Chaplin: A Life

Chaplin: A Life

by Stephen Weissman


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“Chaplin is arguably the single most important artist produced by the cinema,” wrote film critic Andrew Sarris. Born in London in 1889, Charlie Chaplin grew up in dire poverty. Severe alcoholism cut short his father’s flourishing career, and his beloved mother first lost her voice, then her mind, to syphilis. How did this poor, lonely child, committed to the Hanwell School for the Orphaned and Destitute, become such an extraordinary comedian, known and celebrated worldwide? Dr. Stephen M. Weissman brilliantly illuminates both the screen legend himself and the turbulent era that shaped him.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611450408
Publisher: Arcade
Publication date: 11/01/2011
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Stephen Weissman, MD, is a practicing psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at George Washington University. He is also the author of His Brother’s Keeper: A Psychobiography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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A Life

By Stephen Weissman

Skyhorse Publishing

Copyright © 2011 Stephen Weissman, M.D.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61145-040-8


A Family Romance

THE ENTRY IN THE REGISTER of the Hanwell School for Orphans and Destitute Children reads:

Chaplin, Charles, aged 7, Protestant. Admitted on the 18th June, 1896.

He made the twelve-mile trip to the orphanage in a horse-drawn bakery van. Rattling and bumping along lanes lined with chestnut trees, past orchards and wheat fields, the wagon rolled through the fragrant green English countryside. For the seven-year-old, it was a breath of fresh air compared to the grim, gray pavements and thick, smoky fog of the stifling tenement slums of South London from which he had come. Even years later as a grown man, Chaplin could recall the adventure of that van ride.

Until, that is, he was greeted by the first harsh intimations of the starkly regimented life that awaited him. Before donning their scratchy school uniforms, new children were routinely stripped, inspected, and deloused in order to prevent outbreaks of verminous epidemics. Young Charlie soon became one of a sorry group of thirty-five plucked youngsters who suffered the stigma of shaven, iodined heads and miserable quarantine that year.

Far worse than the combined ringworm and delousing regimen was the loss of his mother. With wisdom and compassion, the Lambeth Board of Guardians shipped Charlie off to Hanwell accompanied by Sydney, his older half brother and protector. But after four short months the Hanwell authorities decided that Sydney should be transferred to another institution where he could learn a trade, now that he had turned twelve and was preparing to make his own way in the world.

It was then for the first but not the last time that young Charlie Chaplin found himself desolate and utterly alone. Fourteen months feels like an eternity for a child that age, and Chaplin always remembered this period as one of the most unhappy in his life.

After returning to Hanwell thirty-odd years later at the height of his success, he told a friend:

I wouldn't have missed it for all I possess. It's what I've been wanting. God, you feel like the dead returning to the earth. To smell the smell of the dining hall, and to remember that was where you sat. ... Only it wasn't you. It was you in another life — your soul-mate — something you were and something you aren't now. Like a snake that sheds its skin every now and then. It's one of the skins you've shed, but it's still got your odour about it. O-oh, it was wonderful. When I got there I knew it was what I'd been wanting for years. Everything had been leading up to it, and I was ripe for it. ... Being among those buildings and connecting with everything — with the misery and something that wasn't misery.

Fortunately for moviegoers, some of the skins Chaplin shed in the intervening years were made of celluloid. If you include all those old one- and two-reelers starting with Sennett and the Keystone days, along with seven or eight full-length film classics, they amount to more than eighty films — a remarkable number of moltings, even for Charlie, who lived to the age of eighty-eight and proudly fathered ten children of his own.

Sifting through Chaplin's celluloid moltings, it's not hard to pick up the scent of his childhood. Of course there's still room to wonder about the precise details. Was the Hanwell School bakery truck a closed van like the one that hauled off the recently orphaned gamine (Paulette Goddard) in Modern Times? Or was it an open, flat-bedded affair like the one in which the foundling (Jackie Coogan) got shipped off to the orphanage in The Kid? And if Chaplin's orphanage-haunted memories of delousing were not the source of his endless preoccupation with that wonderful fleacircus gag that eventually found its way into Calvero the clown's comeback performance in Limelight, where did it come from?

