A haunting biography captures the brilliance and the blemishes of a comic who fought his way from poverty to worldwide fame
8 May 2014
"In this year, 1915," begins a chapter halfway through Peter Ackroyd's concise, compelling new biography, "Chaplin became the most famous man in the world." This fact is so extraordinary – so improbable, in the light of his origins – that it is allowed to stand alone, a paragraph in itself. Chaplin was 26 years old in 1915. He had been born into south London poverty, the offspring of an unknown father and a mother whose brief career as a singer and dancer came to an end when Charlie was a boy; from then on, until her death in an asylum in Los Angeles, her sanity came and went. Before long, the man she had been married to at the time of Charlie's birth, and whose name he bore and made immortal, dumped her, as did several subsequent paramours; when she was incapable of looking after Charlie and his brother, they stayed with relatives or lodged in the workhouse. His education was skimpy and fitful; it ended at the age of nine, when, having taught himself clog-dancing, he first took to the stage as one of the Eight Lancashire Lads, and nearly became part of a double act called Bristol and Chaplin, the Millionaire Tramps. A millionaire tramp, of course, is exactly what he would end up as. But not without having put in some serious slog on the way.
After gruelling hard work on the road and a spell as a boy actor, he signed up with the king of comedy, a tough taskmaster called Fred Karno, under whose unrelenting tutelage in the art of physical comedy his genius as a performer first fully emerged. By the age of 20 he was a star, billed as Chaplin the Inebriate – an act studied at close quarters from his stepfather. The character of the drunk, Chaplin said, possessed him; playing it, he experienced a kind of out-of-body sensation: "It was almost a psychic sort of thing." When Karno took the troupe to Paris, Debussy invited Chaplin to his box. "Monsieur Chaplin," he said, "vous êtes instinctivement un musicien et un danseur." And funny, he might have added; deeply, uproariously, side-huggingly funny. On stage, at any rate: Chaplin seems to have been no fun at all in life – morose, private, obsessed. He played his violin and his cello; he read Schopenhauer; he had sex with bad girls; and he planned ever more fantastical comedy conceptions. All along, his heart was set on world domination. "America!" he shouted as the ship berthed in Quebec for Karno's first tour there in 1910, "I am coming to conquer you. Every man woman and child shall have my name on their lips: Charles Spencer Chaplin!" Their first offering,The Wow-Wows, was a no-no, but a quick revival of their old standby A Night at an English Music Hall knocked 'em sideways, and it was Chaplin above all who shone. On their next tour, in 1913, the company manager received a life-changing telegram: "IS THERE A MAN NAMED CHAFFIN IN YOUR COMPANY OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT?" Mack Sennett of the Keystone Cops needed to replace his refractory No 1 male comedian; Chaplin never hesitated for a moment, and left the stage for good as soon as he could.
His first film was Making a Living; his second, Kid Auto Races at Venice, gave the world the character of the Little Tramp, who was an instant hit with the public from the beginning. But Chaplin was not easy to work with; his unrelenting perfectionism annoyed his directors and his fellow performers. He was already indispensable to Sennett, however, who acceded to Chaplin's demand to be allowed to direct his own films. It was then that his demon really manifested itself. He spent two, three, sometimes 10 times as much time on each film as his colleagues, and the result was double, triple, 10 times as popular with the public. His second two-reeler as a director, Caught in a Cabaret, was hailed by New York Dramatic Mirror as "the funniest picture that has ever been produced"; thereafter he produced film after film, each seeming to outstrip the other in invention and comic frenzy. Starting from the most tenuous idea, he worked at white heat, improvising, discarding unpromising ideas, refining successful ones. Chaplin was not interested in the possibilities of the camera – it was character, action and narrative that fascinated him. He was giving the cinema its foundations, its first classics, filled with poetry, pain, passion but all within the parameters of consummately achieved comedy. As Ackroyd remarks, "he, like Shakespeare, had the inestimable advantage of being an instinctive artist in the preliminary years of a new art".
Creative inspiration at this level is terrifying, a kind of divine fire; it can rarely be sustained. Chaplin constantly dreaded the loss of his powers of invention, but for nearly 30 years of non-stop work, they did not fail him; it is arguable that but for the coming of sound, they might never have failed him. The introduction of the word into the equation diluted and diminished his genius. Genius is not too strong a word to use, in all three capacities – as director, as scenarist and, supremely, as performer. In this area, his virtuosity is on the level of a Paganini, an Art Tatum, but it is so much more multifarious, combining the clowning of a Grock or a Grimaldi with the feather-light terpsichorean skills of an Astaire and the acting abilities of a Garbo or an Olivier. The final sequence of City Lights, in which, as Ackroyd says, the Tramp, left alone, simultaneously expresses exaltation and terror was, said James Agee, America's best film critic, "enough to shrivel the heart to see, and … the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies". Increasingly Chaplin tackled what was real for working people, his core audience: the Depression, alienation in big cities, the heartlessness of modern factory life. In exquisitely choreographed form, the Tramp embodied the basic needs of humankind – love, food, self-respect – as well as its modi vivendi: jealousy, rage, cupidity, lust.
