Absorbing analysis of Chaplin's appalling childhood

 

BOOK OF THE DAY: Chaplin: A Life,By Stephen Weissman, JR Books 315pp, £18.99

MOST CHILDREN know what Charlie Chaplin looks like, though they might not know what he did. He has been the subject of scores of books and wrote his own in 1964. A 1992 biopic starring Robert Downey jnr was a hit. What is there left to say about the man?

Not much, surely. But, as Dr Stephen Weissman demonstrates, Chaplin the child is still a psychological treasure trove. Chaplin’s daughter, Geraldine Chaplin, writes in her introduction to this absorbing book: “It is unlike anything that has ever been written about my father.”

The great clown’s appalling childhood has been well- documented, though fudged, romanticised or heightened for dramatic effect by Chaplin himself in his later years. Born in London in 1889 into utter poverty, his estranged father, a once-famous music-hall performer, died from drink when Chaplin was 12. His mother lost her mind, and the boy was committed to a school for destitute children.

Weissman, who is on the faculty of the Washington School of Psychiatry, is more interested in the rags than the riches, and stays with that boy because the boy stayed with Chaplin all his life. The pompous, dignified old man with the clipped, faux- genteel voice we know from television archives was essentially still the feral, ambitious, illiterate, street urchin with an impenetrable Cockney accent, and his childhood experiences informed almost every film he made once he got artistic control.

Chaplin’s facility for playing drunks came from watching, hidden weeping in a doorway, as his father staggered from the pub. The Little Tramp, forever rescuing girls from destitution, dishonour and danger, idealised Chaplin’s tragic and hopeless dream of rescuing his beloved mother, Hannah, from madness. Records show she was diagnosed in 1898, aged 33, with psychotic symptoms caused by neurosyphilis.

Sigmund Freud wrote of Chaplin: “He always plays only himself as he was in his dismal youth. He cannot get away from those impressions and humiliations of that past period of his life. He is, so to speak, an exceptionally simple and transparent case.”

If Weissman had restricted himself to putting the ghost of Chaplin on the couch and hitting us with theoretical psychobabble, the end product would have been tiresome. But he knows that the way the creative process operates is far more subtle than Freud’s crude interpretation.

Weissman is a fine writer, warm, quirky and vivid, and has researched meticulously British music-hall entertainment and the social conditions in which it flourished.

When Chaplin reached Hollywood and went to work for Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio in 1914, he played a variety of roles before he created the little fellow with the bowler hat, baggy pants and cane. Once he had learned the craft of film-making he moved on, was given autonomy by other studios, produced his finest work and became the most famous person on Earth. Through the years of his greatest celebrity, Chaplin’s constant reliving of his early life through his art extended to insisting that specific London locations from his childhood be recreated in the studio. The Little Tramp was always the Little Boy.

The real autobiography has always been available to us, up there on the screen. Weissman’s excellent book provides the best key so far to interpreting it.


Stephen Dixon is writing a book about British music-hall veterans who survived into the age of television