The Rear-View Mirror: Mildred Harris (1901)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

“You can’t use my name in your pictures!”, said Charlie Chaplin and charged.

At the Alexandria Hotel, on the 7th of April 1920, Louis B. Mayer stuck out his fist just in time for an irate Charlie Chaplin to barrel into it. Chaplin had ordered Mayer to take off his glasses to aim a punch: both men fell, and had to be escorted out. The reason for this kerfuffle, meanwhile, was 800 miles away, dancing the foxtrot with the Prince of Wales. The famously belligerent producer had signed one Mildred Harris Chaplin for the sum of 50.000 dollars a picture, plus a percentage, to be able to use the Chaplin name.

Motion Picture Magazine ca 1914

Mildred Harris had been a child actor from age 11, working with Thomas Ince as a director, presumably around the time Ince was in the process of acquiring Bison Ranch, later known as Inceville. Her mother, Anna Parsons Foote, was wardrobe mistress there. Inceville was the enormous tract of land in California which became the home to Ince’s famous westerns. At the age of 15, Mildred even appeared in Griffith’s megalomaniacal project Intolerance, though only as a harem girl. Later she would make it as a true leading lady under the direction of Lois Weber.

Despite these illustrious early directors and contacts, she enjoyed little public exposure until – at the age of 16 – she met a certain Charles Spencer Chaplin. When he writes “The only possible interest she had for me was sex” in his autobiography, Chaplin intimates that she was the pursuer, and he – quasi reluctantly – folded under her relentless flirtations. This account is hardly convincing. The rich, successful, and much older Chaplin sent red roses to her suite, and habitually waited in his car at Weber’s studio until Mildred finished her work. Charlie, Mildred felt, was just wonderful. There followed a courtship: “dinners, dances, moonlit nights and ocean drives” and soon enough Mildred was beginning to worry she might be pregnant. Chaplin writes he “had always wanted a wife”, though it seems evident, he didn’t particularly intend for it to be Mildred. When their relationship had become more serious her mother had objected. She wanted marriage deferred until her daughter was a little older. Even Mildred herself had previously told Griffith she didn’t intend to be married, until she was 22 or 23. Charlie, when she asked him, had rather cold-heartedly stated he would never marry Mildred. But with the possibility of a pregnancy – and inevitable scandal – hanging over them, those considerations were swept aside. On October 23, 1918, Mildred and Charles were quietly married in a closed ceremony.

Moving Picture Weekly ca 1919

Mildred was elated. To her marriage was like a fairy story. She wanted a “happy house” and she later said that she truly loved Chaplin who, more and more, stayed away from his child-bride and her exquisite “symphony in lavender and ivory”, on De Mille Drive. He thought her a bit of an airhead, and while he had no interest in “marrying an encyclopedia” he was morbidly anxious about what any kind of domestic responsibility would do to his own creative process. As the two years of their marriage was also the period in which he made The Kid, his paranoia seems largely unfounded. It is more likely that Chaplin’s creative work was stymied by his heavy obligations to First National. He had completed only a fraction of the films he was contracted to finish, and complained that the production company was “short sighted”, by which he probably meant they were unresponsive to his demands on quality. The Chaplin name alone, First National will have rightly thought, would be enough to sell any of his films regardless. It was in this period that Chaplin entered negotiations with D.W. Griffith and Mary Pickford to start their own, independent, production company: United Artists. But before he could free himself there were five more films to complete.

Mildred, meanwhile, waited mere days before signing a contract with MGM. In a bottom-feeding move that was low, even for the studio, Mayer sought to trade on the name of Chaplin via the underage Mildred. Chaplin, of course, objected strenuously. But just as you would expect from a headstrong 17 year old, she smiled prettily at him and nodded, and then proceeded to do exactly as she wanted. She may have seemed ditzy, she may have been very young, but she had a strong will and ambition. It is likely she wanted to take advantage of such an opportunity, as she will scarcely have appreciated the extent to which she was being exploited. Chaplin allowed her no independence, and scoffed at her ambitions to be an actress: Mildred was always looking for new horizons. This is illustrated by her shock and horror when, in 1919, the studio failed to remunerate her for the added value of the name “Chaplin”. She was so distressed that her doctor sent her to the mountains to recuperate. Later she would admit signing the deal was a mistake. But, she said rightly, Chaplin could have had a little more “patience and consideration of youth”.

