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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Lita --- You Fascinate Us
One of the hottest Hollywood memoirs of the sixties was Lita Grey’s My Life With Chaplin, a near-porn account of a fifteen year old girl’s seduction by, and forced marriage to, the famed comedian whose own autobio had been published less than two years before. Lita disowned her book later on --- said the ghostwriter had monkeyed with her manuscript --- but there’s no doubt she had a long-standing score to settle with Chuck, for she felt he’d given her short shrift in his book (Lita and their marriage was barely mentioned therein), and besides, she was tired of "half the world" thinking she was a gold-digging whore. By 1966, Lita may have been under a misapprehension in imagining that the world, even half of it, was thinking about her at all, for it had been forty years since le affaire Chaplin had rocked the tabs. It’s true that C.C.’s own book had reawakened interest in him, as I recall seeing a paperback publication of he and Lita's original divorce complaint and answer around 1965 in a drug store (it must have been a very tawdry drug store to let ten year olds loiter about and read such things). When I finally came across Lita’s own book, I was captivated by her graphic re-telling of she and Charlie’s numerous couplings --- the first time in a steamroom so thick with fog they couldn’t even see each other? --- gotta hand it to him for sheer stamina in performing amidst heat like that! Well, it’s just one more reason to revere the guy --- but wait a minute, the girl was just fifteen (heck, she might have been younger than that!). Was he nuts or what? Apparently so when it came to nymphets like Lita, and boy, did she and Mother make Charlie pay! In the end, he ponied up 650 G’s to get out of the mess, and for me, this is where Lita’s life really gets interesting ---

She ran through that cash faster than Seabiscuit, and it wasn’t long before (dire) circumstance forced her to hit the road with the Orpheum circuit in a high-toned vaude revue highlighting (1) the notoriety of her name, and (2) her somewhat lackluster way with song and patter. Now, here’s good news for those millions of us who’ve had to rely upon our imaginations as to the musical and thespic talents of Lita Grey Chaplin --- she’s now available on DVD! Buried amongst numerous shorts and cartoons within the Busby Berkeley extras menu, Lita’s there in a 1933 Vitaphone two-reeler called Seasoned Greetings, part of The Golddiggers Of 1933 DVD. Believe me, Lita fans, this little musicale is worth the price of the disc. She’s unforgettable in it. I even watched it twice --- utterly entranced much as Charlie undoubtedly was. There’s a certain endearing quality about Lita --- a kind of glum, let’s get-it-done resignation that sets her apart from the typical eager-beaver Vitaphone performers. Although she performs at least four numbers, there’s little effort on her part to "sell" the songs, and her tentative line readings actually have a kind of unintended naturalness that I liked a lot. Considering the fact she was only twenty-five when this short was made, Lita displays a world-weary, seen-it-all quality that lends a real-life dramatic punch to otherwise pedestrian material. Smiling is a real effort for this woman. Knowing her circumstances at the time makes that easier to understand, for Lita was headed for the shoals in a hurry --- alcohol abuse and several nervous breakdowns would eventually land her in a series of asylums (at least one prescribed electro-shock treatments). Her eventual port-of-call would be Robinson’s Department Store in Beverly Hills, where she was employed as a sales clerk for some fifteen years. I remember reading about that in one of the Richard Lamparski books. It really freaked me out to think that I could have
walked into a store in B.H. and found Charlie Chaplin’s second wife manning the ribbon counter. I wonder how many customers recognized her during those years. Would they ask questions about those weeks on The Gold Rush between
dress purchases? I would have. Hell, I might have tried on a dress just to get some face time with Lita. As it is, we never met, even though she did several Cinecon appearances before her death in 1995. I’m told she was quite accessible toward the end. They even interviewed her at Filmfax. Nice when veterans get the attention they deserve, and Lita was nothing if not a survivor. It’s worth noting that she outlived all of Charlie’s other wives. He’d told her once during the forties that she and Oona were the only ones he ever really loved. To the end of her life, Lita would time and again quote that conversation.


Blogger East Side said...

She's 25 in that short? Holy cow, she looks 50 -- and I'm talking as someone turning 50 next week! Thanks for reminding me of her autobio -- I'd forgotten I read that as a youngster, too. Hot stuff, indeed.

By the way, is that young Sammy Davis, Jr. to the right of Lita in that shot with the kids?

6:22 AM  
Blogger Philip said...

IMDB lists it as Sammy's first film (as 'store customer'), so I guess it's him. He would have been seven or eight at the time.

8:05 AM  
Anonymous Laughing Gravy said...

Yeah, that's Sammy all right -- who doesn't even perform in the film! WHAT were they thinking?!?!?

I was as fascinated by this short as you were. And I agree, she seems more like 25 in dog years.

10:46 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I started to mention Sammy in the posting, but didn't want to take the spotlight off Lita. I figured somebody would spot him. By the way, Gravy, I really liked your "dog years" reference!

10:58 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Here's a comment from our good friend BookSteve that for some reason didn't publish yesterday ---

Wow. Lots of cool links and a nice compliment to me. Thank you!

Here's a question for you: Whatever happened to Carol Ann "Chaplin," Joan Barry's daughter that Chaplin was supposed to support? Did he continue that obligation after he fled the US? Is she still alive? My wife's been looking for info on her for years.

5:55 AM  
Anonymous Sam said...

Very very interesting! A few things to note:
Berkley was married briefly to Merna Kennedy, Lita's childhood best friend who won the role as Chaplin's leading lady in The Circus at Lita's urging. Supposedly they had a falling out when Lita suspected an affair between them. Bubsy and Merna weren't married until '34, but I wonder if she didn't have something to do with Lita getting this job...

8:36 AM  

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