Fred Karno hired Syd Chaplin for his Karno’s London Comedians in 1906, sending Syd with a
company to tour the eastern part of America soon after. Syd was hired for what Karno deemed
“a rough type,” in other words a character not averse to a pinch, a slap, a kick in the pants or
whatever other light violence might be needed to incite a laugh or two. Of course, playing the
Inebriate in one of Karno’s most famous sketches “Night in an English Music Hall” or “Mumming
Birds,” Syd got to test his “rough-housing” skills right off. By the signing of his second Karno
contract in June 1907, Syd was more able to be creative, writing sketches and characters—as
well as coaxing Karno to hire his younger brother, Charlie.
One such character Syd inhabited in several sketches was “Hon. Archibald Binks,” a degraded
and morally bankrupt gentleman who wasn’t above engaging in a little mischief, mostly for fun.
He wore a wrinkled and too-large suit, hair parted in the middle and greased down (but with
unstuck bits), a monocle, too many medals on his jacket and a straw hat. Being very young at
the time, Syd was made up to look much older, with a litany of creases drawn onto his face.
This character appeared in “Skating,” “The Wow-Wows” and several other sketches and,
according to the reviews at the time, was very popular and successful the minute he was
In fact, it was this very comfortable (to Syd) character that evolved into Reginald Gussle of his
Keystone films—not Charlie’s Little Tramp as many have wrongly suggested. There is nothing
tramp-like about Gussle. He’s much too chunky for that, if for no other reason. Reginald Gussle
is also a degraded “gentleman,” and I use that term loosely.
He’s not above a good flirt plus more or an arbitrary kick in the pants (or skirt!) Gussle wears a jacket and pants that don’t
necessarily match and a too-small fedora, often turned up at the sides. A cane is added now
and then, and the monocle appears with as much frequency.
However, Gussle is not an
Englishman and he’s not quite as old as Binks, either, because Syd moved away from the heavy
make-up that helped him to achieve that added age. Gussle’s large and padded posterior is
supposed to add to the skewed picture of a well-off semi-gentleman that the character
He may have money (most likely his wife’s), but he certainly doesn’t work for it.
Nor is he interested in activities that require any effort. The womanly ass of Gussle emphasizes
this behavior but in a comedic way that also promotes a bawdier reading for some. You can
make your own analyses here...
Just after the end of World War I, caricaturist Bruce Bairnsfather began to publish his series
Fragments from France, featuring a litany of memorable characters from Bairnsfather’s own
experience with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in the trenches. Charlie Chaplin, although he
had received multiple white feathers in the mail during the course of the war, was still a source
of hope and relief for most soldiers, who enjoyed his films in their off hours on the front, so it’s
not surprising that Bairnsfather soon sought out Charlie with the gift of a large size caricature of
the Little Tramp, from both himself and his fellow soldiers.
Still part of the Chaplin studios at
this time, brother Syd most likely came into contact with the series and its most important
character, Old Bill, about this time—if he had not already read the series on his own (Syd was a
voracious reader!). Although there is no hard evidence, it seems clear that Syd decided that
Old Bill would be the perfect character for himself to occupy, if the chance ever arose, and
probably kept that desire in the back of his head from 1918 onwards.
During 1923-24, Syd had left the Chaplin studios with his final film there, The Pilgrim, and was
taking secondary character roles, such as Judd in Her Temporary Husband, Freddy Wetherill in
The Galloping Fish, Dick Trayle in The Perfect Trapper and, most importantly, Winky in The
Rendezvous. This last proved to be his tryout of the Old Bill character, for it’s even hard to tell
photos of Winky and Old Bill apart. The Rendezvous, from a novel by Madeleine Ruthven, was a
Russian story of star-crossed lovers banished to Siberia, where the wife dies, leaving an only
child, Vera, who is subsequently forced into marriage with a Cossack chief, then saved from this
fate by an American soldier. The character of “Winky” does not appear in the novel and was
effectively added to the screenplay for what reason is unknown—possibly for comic relief.
Winky is a sidekick to Conrad Nagel’s Walter Stanford, the American soldier, and therefore, can
be identified as an American soldier of the WWI era.
Having tried out this preview of Bairnsfather’s Old Bill character in The Rendezvous then, Syd
would be required only to tweek the costume a bit in order to effectively create a nice portrayal
of Bairnsfather’s gruff and grumbly Old Bill. The film iteration of this story must have been one
that Syd fought for very persistently, because it’s doubtful that Warner Bros. would have been
all too interested in the story of British tommies in a war everyone wanted to forget, whether it
was a comedy or not. Syd, however, played his cards right and presented Warners with two
money-makers beforehand—The Man on the Box and Oh! What a Nurse!, so perhaps he had
proven his importance to the studio enough by then for it to grant him the opportunity he had
planned for over seven years! Bairnsfather himself agreed to do all the graphic elements for
the publicity department, making this a sanctioned adaptation, so Syd took his by now well-
developed understanding of Old Bill and ran with it.
The differences between Winky and Old Bill may only be the differences between an American
doughboy and a British tommy, for they are slight. When Old Bill is in the trenches and it is
raining, he is in full tommy kit, including a large overcoat, helmet, backpack and messenger bag.
Both characters wear long mufflers around their necks, with Winky’s being a lighter color than
Bill’s, both have walrus-type mustaches, gaiters, etc. And, of course, there are differences in
the uniform itself, which can only be noticed on close inspection. All in all, it is very easy to see
that Winky was Syd’s on-screen rehearsal of the Old Bill character and his mannerisms. Both
were comic characters—exaggerated portrayals of the “type” of soldier each represented—and
one easily moved right into the other just two years later.