As a man, Chaplin was barely human at all. He surrendered to his obsessions. This tiny, ithyphallic man – Ackroyd discreetly alludes to his legendary genital endowment and his unflagging but joyless sexual marathons – was, like many of the dominant figures of any given time, driven by the need to impose himself on the world, to enforce on it his definition of reality. In art, he succeeded in these ambitions; in life, he failed. People had a way of fighting back, particularly the women with whom he was involved, the majority of whom were childish, doll-like figures whose innocence he sought to possess but who had the disloyalty, in his view, to become pregnant, thus compelling him to marry them. After that, whatever feelings he had for them turned to hate. This pattern led him twice to the divorce courts, in which extremely explicit accusations regarding his sexual demands were made very public. "A grey-haired old buzzard," the counsel for the prosecution said in a paternity case brought against him by one of his mistresses, "a little runt of a Svengali … a debaucher". Unsurprisingly, the script he was working on at the time, Monsieur Verdoux, is informed with savage misogyny; in it, Verdoux, played by Chaplin, serially marries women and then kills them, bringing back their money to his real wife, who is pretty – and blind, which is no doubt how he would have preferred his women.
In the end, on a trip to Europe, he was barred from re-entering the US, on the basis both of his supposed immorality and his communistic affiliations. During the war and after, Chaplin had made statements of solidarity with Soviet Russia that became toxic during the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the late 40s and early 50s. Although there was no hard evidence against him, he was publicly reviled. He had by now, in his early 60s, run out of creative energy. His first film with sound, The Great Dictator, a whimsical but nonetheless oddly powerful anti-Hitler fable (made in the face of considerable hostility from Hollywood), shows a remarkably assured response to the challenge of what was in effect for him a new medium; the second, Monsieur Verdoux, is mordantly elegant, but the third,Limelight, his last film to be made in America, and full of deep nostalgia for the old days of music hall, is verbose and flaccid. The last two films, both made in Britain, are simply feeble. He retired into a relatively becalmed old age, coddled by his last wife – Eugene O'Neill's daughter, Oona – though there could still be outbursts and tantrums; his strict control over his children he never relinquished.
It is hard not to see Chaplin as essentially childlike, though not in any sentimental sense of the phrase. Like Dickens, his childhood was arrested at a young age, after which he had to fight the world if he was not to go under. His life was governed by the little boy's need to put himself beyond the reach of circumstances. He hated his dependency on anyone else – and film, of all arts, is the one most dependent on cooperation. "I did it all!" cried Chaplin, but of course he couldn't. Ackroyd sees him as utterly self-absorbed – for him, others were merely tools of his need. Like Wagner, whom he resembles in startling ways, he was a kind of demiurge, creating a world in the furnace of his art. For The Immigrant he shot 40,000 feet of film, which he reduced to 1,800. This is his real genius: his sense of the mutability of the material. He worked with film as a sculptor works with clay. And such was his success that he could take as long as he wanted, retake as much as needed, sack actors, rebuild sets, until he finally arrived at the result he needed. The whole of Chaplin's work is a triumph of the will. No wonder he studied Schopenhauer so avidly: the very title of the German philosopher's masterwork, The World as Will and Representation, must have spoken to him deeply. The miracle and the mystery of Chaplin is that the work that results from this epic exercise of will is so playful.
There have been more analytically incisive books on Chaplin – Parker Tyler's superb Chaplin: Last of the Clowns, for instance – and more comprehensive ones,David Robinson's monumental biography among them, but Ackroyd's is the most haunting. His method, filtering the life through the prism of his novelist's imagination, plunges you, in unsettling fashion, right into the subject's own experience. His assessment of the films is perceptive, though he is unduly dismissive of Chaplin's My Autobiography, the first third of which, reissued by the publisher as My Early Days, is one of the masterpieces of theatre literature. Ackroyd is obsessed by what his publisher calls "our great London imagination" and rather tenuously attempts to recruit Chaplin to the cause. He tells us that when Chaplin went back to London "he was going back to the source of his life and inspiration", but it is not clear whether he is speaking of his subject or himself.
Ackroyd also has a tendency to think that when actors aren't acting, they are nothing. He should perhaps have remembered what Dickens said about his friend Fechter: "The more real the man, the better the actor." Chaplin was real enough, all right: his reality may have been somewhat alarming, but there was nothing false about it. But Ackroyd really knows this already: his analysis of the Tramp – the "little fellow", Chaplin's greatest creation – is brilliant and unsparing. "He can be cunning, cruel and hostile; he has a taste for brutality; he bites his opponents and can engage in unchecked malice; he can conjure up a sickly grin or the imbecilic smile of a drunk … he sticks out his nose and he sticks out his tongue; he exhibits an almost elfin wickedness; he is leering and lascivious, propositioning almost every woman whom he encounters." In other words, he is all of us. "He colludes with his audience all the time." Ackroyd sees all of this with clarity; he summons up all of the pity and the terror of Chaplin's life; above all, perhaps, he sees how close to insanity Chaplin was. Often, his cameraman reported, the comedian would quietly sing to himself: "Oh ever since that fatal night / Me wife's gone mad; / Awfully queer, / Touched just here." And on the last line, with great deliberation, he would slowly raise his hand and tap his temple. Chilling, wonderful stuff.