|Genre:||Literature & Fiction|
|Author:||Glen David Gold|
Gold's book is rather like E.L Doctorow's best-seller "Ragtime" from the 1970's in that he gives us real characters (like Charlie Chaplin, British general Edmund Ironside and US Treasury Secretary William McAdoo) interacting with other real-life and fictional characters.
The first story is centered around Charlie Chaplin, the first male film superstar, circa 1916. On a November day in that year, there is a sudden bout of mass hysteria: all over the USA there are hundreds of reported sightings of the former English Music Hall comedian turned universal "Tramp" character in small theaters from California to Maine.
This mass-sighting event really happened. Gold reportedly read 400 books and did years if research to get the stories in the novel right and it brims with time-appropriate details that make you feel right in the past, a past now dead to the living today with only glimpses of that time in pieces in films and photographs, and in the words of those who left a record in print.
Chaplin is a sudden and unparalleled success. Women all falling all over themselves after a little cockney kid who grew up half-starved most of his childhood and was once found begging on the streets of Lambeth for food by offering a paper hat he had made from a discarded newspaper. Now he's rich. He plans to build his own film studio and, with the help of his trusted business partner and brother Syd, can make any his film he wants and however he wants.
Only three things scare the 27-year old Chaplin: the English-language press calling him a "slacker" for not joining up to fight in the "Great War" either for Britain or soon, America; the prospect of his mentally ill mother, Hannah--whom he has said in earlier interviews was dead--coming over from England to make his life more complicated, and the withering personal and professional criticism of the other greatest star in Hollywood, Mary Pickford.
Mary is Chaplin's "bete noire" : the darling golden-locked sweetheart who has a canny mind and a sharp-honed tongue has also come up from poverty and she is a business woman to be reckoned with. Chaplin has little use for Pickford and the competition she represents but he does have longings for Mary's pretty scenario writer (Frances Marion, another real-life woman and one of the few women to wield power in the industry). There is also the sticky matter of a certain 15 year old high school girl and part-time actress named Mildred Harris, whom Charlie takes a liking to after meeting her at a memorable party scene in a Santa Monica mansion owned by early movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn. It is the first of several cases where Charlie's love life will shape the public perception of the man behind the "little fellow", a jack of all trades character to some, a clown to others like Pickford and a genius who cribs bits from great books to insert in casual party conversations so he can be taken seriously as a person and in his work.
The title "Sunnyside" refers to a 1918 movie Chaplin made, his first full-on attempt to make a movie with some "serious" messaging between the kicks, pratt-falls and stunts.
By 1917-18, the growth of the motion picture industry in the United States has exploded; a small-scale Los Anglees-based industry has become a world-wide center of capitalist industry, helped greatly by the literal collapse of the movie industry in Europe after 1914.
Powerful people in New York now want to take over the picture business and turn in-dependant film stars like Chaplin, Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks into contract players working in big studio factory set-ups. Oligarchic power and loss of control makes for one more thing Charlie has to worry about. He has no plan to stay free, but his nemesis "Little Mary" and his friend Doug Fairbanks may offer a solution. But Mary and Doug have their own personal problems--both want to divorce their mates and carry on with each other. Will their divorces or news of their affair become public and ruin their careers with a a still-puritanical portion of their adoring public?
Other powers in America eye the motion picture industry with covetous intent after 1917, specifically the Woodrow Wilson Administration and the Secretary of the Treasury, William McAdoo. McAdoo is impressed that people are willing to shell out money to see movie stars. He needs to raise money for "Liberty Loans" to shore up the expense of sending America into a major foreign war for the first time in its history.
(below a clip from the 1982 Thames documentary series , "Unknown Chaplin", narrated by James Mason.)
One of the book's best scenes is a Liberty Loan Drive in San Francisco. Chaplin, Pickford and the cowboy star William S. Hart are there having previously toured all over the country to raise money for fighting "The Hun". Millions are raised and Chaplin is off the hook for being a slacker. For the first time, the United States government is also making movies. Propaganda is being brought to new heights. War fever is hot in America but ordinary folks parting with money is another matter. Combine celebrity and parades and girl scouts collection pledges and peer pressure and suddenly McAdoo has a formula to save democracy or Big Banking or any other reason there might be to fight a war.
There are groups also ordinary propagandists called" The Four Minute Men" who go theaters that show films and sell the war in pithy poetry and bathos--between the changing of movie serials and newsreels. The speakers try and get people to shell out money to send their young men "Over the Top!" in a war that has already claimed millions of lives on two major fronts in three and one half long desperate years.
One of the young men who volunteer for the job is Leland Wheeler, the young, star-struck and illegitimate son of a Wild West show impresario and a lady lighthouse keeper. When his efforts backfire and he is sent to the Western Front as an aerial observer, we see a part of the last months of the war in graphic detail.
The final part of "Sunnyside" concerns a less well-known part of American entry into European warfare---the travails of the North Russia Allied Expeditionary Force, led by a British general, Edmund Ironside. The American who is the protagonist for this part of the story is a young Texas snob named Hugo Black. Thousands of US troops--mostly those considered "C" class forces not cut out to be much use in France against the Germans-- land in Archangel, Russia, three degrees above the Arctic Circle. Black meets a couple of destitute Russian princesses who have their eyes on him being their ticket out of the nightmare of Russia at war.
The coalition mission is to spread democracy and stop the Bolsheviks from taking full control of the region. The Americans call themselves the "Polar Bears" and most of the troops are from the frigid area around the Great Lakes region. But the Russian winters beat Detroit cold snaps all to hell. And the "Bolos" are fighting on their own turf, or tundra as it were.
Officially the so-called Slavic-British forces do some fighting and a good deal of freezing once winter sets in. The story has obvious parallels to today's bloody contests in Afghanistan and Iraq and the results are little better. This third story is based on solid truth, although as the author notes in an afterward, it is the sort of thing that should only have happened in fiction.
"Sunnyside" is a long book (550 pages) but a rewarding one. Characters known and unknown, real and partially-real, are all absorbing and have interesting inner lives, especially Chaplin and the other "hero" of the story Leland Wheeler, a young man who just wants to get into show business even if he has to do it by training a german shepherd orphan puppy to do tricks and just maybe become famous under the name of Rin Tin Tin.
Gold tells these three main stories without forcing them all together; they are connected to each other in small but tangible ways. All in all "Sunnyside" is a fine novel fro American and European history buffs and those who wonder how human beings can use a plastic medium to both laugh at others and also get prepared to kill them.