Charlie Chaplin by Peter Ackroyd
|Charlie Chaplin by Peter Ackroyd
|Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
|Summary: A concise biography of the man who was the first icon of the silver screen, and who attracted controversy throughout much of his long life and career.
|Date: April 2015
Charlie Chaplin dominated the formative years of the cinema, as actor and director, like no other. As we are told in an early chapter of this book, on his first visit to America in 1910, he is alleged to have shouted, ‘I am coming to conquer you. Every man woman and child shall have my name on their lips!’ Within a few years he had indeed conquered the entire movie-going world.
While there have been several more comprehensive biographies of Chaplin, this concise account sums up his lengthy life and career very well, providing more or less everything the casual enthusiast needs to know about their hero. Ackroyd has long been recognised as one of the major authors in English on anything to do with London, and he is therefore an appropriate choice for telling the story of one of the most famous men ever to be born and bred in the shabby, poverty-stricken south of the city during the late Victorian era.
I was already vaguely aware that his childhood had not been a happy one. Here it is, painted in all its colours of misery, the son of a frequently absent hard-drinking father and a mother who could not care for them properly but who had a succession of lovers, resorted to prostitution from time to time, and who was probably suffering from syphilis and insanity. As he later told a reporter, his childhood ended at the age of seven when he was ‘incarcerated’ in an orphanage – which was probably marginally more comfortable than having to sleep on park benches, of which he had already had some experience. Perhaps no less significantly, throughout his life the four-times-married star rarely if ever really trusted women.
It was fortunate for him that early in life he discovered the innate gift he had for entertaining people. When times were really bad, what little food he ate was bought with the pennies he earned by dancing on street corners and then passing the hat around. At the age of nine, he began touring the country with the Lancashire Lads, a troupe of clog dancers. Twelve years later he was part of Fred Karno’s show, touring America, and four years after that he was earning a tidy $1,000 a week as a film star, a rags to riches story indeed. Ackroyd’s claim that by this time he was the most famous man in the world might be a little exaggerated, but it is not far off the truth.
As an actor and director, Chaplin always paid meticulous attention to detail. If he was hard on himself, he was even harder on those who worked with him. He knew exactly what he wanted, and would hire and fire at will. There were affairs with several young and sometimes underage women, resulting in three joyless marriages and three bitter divorces. His fourth marriage, to Oona O’Neill, thirty-six years his junior, lasted for the rest of his life and brought them eight children, but it is discreetly hinted that she too feared him at times and developed a drink problem. Throughout his life he was furiously anti-authority, both in his films and in real life. Even when he was one of the richest men in the world, he still seemed haunted by the poverty of his childhood and feared that it could all slip away in an instant. One of his last films, ‘Monsieur Verdoux’, was a black comedy about a serial murderer, loosely based on the real life killer, Henri Landru. It received a mixed reception at the time, and if released today it would probably be universally condemned on the grounds of bad taste and wilful misogyny.
The impression is of a man who was successful, hard-working, very driven, yet never really happy. As the tragic fate of Tony Hancock proved, great funny men are not always contented people. There was always a dark side to his comedy, whether he was portraying the tramp, the almost penniless underdog, or the role of ‘Adenoid Hynkel’ in ‘The Great Dictator’, his satire on Hitler. It was uncanny that both men should have had so much in common, from having been born within four days of each other, to having drunken fathers, and even having much the same moustache. As Ackroyd suggests, in this the German leader may have actually been imitating the great screen idol.
Chaplin evidently cared nothing for his public reputation. It was just as well, for although he was universally loved and respected for his work, his scandalous private life brought him paternity suits in the courts, and his statements of solidarity with Soviet Russia made him a marked man during the McCarthy era of witch hunts against communist sympathisers. While on a visit to Europe he was barred from re-entering America again except on conditions which could have led to his being indicted on charges of perjury, and he spent the rest of his life in comfortable exile in Switzerland. Increasingly irascible and frail, he only made rare visits outside the country for the last twenty-five years of his life. Ironically, the man who has spent so much of his life railing against authority eventually accepted a British knighthood.
Ackroyd tells the absorbing yet often sad tale very well. It left me with a sense of admiration for the man’s genius, yet great men are not always very pleasant people to know, and by no stretch of the imagination could he be called a likeable figure. To say I enjoyed it is perhaps an exaggeration. Yet as a fairly short life of one of the greatest figure in his field, still revered today for his achievements, it is a compelling read.
For more on the cinema from early years to the present, may we also recommend In Glorious Technicolor: A Century of Film and How it has Shaped Us by Francine Stock.
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