Charles Spencer Chaplin (1889-1977) was the most celebrated comedian and film-maker in the history of cinema. Nearly 40 years after his death, his screen-name “Charlie’’ still brings a smile to the face. Much has been written about his art and life. Critics and biographers have been reasonably perceptive about the throwaway mastery of his art, but not quite so about his life. This piece, although inspired by Peter Ackroyd’s biography titled Charlie Chaplin, is certainly not a review of it.

Ackroyd has had to tread over familiar ground, and his biography of Chaplin is bound to be compared with David Robinson’s—simply called Chaplin—which maybe a bit lugubrious but is extremely informative about the man’s work. Reading various biographies and repeated viewings of his films do not necessarily lead to a perceptive understanding about the artist and his psychological and spiritual make-up. One can only hazard a guess by what is literally on view in the films—shorts and features—and the impressions of those who knew him well or had met him briefly.

It is important to add that knowing someone for any length of time does not guarantee greater insights into that person’s art or personality. To put it mildly, Chaplin the man and Chaplin the comedian-director were difficult people; the kind who feared being ignored, and despite being intuitively aware of their enormous gifts, not being appreciated enough by friends and strangers.

Charles Chaplin in his youth and into late middle-age had a hyperactive libido, and the stamina to fulfil his seemingly insatiable appetite for women. He married four times (Mildred Harris, Lita Grey, Paulette Godard, and Oona O’Neill). He had liaisons with numerous women, including actresses like Edna Purviance, Pola Negri—an electrifying presence in Silent Cinema especially under the master Ernst Lubitsch, and a damp squib at the beginning of the Talkie-era in Hollywood, perhaps because of a thick Polish accent—and Peggy Hopkins Joyce, a highly sexed, good-looking socialite who made no bones about being a gold-digger. He also had a propensity for teenaged girls.

Only after he found Oona, who was 17 when he married her and he was 54, did he by a divine intervention, or so it seems, find peace. Oona, the daughter of the famous playwright Eugene O’Neill, became his anchor in the second, more serene part of his life.

His enormous sex-drive seems to have fuelled his artistic genius. It was as if women spurred him on to greater artistic heights though their presence in his life, with the notable exception of Oona, seems to have been exclusively for sexual companionship rather than abiding emotional sustenance. All the giving of himself he had to, he gave to his art as a clown and film director.

His wariness of women, and men too, for that matter, came from an innate distrust of human beings. He had seen grinding poverty as a child growing up in Victorian London and not until he joined the English Music Hall, a variety entertainment institution like Vaudville in the United States of America, was he able to afford three square meals a day. His mother Hannah, a singing comedienne of talent but prone to laryngitis, lost her voice at a concert for noisy soldiers; five-year old Charlie was pushed onstage by an anxious stage manager. He did an (inadvertently) cruel imitation of his mother losing her voice. Little Charlie sang and danced for another five minutes, but not before picking up all pennies that the audience had showered on him.

His mother went insane soon after, and Charlie and Sydney his older half-brother were sent to an orphanage for a while. To add to their experience of collective misery, Hannah had also done a short stint in the workhouse, the ultimate sign of economic failure in those times. It is only understandable that Charlie became increasingly wary of social and commercial transactions with fellow humans.

The only person he seemed to trust with his money was Sydney, whom he brought over to Hollywood to manage his business affairs. It may not be an exaggeration to say that the fact that Chaplin survived the Great Depression of 1929 that rocked the American economy to its foundations, with his wealth intact, was thanks entirely to Sydney’s exceptionally shrewd management of his younger brother’s assets.

It is perfectly true that the patina of human suffering that Chaplin brought to his art also elevated it. There are very many scenes from his shorts and feature-length films that make you laugh through tears. There is for example The Pilgrim, a short film he acted in and directed for First National, a film studio in the Silent era, in which he as the Tramp, a character he immortalised, steals the clothes of the priest swimming nearby and puts them on to “double” for him in a church which is expecting a new minister. He moves the congregation to tears with a sermon on little David (good) triumphing over the (evil) giant Goliath. His miming is sublime in this silent film. But the scene that invariably brings a lump in the throat is the one at the end where the homeless (also read stateless) Tramp walks away from the viewer along the Mexico-United States border with a foot on either
side of the divide.

So great was Chaplin’s ability to cinematically express his ideas with lightness of touch, grace and fluidity that he was likened to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose work  had great depth of feeling and richness of ideas that were presented with absolute ease. Chaplin’s only real rival was Buster Keaton—lugubrious of face but a superbly coordinated and graceful athlete. He was in his comedy the anti-thesis of Chaplin; he never tugged at the heartstrings of the audience but left them thrilled and happy applauding his extremely dangerous and funny physical antics on-screen. His films—the best of them—had an innate sense of form or structure. Some film critics have called Keaton the Bach of cinema, perhaps because of the underlying grandness, however unintentional, that lay beneath the superbly set up gags of “dry” humour. Johann Sebastian Bach was Mozart’s senior and fellow Viennese. His musical compositions were grand, austere and memorable.

