Bercovici v. Chaplin: 1947

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Bercovici v. Chaplin: 1947

Plaintiff: Konrad Bercovici
Defendant: Charles S. Chaplin
Plaintiff Claim: Plagiarism
Chief Defense Lawyer: Louis Frohlich
Chief Lawyer for Plaintiff: Louis Nizer
Judge: Harold P. Burke
Place: New York, New York
Dates of Trial: April 17-May 1, 1947
Verdict: None; suit settled for $95,000 payment by Chaplin

SIGNIFICANCE: This suit against Charlie Chaplin for plagiarism attracted international attention and tarnished the comedian's benign image. Although the plaintiff in the end settled for a modest amount of money by agreeing to a settlement, Chaplin acknowledged, in effect, that he had plagiarized another's film concept.

Silent-film star Charlie Chaplin and screenwriter Konrad Bercovici became close friends in Hollywood early in the 1920s. They continued to see each other during the 30s, when Chaplin was creating his greatest hits, City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator. The latter, his first sound film, was released in 1940 as Europe was already deep in World War II and the United States faced inevitable participation; the film was a powerful and caustic burlesque of Germany's Adolf Hitler.

In June 1946, a year after the war ended, the Information Control Division of the Allied Control Council, which oversaw the military administration of occupied Germany, permitted a "sneak preview" showing of The Great Dictator in Berlin. Replying to questionnaires, the audience said the film should not be shown throughout the nation lest it stimulate revulsion rather than mirth.

"The Little Tramp" Plays to a Full House

News of the showing brought renewed interest in the film in America. Konrad Bercovici announced a particular interest in the 7-year-old film: He was suing his old friend Chaplin for plagiarism, for, he said, he had first suggested in the mid-1930s that the "Little Tramp" play Hitler. He demanded $6,450,000.

The trial began"before a full house," as the newspapers reportedon April 17, 1947, in U.S. District Court in New York City, with Judge Harold P. Burke presiding. Bercovici's lawyer, the renowned Louis Nizer, told the jury he would prove that Chaplin had contracted with Bercovici to collaborate in the production of a series of pictures, with the plaintiff to receive 15 percent of the gross profits. In 1938, he said, Bercovici had written a satirical scenario based on Hitler and dictatorship, but Chaplin had rejected it for political reasons. The Great Dictator, he charged, was based on that scenario.

A parade of witnesses ranging from actor Melvyn Douglas to producer Alexander Korda to Chaplin's ex-wife, actress Paulette Goddard, testified on Chaplin's behalf during the next two weeks.

Plaintiff Claims Oral Agreement

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.