Calvero's oscillations between a flea-bitten tramp apologetically scratching himself and an expert trainer of acrobatic insects proudly placing his personal corps de ballet on display is executed with comic brilliance. But to say Chaplin mastered his old orphanage terror of being discovered flea-ridden by transforming it into a piece of exhibitionistic funny business does little to advance our understanding of how the creative process operated. Such a crude interpretation relies entirely upon Freud's primer on the psychology of jokes to explain the subtle mechanisms of comedy. It assumes that the comic mind operates as a seething id-cauldron automatically transforming childhood fears into schoolboy gags which are periodically belched and farted up from the steamy depths of the unconscious.

Of course, like everyone else, including his audience, Charlie did think along the lines of this eructatative-flatulent model of slapstick humor. When he was hot, Chaplin came up with a gag a minute. Sometimes his boiling brain overflowed at such a rate that the studio stenographers couldn't keep up with him. But at those times he was only mining his unconscious for the raw material of humor. The subtler process of comic refinement operated at an entirely different pace, with artistic methods and a timetable of its own.

For instance, it took more than thirty years from the original conception and filming of that flea gag before it found its way, uncut, into a finished film. Studio notes reveal that Chaplin first shot that idea while making The Kid — a most fitting occasion from a free-associative point of view, since it was his first film that dealt with his orphanage experiences as a child. But funny as it was, the gag didn't work in that film and ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Later, on at least three separate filmmaking occasions (The Circus, The Great Dictator, and an incomplete work, The Professor), Chaplin toyed with but resisted the temptation to use the flea routine. Judging from scant remaining footage of The Professor, revealing Charlie in a flophouse scene as Professor Bosco, the impresario of his own corporeal flea circus, the gag was going to serve as the comic centerpiece for that film. Interestingly, Chaplin family tradition had it that, at the time of Charlie's birth in London, Charlie Sr. was out of town playing Professor Bosco's Empire Palace of Varieties in Hull. But even though he had connected his cherished flea gag with memories of his dead father, Chaplin still did not feel ready to use it. As a colleague once put it, "Chaplin had a mind like an attic. Everything was stored away in case it ever came in handy."

The flea gag didn't find its place in one of his movies until he made Limelight, the film in which he belatedly came to terms with his parents' marriage and his conflicted feelings toward his alcoholic father, whom he had always blamed for their family falling apart. It was a time in Chaplin's life when, at the age of sixty-three, he had finally begun to settle into a stable family situation of his own. Having at last set aside his lifelong ambivalence about marriage and fatherhood, he felt the need to put some painful memories of his own father to rest.

Also woven into those fictionalized recollections of the man whose name he bore and whose trade he plied was Chaplin's mounting fear that, like his father before him, he too was about to be spurned and forgotten by his once-doting public. And so when Chaplin made Limelight, his final opus, he created the character of Calvero the clown — a composite of himself and his father, a faded music hall star and flea-bitten has-been. While filming both a magnificent final comeback for himself and a forgiving tribute to his father's memory, Chaplin brought the flea business back to where it began. For as seven-year-old Charlie well knew, he would never have had to deal with fleas and orphanages in the first place if it had not been for his father's refusal to rescue his mother from the Lambeth poorhouse.

Hannah Hill Chaplin's precipitous decline from headliner to breadliner was a devastating defeat for the formerly "light-hearted and gay" music hall comedienne, better known to her fans and admirers as "that charming little chanter, Lillie Harley" — or Lily Harley, the usual spelling. After losing her singing voice, her theatrical bookings, her sons, and her pluck, she ultimately plunged from poorhouse to madhouse, where she was labeled both a lunatic and a pauper, much to her young son's dismay.

While half blaming his alcoholically impaired father for not coming to his mother's aid, the small boy couldn't shake a nagging feeling "that she had deliberately escaped from her mind and had deserted us." Except for two brief remissions, the former songbird spent the rest of her life as a madwoman who, having regained her singing voice, sometimes required the soundproofing of a padded seclusion cell because of her theatrical tendency to belt out militant Christian marching songs on inauspicious occasions.