Motion Picture News ca 1919

Though the first pregnancy had been a false alarm, in time Mildred did become pregnant. The marriage to the workaholic Chaplin, which seems to have vacillated between utter neglect and casual cruelty, was probably part of the reason that Mildred suffered what was then referred to as a “nervous breakdown”. She was sent away to rest, for the sake of herself and her unborn baby. Charles declined to come with her. Norman Spencer Chaplin was born on July 7, 1919, but lived no more than three days. With the death of the child, nicknamed ‘Little Mouse’ by Mildred, whatever was left of the union between Mildred and Charles evaporated. Chaplin, never the monogamous type, had affair after affair. The spouses hardly saw each other, and ultimately Chaplin took up permanent residence in the Athletic Club. Though initially hopeful that the marriage might be salvaged, ultimately – and understandably – Mildred became cold towards him. “All I want” she said flatly when Chaplin finally proffered a divorce “is enough money to look after my mother”.

The divorce proceedings, which were supposed to be amicable, as is so often the case, hardened. Mildred had upped the ante to a charge of “cruelty”. Rumours started surfacing – possibly reinforced by Chaplin himself – that it was she who had cheated on him. Even more salacious she was said to be in a relationsip with Alla Nazimova, who was then in a “lavender marriage”, a marriage of convenience, with Charles Bryant. Homosexuality was so severely stigmatized that it was impossible to acknowledge and keep a career so, true or not, the mere suggestion was damaging. To add insult to injury, First National exploited Mildred and the divorce proceedings as a tool to aqcuire the rights to The Kid, a scheme which ultimately failed. In November 1920 she got a settlement out of the whole ordeal, then early in 1921 MGM unceremoniously discarded her.

Life and Lillian Gish 1932

It is hard to judge what her mental state was, after her failed marriage to Chaplin and the tragic loss of her first child. In 1929 the magazine Picture Play announces her return after a period of “acting depression”. Her filmography, however, shows that she somehow rallied. She went on working in silents with such luminaries as Capra. She married again and had a son in 1925, though ultimately that marriage did not last. She had been married to her third husband, former NFL player William P. Fleckenstein, for ten years when she died. Even so, the name of Chaplin continued to pursue her, even to her obituary.

Sadly many of her earlier films with Lois Weber are lost. Such as The Doctor and the Woman (1918) and Forbidden (1919). In both of these movies she is still billed as Mildred Harris Chaplin. But Power of the Press (1928) was made long after her marriage to Chaplin was over and bills her simply as “Mildred Harris”. It is a charming film, with a light touch, starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as a cub reporter. Mildred plays a woman of loose morals, to be sure, but with a heart of gold. Her range, from broad comedy to plucky adventuress to subtle, meaningful, characterization shows she was a very good actor: both glamorous and funny. Cruise of the Jasper B (1926) is a wacky comedy, produced by Cecil B. DeMille which allows Mildred to show off some more physical comedy. Though personally I prefer Power of the Press as a film, Jasper B shows Mildred to be a lovely comedienne too.

Power of the Press (1928)

The transition to talkies was reportedly tough for Mildred, though Cecil B. DeMille kept casting her in small parts throughout the 40s. She also appeared on stage in vaudeville productions. In 1944 she suddenly died of pneumonia, following an abdominal operation: she was postumously awarded her much deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In the film Chaplin (1992), we are back to viewing Mildred as a vixen. Suggestively sucking the straw in her drink. The woman who trapped Charlie Chaplin in a loveless marriage because of her own callous ambition. Voices like Chaplin’s are amplified to a deafening pitch in film history. Because of this, because of the fact that so many of her films are lost and she died so young, it is hard to glean her own story from the various biographies, which inevitably centre on Chaplin. We clearly want geniuses like Chaplin to be good people, as well as brilliant ones. This leads to people like Mildred becoming a mere trope. A spoiled child-wife who is only in it for her own betterment. For if we refuse to believe these coarse simplifications, we may be forced to admit that some of our most beloved filmmakers were – and are – capable of unconscionable behaviour. And that some of the people who we so easily cast aside, or even vilify, were, in actuality, pretty wonderful artists in their own right. Mildred Harris is now mostly remembered as “child-bride of Charlie Chaplin”. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that her story and her work are much more varied and interesting than that.

Screenland ca 1923

As always in these pieces I lean heavily on what was written by cleverer historians.
Sources are:
Chaplin, His Life and Art by David Robinson, 1985
Charlie Chaplin by Theodore Huff, 1951
Charlie Chaplin by Peter Ackroyd, 2014
Lion of Hollywood, the Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, by Scott Eyman, 2012 and
My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin, 1964
Images are from Lantern the media digital library.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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