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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

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.

  1. 1

    My Autobiography (Simon and Schuster, 1964).

  2. 2

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

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