Best Beloved

Kevin Brownlow

  • Chaplin: His Life and Art by David Robinson
    Collins, 792 pp, £15.00, March 1985, ISBN 0 00 216387 X

The day has passed, thank heaven, when a film historian can read five books and write the sixth. In the bad old days this was often the case, particularly when the subject was Charlie Chaplin. Some writers described the early films without even seeing them. But that is nothing compared to the people who pretended to have worked with Chaplin. I once interviewed a celebrated American comedian who claimed to have been a child actor with Chaplin in Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914). Half-way through, I realised that the man was making it all up. Not only was he lying about the part he played – he had not even taken the precaution of seeing the film he was talking about.

It is hardly surprising that Chaplin’s life has been surrounded by myth – and the mistakes and misunderstandings have been perpetuated in one book after another. It makes one ashamed to be a film historian. But film history has recently been given an injection of seriousness. It has been raised from the level of nostalgia and trivia by four new biographies: Richard Koszarski’s Erich von Stroheim, Roger Icart’s Abel Gance (in French – still searching for an English publisher), Richard Schickel’s D. W. Griffith and now David Robinson’s Chaplin. All have one vital quality in common, and are preceded in this respect by Alexander Walker’s book on Garbo: they depend far less upon books of film history than upon first-class and first-hand research. Instead of a furtive glance at Terry Ramsaye’s A Million and One Nights, everyone’s favourite source book, these authors have tracked down studio files, personal letters and unpublished scenarios. And all of them accept their subjects as human beings rather than heroes, their defects just as worthy of investigation, and just as likely to have affected their work, as the superhuman qualities which won them their reputation in the first place. It takes something of the tenacity and discipline exercised by the men themselves to write such impressive books about them.

David Robinson has chosen to scale an unconquered peak. I remember that when David Gill and I were allowed into the Chaplin archive at Vevey, Switzerland, to examine the stills and documents for our Thames Television programme Unknown Chaplin, we agreed that if there was one man in the world we did not envy it was David Robinson. He may have chosen a fascinating subject, but to marshal the facts, to make sense of them and to produce a readable and entertaining book was like climbing Everest without oxygen. He was faced with a staggering amount of material. More has been written about Chaplin than about any other entertainment figure. In the archive, there were eight vast press books on Chaplin’s Mutual period (1916-17) alone. Newspaper cuttings covered every inch of every page, mounted ten and twenty thick; when you lifted one, there was another mass of print beneath.

I have a strong fellow feeling for Robinson, because I tried writing a book on Chaplin myself. Not a biography, but an account of how we made Unknown Charlie, how the footage was found and what it revealed. I found it a thoroughly depressing experience, because, despite all the fresh material, there was no way I could avoid tramping over the same ground covered by the few hundred authors who had already written on Chaplin.

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