The Untold Story of Charlie Chaplin and Harry Crocker

Charlie Chaplin is among the most beloved figures in film history, so it may come as a surprise that there was a period when public sentiment in the United States largely turned against him. Beginning in the early 1940s, Chaplin experienced a litany of personal and professional setbacks that included a bogus paternity lawsuit, an indictment under the Mann Act, an investigation by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and poor public reception of his films. In 1952, following Chaplin’s departure for a visit to Europe with his family, the U. S. attorney general effectively barred Chaplin from returning to the United States by revoking his re-entry permit. During this period, Chaplin could find few friends in Hollywood and even fewer in the press, except for Harry Crocker.

Painting of Charlie Chaplin by Giovanni Omiccioli, 1952. From the Harry Crocker papers.

Harry Crocker was the heir apparent to a prominent San Francisco family that had its wealth entwined with the first transcontinental railroad. While he could have been contented to bask in his family legacy and fortune, he looked to the film industry to explore his own identity and find purpose. Throughout his lifetime, he would wear many hats that included acting in, directing and writing a number of classic films before ultimately finding his niche as an entertainment reporter for Hearst publications.

Publicity portrait of Harry Crocker, 1927

Crocker attended Yale University where he studied law, but his inclinations always pointed toward entertainment. After appearing in a number of stage musicals, he ventured to Hollywood in 1924 and ended up at MGM. From the time he arrived in Hollywood, the affable Crocker had little difficulty finding work and making friends. He first played bit parts in two King Vidor films: The Big Parade with John Gilbert and the Lillian Gish vehicle La Bohème. His next appearance was in Tillie the Toiler starring Marion Davies, with whom Crocker became close friends. Crocker also began a friendship with Davies’ paramour, William Randolph Hearst, who would provide Crocker with what ultimately became his legacy, the syndicated column “Behind the Makeup.”

“Behind the Makeup” first ran in 1928 and, unlike the column written by his Hearst publications peer Louella Parsons, Crocker chose to avoid gossip and focus more on business developments in the industry. Crocker eventually drifted away from the production side of film altogether in favor of his career as a writer. He penned “Behind the Makeup” until 1951 and wrote several books about Hollywood, including a substantial biography of the man who had stirred his imagination and inspired his creativity: Charlie Chaplin. 

Painting of Charlie Chaplin with angels and cat by an unknown artist. From the Harry Crocker papers.

In the latter half of the 1920s, Crocker met Chaplin and soon found himself serving as Chaplin’s assistant director on his 1928 classic, The Circus, as well as being cast as Rex the tightrope walker. Shortly after that production wrapped, Chaplin called upon Crocker to serve as his assistant director again (in addition to uncredited roles as writer and publicist) for 1931’s City Lights. Despite having a falling out during production of City Lights, Crocker and Chaplin resumed their friendship, with Crocker eventually working as a unit publicist on both Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight. Crocker also struck up friendships with two of Chaplin’s wives, actress Paulette Goddard (whom he divorced in 1942), and his widow, Oona O’Neill Chaplin. Crocker’s admiration for Chaplin ran so deep that he dedicated his first book to the cinematic icon, although the volume was never published.

Portrait of Charlie Chaplin as a boy by Francesco Perotti, 1952. From the Harry Crocker papers.

In the 1950s Crocker began and finished a book that was devoted exclusively to the subject of Chaplin entitled Charlie Chaplin: Man and Mime. Divided in two parts, the first half examines Chaplin’s childhood while the second half explores Crocker’s personal experiences working with Chaplin on The Circus and City Lights. The manuscript is rich with first-hand details of Chaplin’s creative genius at work as well as his explosive temperament; it provides a very sympathetic but even portrait of a man Crocker truly admired.

Ink drawing of Chaplin by an unknown artist made on the back of French-language sheet music, 1952. From the Harry Crocker papers.

As public sentiment turned away from Chaplin and he was barred from returning to the United States, Crocker saw fit to write an addendum to his manuscript that served as a defense of his friend. Crocker recalled how he tried to help: “Chaplin was in a pickle of unpopularity, and, while I felt that it would be impossible for me to make him popular overnight, I might, through my twenty-one years as a newspaper man and through my immense number of friends in the newspaper field, succeed in doing some good.” The manuscript was never published, however, and Crocker passed away in 1958 before seeing Chaplin restored to public favor in the U.S.

