Goodbye Charlie

Charlie Chaplin

by Maurice Bessy
Harper and Row, 438 pp., $50.00

In his autobiography, Charles Chaplin briefly tells of a night in 1919, when he was in New York, dodging process servers in the first of his several painful legal imbroglios. He had decided to change hotels to confound his pursuers, but it was a late hour and he could find no room unbooked. His taxi driver offered to put him up at home in the Bronx. That night Chaplin shared a bed with the driver’s already sleeping twelve-year-old son. He himself did not sleep, for fear of waking the boy. In the morning the neighborhood children filed in to gaze at him as he ate his toast.1

Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin; drawing by David Levine

The story is charming, and told in an offhanded way. The French cinephile Maurice Bessy includes this tale among the anecdotes that sparsely surround his excellent collection of stills. However, besides transposing it to World War II and Brooklyn, Bessy steeps his account in immanence. The boy, awakened, is dubious of his temporary roommate’s identity, and so the aging Chaplin puts aside his fatigue and becomes Charlie.

He danced around the little bedroom, using the various objects as props, leaping on to chairs, slipping over, falling down, clutching on to the drapes.

“More, more,” cried the child in delight. “You really are Charlie.”

…For the moment nothing else mattered except the enchantment of one small boy, transfigured by happiness.

…The child slipped into a happy, dreaming sleep in Chaplin’s arms.

Like Christ at Emmaus, Charlie manifests himself to the humble; like Christ offering his wounds to the doubting Thomas, Chaplin proves himself both divine and human, or, in this case, both Charlie and Chaplin.

Bessy has published his version of the story twenty years after Chaplin’s own, but the discrepancy probably does not much matter since, by some unwritten rule of folk tradition, it is the more colorful legend that prevails. Bessy has simply appropriated his own Charlie, as many have done before him, and as the advertising agency for IBM personal computers, for one, continues to do. Chaplin was not simply a phenomenal one-man industry, actor, director, producer, writer, and composer, he also created and incarnated Charlie the tramp, a totemic figure of such deceptive simplicity that it could be owned and imaginatively reinterpreted by just anyone. Such a figure is hardly unique in the twentieth-century secular religion of entertainment, but whereas the Elvis or the Marilyn that people carry around in their pockets may be difficult to disengage from the Presley or the Monroe that one drew breath, Charlie the tramp was always a deliberately projected figment of the man who wore the costume.

This distinction has not prevented the attributes of Charlie from spilling over onto Chaplin. Now David Robinson’s authorized biography has come along as the latest and most exhaustive effort at rendering unto Chaplin the traits that were his alone. Robinson’s task was by no means easy. Chaplin was a determinedly private character, and he grew more so the older he got. The autobiography nicely illustrates this curve: poignant and fantastically detailed on the events of his childhood, it slopes off into what appears to be a padded visitor’s register, as a parade of eminent acquaintances and their select bons mots conceal Chaplin’s adult life from scrutiny. Oddly enough, it is the childhood that sounds most like a myth. In fact, it sounds like a Victorian melodrama, full of exaggerated characters, stock settings, abject circumstances, luck and pluck.

Chaplin was born April 16, 1889, in East Lane, Walworth, the son of Charles, Sr., and Hannah Hill Chaplin. Both were vaudevillians. Charles senior purveyed such robust ditties as “Eh, Boys?” and “Oui, Tray Bong,” while Hannah was billed as “Lily Harley—the Essence of Refinement.” They had the restlessness of show people, and the marriage did not last long. Charles senior was a charming ne’er-do-well; his career, which appeared to be in an early stage of brilliance, ended prematurely and in squalor. Hannah’s career was even less fulfilled; she seems to have passed from promising to has-been without a sojourn in the present tense. Four years before the birth of the junior Charles, Hannah had adventured to South Africa with a shadowy character named Sidney Hawkes and had then given birth to a son, who was later legitimized as Sydney (or perhaps Sidney) Chaplin. Hannah and her two boys spent a decade or so making do, shuttling between tenements and institutions. Her third son, Wheeler Dryden, the issue of a fling with a flamboyant vaudevillian named Leo Dryden, was spared that particular routine, having been snatched up by his father soon after birth; Charles and Sydney did not meet him again until after World War I.

