Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Book Review: "Sunnyside" (2009)

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Author:Glen David Gold
This 2009 book follows three major story-lines. It covers the growth of United States entertainment business, the raising of its armed forces and its cultural power through government propaganda and movies in the second decade of the 20th Century.

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.


  1. Kathy Melua's recent video, dedicated to Mary Pickford and her silent film star peers:

  2. I wasn't aware there had been a nascent film industry in Europe that pre-dated that in America.

    That's interesting.

    I was also intrigued by Chaplain's somewhat unnecessary (silly, even?) contention that his mother was dead. There must be a backstory there.

  3. I have always enjoyed Chaplin Doug - I recall seeing the a movie on him and he left America I didn't know of the situation in Europe however he was right up there and then he lived in isolation in France if I recall it correctly.

    There was much more behind the silent screen. This would be a worthy read. I never knew he was a sympathizer to the Russians.

  4. For what I've gathered Italy and France in particular had a growing film industry that was cut short by the war. The Luimiere Brothers popularized the screening of motion pictures (or so some claim) in 1895 and there were some popular early serials done in Paris, and epic films like about Anicent Rome like "Calibria" and "Pompei" made in Italy. The first epic American films made by D.W Griffith were called "Italians" by some viewers.

    As to Chaplin saying his mother was dead at the start of his career in Hollywood I cannot find a source for it other than Gold's book, which is of course a novel. Gold might be pulling the reader's leg, namely me and otjhers perhaps. But maybe the interview is out there somwhere.

    What I did find out was that Hannah Chaplin went mad when Charlie was about 13 or 14. Her second husband, a music hall singer who was Charlie's dad, left her after she reportedly had an affair with another actor and she suffered some sort of breakdown on stage one night and could no longer perform. Charlie had two half-brothers by different husbands of Hannah. Syd being the one who knew him the best and was his business manager as well as an actor on his own later on.

    Charlie's mother may well have contracted a venereal disease before she gave birth to Charlie, according to a recent biography. It's not a pleasant story but apparently her first "husband" or boyfriend, a guy named Hawkes, lured her to South Africa in the 1880's during a gold strike there. She was forced into prostitution by him. She left him after three years, going back to England. The pimp named Hawkes is thought to be Sydney Chaplin's father.


    The effect of syphilis drove her to lapses into severe headaches ten years later. Total madness occured for her shortly after and she had to be institutionalized at age 38.

    This madness of his mother had a very devastating effect on Charlie who was all barely an adolescent. His father had died of alcoholism a couple years before Hannah started her path into insanity. He was really frightened--perhaps legitimately-- that he too might go mad or die at a young age.

    Those who knew him thought that was one of the reasons why three of his four wives were only 16 years old or a year or so younger was due to seeing his mother aging so rapdly and losing her mind. A younger wife made the thought of getting older less terifying so the theory goes.

    We're getting into heavy psychological waters here but suffice to say having his mother become institutionized and lose her faculties had to be a trauma for him since he had no one in the world but his older brother, then in the British Merchant Marine--to help hm with her. She was brought to California in 1921--she arricves in 1919 in the novel-- and died in 1928, age 63, in a comfortable house near the Pacific that Charlie and Syd took for her.

    That's what backstory I can find on it right now.

  5. Thanks for the documentary clip Jack. It's no wonder Chaplin's life was made into a movie!

    Yes, he did support Russia but I think given the Soviet Union's enourmous sacrifices in WWII, that only made sense to him and a lot of people. He doesn't seem to have been a Communist in any real way, but I think he was persecuted ,as the clip, shows by J. Edgar Hoover and certain politicians like the young Richard Nixon because his wasn't a flag-waver and refused to apply for American citizenship.

  6. Yet he urned to come to America Doug to make movies and rise to the level he did and in a sense he was his own demise and a hypocrite Doug. Little did anyone know the silent man in silent films.

  7. Yes, as they say nowadays, "it's complicated" Jack. he made a lot of people laugh and some cry and that's what he will be remembered for.

  8. You didn't mention if the book addresses the charge of "communist sympathizer" that was slathered on so much of Hollywood and labor leaders from the Depression era through McCarthy.

    Lots of words and epiteths were thrown around with little substantive evidence, just innuendo, guilt by association and one helluva lot of conjecture, so I'm not one to trust anyone who was 'blacklisted' then (or now) as being a "communist."

    And, for that matter, so what?
    One man's empathy for the losses suffered by Soviet Russia is another man's boogeyman who wants to overthrow our country.

  9. You didn't mention if the book addresses the charge of "communist sympathizer" that was slathered on so much of Hollywood and labor leaders from the Depression era through McCarthy.

    Lots of words and epiteths were thrown around with little substantive evidence, just innuendo, guilt by association and one helluva lot of conjecture, so I'm not one to trust anyone who was 'blacklisted' then (or now) as being a "communist."

    And, for that matter, so what?
    One man's empathy for the losses suffered by Soviet Russia is another man's boogeyman who wants to overthrow our country.

  10. I can see how this book would appeal to you Doug, with its references to cinema and popular culture in the early 20th century. I think that Charlie Chaplin was never a member of the Communist Party (unlike Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger for example) but he was a fellow traveller, of that there is no doubt. It is interesting that this novel deals with government propaganda in the film industry which of course was not an exclusively American prerogative.

    Sergei Eisenstein was a renowned pioneer of Soviet film making, a little later the incredible cinematography of "Leni" Riefenstahl promoted the Nazi cause and later still during the second world war the British film industry turned out dozens of propaganda films many of them crude and lacking the technical sophistication of the European movie makers. Hollywood was and is the propaganda powerhouse of the global film industry to such an extent that I think it would be right to call it the primary purpose of American cinema, perhaps on aggregate even the majority of world cinema since the turn of the 20th century has been pressed into the political service of the various governing elites.

