The Romance of Charles Chaplin

My Autobiography

by Charles Chaplin
Simon & Schuster, 512 pp., $6.95

Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin; drawing by David Levine

One of the many fine things about this volume is that it includes, along with an exhaustive index and a lot of photographs, a “List of the Films of Charles Chaplin.” Thus we learn that his first movie—or if he insists, film—dates from 1914 and was entitled Making a Living. In all senses of the word “living,” Chaplin has since made it. No other movie career, and few recent literary careers, have yielded so much continuous delight over so many years as his has. It has also included a period of what might be called “total crisis,” one of those situations in which the hero of a mass society undergoes a bitter reversal of fortune, public and private, and becomes for a time a prominent scapegoat. In Chaplin’s case, this deplorable turn hasn’t proved ruinous. On the contrary, his present life as described in My Autobiography resembles the last act of a late-Shakespearean romance. Order has been restored, love is requited, paternity is triumphant, and there has been a general reunion with the universe—possibly excepting the United States. In this country, however, many of his films are again on view; and while you endure that “short wait in the lobby for seats,” you are gratified to hear from the auditorium gusts of unembarrassed, in fact uncontrollable, laughter. Even “the children,” whom you have taken along, with some fears as to their possible reactions, soon get into the spirit and join the great collectivity of Chaplin-inspired mirth and adoration. A student did once tell the present writer that Chaplin’s comic style lacked “moral reference” and was a little dated. It is the unfortunate student who seems a little dated now.

Charles Chaplin would therefore appear to be the perfect subject for an autobiography. Yet it has been reported that he was a reluctant subject at first and only yielded to his publishers’ persuasion after much debate. No doubt the report is true. It was not in him to turn out an unconsidered performance inevitably labeled The Charlie Chaplin Story. And apart from the sheer labor of doing a thorough job, he may have felt some doubt about his competence to do it. He has shown a distinct largeness of ambition in those films where he was actor, director, script writer, and composer. But he has given no sign of thinking himself an accomplished man of letters with a command of literary form and style, and the more or less settled convictions about life and art that are implied in those things. He commands them in his own elusive medium but the verbal medium is patently something else. Besides, the “person” behind Chaplin’s work has always seemed a little inaccessible. And while these problems may not have figured in his deliberations before he decided to write his autobiography, they do figure for the reader of the completed work.

There are of course two Chaplins, Charles Chaplin and Charlie. The pair as such are well known in Chaplin lore. And their existence argues no large or lurid complexity on either’s part, no war of rival identities between them. It is only a working partnership. The two get along so well together because they are so unlike. One of them is out of this world, while the other is very much of it. Charlie the clown is an extreme case of artfully blended antitheses. He is a dandified tramp, a Pierrot of the industrial age, an ideally resourceful male with an ideal female’s winning grace and solicitous sweetness. Charlie is a dream—a dream that much solid stuff is made of. In the way he twitches a property mustache or slices with a knife a derby hat doused in a creamy sauce, believing the hat to be a real pudding, there is a multitude of all too human suggestions. Twitched mustaches are implausible by nature. All dinner party embarrassments approximate to the impact of cold steel on creamed felt, setting the teeth on edge.

Like a dream, Charlie is more eloquent for being silent. “The matrix out of which he was born was as mute as the rags he wore,” Charles Chaplin remarks in the autobiography. By “matrix” he means, it will be seen, several things. In one of its senses, it is another word for imagination, which Chaplin exploited and glorified in his pre-talkie films. At first he hated the sound track with its elaborate apparatus and specialized personnel. Charlie’s essential being was threatened by electronic sound. It was an intruder upon the house of the visual imagination; a thief in the silence of Charlie’s enchanted night. Charles Chaplin’s job was to come to Charlie’s assistance and rout the intruder, at least for a while. His role in the partnership was always to serve Charlie as guardian and general utility man. Charles took Charlie’s measure when the future looked alarming. He foresaw that his alter ego’s possibilities were relative to his alter ego’s limitations, that his survival depended on his remaining what he had always been: an extreme case of refined artifice. No real concessions were to be made to new film technologies and styles of laughter. Thus Charlie was enabled to outlast many a less specialized artist who, through the competitive processes of comedy, was quickly to become a has-been or a hack or, like Walt Disney, an industry. When Charlie’s time finally came he was put away, and his silence silenced, by a reluctant but realistic Charles.

