Review: Peter Ackroyd’s Charlie Chaplin biography

Charlie Chaplin was cinema’s greatest star and a new brief biography cannot begin to encompass his global fame

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Charlie Chaplin

Peter Ackroyd

Chatto & Windus


As a rule, it can be said that every biography, with notoriously few exceptions, would benefit from being shorter. And yet, who better to prove this maxim wrong than perhaps the most famous man that ever lived, whose life of epic struggle and epic accomplishment strains the boundaries of a 250-page frame?

The journey from a South London poorhouse to unparalleled international stardom within a few months of his first appearance before a camera, to the creation of the most indelible character in the history of film, to the political turmoil that drove him into decades of European exile: Charles Spencer Chaplin’s life is simply too enormous to be contained in so modest a vessel as Peter Ackroyd’s biography.

For those looking for a quick recap of Chaplin's career, this instalment in Ackroyd's Brief Lives series will serve. Chaplin was born in South London in 1889, four days before Adolf Hitler, the only other man whose fame would rival his own, and whom he would burlesque in The Great Dictator. His mother was a mentally unstable music-hall performer, and his namesake, who was not his biological father, was an alcoholic on his way to drinking himself to death at the age of 38. His family spent time in a London poorhouse; one Christmas, he was denied the annual gift of an orange and some boiled sweets because he had soiled the bed. His half-brother Sydney was forced to go around in a pair of his mother's high heels, trimmed down into flats. The smell of tanning leather, and all that went with it, would stay with him forever.

Charlie followed Sydney into music-hall performance, touring with Fred Karno’s troupe at the age of 18. Karno taught his performers a lesson Chaplin would take to heart: “keep it wistful”. After knocking a man down, they should kiss him on the head. His most famous routine was “Mumming Birds,” essentially a comic recreation of his father’s drunken flailing. The Karno troupe toured the United States, where “Mumming Birds” caught the attention of some producers in the fledgling film capital of Los Angeles. “IS THERE A MAN NAMED CHAFFIN IN YOUR COMPANY?” they demanded via telegram. Chaplin assumed he was the recipient of a bequest, but instead he was being summoned to fame.

“Like Shakespeare,” Ackroyd tells us, Chaplin “had the inestimable advantage of being an instinctive artist in the preliminary years of a new art”. Chaplin made 36 shorts in 1914, his first year in California. He also asked questions, and took notes, and later that year was demanding that he not only star in but also direct his films. (Eventually, with the formation of United Artists with fellow superstars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Chaplin would serve as studio mogul, too.) He preferred to keep the camera still and move the actors; his was a cinema of performance, not of elaborate montage. He always insisted on keeping his feet in the shot.

His comedy was defined by its dreamlike transformations. A cigarette became a key; a tearful heave of the shoulders was only the shaking of a martini. Ackroyd superbly captures just how much the films of the era were an art of motion: “all silent film aspires to the condition of ballet”. Chaplin was the prima ballerina, a fledgling art form’s most elegant and imaginative performer.

By the early 1920s, Chaplin was, in his own words, "known in parts of the world by people who have never heard of Jesus Christ". He had expanded what the cinema was capable of, his native Victorian sentimentalism colliding with his anarchic sense of comedy to form a magnificent, bittersweet whole. Having conquered the world of film, Chaplin then went on to reinvent it. Comedy thrived on brevity. A feature-length comedy was a contradiction in terms. Even Chaplin was initially sceptical about the idea, believing that expanding his films' lengths meant contracting their humour. Finally, years after dramatists like D W Griffith had done it, Chaplin expanded to feature length for classic efforts like The Gold Rush and City Lights, in part because there were no more worlds to conquer.

Chaplin was the greatest of the silent stars and his fame made him understandably hesitant about giving the Tramp a voice – another instance of foot-dragging that matched his scepticism over making features. "Why should I talk?" he pointedly asked around the time of City Lights, released dialogue-free some four years after The Jazz Singer. It was not until The Great Dictator in 1940 that Chaplin spoke on screen, and it was no coincidence that by then, the Tramp had been retired. The Tramp – battered bowler hat, baggy trousers, swirling stick – was a truly universal icon. Speaking would only create distance.

Chaplin was terribly harsh with actors, primarily out of a sense of disbelief that they could not be as natural on screen as he was. He once told his sons that his then wife Paulette Goddard (a fine performer in her own right) was crying because "I had to tell her a few things about acting". But who, before or since, has ever known more about what it meant to face the camera? Chaplin instinctively understood its demands and his films tended to favour him at the expense of his less-gifted co-stars. "I don't know why I'm right about the scene," he said while directing his first feature film, A Woman of Paris. "I just know I'm right."

Ackroyd emphasises the gap between Charlie and Charles, the eternally loveable performer and the distant man. Many concluded that “Chaplin is not as amiable, as modest, as warm as the little fellow on the screen”. Ackroyd concentrates on Chaplin’s interest in young women, seemingly the product of a thwarted adolescent passion for a 15-year-old girl named Hetty Kelly who jilted him in London. Like a sleepwalker, Chaplin kept stumbling into yet another version of the same trouble with teenage girls: pregnancy scares, rushed marriages and paternity suits, with Chaplin hounded by the forces of Victorian morality, but also hobbled by his own callous and unthinking behaviour.

Ackroyd is also intensely sceptical of Chaplin’s late-blooming political advocacy, mentioning a stifled yawn from former British prime minister David Lloyd George as the actor questioned him about unemployment. Chaplin was undoubtedly a political naif and his advocacy of the Soviet cause at times bordered on the worshipful, but his biographer does him a disservice by paying short shrift to the philo-Soviet enthusiasm of the United States during the wartime years, and the vicious anti-communist backlash, led by ideologues and guardians of political orthodoxy, that caught Chaplin (who was never himself a communist) in its snares.

Limitations of space seem to hobble Ackroyd from stretching out in the luxuriant vastness of Chaplin’s being, from attempting to place his feet in the Tramp’s shoes. Shoehorning Chaplin into the “Brief Lives” format, where he looms too large to belong,

Ackroyd is forever having to hurry on to the next event, rarely pausing to speak at length about any of Chaplin's films. Ackroyd does, however, make astute points in bringing biography to bear on artistry. The Kid, one of Chaplin's most heartfelt films, about the relationship between the Tramp and an orphaned waif, began production 11 days after the death of his first son, Norman. This biography exists in the shadow of David Robinson's masterly Chaplin: His Life and Art, a more emotionally perceptive and engrossing book.

Ackroyd does not much like Chaplin, which is his right. There was much to dislike, from his behaviour towards the women in his life to his seeming sympathy for the Soviet Union to the shabby treatment of his children. But Chaplin was, and is, the greatest film comedian in the history of the medium, and quite possibly the greatest film performer, period. Ackroyd has most of the facts in place, and his slim book is engaging. Chaplin, though, was a giant and he deserves more.

Saul Austerlitz is the author of three books, including Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy.