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Chaplin's previously unpublished novella and a new biography show the makings of his melancholy genius

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

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