There is little so dispiriting as a joke that has to be explained. I don’t pretend to speak for Charlie Chaplin as a rule, but I am fairly sure he would agree with me on that one.

A joke that takes people in, that fools them into swallowing impossible truths? Well that can be funny, but dangerous too – we tend to hope national newspapers won’t fall for them.

A week or so ago I posted about a story in the Mail on Sunday that didn’t add up. The newspaper claimed that Chaplin had been offered, rather grudgingly, a screentest by Universal in 1912, to replace the misbehaving Buster Keaton, but having seen him in action, decided he wouldn’t do, certainly not with that hat, that moustache, that silly walk and that name. If it quacks like a duck and all that – the story sounded like nonsense, and it was, too. Almost.

There’s a kernel of truth in this story – and a ruddy good joke too. There’s even a smoking gun. The internal memoes from Universal Pictures Corporation were donated to the Grand Order of Water Rats by Chaplin himself. I’ve seen copies. The Mail on Sunday story contained at least two details that could throw a bloodhound off the scent, though. No idea how it happened, but its story reported the memoes as from 1912, whereas they are clearly dated 1913 and 1914. Also, they didn’t involve Charlie Austin at all. Chaplin sent them to him as a bundle, but he wasn’t part of the initial correspondence.

If you’ve read my takedown of the MoS story, you probably suspected that the memoes are some kind of in-joke. As well as the anachronistic gags about Charley Chase and Buster Keaton, there’s a sly reference to “LBM”, which must be Louis B Mayer. And several people mentioned to me that they half-remembered a story along these lines. Some thought Groucho Marx had written them; others that they had been concocted by the Water Rats, or by Chaplin himself.

A copy of one of the Chaplin Universal memoes from the archive of the Grand Order of Water Rats
A copy of one of the Chaplin Universal memoes from the archive of the Grand Order of Water Rats

It was a comment on Silent London that sent me in the right direction, however, eventually. Silent comedy expert David B Pearson wrote: “The REAL source for all this nonsense comes from Garson Kanin’s HOLLYWOOD, which Kanin published as a prank on Chaplin, with Chaplin’s knowledge, back in 1976.” Great! Kanin’s memoir is hilarious, and gossipy and brilliant. You’ll know this as soon as you read its subtitle: Stars and Starlets, Tycoons and Flesh-Peddlers, Moviemakers and Moneymakers, Frauds and Geniuses, Hopefuls and Has-beens, Great Lovers and Sex Symbols.

However, my copy of Hollywood made no mention of the memoes, so I went to the British Library to check out a later edition, and there we have it:

“I once prepared, as a birthday gift for Charlie Chaplin, a series of interoffice memos I had carefully typed up on purloined Universal interoffice communication stationery. As a final stroke, my secretary suggested that instead of sending him the original, we send him the carbon, or even the second carbon. This was done. The following set of memoranda was mounted on the pages of a leather-bound folio and delivered to Charlie Chaplin’s home at 8:00 P.M., April 16 1939, commemorating the precise hour and date of his birth.”

The following pages contain the memoes, as prepared by Kanin, on headed stationery, neatly typed. And although they’re a comic fabrication, it’s all done to illustrate his point that “No one made [Chaplin] a star. He made himself a star. The front office had nothing to do with it.”

The copies in the Water Rats archive are not on headed paper, and contain a few typoes. They are also dated 15 June 1939. So obviously tickled by Kanin’s gag, Chaplin must have had them typed (or typed them himself?) to send to his friend Charlie Austin at the Water Rats as a gift two months later. Austin then sent them on to the current King Rat on 6 July 1939.

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Chaplin could clearly take a joke against himself. He seems to have loved this one! So maybe it’s a less good story than the idea that Carl Laemmle passed on the opportunity to hire Chaplin at Universal, but I think it’s pretty special to see a great comedian happy to laugh at himself, and lending a personal seal of approval to his friend’s joke too.

The memoes will be on display at the Grand Order of Water Rats soon, with a full explanation of the situation, so you can chuckle at them for yourself.

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