One of Hannah’s last appearances on the boards was at the Aldershot Canteen, in 1894. On that occasion her voice broke; she was jeered; she panicked and ran offstage. The manager, evidently ruthless but inspired, sent the five-year-old Charles on in her stead. The boy rose to the occasion and sang a coster number called “‘E Dunno Where ‘E Are.” He was showered with coins, and interrupted his performance to pick them all up. This incident is too blatant for reasonable fiction: too maudlin, too symmetrical, far too heavily freighted with ominous significance. Chaplin’s childhood memories are nevertheless shown by Robinson to be remarkably reliable, faltering only on minor details of chronology or spelling. It may well have happened exactly that way. Chaplin’s education was gathered helter-skelter, in workhouses, boys’ homes, and on the street, and it appears that he picked up his sense of narrative in the Dickensian London slums that, simplified by remoteness, appear to the present-day sensibility as a wholly fictional domain. Nearly all of Chaplin’s films take place in this world, and even such exceptions as there are refer to its conventions. He was able to keep it intact in his head three quarters of the way through the twentieth century, preserved through the passage of time and the almost inconceivable change in his living conditions. He had the power of seeing the twentieth century with the eyes of the nineteenth.

Life and theater seem inextricably entwined in Chaplin’s childhood. His father played the Inebriate on stage, and retained the role in real life. His mother kept her sons entertained by performing impressions of passers-by seen from the window of their garret. She went mad when Charles was fourteen years old, and her madness imitated the form of her pantomimes, but the people she saw in her delirium were dead, and meant her harm.

By this time Charles had become a professional himself, performing with a troupe of children called the Eight Lancashire Lads. After a series of short-lived apprenticeships, as pageboy, doctor’s boy, glass blower, printer’s devil, and hawker of old clothes, the cockney urchin went on to specialize in cockney urchins on stage, as Sam in Jim, A Romance of Cockayne and as Billy in several tours of Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes. In 1907 Sydney Chaplin, who had been working as steward and bugler on various ocean liners, signed a contract with Fred Karno, the most powerful vauderville entrepreneur of his day, who dictatorially ran his numerous touring companies from the aegis of his Fun Factory. The following year Charles also signed with Karno, at a starting salary of £3 10s. Like his father, he went in for drunk roles, although he was sober and even a bit prissy offstage.

Chaplin was a popular performer, and he graduated to a second contract providing fees, in the eventual third year, of as high as ten pounds per week. In the fall of 1910 he embarked on a Karno tour of the United States. He was immediately smitten with the country, particularly its western reaches, their rough-and-readiness barely changed from the pioneer era, and when the tour ended two years later, he promptly signed up for another. A year into the second tour, he was approached by representatives of the Keystone Film Company, who had perhaps been alerted to Chaplin’s talent by Mack Sennett himself. Chaplin signed a contract to begin work in December 1913, at the rate of $150 per week for a year. His first film, aptly titled Making a Living, was released in early February 1914.

There is no question that he had landed in the right place at the right time. Mack Sennett had started out in an iron foundry in East Berlin, Connecticut, had gone to work at Biograph Studios at the very start of D.W. Griffith’s reign, and had wound up at Keystone, where he had assembled an extraordinary company of actors and buffoons: Mabel Normand, Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, Chester Conklin, Mack Swain, Ford Sterling, Al St. John, Slim Summerville, Charley Chase. As James Agee wrote: “He took his comics out of music halls, burlesque, vaudeville, circuses, and limbo, and through them he tapped in on that great pipeline of horsing and miming which runs back unbroken through the fairs of the Middle Ages at least to ancient Greece.”2 Chaplin fit splendidly into this tradition, although he did not, at first, fit in well with the company.

Chaplin was not slow to realize that the ham-fisted Keystone mise en scène badly suited his style. The stories, generic banana-peel slugfests that probably dated back to the Stone Age, were dominated by their players, but these tended to illustrate emotion by what Agee called “the large and spurious gesture,” a style of frantic arm waving by Punch and Judy out of Grand Guignol. Then this hysteria was cut up any which way and just as randomly spliced together. Chaplin intuitively grasped the magnifying power of cinema, and concentrated on the small but telling motion, developing character from within rather than imposing reaction from without. His style was appreciated by his colleagues but not by directors, who in the early days of the movies might be any loudmouth off the street. However, Chaplin gradually appropriated control, and by his eleventh film achieved sole responsibility for scenario and direction, something he would never relinquish after 1914.

