Perseverance to the Point of Madness

Charlie Chaplin and His Times

by Kenneth S. Lynn
Simon and Schuster, 604 pp., $35.00


Charles Chaplin died in Switzerland in the early hours of Christmas Day, 1977. Just over two months later, the coffin containing his corpse was stolen from a cemetery in Vevey. The goal of the body snatchers, it turned out, was to make money rather than provide a metaphor for Chaplin’s art and life, but they were more successful in the second project than they were in the first. At the end of Modern Times (1936), Chaplin as the tramp, accompanied by Paulette Goddard as one of the cinema’s most engaging and implausible waifs, walks away from the camera down a road which has since been endlessly reproduced in films.

Disappearance was his mode, the body no longer where you thought it was, whether he was escaping from a cop or a bully in his early silent comedies, or hiding from Martha Raye in a greenhouse in Monsieur Verdoux (1947). “The image of his empty gravesite,” Kenneth S. Lynn says at the beginning of his new biography, “came to symbolize his historic elusiveness, as a person no less than as a performer, and the difficulties he presents to the biographer of pinning him down.” Joyce Milton, in her biography, Tramp, comments rather more loosely, “In a way it seemed fitting that even Chaplin’s passing…was marked by mayhem, mystery, and controversy.” Writing in this paper in 1964, F.W. Dupee movingly connected the idea of disappearance with an earlier moment in Chaplin’s life, and with Chaplin as the eluded rather than the eluder.

His childhood was the scene, not of poverty and neglect alone, but of a more inclusive kind of distress. People and places were constantly disappearing. Some of them turned up again and again. But would they turn up the next time? Life was a perpetual vanishing act. Or wasn’t it?

The problem for Chaplin’s biographers, and indeed one of Chaplin’s own problems, was that he outlived his great films by quite a while, but couldn’t stay out of the political and legal limelight. He was born in London in 1889. His father, a music hall singer, was not at home at the time, and not much at home at any time. He seems to have left Hannah Chaplin, the boy’s mother, before the child was two, and saw his son only rarely thereafter. He died in 1901. Meanwhile Hannah Chaplin, possibly aided by a series of men friends, had been looking after Charles and his older brother, Sydney, but she was becoming increasingly unstable, and one day in 1903, after talking to a lot of dead and imaginary people, she declared that the floor of an infirmary room was the River Jordan and she could not cross it. She was certified insane, and after that spent much of her life in institutions for the mentally ill. “Vaguely I felt,” Chaplin wrote, “that she had deliberately escaped from her mind and deserted us.” A double disappearance: from her mind and from them. Chaplin and his brother had…

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