Charlie Chaplin: born in rags, destroyed by riches

Peter Akroyd's biography reveals the tormented tyrant behind the creative genius.
Jack Carrigan | Apr 22 2014 | comment  

Men of genius are seldom nice to know. Charlie Chaplin amply bears out both aspects of this statement. Born in 1889 in the south London slums into a music hall family, he knew poverty and misery as a child; his father – paternity is disputed – walked out on his mother who struggled with intermittent madness in her later life.

By the time he left what little formal schooling he had acquired, aged 11, and joined a troupe of professional clog-dancers he had already known life in an orphanage for destitute children, the workhouse, dozens of cheap rented rooms, homelessness and hunger. In his pathetic greeting, aged 14, to his half-brother on the latter’s return from serving as a steward at sea, “Sydney, don’t you know me? I’m Charlie”, we see the half-starved, ragged boy - yet who was to become ten years later, in 1915, “the most famous man in the world.”

Peter Ackroyd, an east Londoner himself,  and who has written books about the capital and the Thames, as well as biographies of famous Londoners such as Dickens and Thomas More, and also the London world known to Shakespeare, is thus well equipped to write Chaplin’s life using his own combination of imagination and scholarship. He brings out the links between Dickens and Chaplin, in particular their painful early years at the hands of feckless parents. “Oliver Twist”, not surprisingly, was Chaplin’s favourite reading: “It was as if in that novel he had found the key to his own past. Dickens made London a place of comedy, pathos and poetry”, a city that was to become a metaphor for the world created by the Little Tramp.

Naturally, Chaplin’s most famous persona did not emerge overnight. He served a long, hard apprenticeship in the world of the Edwardian music hall, which was to provide a rich collection of characters and props for later films: flowers, prostitutes, pawnshops, lodging houses, waiters, tramps and the shabby genteel; seemingly artless stories born from the working and re-working of his artistic vision.

He had aspired to be a serious actor, but realised that the only way he could become himself was to recreate the “sketches, skits, stunts, spoofs and send-ups” of the world he already knew. Along the way he developed his acrobatic skills, the perfect timing of his “funny runs” and most of all, the art of impersonation. He learned his trade as he grew; in 1908, when he joined Fred Karno’s Company, he assimilated the skills of mime, as well as speed and sudden changes of pace, that were to become his own creative hallmarks. As Ackroyd argues, like many great clowns Chaplin made art out of his own misery and pathos. His inner drive and will-power ensured, in the words of a later acquaintance, that “he never ceased to play a part ... he was always ‘on’”. Ackroyd notes that he fully lived only when he was in a role; without it he was lost.

Naturally, this made him a very difficult and damaged human being, dictatorial to work with and unable to sustain a happy marriage until his fourth attempt when he married the 18-year-old Oona O’Neill, 36 years his junior, who became his child-bride, protector, nurse and secretary. The litany of frenetic sexual conquests along the way, and abandoned young starlets who had the misfortune to think that marrying so famous a man would make them happy, makes sad if explicable reading. The Little Tramp, the universal symbol of his creator’s early experiences, who was able to effortlessly entertain and charm millions, seems to have been a mystery even to his creator, a tyrannical, despotic, self-absorbed human being.

Ackroyd suggests that the extraordinary success of Chaplin’s early films in America (he joined the new Keystone Company in 1913, crossing the Atlantic with a troupe that included Stan Laurel) was because, like Shakespeare, “he had the inestimable advantage of being an instinctive artist in the preliminary years of a new art.” The baggy trousers, bowler hat, moustache and cane came together early and “the costume then created the performer.”

The drawback of such a book lies in the fact that Chaplin’s art can only be conveyed on screen; to describe it at second-hand cannot properly evoke the magic. Ackroyd conscientiously goes through the most famous films, such as “Modern Times”, “City Lights”, “The Circus”, “The Gold Rush” and “The Kid”, drawing out the comic brilliance and poetic inventiveness behind what Chaplin always described as “business”, but such a chronicle can run the risk of becoming tedious. Where he is at his best is when he insightfully balances the screen persona against the endless energy, ruthlessness and creativity of the Cockney genius behind him.

As the author explains, in making “The Great Dictator”, his first sound and dialogue film, Chaplin showed many similarities to Hitler: both had alcoholic fathers, had lived as tramps, needed to dominate their worlds, were subject to rages and paranoia and used their mesmeric powers to control others.

Yet to be fair to Chaplin, he later admitted that had he known about the concentration camps – the film came out in 1940 – “I could not have made “The Great Dictator.” He thought of Hitler before the war as “a bad impersonation of me.” It is conjectured that Hitler’s famous moustache might have been inspired by Chaplin; as Ackroyd comments, “It was even said that Hitler had imitated the appearance of Chaplin’s “little fellow” as a way of inspiring love and loyalty.”

The last years in Switzerland, where he lived with Oona and their eight children in some style outside Vevey, were difficult. Chaplin was a harsh and authoritarian father and a self-centred, demanding husband. One of his sons admitted that he never argued with his father; “He is too stern, too inflexible, too overpowering.” Chaplin died on 25 December 1977, an ironic date because “he had always hated Christmas.” In these 248 pages Ackroyd has conveyed Chaplin’s life with gusto and understanding, alive both to his inspired “business” and his many human failings; he refuses to judge. He sees his task as sympathetically bringing to life the inner world that Chaplin inhabited and in this he has been successful.

Jack Carrigan writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK. 

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