SUCH a slim book (264 pages, including bibliography and index) for such a great figure in popular entertainment? And while we’re in an inquisitive mood, we’ll ask not only the most obvious question but also, perhaps, the most justified: with up to 200 biographies (including David Robinson’s 1985 tome, Chaplin, his Life and Art, which many regard to be the definitive account), several autobiographies and various personal accounts from some of his children and former wives, why on earth would anyone want to read yet another biography of Charlie Chaplin?
Of course, what makes the real difference between one biography and the next (or, in the case of Chaplin, almost 200 more) is not so much the shuffling around of facts and chronology, but the writer. Fully aware that there is nothing new in the line of biographical facts to unearth, renowned British novelist/biographer Peter Ackroyd decides to do the next best thing: to look anew at Chaplin’s background and career, and to place his own meticulously arranged viewpoints on and around it.
Ackroyd is well appointed to the task, having bagged not only a sizeable number of awards (including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, and the South Bank Prize for Literature) but also written acclaimed biographies of Wilkie Collins, TS Eliot, Ezra Pound, and — crucially in the context of his latest subject — Charles Dickens. This, and the knowledge that Ackroyd is the author of Thames: Sacred River and London: The Biography, makes his narrative position clear.
Ackroyd’s Chaplin is forged from his birth in late Victorian London and his experiences of in the city’s thriving music hall community. In other words, Ackroyd makes decent enough (but not always wholly credible) claims as to the similarities between Chaplin and Dickens.
Each experienced severe levels of childhood neglect; each implicitly or explicitly blamed their mothers for their varying states of mental anguish; each came from the lower middle class; each were socially ambitious, relentlessly driven, and needed to be in control of not only the world around them but also their respective families; each experienced romantic heartbreak that left them emotionally wounded for many years; both men achieved uncommon levels of fame at an extraordinarily young age; and each were extremely wealthy men who were constantly fearful of their riches being taken away.
“Both men had imbibed,” writes Ackroyd, “what might be called a London vision in which farce and sentiment, melodrama and pantomime, are conflated. Chaplin’s oldest son has recalled his father’s love for Oliver Twist, which Chaplin read again and again.
It was as if in that novel he had found the key to his own past… Just as Dickens clothed London in a veil of comedy, pathos and poetry, so did Chaplin in the haunted city of his films… It might even be suggested that Chaplin was Dickens’ true successor.”
!Despite some misgivings with if not outlandish theories then certainly eyebrow-raising ones (“all silent film aspires to the condition of ballet” is one such), Ackroyd tells the story and the background as supremely as you would expect.
Born in 1889 (20 years after the death of Dickens) in a London slum that could have come straight out of (yes, you guess correctly) a Dickens’ novel, Chaplin’s mostly absent, alcoholic father was a music hall performer. His poor upbringing reinforced several lifelong issues, including a pathological fear of poverty and a distrust of women.
The former enabled his often frenetic work pace — from 1914 To 1923, he completed over 70 films. The latter, meanwhile, impacted on his many relationships with a series of young women (including, at the age of 35, brief marriage to the pregnant 15-year-old starlet Lita Grey — a sequence of events rumoured to have been part inspiration for Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita) that in more contemporary times may well have attracted the attentions of the authorities.
Such dubious activity concluded in 1943 when, at the age of 53, he married Oona O’Neill, the 18-year-old daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill.
By 1915, having first visited the US with UK impresario Fred Karno’s comedy troupe (which also featured a head-scratching Stan Laurel), and being offered contract work for Mack Sennett’s Keystone film company, Chaplin had worked his way from a shy, fumbling actor to one of the most famous people on the planet.
By 1916, he was also one of the wealthiest (his weekly earnings reached $10,000), having wrested control of his own destiny quite early on to writing, producing and directing his own films.
The way Ackroyd tells it, Chaplin was rarely satisfied with his sizeable lot. Unlucky in love (or plain unsuited to it), and lonely, he also discovered little worth in fame. When he returned as a conquering film star hero to London at the height of his fame, Ackroyd writes that Chaplin “was not so much delighted at the adulation but frightened and bewildered by it”.
And so the years passed, from the two-reel short films during the Great War years to the ’20s/’30s, when, as co-founder (with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks) of United Artists every subsequent film he directed was of feature length.
Such films included The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). All of these films generated very healthy box office returns. More crucially for Chaplin, however, they received not only critical acclaim (in 1949, the esteemed critic James Agee, described the final scene in City Lights as “the greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid”) but also rather more rarified fame (French philosophers Jean-Paul Sarte, Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merlau-Ponty named their literary journal, Les Temps Modernes, after Modern Times).
Throughout all of this detailed information (none of which, incidentally, is footnoted, leaving the reader to wonder, at regular intervals, which of the many, many books listed in the bibliography Ackroyd sourced the facts from), we see Chaplin portrayed as something of a “Cockney visionary”, which seems to be over-egging the pudding a bit.
That said, there are some great racy stories that only a Chaplin obsessive would have previous knowledge of: the star’s admission that he had sexual relations with over 2,000 women; his party piece in which he impersonated the orgasms of famous actresses; the confession that, petrified of contracting venereal disease, he coated his penis in iodine; and the news via various female partners that he was “hung like a horse” and “a human sex machine” who could make love a six times a night without apparent tiredness.
If you’re looking for in-depth evaluations of Chaplin’s films then you’ll be sorely disappointed — most are rushed over, and what is written about the main works (The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, et al) is as much about the production surrounding the film as anything else.
There is also exceptionally short shrift given to Chaplin’s time spent holidaying in Waterville, Co Kerry, which he did annually for 10 years from 1959. All Ackroyd writes of this is contained in one sentence: “He often visited Ireland in the spring, where he liked to fish.” Despite nagging misgivings about the validity of yet another biography, Ackroyd’s character analysis of Chaplin produces a strong spine for everything else that surrounds it. For the full-to-overflowing Monty, however, you’d be advised to look elsewhere.