Did a merger of the two take place after that, in the period of Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight? Or did Charles Chaplin take over the whole firm? The question is silly. Half truths about dual identities can be manipulated to the point of becoming schematic. Yet in My Autobiography the author himself makes some random use of the Charles-Charlie duality, evidently with the purpose of enlivening the narrative and keeping its sprawling bulk in perspective.

The book does sprawl. It is a very strenuous exercise in total recall. Chaplin might have fixed upon a single representative moment or situation in his life, for example the making of City Lights, with all the important decisions, the professional problems, and the personalities that were involved in it. Instead he chose to attempt the usual full-blown survey and to present it in the conventional chronological form. But is Chaplin’s life, in its really significant aspects, conventional or usual? One’s reading of the autobiography suggests the contrary. The career that was his essential glory seems much farther removed from the rest of his experience than would normally be the case if the autobiographer were a statesman or writer or, for that matter, a different kind of actor. Given his beautifully specialized art, Chaplin’s experiences as celebrity, lover, husband, and political prophet seem of questionable relevance. At best they belong to the social history of movies. Yet he shows little talent or inclination for treating this subject. The people he portrays tend to remain indistinct; the conversations he reports, often in dialogue form, sound vaguely fabricated. It is as if everybody were on stilts, even jolly Douglas Fairbanks, Chaplin’s most congenial friend. As a writer he can’t work up enough feeling, either sympathetic or malicious, to make his associates—friends or non-friends—interesting. As a result, his own personality goes dim—becomes, as I say, inaccessible—for long stretches. He seems to be conducting a rather formal interview with himself. “What do I think of Mr. Churchill?” “I think Mr. Churchill is…” What is lacking is not candor; on the subject of people, as well as on his political and moral beliefs, he is generally forthright. An unrepentent exile from the United States, he is quite unafraid of giving offense to that ignorant and vindictive element of the American public that once found him persona non grata. My Autobiography is the work of a man who, in his own eyes, is not “controversial” but historic. His candor, however, is a quality of his moral intelligence alone. As an observer of persons and manners, he gets little help from it.

His adventures in Celebrityland are nevertheless told at length: those obligatory encounters with predictable personages, from Shaw to Gandhi, Lady Astor to Elinor Glyn. Is anybody absent? Yes, Albert Schweitzer. But then, Albert Einstein is present. And Churchill, although he is everybody’s star-celebrity, gets more space in the book than Modern Times, a unique masterpiece.

Is Chaplin aware of the irrelevance of it all? Probably. In the chapters concerning his travels and triumphs, Charlie the clown is, as I said, revived. He is invested with the skeptic’s viewpoint and assigned the role of victim in the celebrity game. The procedure is too consistent to have been accidental; and the author’s intentions, as I understand them, are of the best. He hopes to restore the balance by keeping his great comic counterpart in the picture. So the narrative is strewn with memories of small embarrassments suffered by himself and others in the Vanity Fair of world fame. Most of these incidents involve bits of brisk and punishing “business.” In short they are “slapstick” and recall the comic routines in his movies. For example his contretemps with William Randolph Hearst. Once during luncheon at San Simeon the two of them disagree about a projected movie venture. Hearst becomes quite irritated. “When I say a thing is white you always say it is black,” he tells Chaplin, who, feeling insulted, calls for a taxi and leaves the table. But he is quickly overtaken in another room by a remorseful Hearst, who sits Chaplin down beside him in a small double-seat of the Chippendale period and proceeds to make peace. Peace being made, the two then start to get up to return to the dining room. But they discover they are stuck in the valuable antique. With the insane splendors of San Simeon as background, this tale has a point.