Chaplin played a bemonocled slicker in his first film, but for the second, which was probably Mabel’s Strange Predicament, he invented the tramp. Specific accounts vary, and claims have been made of borrowings, conscious and otherwise, but everyone seems to agree that Chaplin walked into the dressing room and minutes later emerged wearing a bowler, a toothbrush mustache, an undersized jacket, enormous trousers, gigantic shoes, and carrying a slender walking stick. The character was not as immediately defined as the costume, and in early Keystones he reveals himself variously as greedy, cruel, or capriciously destructive. While the character revised itself, Chaplin continued to play the occasional roué (Tillie’s Punctured Romance, A Night in the Show) and turned in several spectacular female impersonations (A Busy Day, A Woman). It is in The Tramp (April 1915) that Charlie first stands fully formed: hapless, graceful, mischievous, chivalric, the descendant of Pan, the alloy (as Parker Tyler noted) of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Chaplin’s work in some of the early Keystones seems, in retrospect, as primitive as the films themselves. It may take a present-day spectator several viewings before he can discern Chaplin’s innovative style emerging distinctly from the surrounding frenzy. This was not at all the case when the films were first released. Chaplin immediately attracted a following, which grew exponentially with each picture. He wasted no time in adjusting his income in proportion with his popularity. In November 1914 he left Keystone and his $150 a week for Essenay and a guarantee of $1250 a week. In February 1916 he signed with the Mutual Film Corporation at $10,000 a week, with a $150,000 bonus. His June 1917 agreement with the First National Exhibitors’ Circuit gave him an annual salary of $1,075,000 and made him the highest paid employee in the world.

The first newspaper-serial biographies began appearing in 1915; in May of that year Charles Chaplin Advertising Services Company was already pressing a suit against an unlicensed manufacturer of Charlie statuettes. Songs and dances inspired by Charlie multiplied on the market, and there soon appeared the inevitable impersonators, intending homage and fraud in equal proportions. Costume balls, the craze of 1917, were frequently thrown into confusion because nine out of ten men arrived as Charlie Chaplin. In November 1916, psychic researchers were investigating the curious phenomenon of Chaplin’s simultaneous paging in over eight hundred hotels across the country. When The Gold Rush was released in England in 1925, the BBC broadcast ten solid minutes of audience laughter from the première. When the same film opened in Berlin one sequence—the famous dance of the rolls—was so wildly received that the scene was run back and played again, a perhaps unique instance of a cinematic encore. As an inspired Chicago reporter wrote in 1914: “You can’t keep your eyes off his feet. Those big shoes are buttoned with 50,000,000 eyes.”

Chaplin’s spectacular success even managed to avoid critical backlash. He proved himself capable of disarming not only reviewers but also inhabitants of the more rarefied cultural spheres, an exceptional achievement given that, at the time, numerous intellectuals (Mencken, for example) considered it a point of honor never to have attended a movie. But Chaplin was taken seriously at a very early point, especially in the more liberal journals, as The New Republic was then. Before long, an excess of solemnity crept into the appreciation. Heywood Broun’s satirical review of The Rink (1916) (“Was it in ‘Menschliches, Allzumenschliches’ or in ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ that the sage declared it was comic to kick, but never to be kicked?”) was evidently taken seriously by a portion of the readership, and set the tone for a certain kind of Charlolatry across the decades.

This enthusiasm for Chaplin among the more self-conscious devotees of art has much to do with his introduction of pathos to the gag comedy. This was his single least modern trait. He had brought it with him from the London theater and stood it in opposition to the mechanical speed of his contemporaries. Of course, Chaplin was never merely sentimental. The pathos has a real context: the misery of flophouses, prisons, pawnshops, tarpaper shacks, steerage berths, and bread lines. This realism creates occasions for humor that are harsh and even cruel. Even so, the humor does not completely depend on the humiliation of the subject, as it sometimes does in Harry Langdon’s and Harold Lloyd’s films. Many of Chaplin’s later films (especially The Kid and City Lights) are essentially melodramas in which Charlie is both the hero and the fool, each role setting the other in greater relief. This strategy proved so influential that in 1925 Edmund Wilson warned that “if the movie comedians continue in their present policy of playing for tears instead of laughs, they may, not excluding Chaplin, merely succeed in becoming maudlin.”3 That is, in fact, how Chaplin is viewed by many people today, in contrast to Buster Keaton who with his noble impassivity appears more rigorously modern.

