TITLE: HE WAS LARGE, HE CONTAINED MULTITUDES., 13 Nov 2008
By Robert Morris, Dallas, Texas
For most people who are interested in knowing more about the life and career of Charles Chaplin (16 April 1889 – 25 December 1977), this most recently published of several biographies and two autobiographies provides as much information and analysis as they probably require. I had seen several of Chaplin’s greatest films (The Kid, The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, and Limelight) as well as the film about him starring Robert Downey Jr. One of his daughter’s, Geraldine Chaplin, wrote the introduction to Stephen Weissman’s biography and correctly describes it as “always provocative and at times heart-wrenching, an enlightening read, an important addition to an understanding of my father’s genius and art, and a unique meditation on the mystery of creativity.”
More specifically, Weissman thoroughly examines
1. Chaplin’s generally miserable childhood
2. His initial appearances on stage in London and throughout the British Isles
3. His breakthrough performance in the West End production of Sherlock Holmes
4. His association with the Fred Karno troupes (”Fred’s Fun Factory”)
5. His first and second American tours with Karno group (between 1910 and 1913)
6. His association with Mack Sennett and the Keystone Film Company
7. His one-year association with Essanay Films
Note: Although Chaplin co-founded United Artists with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith in 1919, Weissman includes no discussion of that partnership.
8. Chaplain’s creation and development of the “Little Tramp”
9. Various controversies involving Chaplin’s lifestyle and political views
10. His recognition and awards in his later years
Note: In the “Afterword,” Weissman provides an especially interesting discussion of contradictory opinions about the legitimacy of Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story (a narrative as told to journalist Rose Wilder Lane) that appeared in a series of 29 installments in the San Francisco Bulletin from July 5 to August 4, 1915. Weissman believes that Lane transcribed Chaplin’s comments as accurately as she could. Another Chaplin scholar, David Robinson, dismisses Own Story as “romantic and misleading nonsense.” Weissman suggests that his reader take her or his choice. “Neither Robinson’s theory nor mine is provable.”
While reading this often riveting account of Chaplin’s personal life and professional career, I was reminded of a passage in Walt Whitman’s poem, “Song of Myself”: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” That can certainly be said of Chaplin who overcame a truly miserable childhood, mastered the skills needed to achieve extraordinary success on stage, completed an especially difficult transition from performing in front of a live audience to performing for the lens of a camera, then became arguably the greatest film actor ever while mastering the skills needed to write and direct his own films.
Throughout his narrative, Weissman cites a number of different sources who offer a variety of perspectives on Chaplin’s life and art. For example, here is what Alistair Cooke once observed when discussing Chaplin’s identification with Dickens: “Charles Chaplin was Charles Dickens reborn…there is an eerie similarity between [the novel] Oliver Twist and the first 60 pages…of Chaplin’s Autobiography. But as a reincarnation of everything spry and inquisitive and Cockney-shrewd and invincibly alive and cunning. Chaplin was the young Dickens in the flesh.” Here is what Sigmund Freud once noted: “In the last few days, Chaplin has been in Vienna…He is undoubtedly a great artist; certainly he always portrays one and the same figure; only the weakly poor, helpless, clumsy youngster for whom, however, things turn out well in the end. Now do you think for this role he has to forget about his own ego? On the contrary, he always plays only himself as he was in his dismal youth.”
Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out the Charlie Chaplin’s Own story (as told to Rose Wilder Lane) and Chaplin’s My Autobiography by Chaplin as well as David Robinson’s Chaplin: His Life and Art and The Essential Chaplin edited by Richard Schickel.