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and One Nights, everyone’s favourite source book, these authors have tracked down studio files, personal letters and unpublished scenarios.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.

When Robinson’s book appeared, I was prepared to find it full of valuable research, but about as easy to read as a Bradshaw Railway Guide of 1898. Yet it flows without effort. In this respect it is like a Chaplin film; the tremendously hard work never shows. The book contains a nugget of research on almost every page. The family background has always been open to mystery: ‘Isn’t he Jewish?’ ‘Isn’t he Irish?’ ‘No, he’s Spanish.’ Robinson brings the family tree into sharp focus at last and reveals that an ancestor, his great-great-grandfather, Shadrach Chaplin, was the village bootmaker in Great Finborough, Suffolk. Shadrach begat Shadrach II, Meshach and Abednego, as well as three daughters. All were unexceptionally English, although Chaplin regretted the lack of a Jewish background: ‘All geniuses have Jewish blood.’ The FBI, to whose finagling Robinson devotes a fascinating appendix, decided with their usual impeccable judgment that his real name was Israel Thornstein. The Nazis, who thought along similar lines, published his picture in a book denouncing the Jewish take-over of the arts and entertainment. Which makes it all the more puzzling that Hitler cut down his walrus moustache to match that of the most popular man in the world, enabling Chaplin to parody him so devastatingly in The Great Dictator.

Chaplin, the century’s best-loved figure, was born within a few days of Hitler, its least-loved, in April 1889. But even Chaplin got the day wrong. And his birthplace has been a source of controversy for years. When he first won fame in America, Chaplin decided he was born in Fontainebleau in France. There was no birth certificate to dispute that, but eventually Chaplin returned to his true origins. He was born in East Lane, Walworth, London. However, confusion continued. A couple of years ago, when a plaque was placed on a house in which Chaplin had lived in Kennington, and Sir Ralph Richardson had just unveiled it, an old lady stopped and muttered within my hearing: ‘They’ve got the wrong house.’ They had indeed. David Robinson points out that the Chaplin family lived next door. Many specialists have tended to doubt the veracity of Chaplin’s autobiography, claiming that the poverty depicted in the first part was too Dickensian to be believable. But Robinson has checked all the facts and he reports that Chaplin’s memory was admirably accurate. ‘Even small inaccuracies attest to rather than discredit his memory.’

Robinson reveals there was even a phoney autobiography which, because it was published in 1915, has been regarded as the most accurate source by historians, though Chaplin himself took legal action against it. Its origin has at last been revealed: it was the work of a hack journalist who made up whatever she needed. ‘The book is full of romantic and misleading nonsense,’ says Robinson, ‘which has nevertheless continued to supply and confuse gullible Chaplin historians for seven decades.’ Future historians (and another book on Chaplin is in the offing, as a letter to this journal recently revealed) will be intensely grateful to Robinson. I wish, however, that he had provided more source notes.

In the archives he has uncovered documents of exceptional value. One letter from Charlie to Sydney in 1914 is itself worth the cost of the book. A letter from Chaplin is a rarity: he was a poor correspondent.

It really is your brother Chas. after all these years, you must forgive me. The whole of my time is taken up with the movies. I write, direct, and play in them and believe me it keeps you busy. Well Sid, I have made good.

Syd spelled his name with a y: Chaplin’s spelling, like his creative work, is highly individual.

All the theatres feature my name in big letters i.e. ‘Chas Chaplin hear today’ I tell you in this country I am a big box office attraction ... It is wonderfull how popular I am in such a short time and next year I hope to make a bunch of dough.

The letter goes on to invite Sydney to come over and join him: ‘but don’t come for less than 175, understand? Mr Sennett is a lovely man and we are great pals but business is business.’

What has never been explained in any book before this one is the way Chaplin worked. David Gill and I described what we could in Unknown Chaplin. We found out a great deal simply by putting the rushes in numerical order and watching the film take shape before our eyes. Using our tapes, Robinson employs the same technique for films we were not able to include. And he consolidates his conclusions with information from the documents of the time.

Do not imagine that this is a book purely for the film enthusiast. Robinson has pruned away excessive detail (you could write a book on each of the feature films), and his narrative moves at an enviable pace, with the quicksilver character of Chaplin always in the foreground. And while he is devotedly partisan, he never tries to hide his hero’s less lovable actions. It may come as a thrill to read of Chaplin’s emotional return to his old school at Hanwell, and to see how moved he was and how he promised to return to present them with a motion-picture projector, but it will come as a shock to discover that he failed to turn up. ‘How callous to disappoint those children!’ is one’s first reaction. For such an intensely shy man, the thought of the crowds awaiting him, and, worse, the expectation of those deprived kids, probably short-circuited his sense of duty. He sent his publicity man with the projector, lunched instead with Lady Astor, and undoubtedly felt dreadful at disappointing the children.

