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Pages From Scandals Past . . . : Hollywood: Notoriety tarnished the careers of Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle and Roman Polanski. Many wonder how Woody Allen's career will be affected by the drama now unfolding.

August 22, 1992|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In May, 1943, a young red-haired, freckled-faced woman walked into the office of Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and said she had a story to tell. It involved one of America's most beloved comedians, a secret love affair and, she said, a child that was on the way.

In the weeks that followed, Joan Berry's accusations against Charlie Chaplin--the legendary "Little Tramp" of silent films--would explode into one of Hollywood's biggest scandals. Chaplin would issue statements to the press. Authorities would launch criminal investigations. And the press would have a field day.

The Chaplin case was the stuff of tabloids: a 23-year-old aspiring actress claiming to be pregnant by a 54-year-old titan of film; gunplay and rumors of sex in a Beverly Hills mansion; allegations of "white slavery"; paternity suits, blood tests, criminal charges and people breaking down in tears on the witness stand.

Not unlike the titillating drama now unfolding in New York between Woody Allen and Mia Farrow, the Chaplin-Berry saga nearly 50 years ago captivated America. Both men were powerful, respected filmmakers who had attained a level of stature and popularity few enjoyed in the movie industry, until they became the focus of embarrassing allegations in their private lives that threatened to tarnish their image.

It's too early to tell how this week's disclosures about Allen's romance with Farrow's 21-year-old adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Farrow Previn, and accusations that he may have abused the couple's 7-year-old daughter will affect Allen's career. But sex-related scandals have damaged or threatened to ruin plenty of others throughout Hollywood's history.

Some of the notorious examples:

* Silent screen star Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle had been one of America's favorite actors until he was charged with murder in the 1921 death of model Virginia Rappe. Newspapers speculated that the 266-pound Arbuckle had raped the 25-year-old woman with a bottle during a drunken orgy at the Hotel St. Francis in San Francisco. Arbuckle was tried three times and was finally acquitted, but his acting career faltered.

* Roman Polanski, the director of "Rosemary's Baby" and "Chinatown," fled the United States in 1977 before being sentenced on one count of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. Polanski never returned. Though he has continued to make movies abroad, such as "Tess" and "Frantic," the promise he showed in the early '70s hasn't been fulfilled.

* Rob Lowe's acting career was threatened when he videotaped a 16-year-old girl performing a sex act in an Atlanta hotel room during the 1988 Democratic National Convention.

By the time the Charlie Chaplin scandal broke, Chaplin was 54 years old, lived on an estate in Beverly Hills and was a millionaire many times.

In the years before, he had joined Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith in forming United Artists. He had been romantically linked over the years to many women and had been married three times. Only two weeks after Berry filed her paternity suit, Chaplin married a fourth time, exchanging vows with Oona O'Neill, the 18-year-old daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill.

But if he ever thought the Berry case would quickly disappear, he was wrong. It lasted nearly three years.

The paternity suit against Chaplin was filed by Berry's mother, who asked the court to adjudge Chaplin as the father of the baby-to-come and compel him to pay for her daughter's medical care and safeguard the infant's future.

Chaplin issued a statement claiming that when Berry came to him with the news of the pregnancy, she accompanied it with a demand for $150,000. "I am not responsible for Miss Berry's condition," he said.

"I would not think of bringing suit if it weren't for the other party involved--my baby," Berry told reporters. "All I want is to insure the establishment of the child's paternity."

*

Berry had come to Los Angeles in 1938 after graduating from a New York high school and claimed to be acquainted with J. Paul Getty, the multimillionaire oil man.

The British-born Chaplin said he met Berry in 1941 through an agent friend, signing her to a $75-a-week motion picture contract and arranging for her to take acting lessons. He had purchased a screen play called "Shadow and Substance" for $20,000 and intended that Berry would play Bridget, the leading role in the story of a humble maid's simple faith. Chaplin described the role as a "modern Joan of Arc." Berry said they became intimate two weeks after she signed the contract.

Berry believed the child was conceived on Dec. 23, 1942, when she went to Chaplin's hilltop home with a gun because he had been ignoring her.

As she entered his bedroom that night, Chaplin later testified that Berry walked around his bed. "She came to me and said, 'I am going to kill you.' I was scared. I tried to reason with her. I said, 'All your supposed affection or love for me is all a sham or else you wouldn't do this to me.' "

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