Edna Purviance Welcome to Paradise

Sydney Chaplin

Sydney Chaplin

Sydney Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin's Brother
Linda Wada - ednapurviance.org

Kevin Brownlow’s documentary 'The Tramp and the Dictator', has generated a great deal of interest in Sydney Chaplin, the brother of Charlie Chaplin. I have done some searching on the web and found little material on Sydney. With the requests I have been receiving of late, I’ve created this little tribute to Charlie's amazing brother.

Sydney John was born on March 16, 1885, to 16- year old Hannah Hill in London, England. There is a mystery as who was Sidney’s father. The story is that it was a man named Hawkes, but there is no record of Hannah’s marriage to a Mr. Hawkes.

Sydney wouldn't be fatherless for long. On June 22, 1885, Hannah Hill married Charles Chaplin (senior). Sydney became Sydney John Chaplin.

It appears that after the marriage, the young couple decided to enter the exciting world of the London music hall. With hundreds of theatres and the lure of possible fame, it was an attractive line of work.

The couple appeared to have success in the music halls, especially Charles with his singing talent. By 1889, they were making a comfortable living. In the spring of that year the couple welcomed their first son, Charles Spencer Chaplin (junior). Better known as Charlie Chaplin, he was born on April 16, 1889. This made Sydney and Charles, Jr. half brothers.

In 1890, Sydney attended three different schools, while his stepfather Charles, Sr. made his first trip to America. Charles sang at the Union Square Theatre in New York City.

It was after this New York trip that the comfortable life of Sydney and Charles, Jr. ground slowly to a halt. The Chaplin's marriage broke up in about 1891.

Hannah's personal life began to affect her stage work. Another son was born out of another failed relationship. By 1895, (the year Edna Purviance was born) Hannah, Sydney and Charles, Jr. headed into a nightmarish world of workhouses. Hannah spent time in the infirmary as well.

In 1897, at the age of twelve, Sydney was sent off on a training ship called the Exmouth, while Charlie and his mother Hannah struggled to make a living in London and lived, at times, in the workhouses. In 1901, Charles Chaplin Sr. died. With Charles's Sr. death, Hannah lost what little child support payments he paid.

Both Charlie and Sydney worked very hard to help their mother. Sydney’s best success was his continued work on the ships. It was while he was gone on one of these trips that he became quite ill and had to stay at a port while he was recovering. Unfortunately neither Hannah nor Charlie had received word of Sydney’s illness. Hannah sat for days looking out the window, wondering when Sydney would return. She was already very weak from poor nutrition. The strain of waiting for Sydney's return was just too much.

In 1903, Hannah's struggles came to sad end. At 14, Charlie had to take his mother to the infirmary where she was committed as insane.

By the time Sydney returned, he found his brother Charlie in shambles. Not wanting to be sent to the workhouses again, Charlie was basically living on the streets by day, working odd jobs, and staying out of sight during school hours.

This was the turning point in both Charlie's and Sydney's lives. If anyone needed the support of a brother, it was Charlie. Without Sydney, Charlie may have never gotten the opportunities that would lead him to such great acclaim in the following years.

Sydney Chaplin played a key role in Charlie Chaplin's life and this would be just one of many times Sydney helped.

Sydney was well rested on his return and had saved money from his shipping job. Sydney had spent a great deal of time thinking about helping his mother and brother. So when he returned to the tragic events that had unfolded in his absence, he was greatly saddened, but became even more determined to change the course of their lives. He told his brother that with the money he saved he was going to enter the theatres.

The two brothers wasted no time in seeking their dreams. Within weeks on their quest for theatre work, it would be Charlie who would land the first job. But Charlie was very lucky he didn't have to read for the role during that first audition.

Sydney knew that Charlie lacked proper schooling and jumped in to help Charlie memorize his lines for the theatre production. It was a brotherly team effort that got Charlie that first job. Charlie never ever forgot that fact. But once the role was landed, it was Charlie's special talents that made him a success.

For the Chaplins, each brother had strengths that helped the other succeed.

