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The Romance of Charles Chaplin

My Autobiography

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

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.

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