Charlie Chaplin Peter Ackroyd

Chatto, pp.262, £14.99, ISBN: 9780701169947

No actual birth certificate for Charles Spencer Chaplin has ever been found. The actor himself drew a blank when he went on a rummage in Somerset House. The latest research suggests that he was born ‘in a gypsy caravan in Smethwick, near Birmingham’. But surely the truth has been staring people in the face ever since the Little Tramp first popped on the screen: Chaplin is the lost twin of Adolf Hitler.

Peter Ackroyd almost suggests as much. Both men first drew breath in April 1889. They had drunken fathers and nervous mothers. There were patterns of madness and illegitimacy in the family tree. They were short and sported an identical moustache. They had marked histrionic skills, each man ‘appealing to millions of people with an almost mesmeric magic’. They were despotic towards underlings — and Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is less political satire than back-handed homage. Hitler watched it at a private screening — twice.

By 1915, says Ackroyd, Chaplin was ‘the most famous man in the world’. Lenin said that ‘Chaplin is the only man in the world I want to meet.’ He stayed with Churchill at Chartwell. At Nancy Astor’s house he met Shaw and Keynes. Barrie and H.G. Wells were fans. Debussy told him, ‘You are instinctively a musician and dancer.’ Almost as a symbol of the Victorian age yielding to modern times, Chaplin had been invited to attend Henry Irving’s funeral at Westminster Abbey — and he accepted acclaim and precedence as his due. ‘I am known in parts of the world by people who have never heard of Jesus Christ,’ he boasted. His one unfulfilled ambition was to star in a biopic about Napoleon.

Chaplin’s hubris had no limits. Offered prizes and awards, he was ungracious: ‘I don’t think you are qualified to judge my work,’ he once said, returning a trophy. His knighthood was delayed until 1975 because he’d declined to appear on stage at a Royal Variety Performance, which was ‘construed as an insult to George V’.

The theme of Ackroyd’s book is the alarming contrast between the sweetness of the Little Tramp, the saviour of fallen women and lost children, and the monstrousness of Chaplin himself, who came across to every single person who ever met him as difficult, suspicious and angry. He was ‘dour and unsociable’, ‘nervous, withdrawn and morose’. He ‘smiled rarely and sourly’. Robert Florey, an assistant director, called him a ‘tyrannical, wounding, authoritative, mean, despotic man’. His children, as is always the way, came off worst. ‘The violence of his anger was always so out of proportion to the object that had stirred him that I couldn’t help being frightened of it,’ said one of his sons. It was part of Chaplin’s megalomania that he refused to be told what day of the week it was, and ‘he never wore a watch.’

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Ackroyd, the laureate of London, and a previous biographer of Dickens, can be relied upon for a rich evocation of Chaplin’s Kennington, where his childhood was spent in the teeming thoroughfares, with the hat-makers, leather-tanners, gin palaces and hurdy-gurdy music halls. ‘They are my people, the cockneys. I am one of them,’ said Chaplin — and for his films he painstakingly recreated the scenes and rooms of ‘the haunted city’ on the Hollywood back lot. His genius, indeed, according to Ackroyd, lay in the way he transformed the hopelessness of slum life into a universal symbol that provoked laughter — immigrants, the indigent, the shabby-genteel, the homeless: all the brutal violence they suffered ‘rendered harmless by comedy’.

Hannah, Chaplin’s mother, was a singer, a soubrette, a mender of old clothes — possibly a prostitute. She was certainly a lunatic. Records show she was incarcerated in various asylums, put in a padded cell and given shock treatments. The young Chaplin was despatched to the Southwark workhouse, then to a school for orphans and the destitute. His father was useless — he died of drink aged 38. Chaplin’s various stepmothers were neglectful and cruel, failing to feed him and locking him out in the rain. All alone, he found himself clog-dancing outside pubs. He had nothing, save demonic self-belief — which onlookers never failed to register. He survived, he said, by being suffused with ‘the exuberance that comes from utter confidence in yourself. Without it, you go down in defeat.’ Hence, his demonic arrogance; and also the origins of the indomitable Little Tramp, who picks himself up and trots jauntily off into the sunset.

