At the beginning of 1914, a young British vaudevillian named Charles Spencer Chaplin joined Mack Sennett’s Keystone Comedy Company to make a series of silent movies. By the time the year was over, Chaplin had 36 films to his credit, ranging from a few minutes to a little over one hour in duration, and he was well on the way to becoming the most famous and beloved person on the planet.
The character he played in most of his early films was known as the “Little Fellow” or the “Tramp” — a benign, impish apparition in rags and a too-small bowler hat, his feet turned outward, making balletic use of the cane he clearly does not need, brimming with smirks and sentiment. But let Peter Ackroyd, the author of a compact new biography of Chaplin, sum up what made the actor and director so appealing: “an irrepressible optimism and jauntiness in ‘the cruel, cruel world.’ He is infinitely expressive, with almost every conceivable human emotion passing over his face in quicksilver rapidity. He can be both coy and malevolent, for example, at the same time. He is shabby and plaintive, but unbowed; he is endlessly resourceful and adaptable; he is always being impeded but never defeated; he is bowed but not broken.”
Soon there were “Chaplin dolls and Chaplin toys, Chaplin hats and Chaplin ties, Chaplin socks and squirt-rings, Chaplin playing cards and Chaplin lapel pins . . .on prominent display in most of the department stores of the country. There were Charlie Chaplin lucky charms and Charle Chaplin coins to be used in slot machines. . . . Chaplin imitators were now the rage and in the summer of 1915 the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that ‘Cleveland has been getting so full of imitations of Charlie Chaplin that the management of Luna Park decided to offer a prize to the best imitator and out they flocked.’ ” The winner was another Englander transported to the United States, the 12-year old Bob Hope.
Ackroyd is a prolific author of fiction, nonfiction, biography, poetry and criticism, with some 35 books to his credit. This is an adept volume — a sort of “Chaplin 101” — but it breaks little new ground and cannot be compared to the searching full biographies by David Robinson and the late Kenneth S. Lynn. Indeed, most of “Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life” feels like piecework, the creation of a gifted professional fulfilling an assignment, his own or the publisher’s, in a professional but dispassionate manner.
Not surprisingly, some of the best passages are devoted to setting scenes. Ackroyd has always written lyrically about cities, and his evocation of south London, where Chaplin spent the first 20 years after his birth in 1889, is vivid history: “All the accounts of it, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, describe it as a distinct and alien place. . . . It was the site of small and noisome trades such as hat-making and leather-tanning. Factories abounded for the manufacture of biscuits, jam and pickles. Glue factories stood adjacent to timber warehouses and slaughterhouses. The predominant smells were those of vinegar, and of dog dung, and of smoke, and of beer, compounded of course by the stink of poverty.”
Ackroyd has done his research; he’s watched every film, and most of them come in for reasoned capsule critique. He recognizes Chaplin’s greatness not only in the best-remembered works — “The Gold Rush” (1925) and “City Lights” (1931) — but also in lesser-known creations such as “A Dog’s Life” (1918), “The Kid” (1921) and “The Circus” (1928). Rightly, he is more ambivalent about the later works — the films Chaplin made with dialogue, such as “The Great Dictator” (1940), which was released a full 13 years after talkies had begun to supplant the silent cinema. Yet that ambivalence seems pro forma — a kind of “on-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other” approach that is more diplomatic than it is convincing.
Chaplin himself was a strange mix: an instinctual socialist who was uncommonly tight-fisted in his financial dealings; a distant man who kept himself aloof from most of his crew, yet worked with the same cinematographer for almost 40 years and assumed all expenses for his one-time leading lady Edna Purviance, long after their personal and professional relationship had come to an end; an artist who conveyed human tenderness with extraordinary acuity but who was chilly and often cutting to the people closest to him, his children and most of his lovers. Nobody has ever mocked pomposity more precisely than Chaplin did, in film after film, yet he was capable of telling an interviewer that he planned to “retire to some Italian lake with my beloved violin, my Shelley and Keats, and live under an assumed name a life purely imaginative and intellectual.” Yuck.
There are little mistakes throughout the volume. For example, Ackroyd credits Chaplin with writing the score for “City Lights,” when its central theme, the lovely “La Violetera,” was stolen outright from the Spanish composer Jose Padilla, who successfully sued Chaplin for failing to give him credit.
If “Charlie Chaplin” brings new viewers to Chaplin’s great films, it will have done a service, but there are vastly superior biographies out there.
Page is professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California.
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.
289 pp. $25.95