After reading about one of the great losers of the silent film era, I thought I’d turn to one of the great winners, Charlie Chaplin who’s autobiography has been on my list for a long time. But, that’s not entirely true either. He also ran into sexual scandal for marrying a 16-year-old. His politics – which from his memoir seem pretty tame – ended up forcing him to live in Switzerland. (A lot of our best film artists seem to end up in exile, of one form or another: Chaplin, Kubrick, Tourneur, Welles, an internal exile, forced to beg for money from that colossal idiot, Stephen Spielberg who turned him down).
Chaplin writes well, as you’d guess. For once, the cliché “Dickensian” applies exactly, both in his diction and in the story he tells. The son of an alcoholic father and a mother who lapses in and out of insanity, desperate poverty and hunger, long periods of abandonment: maybe Dickens would have softened the edges. Reading it, you’re reminded of how tough and resourceful young children can be as both Charles and Sidney scramble to make a living in the music hall theatre. Success comes at 14: he's engaged as player and goes on tour. His brother helps him memorize the scripts because Charlie's practically illiterate. He makes it in England; still a teenager, he heads for the US. He works seven days a week, several shows a day. He loves touring. You get a sense of just who wide open the United States used to be - reminiscent of You Can't Win, with brief peeks into rowdy red light districts.
Between the lines and under the insouciance, you can see why he made it. A ferocious work ethic. A never-ending curiosity and willingness to adapt, to play with, to invent.
His memoir, predictably, loses a lot of its drive in the latter parts as he starts dropping names. Ironically, none of the noble lords and ladies he mentions are remembered now; it’s only their association with the one-time street rat that’s preserved their names.
Anyway, here's a slice of Charlie, still funny after nearly 100 years.