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Bercovici v. Chaplin: 1947 - Plaintiff Claims Oral Agreement

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On the witness stand, Bercovici said that he suggested a picture on dictators while visiting Chaplin's Pebble Beach, California home in 1938, and that Chaplin orally agreed to its production but subsequently rejected the idea. Nevertheless, he insisted, The Great Dictator, based on his script, appeared two years later.

In a courtroom filled to capacity, the final witness was Chaplin himself. The white-haired, 58-year-old comedian spoke rapidly and clearly to the jury of nine men and three women, gesturing frequently with his head and arms. When Bercovici suggested the idea, he said, he told the writer that he had been thinking it over himself for some time, and had outlined the story he had in mind not only to Bercovici but to Melvyn Douglas and others.

On direct examination, Chaplin identified his scrapbook for 1936. It contained several stories concerning the similarity of Hitler's mustache to the one Charlie wore on the screen. Chaplin's attorney, Louis Frohlich, asked, "Had the idea of impersonating Hitler come to you for the first time from Mr. Bercovici?"

"It had not," replied the witness.

Attorney Nizer introduced Bercovici's script as evidence. Chaplin said he had never seen it before. Nor did he make oral agreements, he said. His practice was to have all contracts in written form.

The next afternoon, May 1, Judge Burke called the attorneys for both sides to his office and asked them how much longer they expected the trial to last. Then he remarked, "I don't suppose you gentlemen ever thought of settling this, did you?"

The two sides, including Chaplin and Bercovici themselves, bargained from late afternoon until 10:00 P.M. The Bercovici side dropped first to $500,000, then to $350,000. Actively negotiating on his own behalf, Chaplin said he would not consider any settlement "in six figures." They finally agreed that Chaplin would pay Bercovici $95,000, including $5,000 for his legal expenses. Bercovici agreed to deliver to Chaplin a release covering any rights he had asserted in The Great Dictator. Chaplin also gained worldwide motion-picture rights to two Bercovici scenarios. Judge Burke dismissed the jury.

Five years later, Charlie Chaplin departed from the United States and settled in Switzerland with his young wife, the former Oona O'Neill, and their growing family. He died there in 1977 at the age of 88. It is not known whether he ever again saw his longtime friend Konrad Bercovici.

Bernard Ryan, Jr.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Chaplin, Charles. My Autobiography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1964.

Chaplin, Charles, Jr. My Father, Charlie Chaplin. New York: Random House, 1960.

Epstein, Jerry. Remembering Charlie. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1989.

Gifford, Denis. Chaplin. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1960.

Haining, Peter. The Legend of Charlie Chaplin. Secaucus, N.J.: Castle, 1982.

MlcCabe, John. Charlie Chaplin. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1978.

McCaffrev, Donald W., ed. Focus on Chaplin. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1971.

Manvell, Roger. Chaplin. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1974.

Robinson, David. Chaplin, His Life and Art. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985.

. Chaplin, the Mirror of Opinion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

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over 10 years ago

As Konrad Bercovici's granddaughter, I advise you to add Joyce Milton's "Tramp" to your list of further reading on the subject. She interviewed the family extensively as well as reviewing the archives of the actual trial and papers surrounding it. Not only was Melvyn Douglas NOT there when CC supposedly acted the story idea out to him, he serve as grandpa's WITNESS at the trial because it was KB who acted it out for both of them on a trip out to Pebble Beach. CC also told the press initially what a great story his friend Konrad had given him. My mother typed the treatment and script. Charlie was a childhood friend and godfather to my aunt, Rada Bercovici and did, indeed, make frequent verbal contracts with grandpa because of their close friendship. This friendship was heralded many times in print at the time, including interviews, photos and grandpa's dedication of one of his early books "Murdo" to him, as much of it was written in grandpa's bungalow on CC's film company lot. They also co-copyrighted other material together. The whole story will come out soon in a book and film to be made from it we are currently working on. In the meantime, you do need to check some of the scenario you have laid out.