Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life
By Peter Ackroyd
Nan A. Talese, 304 pages

There is a lot to be said for short biographies. Plutarch tabulated the achievements and misfortunes of famous Greeks and Romans in a few thousand durable words. Modern biographers often grow fat on commissions, and so do their books. Bucking the tide, Peter Ackroyd delivers a synopsized Chaplin to whom he seems increasingly eager to say goodbye. Little grace or imagination is at work here. One hurried old story after another reveals Chaplin to have been a smug, petulant, sentimental, self-pitying, lecherous, hard-hearted tightwad. Our author sums up his attitude toward his subject by dismissing Chaplin’s obsessively rehearsed perfectionism thus: “Great art may lie in the concealment of art.”

Charlie Chaplin was indeed, as the British used to say, a “bit of a Charlie”; meaning that he did not speak the King’s English. The silent screen would supply his perfect mouthpiece. His insecurity came of being born, in April 1889, south of London’s river Thames, in Kennington, an unfavored borough his savvy biographer designates as “frowsy.” Chaplin’s mother, Hannah, was no better than she had to be, or than she could afford to be: Born into squalor, she went “on the boards,” in cheap music halls, as a young girl. She may have been married to Mr. Charles Chaplin at the time of Charlie’s birth, but her (second) son said later, “I don’t know, actually, who my father was.” Hannah distributed her favors widely, whether from appetite or in return for a shilling or two.

Chaplin wrote, in My Autobiography, “to gauge the morals of our family by commonplace standards would be as erroneous as putting a thermometer in hot water.” The phrase has the ponderous elegance of the bourgeois gentleman the world’s most famous Little Man (he was no taller than 5’6″) had become in fretful old age. Retired in Vevey, Switzerland, with his money and his devoted “last attachment” Oona, he acted the happy family man with their often less happy children. The last Hollywood tribute of an honorary Oscar in 1972 brought tears to his eyes and the audience to their feet, but it never erased his bitterness at how the world’s most famous tramp had been given the bum’s rush from the United States 20 years earlier when the British citizen’s re-entry permit to the United States was revoked by Eisenhower’s attorney general because of Chaplin’s political views and activities.

Ackroyd wants Chaplin to be the archetype of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, although even Mildred Harris, Charlie’s earliest teenage darling, was several years older than the prepubescent Lolita. And yet for all his faults, Chaplin was, at his zenith, “the most famous man in the world.” He also happened to be a cinematic genius. As with that other balletic perfectionist Fred Astaire, spontaneity came after weeks of unrelenting rehearsal. Chaplin asked more of himself than he did of others.

In Touch of Evil, Marlene Dietrich said of Orson Welles’s overweight and bent detective that he was “some kind of a man.” Chaplin was often accused of being, among other unattractive things, some kind of a Jew. Why else, people wondered, in the years before the Japanese brought the U.S. into the war against Germany, would anyone have volunteered to makes waves by denouncing Adolf Hitler and used his own money to do it? Although Ackroyd does not mention the topic, Chaplin denied being a Jew in defiant terms: He did not, he said, “have that honor.” Charles Lindbergh, another world-renowned man of the same period, would never have said the same, nor would anyone else much. Chaplin’s Jewishness was purely metaphorical, but he was indeed a wanderer, an arriviste, and, eventually, a pariah.

The Little Man who, in Modern Times (1936), finds himself, purely by chance, carrying a red flag at the head of a political demonstration, perfectly anticipated the real-life Chaplin—naive enough to side with The Workers. In 1931, the ill-favored Cockney kid had returned to England, in triumph, dined with Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, stayed with Winston Churchill (who flirted with Hollywood in his time), and “discussed politics” with Maynard Keynes and George Bernard Shaw. There’s a dialogue for some smartass to reconstitute: Who made whom laugh, we should like to know, and what at?

Despite his deprived childhood, little Charlie had a priceless education: He watched and learned to work with the music-hall comics and hoofers whose only way out of penury was through winning the laughter and applause of their audiences. The director Konstantin Stanislavsky remarked that “the theater is a second home”; for young Chaplin, it was often the only one. His older brother Sydney introduced him to Fred Karno’s troupe of knockabout mime artists and acrobats.

In 1910, Karno took his company on tour in the United States. The silent cinema was supplying a common, wordless language to a society of multilingual immigrants. Chaplin learned its tricks by watching D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation again and again. His genius for mime and mimicry enabled him to turn black-and-white flickers into a transcendental, universal language. Long before John Lennon made the same claim for the Beatles, Chaplin asserted, with justice, that he was known where no one had heard of Jesus Christ. Fame went, understandably, to his head (and other parts). By the outbreak of the Great War, his appearance on the screen in Nigeria was greeted with “Charlee!” As Ackroyd puts it, the little tramp “seemed to epitomize the human condition itself, flawed, frail, and sunny.” Or something like that.

