddaughter (Geraldine’s daughter), Oona Chaplin. When I was first watching the episode, I didn’t know who the actress was but there was something about her… I couldn’t put my finger on it. She seemed familiar, and at the same time not familiar. When I immediately re-watched the episode for the second time (because it was so mind blowingly awesome), I paid more attention to the ending credits, and the name “Oona Chaplin” jumped out at me. I threw my arms up in the air and shouted “WOOOOOOOHOOOO!!!” and did a happy dance. And so a new Chaplin comes face to face with the great detective.
Close encounter of a Sherlockian/Chaplinesque kind: Aidan Quinn
Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller), Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), and Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn) from Elementary
Another recent connection (though not as strong as the above ones, but still there) is CBS’s newest take of the Holmes and Watson interpretations in Elementary starring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes, and Lisa Liu as Joan Watson (that’s right, a female Watson…a very good one), which premiered during Holmes’ 125th anniversary (2012). Co-starring is Aidan Quinn who plays Captain Thomas Gregson of the NYPD.
Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson), Sam (Johnny Depp), and Benny (Aidan Quinn)
Almost 20 years earlier (1993), Quinn played in an adorable movie that also starring Johnny Depp and Mary Stuart Matherson, Benny and Joon (released just a few months after Downey’s Chaplin.). Quinn plays the older, and pretty protective brother, Benny to Matherson’s Joon who slowly falls in love with Depp’s Sam who is a eccentric person who is obsessed with Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
The comparison between Benedict Cumberbatch and otters is well known (even to BC), but a lesser known comparison is him and Chaplin. Tumblr user lenoesque compared facial expressions of ol’ Benny and the Little Tramp.
What kind of connections will show up later? Who knows. What I do know is that they keep popping up from time to time. And if I notice them, I’ll create a “Part 2”.
Are there any that I missed? Just leave a comment