A better story, with a more extended gag, has to do with Chaplin and Jean Cocteau. Indirectly, perhaps, it is also a comment on the strange logic of existence in Celebrityland, of which both men were of course ranking citizens and knew it. The two meet for the first time by chance on shipboard during a China Sea crossing. Cocteau expresses his joy that the long delayed meeting has finally taken place. They spend a night in rapturous conversation, although neither is acquainted with the other’s language and Cocteau’s secretary makes an indifferent interpreter. They part towards dawn with enthusiastic assurances of future talks. But a couple of mornings later, when the two are about to collide on deck, Cocteau suddenly ducks into the ship’s interior. And throughout the rest of the interminable day ahead, their relations will consist in a series of artful dodgings and hearty but decisive hails and farewells. It appears that a mysterious magnetic force is at work in Celebrityland to guarantee that any two of its ranking citizens will inevitably meet—somewhere, somehow. With Chaplin and Cocteau, the mysterious force seems to have got out of hand, like the feeding machine in Modern Times. Their off and on friendship recalls that of the Tramp and the alcoholic millionaire in City Lights, made several years before Chaplin met Cocteau.

Charlie’s interventions brighten a little the social picture in My Autobiography. And presently the picture changes. The social scene is more or less taken over by “Salka Viertel, the Clifford Odetses, the Hanns Eislers, the Feuchtwangers,” and Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht. These friends reflected, possibly stimulated, Chaplin’s increasingly explicit concern with what he calls “the fate of the world,” a concern that was already apparent in the explicit satire of Modern Times (1936). For the world as for him the total crisis was at hand. Along with the Nazi horrors, the war, and Soviet Russia’s entrance into it, there was the question of the Second Front. No doubt the arrival of the illustrious refugees in his vicinity brought home to him the human reality of the general terror. Chaplin’s personal and professional life was similarly beset by difficulties. His labors on Monsieur Verdoux, a radically new venture, coincided with his forced participation in the grotesque “paternity suit.” In eyes bleared by the prevailing hysteria, he stood convicted of moral turpitude and political unreliability, always a sinister compound. An impertinent reporter remarked to him during an interview: “Your public relations are not very good.”

They were not, and his account of the crisis in his autobiography is unlikely to improve them. Not that his public relations are the affair, or the real concern, of a sympathetic reviewer. What must be said, however, is that he shows no inclination to reconsider his own political attitudes of the time, in the interests either of mere appeasement (God forbid) or of historical truth and autobiographical self-discovery. He emerges from the crisis in the role of pure victim—a role that is too exciting to be quite believable. With such an embattled figure argument is fruitless, and where Chaplin is concerned there are better things to do than argue politics. As Robert Warshow, Chaplin’s best critic, wrote “The impact of his art…was helped rather than hindered by a certain simplicity in his conceptions of political and social problems.” “Conceptions?” A better word might be “dreams.”

My Autobiography is really convincing about family history and about the history of the movies as reflected in Chaplin’s own work. One learns that he began asserting his authority as a film maker rather earlier than one had thought: during his very first year (1914) in movies, while he was still with the Keystone Company, Mack Sennett suddenly set Mabel Normand to directing Chaplin’s pictures. She was a nice girl and pretty but “incompetent.” He objected, pacified Mabel, and became a part-time director himself. To be sure, as he says, improvisation was rampant in the studios in those days. He loved it. After touring for years in uninspired stage plays he had, one guesses, stored up a wealth of unused inventiveness. It spilled out under the benign anarchy at Keystone. In time he seemed to us to inhabit a realm where inventiveness was the rule. Hence the peculiar exhilaration his films imparted to his audiences, and the bonus of personal affection his audiences gave him in return There was even something chancy about the origins of the Tramp’s costume, inevitable as it seems now. Mack Sennett merely told him one day: “We need some gags here. Put on a comedy make-up. Anything will do.” So Chaplin headed for the wardrobe and grabbed some “baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small moustache.” He had “no idea of the character” at first, but once he was in costume the character was “fully born” and “gags and comedy ideas went racing through my mind.” Still improvisation had limits. There had to be a director like Mack Sennett to make decisions, as well as reverse them, even while, like Mack Sennett, he “giggled until his body began to shake” at the doings of Fatty Arbuckle, Ford Sterling, Mabel Normand, and Charlie Chaplin.

