FATAL ATTRACTION: JOAN BARRY
Herald Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
When she hopped the Santa Fe Limited for the West Coast after graduating from high school in 1938, Joan Barry (born Mary Louise Gribble) was a would-be actress with no professional acting experience or training. An impulsive, temperamental redhead with a voluptuous figure, the flamboyant 18-year-old planned to take Hollywood by storm.
Instead, while struggling to support herself by waiting tables, she was arrested twice by the LAPD for upgrading her wardrobe by shoplifting dresses from swanky department stores. In search of a less risky way to outfit herself, she became the mistress of a wealthy and prominent Los Angeles business man who paid the rent and kept her in style for the following two years.
During the zig-zag course of psychologically unstable Barry’s check-bouncing, pill-popping, wrist-slashing, binge-drinking, emotional blackmailing progression from harlot to starlet, she briefly became the luxuriously pampered playmate of the richest oilman in America, John Paul Getty. Finally, in June 1941, she signed a contract to become the $75/week salaried protégé of the wealthiest star in Hollywood, Charlie Chaplin, after making a successful screen test for the Chaplin Studio. (Getty had given her a Cadillac; Chaplin gave her a fur coat).
At the time 52-year-old Chaplin signed Barry to the renewable six-month studio contract--complete with acting lessons at the classy Max Rheinhardt school, and swanky Beverly Hills dentistry to cap her teeth—he considered her a gifted and promising actress. Looking back with regret twenty-five years later, the dignified septuagenarian awkwardly alluded to other characteristics of the young starlet that had also caught his eye. “Miss Barry was a big handsome woman of twenty-two, well built, with upper regional domes immensely expansive which…evoked my libidinous curiosity,“ he stiffly recalled in My Autobiography
The basis for Chaplin’s hindsight chagrin over his breast fixation was that his torrid love affair with this histrionic drama queen with a borderline personality disorder (she employed theatrical temper tantrums, suicide gestures and pistol-packing threats of violence to get her way) turned out to be an even more disastrous personal fiasco than his marriage to Lita Grey had been. The Grey affair had cost him a tidy sum and some unwelcome publicity (which later inspired his film The Circus)
and then blew over. But the public relations aftermath of the tawdry Barry affair eventually lost him the good will of the American people and resulted in his permanent political exile—as well as the immediate public rejection of his very next film, Monsieur Verdoux
. Not surprisingly, Monsieur Verdoux
was a self-referential black comedy about the sensational public trial and execution of a lady-killer. Chaplin based his fictional character Henri Verdoux on Henri Landru
, a cold blooded Parisian blue beard who married and murdered ten women for profit. But the trial scenes in this movie (see next essay) echoed Chaplin’s time in the court room with Joan Barry. His first trial was criminal. The second two were civil.
A crass seductress who lacked nuance, primitive Joan Barry was not in the class of the seductresses of his childhood imagination, Josephine de Beauharnais, Lillie Langtry or Nell Gwyn. Her manipulative and explosive emotional outbursts undoubtedly provoked simmering feelings of murderous rage in many of her emotionally exasperated and exhausted former patrons and admirers over the years, including Charlie. Chaplin was, of course, the only one of her former lovers in an artistic position to sublimate creatively the feelings Joan provoked by filming a witty, sardonic, semi-autobiographical black comedy about the trials and tribulations of a cold-blooded lady-killer (which he told sympathetically from the killer’s point of view).
Either despite or because of Joan Barry’s borderline personality disorder, she exerted an extraordinary attraction over Chaplin—the irrational basis of which he surely did not fully understand. Although he was in the dark about why he found this erratic young woman so fascinating and alluring, she probably reminded him unconsciously of that other status-seeking, slightly crazy, grasping and materialistic, emotionally flamboyant femme fatale
-actress, Lillie Harley. “When I behaved myself he was bored,” Barry recalled.
