The art of Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), the south London-born master of silent screen comedy such as The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936), is as relevant today as a century ago.
All of these films had the loveable Tramp fighting for the underdog amid miserable economic surroundings.
The mockery of power, brilliantly espoused by Chaplin, is often the last refuge of those unable to defend themselves. This is what resides in Chaplin’s best work, which is not just his silent film portfolio.
His successful transition to “talkies” was blessed with anti-authoritarian defiance in The Great Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947). This was a black comedy satirising the war machine that had arisen out of the Second World War.
Simon Louvish, in writing his new biography Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey, must have been aware that few narratives on the Chaplin phenomena remained unexplored, as biographies run into their hundreds.
In addition to Chaplin’s My Autobiography, there is David Robinson’s outstanding Chaplin: His Life and Art and less appreciative revisionist takes, such as Kenneth Lynn’s Charlie Chaplin and His Times.
This has him bang to rights as a commie and with a personal life as morally grey as any celebrity could ever aspire to nowadays.
None of Lynn’s conclusions were especially accurate or helped the reader advance their understanding of the life and art of a 20th century icon.
The timing of Louvish’s refreshing twist to attempt to trace the genealogy of the Tramp is canny. The concerns of Chaplin’s time – of a failed free market, insane economics, hopelessness and mass unemployment, and states holding weapons of mass destruction – have become ours.
References to his personal life – the bitter love wrangles and lawsuits and eventual exile from the US in 1952 – are kept to a minimum unless directly relevant to the building blocks of Chaplin’s most enduring creation. “This is more a tale of Charlie than of Chaplin,” explains Louvish.
The painted-on moustache, bowler hat, cane, ill-fitting coat and baggy pants weren’t as accidental in their composition as Chaplin would have you believe.
Instead, Charlie’s early career, guided by his mother Hannah Chaplin, a performer in happier times (she would be admitted to a mental asylum when Chaplin was only a child), was spent grafting in the English Music Hall.
It was the years with Fred Karno’s comedy troupe – Stan Laurel was also part of the gang when they first toured the US in 1910 – where the world of the Tramp was first mapped out.
US critics were generally upbeat about Charlie’s stage presence during those crucial days, with Variety magazine noting, “Chaplin will do all right for America.”
By the outbreak of the First World War Chaplin had become a global cinema phenomenon thanks to his films for the Keystone Film Company.
He missed out on being drafted into the army because he was too small – five foot, five inches – and the War Office thought it better to have him entertain the allied forces with his films then kill the “Bosch”.
On this subject, Louvish excels by using less obvious sources, which is a recurring theme throughout the book.
He identifies one Ohio newspaper article which had the headline “Chaplin’s Patriotism.”
The story read, “They say that poor little Charlie Chaplin is no longer popular abroad because he did not go the front, and has not devoted some of his alleged colossal earnings to the conflict. Can such piffle be true?”
Doubts over our boy from Lambeth’s loyalty to the idea of nationhood would persist, especially in his adopted US. They would eventually leave him bitter and an exile.
Louvish sifts through the post-Keystone periods with a fine toothcomb revealing Chaplin’s instinctive skills in moviemaking.
Early on, this often included working without a script. As Louvish writes, “Unlike other movie masters, he does not have the film in his head. It will emerge out of the mulch of experience, out of the process of communal art.”
By the 1940s, Chaplin had chalked up gem after gem, all anti-establishment and humanist works, as well as flack for daring to show left wing sympathies. Being pally with HG Wells and US writer and socialist Max Eastman surely gave this away.
He also questioned the use of the atom bomb, making him doubly unpopular when Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch-hunts began to brew up their ridiculous rhetoric.
In My Autobiography Chaplin notes his prodigious sin “was, and still is, being a non-conformist. Although I am not a Communist I refused to fall in line by hating them.”
He did admit to being a pacifist and internationalist, less concerned with boundaries, false identity and patriotism and more with humanism and humility. “We think too much and feel too little,” he once said. How we could do with Charlie now.