From performing in the street, Chaplin was hired, aged seven, to clog-dance in music halls, where he relished mixing with the magicians and acrobats. He played the role of perky pageboy in a Sherlock Holmes tour, where he became ‘a prime favourite with the audience’. This led to pantomimes and knockabout sketches, skits, stunts and spoofs with Fred Karno’s troupe: ‘custard pies and buckets of whitewash, trick cyclists and spinning plates, high wires and wooden stilts’.

Chaplin went to America with Karno’s in 1913, soon separating from the company to join Mack Sennett, the manager of Keystone. Chaplin made dozens of flickering films of ten or 15 minutes’ duration: ‘Paint buckets were upset; carpenters’ ladders swing wildly around; paint flies everywhere.’ The actors raced around and crashed into things. Doors slammed. Houses collapsed. And in the midst of such whirlwinds, the Little Tramp made his first appearances. In a typical film lasting 20 minutes, he’d fall over 46 times. Chaplin ‘shuffled, with his feet turned outwards. He twirled his cane and knocked off his own hat’. The character was cunning, kicking and biting — and surviving.

He also wiggled and simpered, particularly in the presence of women. Ackroyd is correct to point out that all the flower-sellers and wistful prostitutes in Chaplin’s films represent the doomed love he’d experienced as a child. In fact, says Ackroyd, after his mother had gone mad and vanished, ‘Chaplin never really trusted women. He always feared loss and abandonment, slight and injury, indulging in paroxysms of jealousy on the smallest provocation.’ The girls he liked were dewy 15-year-olds — he’d wait until they were 16 before he married them, when they’d find themselves mistress of a large mansion in Beverly Hills and a body of servants, plus an obligation to the School Board of Los Angeles ‘to continue their education’. As with Woody Allen, Chaplin could help his brides with their homework — or maybe not. ‘Charlie married me and then he forgot all about me,’ was a frequent complaint cited in divorce hearings. He was always off chasing fresher meat, painting his private parts with iodine to ward off the clap. Louise Brooks was terrified to see his ‘bright red erection’ coming at her in the dark.

Did Chaplin inspire Nabokov to write Lolita? He’d have been a better Humbert Humbert than James Mason. ‘I look bleary-eyed, like a murderer,’ Chaplin exclaimed, seeing a photograph taken at home, when he was out of make-up. His last wife, Oona O’Neill, was 36 years his junior. ‘Part of her always had to be a little girl, Charlie’s little girl.’ It sounds horrific. Oona became an alcoholic and people often witnessed Chaplin ‘in a terrible rage and she’d run into her room and lock the door. He’d try and get her out and it was all hell.’

Meanwhile, Chaplin was earning $10,000 a week. As a director he was a dictator: ‘Do this, do not do that, look this way, walk like this, now do it over.’ He’d shoot 36,000 feet of negative and print 1,800 feet of it. He ordered 342 takes over a two-year period of a single shot in City Lights — the blind flower-seller handing over a bunch of violets to the Little Tramp. Was this perfectionism? A manifestation of obsessive compulsive disorder? Or was he behaving like a simple power-crazed brute?

As America grew prosperous, it grew tired of Chaplin’s sentimental visions of being down and out. His political beliefs were branded as communist. His sexual scandals, as revealed in numerous paternity suits, upset morality. In 1952, his re-entry visa to the United States was rescinded, so he moved to a villa in Switzerland. (A neighbour was Vladimir Nabokov, interestingly. Did they meet? There’s a subject for Tom Stoppard.) He made Limelight, ‘an echo-chamber of Chaplin’s own memories and desires’, about an old clown in the gaslit music halls, and Monsieur Verdoux, my own personal favourite, about a dapper Edwardian-era serial killer. (Evelyn Waugh loved it too, calling it ‘a startling and mature work of art’, though Ackroyd does not quote this. ) Orson Welles wrote the script. It is typical of Welles’s perspicacity that he saw in Chaplin the soul of a psychopath. Ackroyd talks of Chaplin’s London, ‘the centre of his inspiration’, as a version of Dickens’s London — but was it not also Jack the Ripper’s?

Chaplin died on Christmas day 1977. Ackroyd doesn’t mention this, but the comedian’s coffin was stolen by grave robbers, who phoned Paulette Goddard, one of his wives and the co-star of The Gold Rush, hoping they could make a ransom demand. ‘We’ve got Chaplin,’ they announced. ‘So what?’ she said, slamming down the phone.

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This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review - biography, Churchill, H.g. wells, Hitler, hubris, Lenin, mime, music hall, Nancy Astor, The Great Dictator