Sydney Chaplin at Karno

Sydney's Karno Days
Good Luck Charlie - Bon Voyage!
Love, Sydney' - when Charlie went to the U.S.

Sydney Chaplin and Charlie Chaplin at the Mutual signing

The Mutual Signing 1916 - Sydney center

'Man on the Box' Sydney and Charles Riesner - Stein Collection

Sydney Chaplin and Charlie Chaplin in The Bond

Sydney as the Kaiser - The Bond

Edna Purviance, Charlie Chaplin and Sydney Chaplin in Shoulder Arms

Edna, Charlie and Sydney - Shoulder Arms

Sydney finally got his first real break in 1906 with the famous London performing company called Karno. Sydney became very successful with Karno. In early 1908, Sydney was able to get his brother Charlie a job with Karno too. Charlie became successful there as well, but not as popular as his brother Sydney.

When Karno needed performers for their American tour in 1910, it was Charlie Chaplin who was sent on that tour, not Sydney. Sydney was too valuable at home to lose overseas.

But by 1913, it would be Charlie Chaplin that Karno would lose instead of Sydney. Charlie created quite a name for himself in the States. Charlie was a very hard worker and fine tuned his performances on that American tour, and was so popular, he was sent on a second tour to America.

Charlie Chaplin officially signed with Keystone Studios on September 25, 1913, in Portland, Oregon. He was still on the second American tour with Karno at the time and didn't want to quit until the tour was finished. He performed his last Karno performances at the Empress Theatre in Kansas City in late November of 1913. Sydney Chaplin was performing in England with Karno and would stay on with Karno until the fall of 1914.

Charlie was gaining success in the picture business by now and wanted his brother as his business manager. But Sydney Chaplin signed with Keystone instead for the sum of $200 per week. The idea of starting a new film company with his brother seemed too risky at the moment and besides he wanted to enjoy the new weekly income himself for awhile.

Charlie moved on and signed with Essanay Studios located in Niles, California and Chicago. Charlie would make some of his most inventive films to date at Essanay. Sydney would continue working at Keystone, where he became successful with a character he called 'Gussle'.

By the end of Essanay contract, Charlie and Sydney teamed up again. Charlie was becoming famous and Sydney decided it was a good time to help his brother get a new studio contract.

It was Sydney Chaplin who landed Charlie the biggest contract to date for a moving picture actor, or anyone for that matter. At $670,000 per year, it was the largest salary paid to anyone at that time, and it was Sydney Chaplin who got that deal for his younger brother.

In the coming years, Sydney would help his brother land other big deals in the movie contract world. Sydney helped Charlie get the First National contract, that give Chaplin ownership of his films and allowed Charlie to build his own studio.

Sydney would even co-star with Charlie in a few of the First National films. He played in 'A Dog's Life, 'Pay Day', 'The Pilgrim' and most famous of these 'Shoulder Arms'.

Sydney, according to Charlie's own book, 'My Autobiography', later help started United Artists, the famed film company founded mainly by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks. This company still exists today.

During 1919, Sydney got involved with the airline business. In a partnership, he help started Chaplin Airlines. This short lived adventure had a small fleet of planes that provided air service to Catalina Island.

It was also in 1919, Sydney became Edna Purviance's agent, but this was short lived too, and dissolved in a matter of months. Contract in the Edna Purviance Collection at BFI.

After Chaplin finished his First National contract, Sydney went exploring and made a few of his own films again. 'Charlie's Aunt' became quite well known in the 20's. 'The Better 'Ole', made in the 1926, can still be seen on Turner Classic Movies.

As far as Sydney Chaplin’s personal life, he married twice and had no children. His first wife, Minnie, passed away in the South of France in April of 1935, after many happy years of marriage. His second wife, Gypsy (Henriette), died later of a broken heart after Sydney Chaplin died on April 16, 1965. April 16, was Charlie Chaplin's birthday. Sydney and Gypsy lived in Nice, France, at the time of Sydney's death. The couple lived in Nice for many years. They were buried at Clarens-Montreux Cemetery not far from Vevey.