Chaplin and Keaton were products of the English Music Hall and the American Vaudville respectively. Both institutions appealed to a large, live and, when provoked, ill-mannered, even cruel audience. The performer had to grab the paying patron in the shortest possible time and hold him/her in thrall till the end of the act. Before coming to the cinema, both Chaplin and Keaton were star-turns on the stage.

Chaplin melted the hearts of his audience by modelling his act with ever increasing success on the principles laid down by English low-brow comedians and French clowns: from the first, he learnt how to keep his funny verbal patter going and from the second he imbibed the supreme art of pantomime. When he entered the cinema, he did not need words, the medium was silent but his training in mime and a great gift for it gave him a head start.

Keaton’s Vaudeville act was based on very demanding and exquisitely timed acrobatics. He carried this skill into cinema and added to his genius for staging breath-taking gags, that of expertly conceived and executed special effects. Chaplin’s world view was Shakespearean and Keaton’s, for all its romanticism, very dark, almost Beckettian! Indeed his last offering, an half-hour silent short scripted by the master of the absurd, Samuel Beckett, was simply titled Film.

Chaplin, despite his sentimentality, made films about essential human issues like the need and right to earn a reasonably decent living in order to be able to put food on the table and to have a home. The travails of unwed motherhood, the domination of excessive machinery in daily life and the negation of human dignity were some of the themes he dealt with enormous empathy.

His championing the cause of the downtrodden with whose labour the unimaginable prosperity of the US was made possible, did not exactly endear Chaplin with the Establishment. Later, after World War II, he was hounded as a communist sympathiser in a country that had deliberately crushed time and again legitimate strikes and broken the back of the labour movement, because it was seen as an unnecessary impediment by captains of industry whose only aim was profit at any cost.

The Great Depression made the capitalists, even more greedy and protective of their own interests. They thought Chaplin was a canny operator making pots of money exploiting current socio-economic problems.

It is true that his films from his silent days, dealt with major issues though they were presented as expertly crafted comedies. The Immigrant, Idle Class, The Pilgrim, Easy Street, and The Pawnshop were about the day-to-day struggles in the New World, where most folk were poor but hoped to better their lot. The Kid, and Shoulder Arms before that, gave him the necessary artistic and commercial leverage to go independent, build his own studio, and thus have absolute creative freedom.

Chaplin then formed United Artists with his good friends Douglas Fairbanks and his wife Mary Pickford, great stars of the silent era ,and D. W. Griffith, the father of film language and a master director. Through this company Chaplin distributed his films which were hugely profitable, with the exception of A Woman of Paris which did only reasonably acceptable business.

A Woman of Paris had Edna Purviance and Adolphe Menjou in the lead; Chaplin only had a walk-on part as a porter at a small train station. It was a sophisticated adult comedy, far ahead of its time. The audience that was used to seeing Chaplin, as the quintessential outsider in his on-going Tramp role—dressed in shabby trousers, a buttoned up coat too tight for him, an upturned bowler hat, a cane, outsized shoes, toes curling upwards; his darkened eyes and short moustache completing his persona—could not understand why he had made it at all.

It is a remarkable film, in retrospect. Edna Purviance as the betrayed village girl who becomes a demi-mondaine in Paris and the mistress of a roué (played by Adolphe Menjou) gives a beautifully modulated performance. Menjou fits his part like a glove.

“It came as a profound shock to the audience of the time, who did not quite know what to make of it. Yet other directors took the point immediately. Ernst Lubitsch and Michael Powell reported themselves to be overwhelmed by the experience, and began to imitate it in their own ways; Powell remarked that ‘suddenly there was a grown-up film with people behaving as they do in real life.’” (Page 143)

A Woman of Paris did not launch Edna Purviance as a major star as Chaplin had intended. She faded away very quickly from the cinema as she did from his life. He was to soon meet and then marry Lita Grey, a nubile, aspiring actress. His troubles with women that began with wife number one Mildred Harris, also underage, nubile and aspiring, was to continue for a long time.  

Before he found emotional stability with Oona, there was the unsavoury misadventure with an emotionally unstable aspiring actress, Joan Barry. He wanted to cast her in the lead of his proposed film based on a play, Shadow and Substance. Chaplin and Barry had become lovers. Things went awry when she became pregnant. A California court dismissed her case when a blood test proved that Chaplin was not the father of Carol Ann, the baby girl born to Joan Barry.

