Comic timings: Chaplin as Calvero in the 1952 film Limelight. Photo: Magnum
Show Hide image

Tears of a clown: Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin's previously unpublished novella and a new biography show the makings of his melancholy genius

Charlie Chaplin 
Peter Ackroyd
Chatto & Windus, 272pp, £14.99


Footlights 
Charles Chaplin
Cineteca di Bologna, 226pp, £25

 

Liking Chaplin will probably never be cool. For the Sight and Sound-reading, suck-on-a-lemon-and-think-of-Bresson cineaste, Buster Keaton will always be their man, with his whitened deadpan and letter-box smile, his meta-movie conceits and collaboration with Samuel Beckett – those two stoics together, craggy and forlorn, staring down the headwinds of the 20th century like Easter Island statues. Then there is Chaplin with his touchiness about class, his walk, his mesmeric effect on kids and – dear, oh dear – his sentimentality. “For a century or more, sentimentality has been the cardinal aesthetic sin,” writes Carl Wilson in his recently republished book about taste, Let’s Talk About Love. “To be sentimental is to be kitsch, phoney, exaggerated, manipulative, self-indulgent, hypocritical, cheap and clichéd.”

The critical aversion to sentimentality – so often a disguise for squeamishness about emotion of any kind – quarantines us from the power of cinema’s early pioneers, who would no sooner have turned down the opportunity to wring an audience for tears than have declined an opportunity to make them rocket out of their seats with fright or laughter. It would be like designing a new automobile and keeping it under wraps in the garage. “Keep it wistful,” advised Fred Karno, the head of the comedy troupe that first brought Chaplin to America. When you hit a man, it’s funnier if you then kiss him on the head. The early Keystone shorts were crammed with people, props and gags; the actors were wind-up toys, uninflected by emotions such as fear or greed or passion, who simply ran and ran until they met immovable objects or dropped from exhaustion – a roundelay of constant motion, or “arse-kicking”, as Chaplin put it.

He did things differently. Emptying out the frame, Chaplin anchored the camera in the middle distance, the better to take in a full human figure, feet included, drawing audiences in with a single gesture – a smile, a half-tear, a look. “He had those eyes that absolutely forced you to look at them,” said Stan Laurel, another Karno regular who also travelled over on the same ship in 1910.

Within four months of arriving in the US, Chaplin was famous and soon became the first truly global icon, a hero of the Dadaists and an inspiration to Fernand Léger and Marcel Proust (who for a while trimmed his moustache in the Chaplin style). “He has escaped . . . from the realism of the cinema and invented a rhythm,” wrote T S Eliot, one of many highbrows swanning around the pages of Peter Ackroyd’s new biography. That Chaplin has attracted the attention of Dickens’s biographer is telling. In later life, according to his son, Chaplin read and reread Oliver Twist, “as if in that novel he had found the key to his own past”, Ackroyd writes. Both Dickens and Chaplin came from poverty and childhood neglect and achieved fame in their mid-twenties. Both produced urban fables that mixed farce with sentiment; melodrama with pantomime; comedy and pathos with poetry.

“Chaplin was Dickens’s true successor,” Ackroyd writes, “just as Modern Times is a successor to Hard Times.” Coming in at a slim 272 pages, his book has no ambition to supplant David Robinson’s definitive 1985 account of the comedian’s life, Chaplin: His Life and Art, and nor does it; but, aided by his novelistic appetites, Ackroyd has turned in the best account of Chaplin’s formation beneath the teetering chimney stacks of Victorian London, fragrant with the odour of “vinegar, and of dog dung, and of smoke, and of beer”. Boy, is he big on whiffs, from the delicate bouquet of “oranges, beer, of unwashed bodies and tobacco” that clings to the theatres where Chaplin, a seven-year-old in knickerbockers, first learned how to turn corners with a one-legged skid, to the lodgings on Pownall Terrace, “foul with the stale slops and old clothes”, where he lived with his mother before she was institutionalised for what seems likely to have been late-stage syphilitic madness, contracted from work as a prostitute.

“She died there,” Chaplin liked to tell people once he was safely ensconced in Hollywood but, Ackroyd writes, “This was perhaps less than fair to his mother, who was still very much alive in Peckham House hospital,” where she remained, with intermittent periods of lucidity, for another 17 years. The dryness of “perhaps less than fair” proves that Ackroyd is just the man to puncture the whoppers with which Chaplin embroidered his past, without being too much of a scold.

When, aged 38, his father drank himself to death, Chaplin, “with black crape on his sleeve, sold narcissi in the local public houses, lamenting in a whispered voice the death of his father. Who could fail to be moved by the grieving boy?” The vibrato swell lets us know Ackroyd is on to him and his habit of self-dramatisation – the sense of being always “on”, void of any experience that isn’t witnessed by another – that made for a performer of genius and also, in the words of a reporter for the New York Times, “the unhappiest and shyest human being I have met”. Or as another writer put it, even more bluntly, “The bulk of him is ice.”