Before Sydney's death, Sydney visited Charlie and his family often in Switzerland. Sydney loved children and they were always delighted to see him. He still could get Charlie or his family with a good gag or joke. Sydney was certainly the less serious of the two brothers, when it came to his art, that is. But Sydney did spend quiet time at Charlie's home as well, reflecting on the struggles it took to achieve their success.

Sydney and Charlie were very close, even though at times they seemed to be quite separate. Sydney spent a great deal of time worrying about his little brother, whether it was on the streets of London or the streets of L.A. He was always in the background, but to Charlie, Sydney was always very close. When reading Charlie's book, he credited his brother for most of his financial success. Charlie had the talent, as Sydney always knew, but it was Sydney who helped make that talent pay off.

Charlie Chaplin, Sydney Chaplin and crew at studio site 1917

Charlie (far left) and Sydney (far right)
at the site of future studio - fall of 1917

Chaplin Film Studio

Chaplin's Film Studio

Chaplin Airline

Sydney Chaplin seated on left side - Catalinagoose

Sydney Chaplin

Sydney in 'The Fortune Hunter' - Lisa Stein Collection

The Great Dictator

Today, Sydney Chaplin is bringing Charlie back in a way no one has seen before. The Chaplin Family discovered a suitcase full of old color movies taken by Sydney Chaplin during the filming of 'The Great Dictator'. These rare films show Charlie Chaplin in color at a time he is most clearly remembered in black and white. We see him directing and just being himself on the movie set. Scenery and costumes appear in full rich color. A treasure, indeed!

Much of the film outtakes we see today of Chaplin at work resulted from Sydney Chaplin carefully keeping outtakes that Charlie had ordered to be burned. Chaplin has gained many new fans today due to these outtakes being packed away by Sydney and Chaplin's longtime cameraman Roland Totheroh.

'The Unknown Chaplin' documentaries by Brownlow and Gill, are responsible for much of the renewed interest in Charlie Chaplin. And now Brownlow's 'The Tramp and the Dictator' has brought attention not only to Charlie, but Sydney too.

I created this article because of this new interest in Sydney. It is a bit amazing there is really not much about Sydney Chaplin on the web. Sydney played such a key role in Charlie Chaplin's life.

One has to wonder what would have happened in 1903 if Sydney had never returned from his sea trip or had died from his illness. There is a good chance that we wouldn't have the Charlie Chaplin that we enjoy today.

Brothers are important. Sydney was always there for his younger brother. This was a fact that Charlie Chaplin knew more than anyone

Linda Wada - ednapurviance.org
October 24, 2002
Updated December 28, 2010

Note: Sydney and Edna worked together on the same Chaplin Films.

Photos courtesy - 'My Life in Pictures' by Charles Chaplin
Sydney Chaplin images © Roy Export 2002-11

Sydney Chaplin Film List

Syd Chaplin at Hollywood Home

Syd's Hollywood resident at the Chaplin Film Company.
Postcard Photo courtesy of Mark Jungheim, webmaster
of Hollywood Time Machine.

Learn more about Sydney Chaplin
from the following books:

David Robinson's - 'Chaplin, His Life and Art'
Charles Chaplin -'My Autobiography'

Special Thanks to Dominique Dugros and Lisa Stein for added information
Sydney Chaplin publicity still just above, 'The Fortune Hunter' and 'The Man in the Box'
courtesy of the Lisa Stein Collection. Also watch for Lisa's book about Sydney. - littlefellows.org

Wheeler Dryden

Also see Charlie and Sydney Chaplin's other brother Wheeler Dryden

Charlie Chaplin in the Heartland - October 2010

Wheeler DrydenChaplin FamilyHome

Charlie Chaplin is a trademark of Bubbles Inc. SA used with permission. Charlie Chaplin, Chaplin and the Little Tramp, the images of Chaplin's on this website and the names of Mr. Chaplin's films are all trademarks and/or services marks of Bubbles Inc. SA and/or Roy Export Company Establishment used with permission.

All Charlie Chaplin images Copyright 2001-2016 Roy Export Establishment. All rights reserved.

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