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.
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 …