As an autobiographer, then, Chaplin is more at home on the Keystone and Essanay lots than he will later be at San Simeon, Pickfair, and Fort Belvedere (private residences which incidentally, he tends to describe as if they were hotels, remarking critically on the “furnishings” and the “cuisine”). But he is most at ease in the first hundred or so pages, where the subject is his early experiences as a London waif and incipient actor. Those experiences were the ultimate “matrix” out of which Chaplin and Charlie emerged.

Most autobiographers are best on such distant and “formative” years. Chaplin’s childhood seems uncommonly close to him and it was formative with a vengeance. His childhood was made to order to destroy a waif or foster a genius. In its concentrated burden of extreme situations it surpassed Dickens’s famous childhood. Everything was extreme: the hardness of the hardship, the sweetness of the satisfactions. Home was the more ideally homelike because one was so often homeless. A mother’s devotion was more prized because it was frequently unavailable. Did “things happen,” as children are always wishing things will? Things happened without let-up. The days were not only eventful; they were a perpetual flow, or flood, of elemental event. No wonder Chaplin was to be so different from his associates, in Hollywood and elsewhere. He tells us that the Cockney-born H. G. Wells worried about his (Wells’s) misplaced h’s. In Chaplin’s case some part of himself was misplaced by his early deprivations and has remained forever estranged from the rest, even though capable of forming that working partnership with Charles Chaplin. His Old World past, his almost prehistoric past, survives in Chaplin like a vital organ. Often though his family moved from flat to flat in South London, he remembers perfectly the street numbers and the “furnishings.” He can recall, it appears, just about everything, and in the early chapters of My Autobiography he does so with a zest that is largely absent from the remainder of the book. The misery of that time speaks for itself. The autobiographer is thus at liberty to find satisfaction in the act of recall itself, in the precise art of retracing the child’s million steps up and down greasy stairs, in and out of cheerless interiors, back and forth along dingy streets. (Easy Street? For something that resembles the Easy Street set, see the photograph opposite page 64 with the legend: “Where we lived, next to the slaughterhouse and the pickle factory, after Mother came out of the asylum.”) So “real” is the entire past of his, so intimately and completely his, that the writer is freed from self-consciousness and can take a simple delight in the story, just as he will later show delight in recalling the time his mother said “shit.”

Here, it may be assumed, memory works an uncommonly complete transformation even while it seems to be engaged in a powerful attempt at faithful representation. Chaplin’s memory possesses it all too firmly for distortion to occur. Yet everything indicates that in actuality, at the time, the child was conscious of possessing little that he was sure was his own and could call “real.” His childhood was the scene, not of poverty and neglect alone, but of a more inclusive kind of distress. People and places and things were constantly disappearing. Some of them turned up again and again. But would they turn up the next time? Life was a perpetual vanishing act. Or wasn’t it?

“In my world of three and a half years, all things were possible; if Sydney, who was four years older than I, could perform legerdemain and swallow a coin and make it come out through the back of his head, I could do the same; so I swallowed a halfpenny and Mother was obliged to send for the doctor.” Coins got scarcer later on. His parents, both of them originally popular performers in music halls, were separated and his father took to drink and his mother’s health failed. The boy and his father became strangers or worse: intermittent relatives. They shared a flat when his mother was ill, then met at long intervals and by chance in streets and bars. His mother and Sydney (her son by a mysterious earlier union with an English gentleman in Africa) made up the family for Charles. In health, she was loving, attentive, amusing: a rare combination of maternal and theatrical instincts. There were recitations, impersonations, burlesques in the house. But her stage voice presently gave out and her theatrical engagements dwindled. At five, Charles replaced her on stage one night when she was suddenly incapacitated, and he finally made his exit showered by coins.