The most striking similiarity between Chaplin’s actress mistress and his actress mother was their shared history of mental illness. In Barry’s case, she would later be hospitalized in a California state mental hospital and diagnosed with schizophrenia (in the 1950s). The FBI exploited this already borderline psychotic young woman years earlier as their prize witness and poster child in a cynically trumped-up white slavery case whose covert agenda was to neuter Chaplin politically for his outspoken support of the Soviet Union during World War II. But their own FOIA files clearly indicate that the L.A. Bureau agents investigating the case alerted the home office even then that slightly crazy Joan Barry was an unreliable witness.
The priceless opportunity, however, that their carefully orchestrated courtroom media circus provided to discredit Chaplin politically (with a lurid photo as he was finger-printed like a common criminal spread gratis across the front pages of the nation’s newspapers) was more than worth the time and money J.Edgar Hoover spent when he personally authorized Chaplin’s frivolous prosecution on lurid charges of transporting a young woman across state lines for immoral purposes. The graphic “pimp shot” of Charlie (above) even made “Picture of the Week” in the February 28,1944 issue of Life magazine. At the time Chaplin actually was a happily married man and expectant father (having wed Oona O’Neill on June 16,1943).
Ironically, Joan Barry’s patently obvious emotional instability also seemed to be the unconscious inspiration for which Chaplin had been searching, for an uncompleted film project, Shadow and Substance. Contrary to the Hollywood grapevine, Charlie did not place Joan under contract simply to sleep with her. Barry’s screen test had revealed that apart from her nasal New York accent, which Chaplin planned to correct with elocution lessons, she had a remarkable ability to project convincingly his protagonist in that film, a spiritual young woman who has visions of the Virgin Mary, communicates directly with her namesake Saint Brigid, and experiences a deeply personal connection to the Saviour.
If Joan Barry’s temperament had much in common with Lillie Harley’s; Chaplin’s martyr-like screen heroine in Shadow and Substance, Brigid, evoked powerfully Hannah Chaplin’s own deep spiritual connection to Jesus Christ, even before Hannah lost her mind and began to experience religious visions during her floridly psychotic episodes at the Cane Hill lunatic asylum.
But the uncanny similarities between Joan Barry’s instability, and Chaplin’s childhood memories of his mother’s, did not end there. Returning to court after his white slavery acquittal for a series of civil trials over the hotly disputed paternity of Joan Barry’s out-of-wedlock child, Chaplin found himself in his father’s shoes. Like Charlie Chaplin Sr. who protested bitterly in a London courtroom the unfairness of his being obliged legally to financially support a child who was not his biologically (Sydney Chaplin), Chaplin soon found himself in a Los Angeles courtroom protesting an identical injustice.
Despite the fact that scientifically incontrovertible but legally inadmissible blood group testing evidence conclusively demonstrated that the child in question could not have been his, Chaplin lost this jury trial (eleven to one) and, like his father before him, was instructed to pony up.
While he felt as morally outraged as Charlie Sr. had in the face of that earlier miscarriage of justice, Chaplin paid the child support. But he abandoned the Shadow and Substance project which glorified and idealized a religious martyr figure like his mother and started instead to work on his courtroom drama, Monsieur Verdoux , which bitterly satirized the Kafkaesque legal injustices he and his father had suffered.
Conceived as an ironic comic indictment of modern capitalist society, which had driven Henri Verdoux into his financially motivated career as a lady-killer, Chaplin’s film failed to win the sympathy of American moviegoers for his new martyr villain /hero, whose cynical morality, urbane manners and fastidious dress seemed the antithesis of the lovable Little Tramp, whom everyone had seen as a chivalrous rescuer of damaged and fallen women).
Having been vilified by the American press as an arrogant symbol of elitist wealth and privilege , and made to look like an unfeeling monster in his relationships with women throughout the course of the Barry trials, Chaplin was unable to win back the enormous public sympathy which he had previously enjoyed (and mistakenly assumed he could take for granted).
Not only did Monsieur Verdoux flop at the box office, but two months after its release an irate Republican congressman in the House of Representatives called for his deportation by the Truman administration. Charlie Chaplin, he declared, was un-American.