Like a great gymnast, Charlie had the gift of balance and timing. Instinct and hard work made him a master of the new art of photographed, framed performance. As a director, he kept his instructions very practical. He told Dawn Addams, while shooting the ill-fated A King in New York (1957), above all to keep her head still. “Remember to be definite,” he told her. “Moving your head is indefinite. Only make a move when it means something.” This economy of means derives from the dance and its parody, slapstick. Chaplin also said, rightly, that no movie was ever good because it was technically flawless.

Oddly, Ackroyd insists on a connection between slapstick and the homoerotic: “The male bottom, for example, receives more attention [in Chaplin’s early short movies] than any portion of the human anatomy in a succession of kicks and thrusts. This adds to the homoerotic nature of much of Chaplin’s comedy, although its sexual nature is effectively concealed.” How then can we be so sure that it is there? Apparently because “all popular comedy, from the commedia dell’arte to the modern pantomime is homoerotic.” The English pantomime, which is now only a seasonal folkloric relic, does feature a “dame” who is manifestly a male comic in drag, and a “principal boy” who is in fact a girl, but its audience is largely of children. It may contain an element of “camp,” but to term it “homoerotic” is more wishful than accurate.

Chaplin has rarely, if ever, been accused of anything other than often criminally unbridled heterosexuality. Even in that department, Ackroyd chooses dated, accusatory language, as when he alleges, twice, that Charlie “seduced” Rebecca West. I knew the lady only in her old age, when she lamented that her legs were no longer shapely. “But then,” she said, “who looks at the legs of a woman of 80?” When she met Chaplin in Hollywood, Rebecca was no shy maiden. She had more than somewhat solicited a notorious affair with H.G. Wells and, we may depend upon it, had a knowledgeable appetite for A-list lovers. Celebrities have long had a habit of bedding one another for the mutual satisfaction of their vanities.

The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s 1940 tale of a Jewish barber who is the spitting image of a barely fictionally disguised Hitler (and his first talking picture), was made against the advice of all the Hollywood studio heads, almost all of them Jews. It was not flawless, but it probably did more to alert the world to Hitler’s grotesque megalomania than any number of solemn denunciations. The last speech in the picture, when Chaplin “takes off his mask and speaks for himself was,” Ackroyd opines, “perhaps an artistic mistake; he declares for example that ‘the hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people.’” Abraham Lincoln might have found no great fault in this echo of his own sentiments, but Ackroyd concludes, with false majesty: “No film should end with a magniloquent rehearsal of what were essentially conventional sentiments.”

Since there are no specific notes, I cannot say what source authorizes this statement: “Hitler himself saw The Great Dictator. An official from the film division of the German Ministry of Culture told Chaplin, after the war, that the Führer ‘insisted on seeing the film—alone. The next night, he saw the film again, and once more alone.’” Ackroyd leaves it at that; but imagine (as a great actor might) what expression Hitler wore as he watched “himself” as a clown of genius turn bully-boy brutality into slapstick (would it had been so!) and anti-Semitic rant into hilarious gobbledygook.

With what kind of a face did Adolf watch Jack Oakie’s superb parody of Adolf’s one-time model, Benito Mussolini, in the form of Benzino Napaloni? Surely the Führer had to laugh at that, even if he could not laugh at his “double” mirrored up there. The two men with silly black moustaches were, as it happened, born within a few days of each other. It says something for the egomaniac Chaplin’s artistic taste that he allowed Oakie’s scene-stealing vignette to stay in the movie at all. When did the Führer allow himself to be upstaged, even for a moment?

The story of that screening may explain a scene in the French collaborationist Jacques Benoist-Méchin’s memoirs. He tells us that Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the rabid anti-Semitic novelist whom George Steiner claims to be the greatest modern French writer, often dined at the German embassy in Paris where he amused the company with his outrageous riffs. When the war had manifestly turned against the Germans, Céline dared to say, one night, that he knew why the Führer was making so many disastrous decisions: He had been replaced by a malign Jewish dwarf. The assembled German diplomats froze in apprehensive horror. They knew very well that the waiters at their table were Gestapo agents, but Céline, once in flow, was unstoppable. Might it be that the novelist’s crazy-like-a-fox outburst was inspired by a secret viewing of Chaplin’s banned, unforgettable spoof and the puncture it inflicted on the inflated Jew-ridden verbosity with which, until then, Hitler’s posturing had mesmerized Europe? Since Charlie made it so, all the world is not so much a stage as a screen.

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