For many years the most famous man in the world, Chaplin was always ready to throw a spanner in the works of capitalism. His new biographer disapproves, but does a thorough job ofchronicling the star's incident-filled life, says Robin Buss
The problem with Charlie Chaplin's life, as Richard Attenborough discovered in his 1992 film biography, is that there is just too much to tell. The story of the East End waif who went to America and became a star would make a film in itself, but it would cover only the first 25 years. There were more than 60 left to go in the life of a leading film-maker, notorious womaniser, political activist, family man - and leading icon of 20th century culture.
It is far easier to encompass all this in a book than on film, and Kenneth Lynn manages to combine the aspects of Chaplin's life, his personality and the significance of his work, albeit occasionally at the frantic pace of a Keystone comedy. Yet one of Chaplin's great achievements was to slow the pace of those mindless early films, taking time to develop situation and character.
Of course, this account records periods of calm or relative inactivity: the last 25 years occupy only 70 pages, while the London childhood, about which little is known for certain, takes up one-sixth of the whole. Poverty, the music hall and madness (Chaplin's mother, Hannah, suffered from schizophrenia) are the central realities of this childhood. They make a wonderful, melodramatic story, culminating in triumph.
Chaplin's fame was almost immediate and quite unprecedented, not only because of the money he made ($1 million a year by 1917, when he joined First National after just three years in films) but also because of his impact as a screen presence. Everywhere, people imitated his appearance, his walk, his mannerisms; they felt that they knew and loved him.
Silent cinema presented no language barriers. Until the coming of sound, the little tramp with the cane and bowler was the most famous man in the world. French audiences, for example, knew him as Charlot and were hardly aware that he belonged to another culture. The character had his origins in music hall and popular theatre, as well as in the films of the French comic Max Linder - a debt that, according to Lynn, Chaplin was reluctant to acknowledge.
But the tramp was also a figure drawn from life. In this persona, Chaplin suggested the opposite of his own rags-to-riches success. Like Dickens's "shabby genteel" folk, the little man is clinging to better times on his way down.
We first meet him on a dusty road in the 1915 film, The Tramp. Each time he is bowled over by a passing car, he carefully dusts off his coat in a futile effort to look respectable. The tramp never loses his self-respect - on the contrary, he may well end up getting the girl. And, since the humour often depends on visual puns or mistaken analogies (opening an alarm clock as though it were a can of beans, for example, in The Pawnbroker), his efforts to keep up appearances take on a surreal dimension.
This happens most famously in The Gold Rush, in which the starving Chaplin cooks a leather boot and serves it to himself and his fellow prospector like a waiter in a smart restaurant. The surreal element helped critics find a more profound significance in Chaplin's work. Vladimir and Estragon, the tramps in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, are among the many cousins of shabby, bewildered Charlot. The poet Jean Cocteau called him "the surveyor of Kafka's Castle". Others read the tramp's efforts to maintain social status as symbolic of mankind's futile attempt to preserve order in an absurd universe, and compared his creator to Shakespeare or Moliere.
Later, Chaplin turned increasingly to direct social or political comment, especially in Modern Times and The Great Dictator. Many fans who continued to enjoy the silent films in the news theatres or at the children's matinees of the 1950s were bewildered by the sentimentality and preaching that increasingly marked the sound films.
Chaplin himself preferred silent cinema, though for different reasons. His need for control comes over emphatically in this biography. From the moment he left Keystone in 1915, he had more say over his work than any other cinema artist: he became his own director, producer, scriptwriter and even, in Limelight, his own composer. Accounts by other actors of his directing style all stress his passion for detail and his desire to manage what they were doing.
He was an authoritarian father, his treatment of women was not always flawless and he sometimes failed to give credit to collaborators. Lynn adopts a censorious tone over these last instances of egotism in particular, and one feels that he has a strong, if unspoken, disapproval of Chaplin's left-wing politics.
He takes the view that the later films demonstrate Chaplin's "primitive command of the mechanics of telling a story" and his "egotistical refusal to acknowledge his limitations in this respect". Yet what he really dislikes about the black comedy Monsieur Verdoux - the film that gives rise to these remarks - is its hostility to capitalism and the shifting of the moral centre from "the helpless figure" to "the person who loves the helpless figure": that is, Chaplin himself. There is more than this (and more than left-wing polemic) to a complex and ironic film, considered Chaplin's best by Cocteau and many others in France.
Chaplin was certainly an egotist and control freak, but these were surely aspects of his compulsion to express himself and to exorcise his demons, particularly those that reached back to his terrible childhood. Like Dickens, he lacked both formal education and an ability to stay within the bounds of decorous taste. His impassioned speech at the end of The Great Dictator (1940) is embarrassing, but a good deal less so than the silence of many others on Nazi atrocities.
Chaplin's star has faded in the 21 years since his death, but it will rise again. In the meantime, this is a convenient account of a truly remarkable life.