The family is now close to destitution. Mrs. Chaplin takes up religion and earns sixpences doing piece work as a seamstress. Her mind begins to disintegrate; there are spells of gentle madness, brought on, the doctors say, by malnutrition. She is in and out of asylums. The boys are in and out of workhouses where flogging is still routine and Charles on one occasion gets his. Somehow he and Sydney survive. The family’s theatrical tradition is the legacy that saves them. At twelve, Charles gets his first important part (in Jim: The Romance of a Cockney) and although scarcely literate enough to read the script, he is a hit and on his way. With an act called The Eight Lancashire Lads, he tours the provinces: the ever-changing South End habitations of his childhood are replaced by endless small town hotels. Being an actor is hard and lonely work, and not only in England. In America, where he eventually arrives with the Karno Company, he is again on tour and once more it is hotels, hotels. But something has been added, an American speciality of the period: the red light districts.

His love for his mother also survived. Of all the people mentioned in My Autobiography, she alone is portrayed fully and freely. His feeling for her puts aside the usual barriers of his constraint. She exists, and wonderfully, remembered in all the pity, the irony, the strange fun, of her condition. Amazingly, she herself survived, to spend her final years near Los Angeles after Chaplin had become famous and was able to tell her that he was worth five million dollars. In California, it appears, she still had spells of mild insanity and thus she provides material for some of the weirder gags in the book. Once during a visit to an ostrich farm she was shown an ostrich egg by the keeper and, snatching it, she cried, “Give it back to the poor bloody ostrich!” and tossed the egg into the corral, “where it exploded with a loud report.”

Another time, out riding on a hot afternoon in her chauffeur-driven car, she leaned out to hand an ice cream cone to a workman in the street and accidentally threw it in his face. It seems that maternal instinct, like everything else, can go awry. Still another time she asked her son, “Wouldn’t you rather be yourself than live in this theatrical world of unreality?” and he replied with a laugh, “You should talk.”

Perhaps she wasn’t so naive. The problem of “being himself” has obviously vexed Chaplin, even more than it does the rest of us. It forms a major theme, though an unformulated one, in My Autobiography. The circumstances that gave rise to the problem are written large in his account of his childhood. Living in such a phantasmagoria of impermanence, it seems a wonder the child could remember his name, let alone his latest address. Naturally, he clung to them, as to his mother’s affection and other things, with a tenacity born of his very desperation. Naturally, too, the Tramp would eventually reenact the essentials of that experience in terms of free invention and comic artifice. Homeless, speechless, nameless, indefinitely on the run, he finds his true love only to lose her, and perhaps possesses himself of the girl’s grace and sweetness in lieu of possessing the girl. Nor is it unlikely, judging by his autobiography, that the Charles-Charlie partnership was his salvation as a person and an artist, just because it was, as already indicated, a working partnership. With women, on the other hand, his actual relations are somewhat obscured by his tact: many of the women are still alive. He does say, apropos of one early affair, that “No woman could measure up to that vague image I had in my mind.” Possibly he means to suggest that he was perpetually trailed by the maternal presence, or absence, at least until his present marriage. In any case he brings a peculiar gaiety to his accounts of his more casual affairs. The girls include one nameless European who, after agreeing to a short-time affair, seems to have fallen for him and become a bother, until, resigned at last to losing him, she accompanied him to his ship at Naples, waved a cheerful goodbye from the dock, and made off into the blue yonder walking the Charlie walk. Lucky girl. Lucky Charlie.