A lifelong reader of Schopenhauer and “the gloomier philosophers”, Chaplin was a creature of pure will and wisp. On-screen, the Tramp was indomitable, endlessly resourceful and adaptive, impeded but never defeated, bowed but not broken, raising his arms in the final scene of Police in Christlike exaltation, as if to say: “Look, I have come through.” His Favourite Pastime paired him with Fatty Arbuckle, only to confirm how fully he was a solo performer, going over or around the heads of his fellow actors to commune directly with the audience, making eyes at them from within that expanse of white make-up.

Ackroyd picks up on the solipsism of all this. Protected by the bubble wrap of the audience’s attention, Chaplin is haughty with anyone who brushes his sense of dignity. He collects resentments like moss. From the spectacle in One AM, in which Chaplin gets into an argument with a bed and the pendulum of a grandfather clock, to the grand panoply of Modern Times, he seemed intent on taking the entire world personally.

Is it any surprise that in his private life he proceeded to do the same? The book tails off in its second half; all Chaplin bio­graphies do. His life tailed off, a dying fall to echo those in his comedy. Ackroyd’s account takes it at a canter – the coming of sound, the failure of the 1947 film Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin’s entanglement with the House Un-American Activities Committee, the teenage brides and paternity suits – and in the final furlong achieves a steady gallop of just under a year per page.

For those wishing for a more thorough spelunking of Chaplin’s psyche at this point, help is at hand in the form of Footlights, a recently unearthed prose work, published with an accompanying essay by David Robinson and presented as Chaplin’s first and only novella. It isn’t really: it’s more like a 34,000-word extended treatment for Limelight (1952), the last film he made in the US before his exile in Switzerland, about the platonic romance between an old clown named Calvero and Terry, a beautiful young ballet dancer troubled by a psychosomatic illness whom he nurses back to the stage.

That Chaplin felt impelled to flesh this out in prose form is indicative of his maudlin frame of mind at the time. Heavy with backstory, the book recounts first Terry’s plaintive history, then Calvero’s – as booze, women and a nervous breakdown curtail his career, leaving him sour with the fickleness of audiences: “a motley confusion of cross-purposes, like a monster without a head”, he rails. “They’re guinea pigs! They react to whatever injection you give them!” She responds: “You talk like a lover who’s quarrelled.” Potentially, this was promising material. When popular performers misfire, the collapse is total and baffling, the tender ministrations with which the performer once unlocked his audience now recalibrated as loathsome presumptions, a form of artistic rape.

The trick, as Jerry Lewis showed us in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, is to have the courage of your misanthropy and to let the mask slip completely. But the one note missing from the mauve-and-violet prose effects of Footlights is that of honest and accurate self-appraisal. The prevailing tone is of self-pity; the overall impression is that of gloom leavened with froth, as Calvero invokes “the elegant melancholy of twilight” and “dinners under saffron skies on a balcony overlooking the Thames” to get Terry on her feet and dancing again. Who could have guessed that when one of the great clowns of the silent era finally spoke up, he would come out sounding so much like Barbara Taylor Bradford?

Words were never Chaplin’s medium. He knew next to nothing about the Tramp, not even his name (he referred to him as “the little fellow”). His art was one of radical attenuation, Euclidean subtraction, the winnowing and carving out of gags from thin air – “shaking the tree”, he called it – to reveal the form hanging there like dust motes in sunlight. He worked tirelessly to secure the audience’s sympathy, our pity for him freeing him from the bother of feeling it for himself. When Chaplin exits the final reel of The Tramp, he walks dejectedly down the road before perking up with that little jig and quickstep of his, ready once again for the adventure of life. “His little dance upon the road is a form of self-definition,” writes Ackroyd. “He is free.” Iris in, fade out. 

Tom Shone’s new book, “Scorsese: a Retrospective”, will be published by Thames & Hudson in September

 

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

© THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM
Show Hide image

How Native American culture fought back against the colonisers

The British Museum's new exhibition reveals the resilience of First Nations culture.

In the Great Court of the British Museum stand two enormous cedar totem poles, acquired in the early years of the 20th century from the north-west coast of North America. One was made by the Haida peoples and the other by the Nisga’a, two of the nations that make up the many-layered society stretching through Alaska, British Columbia and Washington State in the lands which, today, are called the United States and Canada. These peoples, whose history dates back at least 9,000 years, have been remarkably resilient in withstanding European and Russian incursion from the 18th century onward. Besides the Haida and Nisga’a, there are the Tlingit and Kwakwaka’wakw, the Tsimshian, the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah groups.

Now, for the first time, the British Museum is bringing together objects from these cultures in an exhibition that showcases one of the world’s most recognisable artistic traditions, and demonstrates how cultural identity can endure even in the most terrible circumstances. First Nation rights and identity are still very much under threat, as protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota show.

