Charlie Chaplin: Autobiography versus Biography

Earlier this year again, Liz and I packed up the motor and headed off to France. One of the first things I did in preparation was to sort out my holiday book bag. I usually have a stack of unread books to take along but I always like to take along a banker, yes that’s a book I can bank on, rely on to be a good read, usually one I have read before.

I was sorely tempted to bring my favourite read of all time along, Dickens’ David Copperfield or another favourite holiday read ‘A year in Provence‘, that much maligned gentle read about an Englishman living in France, however, one book I chose was so interesting I re-read a great deal of it at home before I left so I didn’t bother to bring it. The book in question was My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin, Charlie, to you and me.

My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin.

Charlie was born in 1889 in Walworth, London and spent his early life in the London suburb of Kennington. His parents were both music hall performers but separated when Charlie was about two years old. His mother was poor and the small family, Charlie, his mother and older brother Sydney, were admitted to the workhouse on two separate occasions.

In 1903, Charlie’s mother was committed to Cane Hill mental asylum and Charlie lived on the streets alone until his brother Sydney, who had joined the navy, returned from sea.

With his father’s connections Charlie secured a place in a clog dancing troupe called the Eight Lancashire Lads and so began his career as a performer. After appearing in some minor roles in the theatre he developed a comic routine and, with help from Sydney, was signed by Fred Karno, the famous music hall impresario, for his comedy company in 1908.

Chaplin became one of Fred Karno’s top comedians and Karno sent him with a troupe of other comedians on a tour of vaudeville theatres in the USA. One of the others was Stan Laurel, later to find fame with the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy.

By  far the most interesting part of Charlie’s autobiography is where he talks about the beginning of his movie career. On a second tour of America in 1913, Chaplin was asked to join the Mack Sennett studios as a performer in silent films for the fee of $150 per week. He wasn’t initially keen but liked the idea of starting something new.

His first film for Sennett was called Making a Living, released in 1914. Chaplin himself wasn’t so keen on the film and for his second appearance selected a new costume. After searching through the costume department Chaplin chose a bowler hat, a jacket that was too small, baggy trousers, shoes that were too large and a cane. It almost seems as though the clothes made him become the character of the tramp which was to make him famous. The film was Mabel’s Strange Predicament although another tramp film made afterwards, Kid Auto races at Venice, was released to the public first.

Chaplin clashed frequently with his directors when his ideas or suggestions were dismissed but after exhibitors asked Sennett for more Chaplin films he was allowed to direct his own. When his contract expired in 1914 Chaplin asked for 1000 dollars per week. Mack Sennett complained that that figure was more than he was getting and refused. Another film company Essanay, offered him $1200 per week and a signing fee and Chaplin signed. He wasn’t initially happy with Essanay and didn’t like their studios in Chicago, preferring to work in California.

Chaplin was also unhappy after he finished his contract at Essaney because they continued to make lucrative Chaplin comedies by utilising his out-takes. Chaplin was however an astute businessman. In his new contracts the negative and film rights reverted to Chaplin after a certain amount of time. This was in the days when a movie had a life of months, if not weeks.

Chaplin seems strangely perturbed by his fame and fortune. He writes about an incident between contracts where he takes the train to meet his brother in, I think, New York but word has got out to the public he is travelling and everywhere the train stops, masses of people were waiting. Eventually it dawns on him that it is he they were waiting for. Many times the narrative describes meals and walks taken alone giving the impression of a solitary, lonely man.

The thing to remember about reading this book is that Chaplin tells the reader only what he wants them to know, nothing more. His various marriages are only skimmed over although when he is making the Kid, probably his most important picture, he explains how he thought the negative may have be taken by lawyers acting for his estranged wife so he takes the film and edits it while almost ‘on the run’ in various hideaways and hotel rooms.

Chaplin was known for being attracted to young girls and one of his conquests, a girl called Joan Barry was arrested twice for her obsessive behaviour after he ended their relationship. She became pregnant and claimed he was the father and began a paternity suit against him. J Edgar Hoover who believed Chaplin to be a communist, engineered negative publicity against him and public opinion began to turn against Charlie. He was ordered to pay child support to Barry’s baby despite blood test evidence which showed he could not be the father. The blood test evidence was ruled inadmissible.

The earlier part of the book is by far the most interesting but the later part, where Chaplin is famous the world over, it becomes an excuse for name dropping, despite there being a clear absence of any notable anecdotes involving the famous names. Even his best friend Douglas Fairbanks, makes few appearances within the pages.

A fascinating read none the less.

Charlie Chaplin by Peter Ackroyd.

Peter wrote an excellent book about one of my writing heroes, Charles Dickens and I felt that this book was going to be in the same sort of mould. Long, intense and full of detail. Actually it’s a pretty slim volume and not the intense scrutiny of Chaplin that I was expecting. However, on the credit side, it’s a thoughtful and detailed look at Chaplin, his movies and his personal life and a cracking read it is too.

One hundred years ago Chaplin was the most famous man in the world. I’m not sure who would qualify for that title today as despite global communications and the Internet age, the world is separated by many different languages and cultures. A hundred years ago there was no language barrier for Chaplin, and his silent films with their universal language of comedy, went all the way round the globe and he was as famous in countries such as Russia or Africa as he was in Europe or the USA.

Hollywood in the early part of the twentieth century must have been a fascinating place and this book is a great starting point to find out about Chaplin and his work and the beginning of the film industry. Definitely a book well worth reading.


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Laughter and Some Random Thoughts on Movie Comedians

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Chaplin with Jackie Coogan in ‘The Kid’ (1921)

Charlie Chaplin is one of my personal heroes and one of the greats of the silver screen, perhaps the very first movie genius ever, but here’s a flash; he never ever made me laugh. Smile, yes, but laugh, no. I look at his movies and recognise his story telling power, his movie making magic and much more but no, Charlie never really made me laugh. Laurel and Hardy on the other hand, two movie comedians who are not perhaps as lauded the world over as geniuses, but who are perhaps more universally loved, well, now they do make me laugh. Whenever some catastrophe befell Oliver Hardy, whenever he stood and looked straight at the camera after a cabinet landed on his head or a car accident befell him and he stood up straight amid the shambles of a house exploding around him and Stanley would go into his helpless ‘it wasn’t my fault’ act, that my friend, would not only crack me totally up but would leave me helpless with tears of laughter running down my face.

My Dad liked Laurel and Hardy and my Dad was the master of the silent laugh. I remember once, convulsing with merriment at the aforementioned duo and wondering why my Dad didn’t think it was so funny, then turning to see him also creased up with laughter, only this was a completely silent laughter, his shoulders shook and his face contorted with mirth but no sound would ever pass his lips.

chickadeeOne of the reasons that the above few lines came to me was because, through the power of e-bay and the internet, I came into the possession of a DVD starring another of my Dad’s favourite stars, WC Fields. Fields starred with Mae West in a movie called ‘My Little Chicadee’ and it’s good to think that this movie, produced some 75 years ago still has the power to bring laughter to people like me. I love the ending of the movie when the two stars use each other’s catchphrases, Fields saying to Mae West, ‘Why don’t you come up and see me some time?’ and West replying ‘I might do that, my little chickadee!’

Another favourite comedian of mine who only made a few movies was Tony Hancock. Hancock was a successful radio and TV comedian and his TV show was so popular in the late fifties and early sixties that pub landlords complained they were losing revenue because people stayed at home to watch Hancock. Tony Hancock was a troubled and insecure man though. He dropped Sid James from his show as he felt James was becoming too popular, and at times of stress had trouble learning his lines. If you take a close look at the classic ‘blood donor’ sketch it’s clear Hancock was reading his lines from cue cards. He ventured into movies only a few times but did make the wonderful movie ‘The Rebel’ written by his BBC TV writers Galton and Simpson. In later years Hancock and his writers had a parting of the ways and Hancock sadly committed suicide in Australia in 1968.

DSC_0287Peter Sellars was a master of impersonation and the funny voice and it was his voices and the inspired madness of writer Spike Milligan that made the Goon show such a hit. Sellars went on to make many a memorable comedy movies, including the Inspector Clouseau series but for his last movie, ‘Being There’, Sellars based his character, Chancey Gardner on Stan Laurel, whom he made friends with and spent time with when he lived in Hollywood. Sellars was a strange character and if you ever catch that wonderful TV documentary made by the BBC Arena team you can see Sellars as he saw himself through his own amateur film footage. Sellars seemed to think he had no personality of his own and cloned himself from the many characters he played. During the movie ‘Casino Royale’, a spoof version of the James Bond film, Peter had a disagreement with the director and vanished for three weeks. If you watch the finished film, which has its great moments as well as its bad ones, Sellars’ character seems to disappear from the movie towards the end; clearly that’s why.

Being a great comedy star is a difficult job and perhaps that’s why so many comics and comedians are difficult people. Today’s comedy stars really do nothing for me at all and ‘observational’ comedy which is at the centre of contemporary stand-up comedy leaves me cold.

Still, if I ever need cheering up I can always just reach for the DVD cabinet and take out some classic Laurel and Hardy!


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