In a particularly funny moment in Glen David Gold’s Sunnyside, set during World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II thumbs through a captured copy of Photoplay in his imperial water closet. His Highness learns that starlet Mary Miles Minter associates people she meets with pretty colors. Mary Pickford, for example, is marigold with a narrow stripe of violet. Why someone would pay twenty cents to learn this eludes him. Then he wonders, if he met her, “What color [would she] think he was?” Disgusted with himself, he tosses the magazine across the room. But, sheepishly, he retrieves it to finish the article.
Anyone sitting in their dentist’s office eyeing US Weekly photos of Reese Witherspoon at a Starbucks knows exactly how he feels. It’s a Hollywood moment set nowhere near Hollywood. There is Hollywood, the city, and “Hollywood,” the Oz-like fantasy—the imaginary, intriguing place. Most Hollywood novels treat them as the same locale. Sunnyside, in a genre-busting move, splits them apart. Set between 1916 and 1919, it still offers all the clichés: evil studio bosses; glamorous, self-indulgent stars; young hopefuls willing to do anything (anything . . .) to make it; skirmishes between art and commerce; and era-appropriate politics to lend the tinsel some gravitas (unions, the wartime propaganda machine). Movie mogul and organizational genius Adolph Zukor molds the studios into a cartel to control actors’ salaries; Chaplin beds his first teen bride, Mildred Harris; and World War I has the US government cajoling the Model Ts of celebrity—Pickford, Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks—to sell war bonds to fund the American Expeditionary Forces.
Gold’s central figure is Charlie Chaplin. Like Al Jolson, the last star of minstrelsy, Chaplin took a tired stage tradition—floppy-shoed, woe-is-me tramp comedy—and brilliantly revived it for modern America, making him one of the century’s most famous actors. Gold’s comedian has yet to direct his first feature-length film, The Kid (1921), and here, Chaplin struggles, as he adjusts from British vaudevillian to worldwide celebrity, with all its demands.
The story opens on November 12, 1916, a day of mass hysteria, when hundreds of Americans hallucinated visions of the film star (a malady dubbed “Chaplin-itis” at the time). Gold uses this zeitgeist moment to introduce several people touched by it. Lee Duncan, a twenty-four-year old lighthouse keeper and wannabe movie star from northern California, thinks he sees Chaplin drowning at sea. Hugo Black (not the Supreme Court justice of the same name), a cinema-loathing snob who grew up two blocks from the Grosse Point, Michigan, elite of Detroit’s auto industry (and never forgets his near-elite status), is a railroad employee who must calm down a crowd convinced Chaplin is on his train. Finally, Rebecca Golod, daughter of an itinerant Jewish con man, darts into and out of the three main narratives, landing in Hollywood itself, which the Golods see as made for scam.
In Chaplin, Gold has a platoon of conflicting public images to wrangle: seducer of teenage girls; leftist elitist yet populist filmmaker, champion of America’s war while sitting it out; child of an insane, dysfunctional mother, yet perfect fantasy father in The Kid; Victorian Hollywood icon. The author manages the multiplicity perfectly. Gore Vidal has written that historical fiction allows the novelist to do what the historian ought never—“attribute motive.” Using this license, Gold draws all those Chaplins into one man.
The comic’s scenes with his matinee rival, the golden-locked, steel-willed Pickford, are the most telling. Their professional respect and mutual disdain, her cool focus and impatience with his flighty, flaky artist’s temperament, all turn insightful when Gold makes clear that Pickford and Chaplin are in many ways the same person: plucky innocents on-screen, dictators off. Both have chosen malleable trophy spouses (she her glamour boy, Fairbanks) as answers to their tragic family backgrounds. Eventually, the stars join forces (with an offstage D. W. Griffith) to form United Artists, to stave off Zukor. As a studio chief, he is naturally our villain. Gold at least fashions an entertaining one out of him: “Only forty-five years old, Zukor nonetheless was stooped like a buzzard, as if youth were a folly he had defeated.”
As Chaplin rallies the nation to buy war bonds, the army issues Duncan and Black their tickets overseas. Duncan, an innocent bystander in a Golod jewelry scam, is offered the choice of jail or the army. He chooses to save the world for democracy, becoming a flier in France. Black also enlists, finding himself in Archangel, Russia, as part of the US force sent to fight the Bolsheviks.
In Europe’s wreckage, Duncan suspends his vanity long enough to do a small service—rescuing two German-shepherd pups and devoting himself to their care. Black is doomed, hated by his men as much as he hates them. Gold portrays the Archangel troops as ugly Americans abroad. They dismiss talk of the Louvre and Westminster Abbey to brag about the Detroit Tigers and the city’s glory as home to the world’s biggest stove. They arrive, overconfident in America’s rising power, in a faraway land, fighting “for” people who don’t want them there. In endnotes, Gold implies that America’s idealistic mistakes then were the same ones we’re making now.
Gold leaves us on a Chaplin tragedy, the death of his infant son in 1919. At the funeral, the mortician’s handiwork—a pathetic smile on the corpse—strikes the comedian as so ridiculous he cannot stifle a private laugh. In this family strife, Gold finds plausible inspiration for Chaplin’s defining moment, The Kid—his first film that was “as good as he was.” If historical fiction succeeds by capturing the present in the past, then Gold ends on a mood as unsettling, tragic, absurd, and yet strangely hopeful as today’s headlines.
Ben Schwartz is a screenwriter and journalist based in Los Angeles.