Charles Chaplin’s My Auto-biography (he seems quite committed to the hyphen) is a curious work—both intoxicating and tedious, enthralling and banal.
I remember that even in Richard Attenborough’s 1992 bio-pic, Chaplin, in which Robert Downey Jr. plays the great comedian-filmmaker, the fictional editor of the autobiography (played in a glum, wheedling way by Anthony Hopkins) is visiting Chaplin at his last home, in Corsieur-sur-Verey, Switzerland, attempting to exhort him to spice up his memoir a little with more recourse to personal, intimate stuff. Especially sex (we all want to know what was like to sleep with Paulette Goddard—who was his wife from 1936-42—don’t we?). This, Chaplin steadfastly refuses to do. There are things you can write about, he explains, and things you can’t.
As he notes on the book’s very last page (p. 528), “Schopenhauer said happiness is a negative state—but I disagree. For the last twenty years I have known what happiness means. I have the good fortune to be married to a wonderful wife [Oona O’Neill Chaplin]. I wish I could write more about this, but it involves love, and perfect love is the most beautiful of all frustrations because it is more than one can express.”
What he can express—and does so with great, affecting virtuosity for the first half of the book—is an account of the horrifying poverty endured by Chaplin, his brother Sydney and their adored mother, in the slums of London when he as a child. He also offers an illuminating, moving, exciting look at his earliest days on the English stage and then in America, in silent films.
Their mother, who had been “a soubrette on the variety stage, a mignonne in her late twenties, with fair complexion, violet-blue eyes and long light-brown hair that she could sit upon,” was still a music-hall singer during Chaplin’s very early childhood. He remembers standing in the wings of a theatre stage, listening to her, and being alarmed when one night “Mother’s voice cracked and went into a whisper.” There were boos, catcalls, outbursts of cruel, raucous laughter. The unusually sympathetic Stage Manager, having seen the young Charlie performing at home for his mother’s friends, then suggested the boy go on in her place.
“And in the turmoil I remember him leading me by the hand and, after a few explanatory words to the audience, leaving me on the stage alone. And before a glare of footlights and faces in smoke, I started to sing, accompanied by the orchestra, which fiddled about until it found my key….”
The song is a well-known ditty of the times, “Jack Jones,” and Chaplin reports that halfway through his singing it, “a shower of money poured onto the stage. Immediately I stopped and announced that I would pick up the money first and sing afterwards. This caused much laughter” (p.11).
And set a precedent.
The first half of Chaplin’s book is brilliant at recreating the early days of British vaudeville and music-hall (what a harsh but indelible apprenticeship!) and really gets into high gear when Chaplin comes to the USA and eventually ends up in California, in on the ground floor of the nascent but soon-to-explode film industry. Priceless information here about D.W Griffith, Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand, The Keystone Cops, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Ford Sterling, Edna Purviance and a whole growing industry full of unforgettable personages (it’s strange, though, how little there is in the book about Buster Keaton, Chaplin’s only real rival in silent comedy). It’s fun to see Charlie’s Little Tramp go from earning $125.00 per week to a million a year—in the blink of an eye.
And although the second half of the book—the towering success half—is absorbing enough [marriages, paternity suits, censorship problems (especially with Monsieur Verdoux), IRS persecution, accusations of communist affiliations (during the disgraceful years of the reign of the House of Un-American Activities Committee) and his eventual deportation], there is also easy too much compensatory pressing of illustrious flesh: meeting Churchill, meeting Gandhi, meeting Nehru, Meeting William Randolph Hearst, meeting Einstein, meeting Pavlova, meeting Nijinsky, meeting Chou En-lai, meeting the president of France and the Queen of Spain, meeting Pablo Casals, Picasso, Jean Cocteau….well it’s all quite jolly, but you can tell that Chaplin has run out of autobiographical steam and has started to make what are essentially lists—in order to rush to the finish.
The Auto-biography is essentially a big bi-valve of a book, its two halves unequally, unevenly matched. For me, however, the beautifully written first half is worth everything. And I’m very glad indeed that I read it.