Preferring to drown his disappointments over his waning theatrical career, Charlie's father drank himself to death by the time Charlie was twelve. Left to make his way alone at an early age, the son of these two once semisuccessful vaudevillians on occasion had to sleep on the streets, busk for pennies to the tune of hurdy-gurdies, and scavenge for his supper. But ever mindful of his former station in life even in the face of dire poverty, he desperately struggled to keep up a facade of shabby gentility in order not to lose that most precious of all Englishmen's possessions, his sense of social class. Once, on unexpectedly encountering a former playmate, young Charlie casually dismissed his tattered and patched appearance by ad-libbing that he was just on his way home from a carpentry lesson. But inwardly the youngster cringed at the sorry spectacle of his own poverty and daydreamed of creating a successful vaudeville act playing a millionaire tramp.

Like Dickens, who was haunted by his boyhood encounter with the bootblacking factory and his parents' stint in debtor's prison, Charlie Chaplin never forgot his family's calamitous plunge into poverty and those feral moments of his childhood spent on the streets of South London. He recalled them over and over again in his immortal persona the Little Tramp. Not only did Charlie's character relive and sometimes triumph over his boyhood tribulations, but at times his tramp also appeared determined to correct the respective plights of Chaplin's parents, albeit with slapstick.

In spite of his puny, ineffectual appearance, Charlie's wobbly, waddling tramp-hero brings a ferocious determination to the saving of wistful young women beset by poverty, unemployment, loneliness, institutionalization, incurable physical illness, prostitution, stolen babies, and other dire predicaments. And when under the influence, as he was on at least a dozen separate filmmaking occasions, Chaplin's Little Tramp weaves his woozy way through booby-trapped obstacle courses filled with lethal pitfalls and comic pratfalls designed to destroy all but the most nimble of alcoholics. Through choreographic miracles of their creator's invention, Chaplin's drunks are always watched over and kept from harm's way by their guardian angel.

In his most memorable final fade-outs, the Little Tramp shuffles offscreen into the sunset, desolate and alone. What is most striking about Chaplin's nostalgic renderings both of his family and of the lonely predicaments of his boyhood in these scenes is the bittersweetness of his comic vision and the remarkably forgiving way in which he commemorated his feckless parents.


Family Secrets

I once had in mind a picture which was a burlesque of sentimentality. The opening scene was a long, long stair. The camera was following an old lady carrying a bucket of water. Struggling up each step, you know, painful with rheumatism, getting to one landing, and up another. And when she gets on the fourth or the fifth landing, a man suddenly opens a door and hits her a terrific punch right in the face. He turns white, says, "Oh, I beg your pardon, lady. I thought you were my mother." And she says, "You have a mother?" He weeps and says, "Yes, I have a mother."

— Chaplin

CHARLIE CHAPLIN'S STAGESTRUCK COCKNEY PARENTS met in 1881 while touring in a provincial theatrical production of Shamus O'Brien, an Irish melodrama. For the teenage would-be music hall stars, landing roles in the play marked the start of promising show business careers. Meeting so auspiciously lent a magical quality to their backstage romance, which in turn helped fuel their attraction to one another. As their son Charlie put it at age seventy-five, they were very soon "sweethearts."

Their mutually idealizing experience — encountering a professional and social counterpart at such a critical turning point — was like gazing into a looking glass and discovering a soul mate. Their roller-coaster romance, tempestuous courtship, and disastrous marriage began with this adolescent infatuation. It was a case of first love mistaken for true love.

That these two ambitious Londoners came from such similar working-class backgrounds contributed to the illusion of ideal compatibility. He was a butcher's son, she a shoemaker's daughter. But despite their shared dream of self-betterment, they were fundamentally different people. When she jilted him in 1883 and ran off to South Africa to marry a wealthy member of the British aristocracy whom she had just met, Chaplin's mother revealed just how far her social ambitions exceeded his father's. His father (referred to henceforth as Charlie Chaplin Sr.) set his sights on becoming a music hall star. But Hannah Hill had bigger fish to fry.

If we read between the lines, theatrical success was a stepping-stone to much grander, if not grandiose, life plans. The stage name she picked — Lily Harley — suggests the extent of her determination to rise above her station in life.

Vivacious, flirtatious, and impulsive, the sixteen-year-old Hannah had just run away from home. Nothing if not a risk taker, she determined to escape the usual fate of a teenage working-class girl in South London. Rather than resign herself to the vocational and social dead ends to which unmarried young women of her class were routinely consigned in the rigidly class-conscious world that was late-nineteenth-century London, she hoped to baffle destiny by becoming Lily Harley. That gamble was a terrible risk. But if her luck held up, she hoped to become a romantic adventuress just like the famous actress whose name she echoed in her own. Lily Harley yearned to become the next Lillie Langtry.

Better known to her adoring public as the Jersey Lily, Langtry was a renowned actress who had been a mistress of the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, whom she playfully addressed as "Bertie." As Lily Harley well knew, Langtry's life was living proof that commoners and kings could mingle freely. Or, as Hannah Hill probably reasoned to herself before deciding to run away from home and seek a career in the theater, talented young actresses of Langtry's ilk could end up marrying wealthy aristocrats if they met the right people and got the right breaks.

Along with Lillie Langtry, two other women served as inspirational fixations for Lily Harley's teenage dream of emancipation via an expert blend of sexual seductiveness and feminine wiles. One was Josephine de Beauharnais, who, a hundred years earlier, had conquered the most powerful man on the Continent and parlayed her conquest into becoming empress of France.

The other figure in Lily's pantheon of female seductresses was a young woman who grew up in the slums of seventeenth-century London, Nell Gwyn. The Cockney-born actress and former child prostitute had ended up as royal mistress to Charles II, whose reign had marked the end of Oliver Cromwell's austere Puritan revolution. Defiantly proud of her loyal service to her beloved monarch, Nell delighted in describing herself as "His Majesty's Protestant whore." And she was equally proud of bearing the royal bastard, the Duke of St. Albans.

Chaplin later recalled a vivid childhood memory of a full-length, life-size portrait of Nell Gwyn that had a place of honor in his mother's front room when he was a child of two or three. He also recalled his own fascination a few years later as a spellbound seven-year-old, when his mother was more economically pressed, watching her improvisations of scenes from Gwyn's life that she performed in their one-room slum garret for his edification and her own amusement: "She would enact Nell Gwyn, vividly describing her leaning over the palace stairs holding her baby, threatening Charles II: 'Give this child a name, or I'll dash it to the ground!' And King Charles hastily concurring: 'All right! The duke of St. Albans.'"

Minus the life-size portrait, similar improvisational sketches were also accorded to Lily's other favorite, Josephine de Beauharnais. Lily's performances of scenes featuring Napoleon and Josephine for seven-year-old Charlie were so unforgettable that many years later he periodically toyed with film treatments and screenplays for possible movies about Napoleon's life.

And in a remarkable real-life scenario that a thirty-five-year-old Chaplin arranged in 1924 with a sixteen-year-old aspiring actress, he insisted she play Josephine to his Napoleon while he initiated her into sex in his boudoir. Not unlike the original Beauharnais-Bonaparte relationship, the question of who conquered whom is entirely debatable. Subsequently forced to marry that starstruck, status-seeking teenager after the seduction resulted in an unplanned pregnancy that she refused to terminate, Chaplin placed her on prominent public display at a fabulous costume ball at William Randolph Hearst's palatial home, where they dressed in historically authentic Napoleon and Josephine costumes (designed and sewn by the wardrobe department of his film studio). Rather than admit to the Hollywood community the mortifying truth, that the great Chaplin had met his Waterloo in the bedroom of his Hollywood mansion, the star saw this flamboyant display of his new Josephine as a public relations ploy that would quell the widely circulating rumors of his secret shotgun wedding by depicting their marriage as both voluntary and happy.


Excerpted from Chaplin by Stephen Weissman. Copyright © 2011 Stephen Weissman, M.D.. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction by Geraldine Chaplin,
1. A Family Romance,
2. Family Secrets,
3. Improvisations,
4. The Invulnerable Child,
5. "Life Is a Tragedy ... in Close-up, but a Comedy in Long Shot",
6. Child Prodigy,
7. Woman in the Window,
8. An Actor's Life for Me,
9. Clowning Around,
10. Basic Training,
11. The Greenhorn and the Guv'nor,
12. The Immigrant,
13. Let's Go to the Movies,
14. Birth of a Tramp,
15. The Moon Shines Bright on Charlie Chaplin,
16. What Happened Next,
Afterword: Falsehoods or False Memories: Where's Charlie?,

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Geraldine Chaplin

Always provocative and at times heart-warming . . . an important addition to an understanding of my father's genius and art.

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