Charlie Chaplin’s timeless legacy lives on with granddaughter, Carmen

Carmen Chaplin directed A Time For Everything in memory of her grandfather, film star Charlie Chaplin, and his watch. As well as the timepiece, the family have also inherited his artistic skills.

British actress Carmen Chaplin, granddaughter of the late Charlie Chaplin, is in town for the Abu Dhabi Film Festival. Christopher Pike / The National
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It is a relief to report that Carmen Chaplin manages to negotiate a path to our interview without falling down a manhole, being hit on the head with a frying pan or becoming hopelessly entangled in a set of revolving doors.

Also that she is wearing an entirely normal pair of tight blue jeans and sandals, with no sign of baggy trousers or broken down boots or, indeed, any evidence of a waddling gait or flailing arms.

Instead there is a tall slender young woman, with tied-back black hair and a broad smile that crinkles so tightly under her nose that there would be no room even for a false bottle brush moustache.

Still, the family name is impossible to ignore. Her grandfather, Charlie Chaplin, was an elderly man in failing health when she was born in the mid-1970s. He died December 25, 1977.

“I did meet him,” Carmen says. “I was a toddler and he was a very old man so we never had any long conversations. But I have memories – my grandfather lived in his house in Switzerland with my grandmother in this beautiful manor, and we would go there for Christmas and Easter and summer and it was always big family reunions.

“I grew up on a farm in a very kind of hippy upbringing and of course, when we went to see my grandfather it was grand, with butlers, and we had to be good at the table. So I have very strong memories of that contrast and of watching home movies of my grandfather when he was on vacation with my father and his brothers and sisters.”

Some genealogy might be useful here. In 1943, when Chaplin was in his 50s, he fell in love with the 17-year-old Oona O’Neill, daughter of the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Eugene O’Neill.

The couple married a month after Oona’s 18th birthday – she was his fourth wife – but the scandal also caused a bitter schism between father and daughter that never healed.

Eight children followed, including Carmen’s father Michael, a writer who also acted in some of his father’s later films, including Limelight. Her mother, Patricia Betaudier, is a Trinidadian painter and she has a sister, Dolores, who is also an actor.

Carmen’s aunt is Geraldine Chaplin, also a celebrated actor, with roles from Doctor Zhivago to Roseland and The Age of Innocence. Her cousin, Geraldine’s daughter Oona (named after her grandmother), is well known from the BBC TV series The Hour but also for Game of Thrones, in which her character Talisa Maegyr, meets a particularly gruesome end in the Red Wedding episode.

Keeping track of all those Chaplins sounds like a full-time job. Carmen runs down the list: “I have cousins in circuses, a bit like the Cirque du Soleil but more pure form, and other cousins who are actors; my sister is an actor. On my grandmother’s side, Oona O’Neil, her father was a stage actor famous for his Count of Monte Cristo which toured in America.”

That artistic streak emerges in other ways. “My parents are not in showbusiness. My father writes and my mother is a painter, but they are artists.

“I have five brothers and sisters and nobody is a lawyer or a doctor. Everybody is an artist. Maybe you go with what your parents do, and we have gone in the same artistic direction.

“They love films and we watch a lot of old films. We were brought up loving movies and it just seemed like a fun thing to do.”

Carmen is in town for the Abu Dhabi Film Festival at the invitation of the Swiss watchmakers Jaeger-LeCoultre, one of the sponsors. She is an official “Friend of the Brand”, but the connection runs much deeper than that.

In 1953, Charlie Chaplin was forced into exile from the United States, for alleged communist sympathies. Settling in Switzerland, Chaplin was presented with a Jaeger-LeCoultre watch, which in turn he passed on to Michael when he was just 14. In time, says Carmen, it will belong to one of her brothers.

She has also directed a short film A Time For Everything for Jaeger-LeCoultre, featuring not just the watch but her mother and new daughter.

Carmen’s other work includes roles in Wim Wender’s Until the End of the World and the 2002 action comedy All About the Benjamins. Next year she will direct her first full-length feature film, with her sister Dolores in the cast, to be shot in Paris, as well as more film roles.

The Chaplin name, she admits, has helped her career even if it hasn’t meant automatic funding. She first became aware of her grandfather’s stature at school: “People would tell us about it, or they would say ‘it’s not true’ or ‘you are lying’.”

As for her decision to follow her grandfather into the profession: “My first clarity is that I wanted to stop school from the first day until the last day so it was always ‘what can I do to stop school’ first. I was scouted out by a model agency and bullied my parents until I stopped school when I was 16.

“I started modelling and at the same time I did acting classes because as a child I was in plays at school, and directed them and wrote them with my sister, and I then I had a Super 8 camera and we did movies as well.

“I alway loved watching films but I think I was intimidated, because of my grandfather, to become an actress. I guess it just felt, I don’t know, a bit pretentious, or I was embarrassed, but modelling was asked of me so it was easier to go that route in the beginning. But I said I would take acting classes at the same time, and very quickly I was only doing that and then I got a role in a film. But I never really had to confirm that I wanted to be an actor.”

Her grandfather grew up in poverty in London, with stage parents; an alcoholic father and a mother committed to a mental hospital. He remains for most people the “Little Tramp” with baggy suit, bowler hat and cane, triumphant eventually against life’s misfortunes.

His best known works include Modern Times in 1936 and The Great Dictator in 1940, in which he satirised Hitler so effectively that he was said to be on a Nazi death list.

Chaplin’s reputation in the US suffered because of his left-wing political views, and while his later films made little lasting impact, he continued working until the late 1960s, returning to America in 1972 for an honourary Oscar.

Carmen says she became aware of his importance at events like a 100th birthday celebration at the Cannes Film Festival. “It seemed very grand to a teenager and whenever we went to Switzerland it was a big deal,” she says.

As a parent, she says, her grandfather was “very Victorian” to his children. In contrast, her parents and her upbringing were more relaxed. “They would say, ‘do what you want to do’.”

She wonders if today’s children will appreciate the genius of her grandfather. “I think that if you tell a child nowadays that they are going to watch a black and white film they would be very unwilling initially to watch it,” she says.

“But for me as a child I grew up in France and his films were on French television a lot and so it was a natural thing to watch.”

On his films, she says they “make me laugh. And cry. I also see my father a lot in his features”.

“And I’ve been to screenings of Charlie’s films with children and it’s surprising. They really laugh and enjoy it. It’s always a pleasure.”

jlangton@thenational.ae