The exhibition takes its title from the legendary Thunderbird, who uses his strength and power to hunt whales – a skill he is said to have given to some of these communities. His legend persists into the present day. The Thunderbird can be seen here on a club collected by Captain Cook in the 18th century, and on a 1983 print made by the contemporary Kwakwaka’wakw artist Tony Hunt.

The objects on display are set in cases painted with a pale green wash to evoke the colour of fresh cedar bark. Some – such as the totem poles in the Great Court – evoke the power and majesty of these societies, while others are domestic items that combine beauty and usefulness in equal measure. In the first category are two potlatch “coppers”, shield-shaped plaques about a metre in height, made from what was an exotic and valuable metal. The potlatch is a ceremony, often days long, of feasting, dancing and giving of gifts. Such copper plaques, patterned with spruce gum in the sinuous “formline” design, which is as distinctive to the north-west coast as intricate knotting is to the Celtic tradition, were a significant part of the ceremony.

Equally intricately worked is a basket made of cedar twigs and cedar bark, used to catch fish. The bark on the basket is wrapped in an alternating sequence around the twigs: a technique that brings not only beauty but strength to what is, in effect, a delicate net. From these two objects alone, one can begin to grasp the sophistication of life on the Pacific north-west coast. The people of these cultures built highly complex and rich societies, all without the benefit of agriculture – evidence of the bounty of the bays and islands. In this lush geography, artists and craftsmen made works that are a source of wonder today: look for the joins at the corners of the elaborately decorated Haida box on display and you won’t find any. The chests are made from a single plank of red cedar, which is steamed until pliable; the two ends are then pegged together. They can be used for the storage of clothing, also as drums, or for cooking – or even for burial. They are a good symbol for the adaptability of the cultures of the north-west coast.

The new exhibition is laid out over a single room. One side of the room spans the earliest stone tools and historic weapons made in the region, up to objects from the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in the 1770s; the other features art and regalia from the museum’s collections, including contemporary work and examples from the modern era. The latter addresses what might plainly be called cultural genocide: the often willed destruction of First Nation populations, in both Canada and the United States, by disease; by the residential school system, under which children were taken away from their families to be “educated” out of their culture and beliefs; and by the attempted eradication of languages and religious practices.

One of these banned practices was the potlatch itself, outlawed in Canada from 1880 until 1951 – long enough for a culture to vanish. Yet it survived, the curator Jago Cooper told me, as a result of “people going into museums and studying, or grabbing a grandparent and asking questions. People were incredibly industrious when it came to restoring their culture.” The show opens with a video of a vibrant potlatch.

There is evidence of that restoration and revival in the regalia worn by Chief Alver Tait in 2003 when the Nisga’a totem pole was first raised in the British Museum after decades of storage. He and his wife, Lillian, performed a spirit dance “to bring life back to the ancestors in the totem pole because they had been resting for so long”.

Much of the material here has been seen less frequently than it might be. In Missing Continents at the British Museum, a BBC Radio 4 programme made last year (and still available on iPlayer), the artist Antony Gormley, a former British Museum trustee, argued that the cultures of Africa, Oceania and the Americas are overshadowed there by those of Europe and Mesopotamia, which take the lion’s share of permanent displays at the institution.

Temporary shows such as “Where the Thunderbird Lives” allow a glimpse of the museum’s hidden holdings, some of them simply too fragile to be seen very often, or for very long. At least one of the objects, a gorgeous yellow cedar cloak, collected in the last years of the 18th century on George Vancouver’s North Pacific voyage and painted with an oystercatcher and two skate figure images, is a “once in a lifetime” object – it can’t be exposed to light for long, so now’s your chance to see it. We don’t know who made it. Some of the others, such as the “welcome figure”, carved with open arms, can’t even be attributed to a specific culture. That is, of course, true of many items in the museum’s vast collection: we don’t know who made the Sutton Hoo Helmet, or carved the Rosetta Stone.

The past cannot be changed: it can, however, be acknowledged, as this exhibition gracefully does – for in the work of the contemporary artists here, one sees, in diverse ways, the continuation of their ancestors’ traditions. What looks like a traditional Tlingit spruce root twinned basket is made of glass, by the contemporary Tlingit artist Preston Singletary; a copper pendant echoes the great potlatch coppers but the image printed on its face shows a detail from a US$5 bill (this was made by the Tlingit artist Alison Bremner). Ownership of culture and definitions of culture are questions more hotly debated than ever before. “Where the Thunderbird Lives” is a thoughtful – and beautiful – addition to that debate. 

“Where the Thunderbird Lives: Cultural Resilience on the North-west Coast of North America” opens on 23 February and is at the British Museum, London WC1, until 27 August. Details: britishmuseum.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit