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Photo Essays
1. Exile’s Return
2. Chaplin’s Parents
3. Hannah Chaplin’s Femmes Fatales
4. Playing Dress-Up  In The Land of Make Believe
5. Teenage Girls and Fear of Aging
6. Chaplin’s Three Teenage Wives
7. Mildred Harris
8. Lita Grey
9. Oona O’Neill
10. Chaplin’s Father
11. A Royal Lion
12. Vesta Tilley as Bertie
13. Ella Shields as Bertie
14. Making A Living
15. The Lion Comique’s Son: Dressed Like A Bum
16. Monsieur Verdoux as a Lion Comique
17. Calvero as a Lion Comique
18. The Lion Comique’s Son in the Limelight
19. Charlie as a Child
20. The Kid’s Lucky Break
21. Syd Chaplin
22. A Family Album of Theatrical Drunks
23. Chaplin’s Family Romance
24. Edna Purviance
25. Purviance’s Influence on Chaplin’s Character
26. Essanay
27. Chaplinitis
28. Chaplin’s Predecessors
29. Eye Contact: Audience-Performer Intimacy
30. Chaplin the Auteur
31. Chaplin’s Two Autobiographies
32. Going It Alone
33. The Circus
34. Autobiographical Starvation Scenes From The Gold Rush
35. Autobiographical Madness Scenes in Modern Times
36. Two British Music Hall Traditions and Topical Comedy
37. The Great Dictator
38. Fatal Attraction: Joan Barry
39. Monsieur Verdoux: Guillotine or Hatchet Job?
40. Limelight
 
Chaplin: A Life In Film
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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.

 
 
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