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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.