Charlie Chaplin is understandably remembered as one of the great giants of early comic cinema. But his one-time best friend and co-star, a man on the verge of Chaplinesque stardom, might have been remembered as well as Chaplin had it not been for a strange quirk of fate.
Alfred Eric Campbell was born in Dunoon, Scotland in 1880 and began acting as a boy. He married fellow music hall performer Fanny Gertrude Robotham on March 30, 1901 and a few years later was hired by English music hall impresario Fred Karno for his “Fun Factory” comedy troupes that featured other young comics like Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. Along with Chaplin and Laurel, Campbell arrived in New York with a Karno troupe in July, 1914 and was almost immediately hired away from Karno by famed Broadway producer Charles Frohman.
In late 1915 Chaplin was in New York with his brother Sid after having left Karno to get into movies. Looking for actors for their new movie company, they found Eric working in a George M. Cohan play “Pom Pom” and in March, 1916, brought him to Hollywood. Eric was huge; built like a wrestler 6’2″ tall and over 250 pounds, his body topped by a small shaved head. Chaplin smeared his face with exaggerated eyebrows and darkened eyes, and added a long scraggly beard. He played the menacing bearded ogre opposite Chaplin in Chaplin’s most famous silents. His first was The Floorwalker (1916), and he reprised his role as the villainous heavy in subsequent classics like The Rink (1916), The Pawnshop (1916), The Cure (1917), The Immigrant (1917), Easy Street (1917) and The Fireman (1917). By the summer of 1917 Campbell was Chaplin’s favorite co-star and foil, and almost as famous as the little comedian. The films they made together are remembered as among Chaplin’s greatest work and are among the most important silent films in history.
His last film was the 1917 Chaplin Mutual, The Adventurer, after which Chaplin began construction on his own studio on LaBrea Avenue in Hollywood (which still stands today). During the five-month construction Chaplin lent Campbell to Mary Pickford, the world’s biggest star, to appear in her film Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley (1917). He was on the verge of world-wide stardom as filming began but tragically at the same time his personal life was beset by sadness and scandal.
On July 9, 1917 his wife died suddenly of a heart attack after dinner at a Santa Monica restaurant near their home. Walking to a nearby store to buy a mourning dress, his 16-year-old daughter Una was hit by a car a seriously injured. At a September 12 party given for Artcraft Studio publicity man Pete Schmid, Campbell met Pearl Gilman, a diminutive vaudeville comedienne whose family had a well-earned reputation for gold-digging. Pearl had been married to candy heir Charles W. Alisky in 1912 and a few years later divorced and married another wealthy man, Theodore Arnreiter. Her sister Mabelle was married to elderly steel magnate William E. Corey, the owner of U.S. Steel.
Just five days after they met, Campbell and Pearl Gilman-Alisky-Arnreiter were married at the home of Elaine Hardy at 824 Fifth Street in Santa Monica. His daughter Una, still recuperating at a friend’s home in Santa Monica canyon, was not told of the wedding for several weeks. Less than two months after marrying the gentle giant, the slimey Pearl Gilman-Alisky-Arnreiter sued him for divorce. He moved out of his Santa Monica bungalow and into the Los Angeles Athletic Club, taking a room next to his best friend Chaplin.
A month later later on December 20, Campbell attended a Christmas party at the Vernon Country Club, and drove back to L.A. in a drunken stupor. Approaching the intersection of Wilshire Blvd. and Vermont Ave. at over 60 m.p.h., he lost control of his car, crossed Wilshire and hit another car head-on. He was killed instantly, his massive body locked in the crumpled wreckage for over five hours.
Even in death heartbreak dogged Campbell. After his remains were cremated his ashes were sent to the Rosedale Cemetery, where they remained for six months while the cemetery waited in vain for someone to pay for his funeral. When the bill remained unpaid the urn was returned to the Handley Mortuary, where it sat unnoticed in a closet from 1917 until late 1938. When the mortuary closed the urn was sent back to Rosedale, where it sat in yet another closet for still another 13 years. In 1952 a kindhearted office worker arranged for Campbell’s remains to finally be buried but unfortunately he forgot to record exactly where Campbell was buried. So the burly Scotsman is lost among the markers and statues in the quiet cemetery. In conjunction with a Scottish film about Campbell’s life, a memorial plaque was laid in 1996.
Campbell’s death had a profound effect on Chaplin, and a quieter effect on movie history. After his best friend’s death Chaplin’s movies lost some of their comic mystery; that certain something that his Mutual films had but subsequent films did not. His later works were much more self-centered and missing the comic give-and-take evident in his work with Campbell. There’s no telling how famous Eric Campbell would have become, or what different films Chaplin may have done with his burly best friend, but the larger than life Scotsman had a huge, but un-remembered, impact on the movies.