In the process of writing Charlie Chaplin: Man and Mime, Harry Crocker accumulated an array of research material that fueled his writing and allowed him to bring the story to life. This material, which includes manuscripts, drawings and more, is part of the Margaret Herrick Library’s Harry Crocker papers and can be viewed here.

Charlie Chaplin drawing and signature taken from Crocker’s autograph book (Chaplin’s sketch of Crocker in profile can be seen in the upper right corner). From the Harry Crocker papers.  

Among the thousands of theater advertisements held at the Academy Film Archive, this brief advertisement, made circa the 1950s, points to a relatively unknown phenomenon at the time: seat cutting. This short policy trailer, or snipe, cautions moviegoers of the strict consequences of upholstery defacement.

As bizarre as this film may seem to us now, property damage was a serious concern for theater owners. Campaigns against cutting seem to appear in advertisements and trade magazines as early as the 1930s, all the way until the late 1960s. Anti-vandalism campaigns during World War II often portrayed defacing  theaters as being unpatriotic, even asking young patrons to be ‘spies’ in the ‘effort’ against vandalism.

The increase in theater vandalism in the 1940s was blamed by theater owners on societal changes during World War II, including parents working long hours for the war effort; as well as a shortage of teachers and theater personnel due to wartime jobs. Although this advertisement was created after the war, its patriotic tune points to an attempt at using good citizenship as an anti-crime motivator.

Theater owners curtailed vandalism by enforcing curfews and threatening to fine or prosecute offenders’ parents. Some theaters offered rewards to audiences or employees for each patron caught slashing seats. Other creative methods included stationing extra ushers at children’s screenings, making speeches from the stage, and promoting recent seat upholstery repairs. While debates had arisen that the advertisements might actually encourage vandalism, these snipes have their place in a long history of cautionary public service announcements, including safety exit demonstrations, non-smoking policy statements, and most recently, pleas for the silencing of devices.

This snipe is one of the many promotional materials included in the Packard Humanities Institute Collection at the Academy Film Archive. The acquisition, which features an array of theatre advertisements such as this, was deposited at the Archive by David Packard in 2009. This historically significant collection contains over 60,000 media items and has transformed the Academy Film Archive into the world’s foremost repository of motion picture trailers.

Myth-making: STAR WARS and the Art of Advertising

Today words and names like “wookiee,” “Jedi,” “Darth Vader” and Millennium Falcon are recognized in virtually every household, so it takes a little bit of imagination to return to that time orbiting May 1977 when the very first Star Wars film arrived in theaters. How was this new mythology and world of unknown creatures and concepts originally translated and advertised? Travel back with some of the artifacts and images from the first film in the franchise, housed in the Core Collection Reference Files at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library.

Director George Lucas hired illustrator Ralph McQuarrie to create the conceptual art that would bring the Star Wars universe to life in the film’s preproduction phase. Here McQuarrie originally portrayed the character who would become known as Luke Skywalker as a woman, circa 1975.

Another preproduction painting by McQuarrie depicts the droid duo R2-D2 and C-3PO, utilizing a design aesthetic that evokes Metropolis (1927) more than Star Wars.

This third sample of McQuarrie’s work visualizes a confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader that was never realized in the film.

This 1977 Italian poster featured on a trading card reveals how international marketing offered differing interpretations of some of the main characters.

This Polish poster printed on a greeting card is built around a depiction of the droid C-3PO.

This pressbook contains a number of different-sized posters and ads for exhibitors and theater owners to choose from for display.

One of the unique artifacts contained in this collection is a cereal box from the year of the film’s release.

A program cover from the film’s release, with the iconic graphic design of the Star Wars logo prominently displayed. The program was available for sale in theater lobbies.

The cover of this rare pre-release program reveals a slightly different graphic design for the letter “W” in the Star Wars logo.

These pages of the original Star Wars program offer an early explanation and definition of the new species and creatures that would populate George Lucas’s galaxy.

In a world before VCRs were commonplace, and long before rental stores, DVDs and online streaming, theatrical re-releases were quite common for popular films. Here an ad announces the return of Star Wars to theaters after its initial run and even advertises a tease for the upcoming sequel. Star Wars was re-released for the first time in July 1978, by which time it had received seven Academy Awards.

Star Wars has come a long way from those early days of marketing that had to define and outline the world in which it was set. Future Star Wars films would build upon this foundation of myth-making and propel the franchise to become one of the most recognizable in the history of the medium.