Playing the underdog
A new biography of Charlie Chaplin, who died on Christmas Day 1977, looks at his turbulent life and artistic genius.
Lenin reputedly once said that Charlie Chaplin was "the only man in the world that I want to meet", according to Peter Ackroyd, the latest biographer of the star of early movies. Lenin wasn’t the only one. In 1915, aged just 26 years old, Chaplin was "the most famous man in the world", Ackroyd writes.
The reason for this unheralded success in the new mass entertainment medium was Chaplin’s most famous on-screen character, the ‘Little Fellow’ or the ‘Tramp’. A loveable rogue who cocked a snook at authority, he was hugely popular with working-class audiences. "An irrepressible optimism and jauntiness in ‘the cruel, cruel world’. He is infinitely expressive, with almost every conceivable human emotion passing over his face in quicksilver rapidity. He can be both coy and malevolent, for example, at the same time. He is shabby and plaintive, but unbowed; he is endlessly resourceful and adaptable; he is always being impeded but never defeated; he is bowed but not broken", writes Ackroyd.
Chaplin made dozens of films but today is chiefly remembered for silent screen classics like The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931), and later ‘talkies’ like Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). Yet, by the 1950s, Chaplin was a pariah in his adopted Hollywood and exiled from the United States – the victim of cold war anti-communist paranoia and persecution.
Born in 1889, Chaplin grew up in south London slum poverty. His stepfather, a music hall artist, was soon absent and later drunk himself to death. His mother, a singer, desperately tried to make ends meet, and suffered mental decline, spending time in institutions. On occasions, Charlie and his brother stayed with relatives, slept on park benches or were forced into workhouses. He got money for food by dancing on street corners. This led to his first professional roles. At nine he toured with the Eight Lancashire Lads clog dancers. He went on to share the bill with the comedian, Dan Leno. Chaplin emulated Leno’s stage persona, painting his face white, wearing baggy trousers and large shoes, and became world famous as the Little Tramp.
At 21, Chaplin went to America with Fred Karno’s touring show (Stan Laurel was another of the troupe). Under Karno’s mentoring, Chaplin showed his amazing talent for physical comedy. He played Chaplin the Inebriate, which he based on his stepfather. He joined Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio in California when they needed a quick replacement. Within months, Chaplin was the biggest star for the studio most remembered for its taking down of authority by the clownish antics of the Keystone Cops.
The frenetic pace of work – Sennett made three films a week – was enthusiastically adopted by Chaplin, a perfectionist, when he left to direct his own films. Much to the frustration of his fellow actors, he would reshoot scenes many times, even rebuilding sets, until satisfied with the outcome. Manically writing, directing and even writing scores for his movies, Chaplin was driven by character, plot, action and narrative.
His second film, Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), introduced the character of the Little Tramp to cinema audiences, an instant and outstanding success. "A working-class hero battling against the rich and privileged", Ackroyd writes. In subsequent movies, the Tramp, beset by ignominies and failures, nevertheless ends up jauntily walking away, giving his audiences hope. During his formative film years, Chaplin dealt bravely with many raw and often controversial subjects, from the horrors of the first world war trenches to the plight of immigrants, with wit and empathy.
Chaplin’s appeal went well beyond cinema. Visiting New York in the early 1920s, he "became acquainted with a group of soi-disant [self-styled] socialist intellectuals… he talked politics and art and literature". Chaplin’s politics found more overt expression in the 1930s, during the great depression and the rise of fascism.
Modern Times brilliantly captures the alienation and exploitation of the industrialised workplace. Chaplin’s character is literally caught up in factory wheels and cogs. Unable to bear the production rate of the factory anymore, Chaplin’s character has a breakdown and goes from hospital to prison, to the misery of unemployment. In another iconic scene, he stumbles to the front of an angry street demonstration, and accidently finds himself at the head of striking workers. In The Great Dictator, Chaplin unsparingly satirizes Hitler. This was a brave decision given the supine attitude of much of the ruling elite and Hollywood moguls towards the Nazi regime at that time.
Ackroyd argues that Chaplin’s troubled childhood meant he was hugely ambitious, even ruthless, and possessed of huge energy. Despite his great fame and wealth, fears of plummeting back into poverty and succumbing to his mother’s mental health problems always battled within Chaplin. His relations with women were difficult and volatile, with two short-lived marriages. He faced public scandal and censure when his wife, Joan Barry, took Chaplin to court over his relationship with 17-year-old Oona O’Neill (playwright Eugene O’Neill’s daughter).
In the atmosphere of the cold war, the American political right exploited Chaplin’s personal life and ‘morals’, and his left-wing politics, to undermine him. In 1947 he was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, led by the arch-anti-communist, Senator Joseph McCarthy. Chaplin was attacked for supporting the Soviet Union against Nazism during the second world war.
To his discredit, Chaplin justified Stalin’s "wonderful" purges, claiming they "did away with Quislings and Lavals" (Nazi-collaborationist politicians in Norway and the Vichy regime in France during the war). But the purges and show trials were initially aimed against the Old Bolsheviks, and in particular Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition, who fought for workers’ democracy in the Soviet Union.
Ackroyd quotes Chaplin’s friends saying the actor was a ‘parlour pink’, who was "ready to assume socialist convictions without any attempt to carry them out". Ackroyd asserts it is "better to say that he was a libertarian with tendencies towards anarchism". Chaplin did "possess an angry instinct against injustice and oppression: all his life he fought against authoritarian control and domination".
As a result of McCarthy’s witch-hunt over 300 people were blacklisted from working in the Hollywood studios. Chaplin was not blacklisted directly but, while he was sailing to London for a visit in 1952, he was informed that his re-entry visa to the USA had been revoked. Chaplin lived the rest of his life in exile, mainly in Switzerland, and died on Christmas day 1977.
Chaplin’s enduring hold on the popular imagination accounts for the estimated 200 books on his life and work. Although Peter Ackroyd’s compact biography cannot plumb the depths of his subject, it is an unsparing, perceptive account of the brilliant artistry and life of Chaplin, and his greatest creation, the Little Tramp, with whom the masses identified and empathised.