    This sounds from your review to be a fascinating book particularly for students of popular culture and politics. It is interesting that Field Marshall "Tiny" Ironside also features in the book, an anti-Bolshevik and stalwart of the British military high command who was named (strangely for a Scots Celt) after the Saxon King of Wessex who drove back the Danes in the late10th and early 11th centuries.

    In a sense it also appears that this book does what cinema itself often does by mixing historical figures and events with fictional characters so that the historical boundaries blur as the storyline develops. One obvious example of that was whether Chaplin ever really did claim his mother was dead, your review seems to suggest that this might have been fictitious, but it nevertheless colours how we view him in hindsight I think. The fact that he provided for his mother in her final years in California seems to give a different impression of their relationship.

    As an aside it seems that Hannah Chaplin had tertiary syphilis and the related condition called General Paralysis of the Insane. When I trained as a psychiatric nurse in the early 1980s there were still patients in the hospital where I worked who had diagnoses of GPI from the 1930s (also called 'neurosyphilis', or sometimes 'general paresis').

    This condition was all but eradicated by the advent of antibiotics.

    The disorder is typically characterised by sudden changes to the personality including extravagant and grandiose behaviour before descending into a form of dementia. The early stages may thus have been difficult to diagnose in theatrical performers, because the dramaturgical features that may look like tricks of the trade, so to speak (just a thought).

    Anyway all very interesting stuff, thanks for posting another excellent review of a novel that is set in a fascinating era for any student of propaganda, the politics of persuasion and popular culture Doug.

    It also deals with the arrival of the global celebrity as a form of modern 'hero'.

  11. Because the story only goes up to 1919, Chaplin's later role as a political lightning rod of the 30's and 40 is muted, Chuck. He did express interest in the papers of going to Russia as early as 1918 and seeing events for himself but I don't think he ever went to Russia. Fairbanks and Pickford, ironically, did go to Moscow as part of their European honeymoon after they were married in 1920. The urban Russian crowds loved them apparently, and Pickford even appeared in a cameo role in a short Soviet film called "A Kiss from Mary Pickford", made for the visit. They were like royalty in a continent tha had thrown off its old royalty either by banishment or firing squad.

    The couple was less happy to discover that American films were being shown in Russian cities without compensation to their original owners

    'So what?" indeed. Chaplin or any writer or performer had a right in a free society to say what they pleased and let the marketplace decide if they would but it or not.

    The idea of a bunch of Hollywood and New York celebs being a threat to the post-war American National Security State always struck me as a political ploy and little else.

    Good questions and comments by the way on your part, Chuck. Thanks for encouraging me to expand my views on the people and the era covered in "Sunnyside".

  12. Yes, Gold's book is right up my street, AA. I kept waiting for Edward Bernays to be introduced as a character. I believe he was a consultant to the administration.

    There was of course pre-1917 counter-propaganda films and books from the Left, Right, pacifist and from the anti--British and pro-German factions in America. Shortly after the US entered the war in April of 1917, a Sedition act was passed in Congress. Those who spoke out against the draft of young men or showed films that were deemed detrimental to our Allies wee subject to arrest and were. Some like Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs spent years in prison for his pacifism.

    Humphrey Jennings of "Fires Were Started" and others is one documentarian who comes up when one thinks of British propaganda during the Battle of Britain and beyond. It's interesting to me how commercial Hollywood (with it's large compliment of British and refugee anti-fascist European writers and directors, producers, composers, actors, et al ) shaped the public mind toward defending the old world, but that's a subject to get more into later. I agree Eisenstein and Riefenstahl were incredible talents and both had short and unproductive spells in Hollywood in the 30's, at different times. Only Eisenstein got a film off the ground, about Mexico, but I gather it was never finished and he returned home.

    But, yes, I believe all story films are propaganda for something--if they are any good least. A lot of Hollywood''s view of Britain even before the war were shaped by the Victorian heroics of "Charge of the Light Brigade" (1936) and "Gunga Din" (1936). Hollywood was a cultural colony of Britain in those years, not by force of arms but by force of tickets bought.

    I hadn't heard much about "Tiny" Ironside expect in passing references in historical accounts, before this book. It seems a very good novel could be written on him alone. I had heard of his medieval Saxon namesake. I don't know if you are aware but there was a rediscovered history play from Elizabethan times (circa 1589 or so) about his exploits against the Danes. and one thought to have been written in part by Shakespeare in his early apprenticeship with the Lord Admiral's Men. There's a book about it by a professor named Eric Sams I read that offers insight into how plays were fashioned and the English public interest in that time about a king who fights off foreign threats.

    Your exposure to patients suffering from tertiary syphilis must have been quite an experience. I think Chaplin truly loved his mother but I am inclined to see that, like Gold, he also was very traumatized by her early stages of madness and was weary of her being too close to him when he was in public, for fear of what she might say or do. Those episodes of "sudden changes to the personality including extravagant and grandiose behaviour before descending into a form of dementia" are exactly the way she is described in this book. And , you're right I think, it would have to pretty dramatic for some one to pick up on that in a person of artistic temprament.

    Yes, some of the things that drives this book's interest for me is the idea of a global celebrity--not just one to read or be read about--like Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain, say, or Sarah Bernhardt but capable of being seen by millions of people in performance by the plastic miracle of film-making. Chaplin was in that sense "the first hero" of a new age and he had no road map to discern where to go with that status. It's a wonder he didn't wind up in a sanitarium himself, as many other stars later on did.

    Thanks for your kind words and bringing up so many other angles I left out of the review, AA.