A proper Charlie

Chaplin: the Tramp’s Odyssey
Simon Louvish
Faber & Faber, 432pp, £25

You wouldn’t know it from walking around London, but Charles Chaplin was easily the most famous Englishman of the 20th century. In his excellent BBC programmes on silent comedy, an unimpressed Paul Merton visited our only monument to the man (well, bar a pub in south London and some well-hidden sculptures on the façade of the Apollo Theatre, Victoria): an inept little statue on Leicester Square. Given that Chaplin’s films are now so rarely seen despite the efforts of Merton and the British Film Institute, we need to be reminded of his genius.

The Tramp’s Odyssey does this with admirable succinctness and depth. Simon Louvish has written extensively on early cinema and protagonists both silent and spoken, from Mae West to Cecil B DeMille, so he is well placed to explain Chaplin to generations who know him only as an “icon”, a reduced set of extraneous features – the hat, the moustache, the cane. Louvish rightly points out that this collection of objects is one of the very few phenomena actually to require the perniciously overused term “iconic”. This is surely the main reason why it is Chaplin, and not his near-equal Buster Keaton, who endures in folk memory: Charlie could be reduced to a semi-abstract sign, like one of Otto Neurath’s isotype pictograms. So Louvish’s approach is to focus on the tensions between Charles Chaplin, the former Lambeth workhouse inmate-turned-Los Angeles multimillionaire-turned-persecuted leftist pariah, and Charlie the Tramp, the alternately anarchic and tragic embodiment of misfortune: a figure who was fundamentally superhuman, a melancholic marionette, an archetype, dramatising the fears and possibilities of industrial modernity.

Although Chaplin created Charlie (“Charlot” internationally), he was not always fond of his creation. Louvish finds, as early as 1920, the actor-director claiming that “there are days when I am filled with disgust at the character that circumstances forced me to create. That dreadful set of clothes.” Within years of his almost accidental creation of the Tramp, he attempted other characters, notably a high-society drunk partly based on his father, a theatrical sot. Aside from One AM (1916), a fantastic fight between one very pissed man and his domestic appliances, none of these films was as compelling as the Tramp’s adventures. Chaplin almost grudgingly embodied the Tramp, and although he would use versions of him in a series of increasingly critical and allegedly “subversive” films (City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator), when the Tramp was replaced in 1947 with the nihilistic, gentlemanly serial killer Monsieur Verdoux the public horror was enormous.

Politics are, as always with Chaplin, nearly as central as comedy, but Louvish is as interested in the possible politics of the Tramp as he is in those of the actor. Before the downcast, pathos-filled figure of The Gold Rush (1925), he was a demonic class warrior, the perverse, compulsively arse-kicking imp of such shorts as The Adventurer (1917). Before Chaplin’s ambiguous flirtations with communism, a chalked “IWW” (graffiti for the Wobblies, the libertarian socialist Industrial Workers of the World) can be found in the background of his 1914 Keystone film The Fatal Mallet. The author concludes that, although there is no proof Chaplin himself scrawled it, the Tramp at this point most certainly would have done so.

Chaplin’s reservations about his creation imply a certain insecurity in this autodidact who would find himself exchanging insights with Einstein and Eisenstein, Thomas Mann and Theodor Adorno, even though Louvish claims hat the only public figure Chaplin ever met who hadn’t seen one of his films was Gandhi. But much of the interest of The Tramp’s Odyssey lies far from these rarefied circles, in its unearthing of sundry Chapliniana. There are poems, veering from doggerel sent in by readers of Photoplay to paeans by the avant-gardists Yvan Goll and Osip Mandelstam. There are cartoons from the popular press of the 1910s that already mythologise his dirt-poor childhood, and later caricatures charting his tussles with the House Un-American Activities Committee. There are letters, editorials, and clips from his FBI file. As for reality, dubious ghostwritten stories, fantastical accusations and Chaplin’s own frequent dissembling all added up to a complex mesh that historians have spent decades trying to untangle. But what really distinguishes this book is that there is no attempt to uncover the “real” Chaplin, as countless biographers have made, as did the man himself, in his brilliant, verbose and frequently inaccurate autobiography. Instead, in the Tramp’s spirit of salvage, Louvish rummages compellingly through several attics’ worth of ephemera – cartoons, works of art and literature by fans, the sort of embarrassing, charming amateurism we now glorify with the term “folk art”.

Louvish’s approach has its flaws, suffering particularly from the foolhardy misapprehension that comic scenes can be written down, so the synopses that open the chapters fall as flat as the Tramp’s feet. Nonetheless, The Tramp’s Odyssey is sharp, fast, full of unexpected detail, and impressively succeeds in demystifying Chaplin while leaving the Tramp’s mechanistic mystique largely intact.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The end of American power