Nevertheless, there is no arguing the fact that Chaplin was an innovator. His use of old theatrical forms helped ease his audience’s acquaintance with the sophistication of the cinema. One of the valuable services rendered by Robinson is his exposition of Chaplin’s extraordinary working methods. In this regard, the book should ideally be read in conjunction with a viewing of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s four-part television series, The Unknown Chaplin.4 Brownlow and Gill found odds and ends of outtakes and working footage, from films produced by Mutual, and assembled them to reconstruct the shooting process.

The films, seamless in their finished versions, are shown to be assembled detail by detail, and with an advanced understanding of the plasticity of the medium. As early as 1916, in Behind the Screen, Chaplin was shooting effects in reverse, which explains the axe casually dropped a centimeter in front of his foot and the hat that seems magnetically drawn to his fingertips. More importantly, Brownlow and Gill demonstrate that, whereas many film makers work like artillery commanders, Chaplin worked like a poet. He would begin with an image, and commission a set. The set was milked for gag possibilities; the gags were altered, revised, picked apart until they worked; the end of one joke would lead to another, and eventually to a plot. Along the way, characters would appearand be cast intuitively. The casting might prove ill-considered, and all the scenes would then be reshot with a different actor. Thus a film would take shape organically on a set that became a notebook. Chaplin had the money and the work force to jot down every passing notion on film.

His shooting ratios were unbelievable, even by the standards of present-day Hollywood, where three or four camera set-ups routinely cover even minor scenes. Brownlow and Gill document The Immigrant (1917), which began as a restaurant gag. Charlie cannot pay for a meal, but cannot help ordering anyway. He observes similarly penniless guests being beaten by the management. Dozens of takes pass. A brutal waiter’s part is cast, cast again, and then again. Edna Purviance, who was Chaplin’s leading lady for nearly ten years, figures in the plot with increasing importance as another destitute would-be diner. Dozens of takes later she is sharing Charlie’s peas. Then Chaplin decides to give the two characters a past life, as immigrants in steerage, and the story assumes its final form, but not until thousands of feet of film have been shot and discarded. Eventually the restaurant scenes are all retaken to fit the new story, which achieves the finished length of a mere 1,809 feet, a two-reeler.

Among Brownlow and Gill’s finds are large ideas and entire sequences dropped from films in progress, even the skeleton of an unfinished work, The Professor (1919), which would have followed the adventures of a flea-circus proprietor. The gag evidently failed to generate a plot, but Chaplin kept trying to insert it into other works, eventually succeeding in Limelight (1952). Chaplin continued this seemingly haphazard process throughout his career. The statistics assembled by Robinson tell the tale: City Lights (1931) took more than three years between the first shot and the last, with 504 idle days. It was begun in the twilight of the silent cinema and completed when talkies were firmly entrenched. A staggering 477,440 feet were shot on The Great Dictator (1940), for a shooting ratio of forty-one to one in the final version, while The Kid (1920) clocked in at fifty-three to one.

What is significant about these numbers is that they represent the stops and starts of story construction; Chaplin’s own performances were never in doubt. Only one brief shot in Brownlow and Gill’s assemblage shows Chaplin falling out of character to react angrily as the director. Even as his mind is occupied with finding the shape of the movie, his body is comfortably dwelling within its premises from the first take.

Chaplin’s antics were not necessarily new. Antecedents have been found for the famous walk, and his method of rounding corners with a leg upraised, as if banked, was a London stage standard born out of the need to convey velocity on a platform of small dimensions. But Chaplin was, as W.C. Fields barked, “a goddam ballet dancer,” with a delicacy and precision of motion and an acrobatic effortlessness on the brink of mayhem. Charlie, like all the best clowns, raises awkwardness to a level of grace that makes efficiency appear leaden. Chaplin could stage Swan Lake for a corps of enormous washerwomen, as he did in a discarded sequence of Behind the Screen, and have it achieve humor without approaching ridicule. Charlie is above all dignified, can bring the most exquisite manners to the ingestion of his shoe (The Gold Rush), can be easily mistaken for a patrician by the blind girl (City Lights), but it is no mere bourgeois dignity. That is, it is not a matter of keeping up appearances, it is a matter of respecting the proper weight of the really important things, like food and love. Otherwise, when he is temporarily free from oppression, he is airborne.

It is in this context that Chaplin must be accorded his place as a political artist. Audiences loved Charlie for never being the mere butt of jokes, for conveying more nobility than his oppressors. Nevertheless, he is not a revolutionist, except inadvertently, as in Modern Times, when he picks up a red warning flag and the crowd of strikers, rounding a corner, falls in behind him. Roland Barthes observed that Chaplin’s power lay in his drawing the line at that point, the poor not yet become proletarian: “To see someone not seeing is the best way to see intensely what he does not see.”5

Chaplin became interested in the ideas of the left as part of his self-education. He associated in the 1920s with a bohemian crowd in Greenwich Village, including Max Eastman and others of The Masses, and in 1922 he gave a reception in Los Angeles for William Z. Foster, which prompted the FBI to begin a file on him. This file grew steadily fatter over the years, fueled mostly by rumors. One of the most persistent held that Chaplin was Jewish. Who’s Who in American Jewry had somehow decided that Chaplin was descended from a family named Thonstein, and the FBI refined this intelligence by inventing an alias for him: “Israel Thonstein.” Robinson traces the Chaplin line two hundred years back through three Shadrachs, one Meshach, and one Abednego, all resolutely Anglo-Saxon, but Chaplin’s beloved half-brother Sydney may, indeed, have been half-Jewish. In any case, Chaplin made it a point never to deny attributions of Jewishness to himself, as it would “play into the hands of the anti-Semites.”

He kept this in mind when he made The Great Dictator, in which he cast himself in a dual role, as a Jewish barber and as Adenoid Hynkel, ruler of Ptomania. Nowadays the picture might seem timid or even irresponsible for the relatively light way in which it treats the persecution of the Jews. It was, however, made at a time when few artists had considered the matter at all, especially in America. The fact that it was issued more than a year before the United States went to war made it something of a diplomatic embarrassment, and added further heft to the FBI dossier. The fortuitous resemblance between Charlie and Hitler allowed Chaplin to close his tramp’s career in a significant way. Charlie had formerly received the world’s events as part of the crowd, or stuck on its margin. Now history was forcing him to the front line. Hynkel is a Charlie who has lost his soul but retained his tics, and his dance with the globe is a sublime expression of perverted Charlieness. It applies the longing of Charlie’s dance with the nymphs in Sunnyside (1919) to a coquettish and rapturous megalomania. The narcissistic demon-Charlie is mirrored by the angel-Charlie, inadvertently heroic, who performs a dance of service, shaving Chester Conklin to the “Hungarian Rhapsody.”

At the end of the film, Hynkel and the barber having been mistaken for each other, the former is imprisoned and the latter is led to the podium of a mass rally. His six-minute speech, although an expression of trite humanistic sentiments (“We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity.”) is nevertheless effective. Up to now the barber has said little more than his ancestor the tramp ever did. Now it is as though the accumulated outrage of kickings and brainings has boiled up to create a will. Although this is a situation not unlike Hitler’s, the will is the barber’s. It is not satisfied with merely evening the score; it triumphs by renouncing power.

The 1940s were a difficult period for Chaplin. His speeches on behalf of Russian War Relief enraged the enemies who had been baiting him as a Red since 1919. They found a weapon in 1943, when an insane young actress named Joan Barry pressed Chaplin with a paternity suit. Chaplin had had an unfortunate career of domestic disputes, beginning with his 1918 shotgun wedding to the sixteen-year-old Mildred Harris, and their subsequent divorce, a tangled legal mess in which Harris served as a puppet for the financiers of The Kid. Joan Barry had been keeping company with J. Paul Getty, among others, and a blood test quickly proved her claim on Chaplin to be groundless. However, blood tests were then inadmissible under California law and the case (which included Mann Act charges as well) dragged on for two years, fueled by Hedda Hopper’s propaganda and encouraged, as Robinson documents, by the FBI. By this time Chaplin had married his fourth wife, Oona O’Neill, who was to be the mother of the younger eight of his ten children. The House Un-American Activities Committee pursued him, and then decided they could not prove membership in the Communist party, although they kept him in the Security Index.

Around this time Monsieur Verdoux opened and, pilloried by reviewers, quickly closed. Chaplin’s elegant serio-comic Bluebeard story was not calculated for mass appeal in postwar America. Verdoux, a ruined clerk, is busy concocting a bourgeois existence by disposing of wealthy widows. He is as dextrous with bank notes as Charlie might be; he practices the same sort of exalted manners, only for him they are a weapon, and his murderousness is of a piece with his respectability. Verdoux is agile enough, but the irony weighs a ton, especially that of his defense (he only killed in the dozens; war profiteers killed millions). Limelight, which appeared six years later, was a sentimental return to the London vaudeville stage of Chaplin’s youth. Its sweet mixture of intelligence and corn made it the appropriate twilight-years gesture. Chaplin’s aging clown passes the baton to Claire Bloom’s young ballerina, and expires amid pageantry thick with symbols, coincidences, and harlequins. It is a perfect Sunday afternoon family picture, but this did not prevent ad hominem considerations from darkening the picture’s American reception. Chaplin left with his family for European premières; once abroad, he was denied a reentry permit.

The legality of this Immigration and Naturalization edict was murky at best, apparently centering on the fact that Chaplin had never bothered to take out citizenship papers. The family established itself in Switzerland, where it remained in splendor. Chaplin attempted a retort in 1957 with the rather feeble A King in New York. Despite a touching subplot featuring Chaplin’s son Michael as the child of HUAC targets, the movie wanders in a bewildered way through American materialism of the period with its satiric intention dangling uselessly. It is telling that Chaplin should have cast himself as a deposed monarch. By this time he had gone so far from his humble origins that he could actually write in his autobiography, of a visit to Shakespeare’s cottage:

I can by no means associate the Bard with it; that such a mind ever dwelt or had its beginnings there seems incredible…. And after seeing the cottage and hearing the scant bits of local information concerning his desultory boyhood, his indifferent school record…I cannot believe he went through such a mental metamorphosis as to become the greatest of all poets.

It is difficult to decide what combination of humility, forgetfulness, snobbery, and regret had come to blur his mind.

Chaplin minus Charlie is formal and rather distant. In his autobiography, the voice seems to age, chapter by chapter, so that the most recent memories are the dimmest and the protagonist is gradually eclipsed by his surroundings. David Robinson’s stupendously thorough biography leaves a similar impression: in the midst of all the detail and documentation, the central character keeps his reserve. The friends and colleagues who testify describe him in paradoxes. The novelist Thomas Burke, for example, wrote: “He shrinks from the limelight, but misses it if it isn’t turned upon him. He is intensely shy, yet loves to be the centre of attention. A born solitary, he knows the fascination of the crowd.” Robinson scrupulously respects Chaplin’s privacy, and refuses to psychoanalyze him. This will not satisfy personality cultists, but it makes his book all the more authoritative, free from perishable speculation. Chaplin enjoyed and suffered an enormously rich and complicated public life. The inner workings he passed along to Charlie.

Thus Chaplin could become a seigneur and knock about with crowned heads, leaving Charlie free to run loose. Whatever combination of circumstances caused Chaplin to stop playing Charlie, it came in time to prevent the tramp from aging. Charlie is a guttersnipe and an anarchist; only his costume and a few tics can be pressed into service for advertising or homilies. The wind of creative disorder that surges through the films can never be packaged or subdued. Charlie’s growling stomach, aching feet, and empty pockets will not become outdated soon. He is always three paces ahead of the cops, whoever they are.

  1. 1

    My Autobiography (Simon and Schuster, 1964). 

  2. 2

    “Comedy’s Greatest Era” in Agee on Film, Vol. 1 (Perigee Books, 1983). 

  3. 3

    “Chaplin and his Comic Rivals” in The American Earthquake (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979). 

  4. 4

    Thames Television, London, 1983. 

  5. 5

    Mythologies (Paris: Le Seuil, 1957).