But her lawyer Joseph Scott “decided upon an ad hominem attack in order to sway the jury. He denounced Chaplin as a ‘grey-haired old buzzard’, ‘a little runt of a Svengali’, a ‘debaucher’ and a ‘lecherous hound’ who ‘lies like a cheap cockney cad’ ... This unwarranted appeal to the emotions of the jurors did not altogether work, however, since the case ended in a deadlock. A further trial was ordered for the spring of the following year, but Chaplin declined to appear as a witness. On this occasion, despite the evidence of the doctors that he was not the father of the child, he was deemed responsible by a majority of ten. His reputation in the United States fell into a decline from which it never recovered until his final years.” (Pages 210-211)

Chaplin’s overpowering sex-drive may have been a source of misery in his private life, but it may possibly have fuelled his cinematic creativity. No other director in the history of cinema covered such wide-ranging ideas (dressed usually as comedies) with such astonishing success. Apart from addressing basic emotions like the various shades of love—carnal, sensual, familial, social—greed, loneliness, and disappointments in everyday life, he tackled social issues like the likely outcome out of excessive industrialisation (Modern Times), and the alienation of the individual left bankrupt by economic depression leading him to becoming a Bluebeard, a killer of well-to-do women after marrying them (Monsieur Verdoux).

His prophetic prediction about the rise of virulent anti-Semite feelings in the Germany of 1938 (The Great Dictator) was appreciated only for its laughs, not for the espousal of sanity and humanity. He had to set his film in Tomania, an imaginary country ruled by a deranged dictator Adenoid Henkel, who is determined to finish off all the Jews in the land. This ploy had to be employed in order to spare the feelings of a large number of US citizens of German origin, many of whom were covertly anti-Jew. Moreover, the American government, had at that time cordial relations with Nazi Germany led by Adolf Hitler, who was to very soon be the worst destroyer of the Jewish race in history.

Hollywood dominated the world in Chaplin’s time because of its unmatched reach, therefore the capacity to generate more revenue than all the national cinemas of the world put together. Chaplin’s films were amongst the biggest grossers at the box-office at home and abroad.

Their content from the early Thirties—City Lights (1931)—into the late Forties—Monsieur Verdoux (1947)—was at variance with the successful Hollywood product that usually held out false hope, the promise of a happy tomorrow. Rich, cynical denizens of Hollywood thought Chaplin was taking himself too seriously. Buster Keaton, the fallen genius—he was a bad businessman, surrendering his freedom and thus creativity to MGM, a leading studio with the coming of the Talkies—was taken aback by his friend Chaplin’s declarations.

“On one occasion Chaplin and Buster Keaton were drinking beer in Keaton’s kitchen. ‘What I want’, Chaplin said, ‘is that every child should have enough to eat, shoes on his feet and a roof over his head!’ ‘But Charlie’, Keaton replied, ‘do you know anyone who doesn’t want that?’” (Page 195)

If Chaplin, driven by the desire for a just social order, was being bombastic on that occasion, Keaton’s reaction was a shade naive, because translating goodwill into affirmative action was/is beyond most human beings, unless severely pressed for survival. Cynics can aver that the opposite is also imminently possible!

When senator Joseph McCarthy and benighted cohorts started a witch-hunt across the US claiming that communists had infiltrated every walk of American life, there was panic in Hollywood. Actors, directors, script-writers were busy denouncing each other before the House Un-American Activities Committee to save their flourishing careers. Chaplin, Oona and the children, who were still very small, left the country for good. They eventually settled in a 23-acre estate in Vevey, Switzerland.

The last phase of his life with Oona and his ever-growing family was happy, though his children as teenagers considered him a martinet. In his final phase, 1950-65, he made three films, namely, Limelight, A King in New York, and finally, A Countess from Hong Kong.

Limelight, about a fallen Music Hall star comedian called Calvero, was deemed to be autobiographical. After the French premiere in Paris, they went a few days later to see Picasso in his studio. Later he wrote about this meeting with Chaplin. “Time has conquered him and turned him into another person. And now he’s a lost soul—just another actor in search of his individuality and he won’t be able to make anybody laugh.’’ (Page 228)

Picasso in his mind’s eye still saw Chaplin as the Tramp, the classic clown who relied on his supreme skills as a mime to express himself. He could no longer be the poet-acrobat who could express the most fleeting of emotions with great delicacy. It was true that age had caught up with the great comedian and it was no longer possible for him to do prat-falls and other forms of acrobatics that were the staple of his silent comedy days. Sound had come in, the medium itself had changed. Limelight is a melancholic film, full of nostalgia for the Music Hall days, but it is also sensitive and poetic in a gentle,
ruminative way. One of the highlights is a double-act on stage at the climax featuring Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton as a pair of maladroit musicians.

A King in New York is a trenchant satire on McCarthyism, in which a child prodigy is tricked into betraying his politically progressive parents, resulting in their deaths.

His final film, A Countess from Hong Kong, based on a scenario abandoned in the 1930s, did not work because Marlon Brando was mis-cast as the romantic and humorous American ambassador, though Sophia Loren was charming, vulnerable and funny as the White Russian Countess. The one thing that Chaplin managed to salvage from the film was the smash hit This Is My Song composed by him.

Charlie Chaplin had the most successful career a filmmaker ever had. His acting as a comedian was a perfect blend of laughter and pathos, and he was unsurpassed in this area. He was the first great original of the cinema and unequalled in the execution of complex ideas made simple and lucid through sheer clarity of vision. True that most of his emotional life was problematic but then happiness did come, not too late, and almost inadvertently in the form of Oona.