In 1915, Charlie Chaplin became the most famous man in the world, says Peter Ackroyd in his illuminating and timely new biography. In that year, it was estimated that 300 million people were watching his films. His creation, the Little Tramp, was the most familiar silhouette on earth. A cartoon depicted two newsboys, one asking, “Chimmie, who’d you ruther be — th’president or th’kaiser?” “Aw fudge — I’d ten thousand times ruther be CHARLIE CHAPLIN.” Ackroyd observes: “He was the first human being ever to be the object of global adulation far beyond the later cult of ‘celebrity’.” The great man himself reflected that “I am known in parts of the world by people who have never heard of Jesus Christ.” (John Lennon, another lower-middle-class English boy with a chip on his shoulder, was to say something similar half a century later.
Yet Chaplin was then still only 26 and had been making movies for less than two years since being spotted by the pioneer comedy film producer Mack Sennett as a member of the Fred Karno troupe’s New York stage show. Sennett, creator of the Keystone Cops, recalled “a little fellow who could move like a ballet dancer . . . I had seen nothing like it.” When the show moved on to Philadelphia, a telegram reached the young English comic: “IS THERE A MAN CALLED CHAFFIN IN YOUR COMPANY OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT.” If so, he was asked to contact a firm of Broadway lawyers. The next stop was Sennett’s Keystone studio in Hollywood, where the silent movie business was just getting on its feet. Ackroyd remarks: “He, like Shakespeare, had the inestimable advantage of being an instinctive artist in the preliminary years of a new art.” The Shakespeare comparison may be a stretch but otherwise the judgment is accurate. After a sticky start, Chaplin came up with the Tramp costume in his third short movie, Mabel’s Strange Predicament, and he was on his way.
Chaplin was to supply endless explanations for the origins of the costume but Ackroyd believes it to be “the epitome of all the comic tramps he had seen upon the English stage” during his desperately poor upbringing in the slums of south-east London, above all the great Dan Leno with whom Chaplin performed for 15 weeks at the Tivoli theatre in London when he was only a boy: his first music hall job was as a clog-dancer at the age of nine. As befits a distinguished historian and novelist of the capital city, Ackroyd roots all Chaplin’s subsequent success in his London origins. The word that keeps coming to mind as one reads the horrifying details of his childhood, of his alcoholic father and intermittently insane mother, is Dickensian. Like many before him, Ackroyd finds much in common between Dickens and Chaplin (and Dickens, after all, died only 19 years before Chaplin’s birth in 1889): deprived childhoods, energy, ambition, thwarted first love which affected them deeply, huge fame in their twenties. Dickens loved the “penny gaffs”, predecessors of the music halls where Chaplin learned his trade. “Both men had imbibed what might be called a London vision in which farce and sentiment, melodrama and pantomime, are conflated,” comments Ackroyd. Chaplin, indeed, loved reading Dickens.
“Chaplin, like Dickens, was driven, relentless, overwhelming,” concludes Ackroyd. This rapidly became apparent when he started directing, soon after his film debut. He had always been a keen observer of stage technique as a performer and he rapidly became absorbed in his new métier. After a year knocking out shorts for Sennett, at the rate of about one a week, he was the most popular comic actor in America: the public couldn’t get enough of the Tramp.
From then on, he increasingly sought control of every aspect of the production of his films, culminating in a deal in 1917 with First National Film Corporation which gave him the artistic freedom he was to enjoy for the rest of his career, ultimately with United Artists, which he co-owned, and for which he made such classics as The Gold Rush and Modern Times. He was the ultimate control freak, sometimes demanding 50 takes of a scene before he was satisfied, and reducing his actors to despair in the process.
His private life was not dissimilar: he was an incorrigible womaniser with a penchant for very young girls, and he treated almost all of them appallingly. When he was asked to describe his ideal woman he replied: “I am not exactly in love with her, but she is entirely in love with me.” He married his first wife, Mildred Harris, when he was 29, she 16, and then only because she (untruthfully) told him she was pregnant. In the event, she soon was but the baby died soon after birth. The couple were divorced a year later amid lurid revelations about his cruelty to her. Exactly the same scenario occurred with his second wife, Lita Grey, who was also only 16. She too became pregnant, and Chaplin (who was simultaneously conducting an affair with Rebecca West) was forced to rush into marriage or face 30 years in prison for having sex with a minor. After the wedding, he went fishing. The marriage lasted three years before ending in even more scandalous allegations about his conduct. The pattern continued into his fifties: he first had sex with his fourth (and final) wife Oona O’Neill when she was 17 and under age; she was 36 years his junior. Even after he married her when she turned 18, he went on trial for transporting another young woman, Joan Barry, across state lines for immoral purposes; he was acquitted but was adjudged at a subsequent trial to be the father of her baby daughter.
By 1952, the Tramp was history and increasing public hostility plus the threat of action against Chaplin for his apparent sympathy for Communism came to a head: when he and his young family were two days out to sea on the Queen Elizabeth, bound for England, his US re-entry visa (he was still a British citizen) was rescinded. He ended up in Switzerland and would not return to Hollywood for 20 years.
Ackroyd has written a model biography, as crisp and succinct as a Chaplin two-reeler. He calls Chaplin a visionary; he was a brilliant innovator and storyteller (though I preferred Buster Keaton). But who remembers Chaplin today, a hundred years after he stood at the height of his fame? Young people know little about him; his films are rarely shown on television, despite the multiplicity of channels. It is an interesting paradox that the first genius of the revolutionary medium of cinema should now be almost forgotten, while Dickens remains as popular as ever.