Robinson avoids that pointless battle about which was the greatest screen comedian. It has become fashionable to decry Chaplin’s work in favour of that of Keaton – which is like saying you prefer Thackeray to Dickens. So what? Without Chaplin’s skill in proving that film comedy was a commercial goldmine, there would have been no Keaton, or Harold Lloyd, or Harry Langdon. He laid the path along which they swept to success. I wish Robinson had found the space to explain a little about the sad fate of so many of the films. His accounts are based upon seeing the early films in their best surviving form. Most people are condemned to watch them in unspeakably bad prints, shown at the wrong speed in versions which have often been re-edited, equally often retitled, and occasionally issued with cringe-making commentaries. The chance of seeing an early Chaplin in anything like its original state is remote: the Mutuals are available here, for instance, in 16mm telerecordings made from videotape. Furthermore, the Keystones, and some of the Essanays, are extremely basic and people anticipating the comic genius of The Gold Rush or City Lights can be shaken by the primitive slapstick of 1914-15.

Chaplin owed much to Fred Karno and the English Music Hall tradition – an area which film historians are usually ignorant about, and which they hastily sidestep. It is, however, an area in which Robinson is an expert, and the relationship with Karno, and the story of Chaplin’s stage career, is given an enthralling new dimension. Inserted into the text are facsimiles of such documents as Sydney Chaplin’s list of good cheap theatrical lodgings, and pictures of Charlie on the boards. Robinson has even found a Yorkshire Post review of 1910 which says of Chaplin as Jimmy the Fearless: ‘a born comedian ... bound to get on’.

Robinson reveals that what might be called the Anti-Chaplin Movement began much earlier than the McCarthy era. In 1917, when it could be argued that he was a true war hero, doing nothing but good with his films, Chaplin was attacked by Lord Northcliffe. ’Charlie Chaplin,’ he wrote, ‘although slightly built, is very firm on his feet, as is evidenced by his screen acrobatics. The way he is able to mount stairs suggests the alacrity with which he would go over the top when the whistle blew.’ Which suggests the alacrity with which Chaplin’s career would have been extinguished had he answered the call to the colours.

Robinson includes the verbatim text of a press conference for Monsieur Verdoux. James W. Fay, representative of the Catholic War Veterans, followed an approach which, in Robinson’s words, ‘had the insuperable advantage of a wonderful absence of logic’.

Fay: Last week you reported, not as a taxpayer ... you were a well-paying guest. Don’t you realise, Mr Chaplin, that veterans while assuming all the obligations of a citizen at the same time pay their share of taxes as well?

Chaplin: I didn’t say they didn’t.

Fay: I know that, but you are giving that implication, sir.

The encounter continues along these lines until it reads like something from Monsieur Verdoux itself. The extreme Right found in Chaplin the ideal target – a foreigner, suspected of being a Jew, more successful than almost any American, who consorted with Communists. Charging him with being a Communist made his success somewhat bizarre (was there ever so rich a Communist?), but perhaps easier to bear. Now we know how corrupt and vicious those people were, it all becomes a tragicomedy. But it was deadly serious at the time.

There is no doubt from the evidence in this book that Chaplin had socialist sympathies, but the idea that he made political points in his films is dismissed, particularly by Chaplin. You can read anything you like into the comedies, but they were not intended to be political statements. Chaplin summed it up in Modern Times when he picks up a red flag which has fallen from a lorry, runs after the truck to return it, and a workers’ demonstration comes round the corner and transforms him into their leader. If he was determined to make a political statement The Gold Rush would have provided the ideal platform: Man prepared to sacrifice everything for greed. But Chaplin instead acknowledges the endurance of the goldminers, and the dangers they faced, and proudly shares in their success. He makes no political comment whatever. His imagination was fired for that film by the story of the Donner party – pioneers who, before they perished, were driven to cannibalism. ‘It is paradoxical,’ wrote Chaplin, ‘that tragedy stimulates the spirit of ridicule ... ridicule, I suppose, is an attitude of defiance; we must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature – or go insane.’

There has long been speculation as to why Chaplin did not use his leading lady Edna Purviance in The Gold Rush. Robinson at last provides the answer: Edna had grown too ‘matronly’ for comedy roles, but there was more to it than that. Just as work on the film was about to start, she was involved in a scandal. She was visiting millionaire Courtland Dines when he was shot by Mabel Normand’s chauffeur. ‘Dines was not killed,’ says Robinson, ‘but Edna’s reputation was.’ Lita Grey was cast instead, and during the production became pregnant and her family forced Chaplin into a shotgun wedding. Since her condition would become more and more visible as the picture progressed, Lita Grey was replaced by Georgia Hale. She proved an inspired choice, giving the role of the dance-hall girl an independence and a toughness never before seen in a comedy. Georgia Hale had worshipped Chaplin from childhood as a screen personality – he instilled in her a courage she never thought she had. So to work with him was the culmination of a dream. No matter how many takes he demanded, no matter how irritable he got, the end-result was worth it. And since the picture proved to be one of the enduring masterworks of the cinema, regarded by many as the greatest comedy ever made, she was well rewarded. Robinson interviewed both Lita Grey and Georgia Hale, as well as Virginia Cherrill of City Lights, and one wishes he’d had space to quote these eloquent and articulate actresses at greater length. I hope he will publish all his interviews eventually.