CHAPLIN: A LIFE
By Stephen Weissman
Arcade, $27, 320 pages
REVIEWED BY MARTIN SIEFF
Of writing books about Charlie Chaplin there is no end, and much study of them is a weariness after the flesh. But this wonderful work is different.
Chaplin was arguably the most innovative genius the movies have ever produced: Only D.W. Griffith matches him for technical and artistic innovation: But Griffith was a vile racist whose masterwork “Birth of a Nation” is quite simply disgusting and absurd in the extreme. Chaplin’s work, especially the amazing shorts he made for the Mutual Company during World War I, remain the definitive standard for screen comedy to this day.
Chaplin was not just “big,” he was gigantic. In 1915, he burst onto a war-torn world bringing it the gift of comedy, laughter and relief while it was tearing itself apart through World War I. Over the next 25 years, through the Great Depression and the rise of Adolph Hitler, he stayed on the job. He was bigger in his time than Al Jolson, Frank Sinatra or the Beatles in theirs. He was bigger than anybody. It is doubtful any individual has ever given more entertainment, pleasure and relief to so many human beings when they needed it the most.
The story of Chaplin’s life is well-known, or at least, it is thought to be: The hellish Victorian upbringing and terrifying poverty, the lightning, apparently inexorable rise of the vaudeville protege, the journey to America, the early involvement in the one-reeler movies and then the dizzying ascent to superstardom and legendary status. Also, the notorious promiscuity throughout his prime years, improbably settling down to belated domesticity and enduring happiness in late-middle age with what was, in effect, a child bride; the principled and courageous defiance and condemnation of fascism and Nazism, and then the utterly naive soft spot for communism and Stalin. However, psychiatrist Stephen Weissman shines a fresh and fascinating light on all these things so it is as if we are learning them all anew.
Here at last is a showbiz biography that is not just a tired collection of superficial press clippings. Here is a psychological study of a major artist delivered without pretension, jargon or absurdity - three curses that poor Orson Welles has attracted in especial intensity. Dr. Weissman tells a riveting story delivered like a good dry martini - in perfect proportion, just right.
It is also a story filled with surprises: Chaplin did not have a Jewish father. His father, Charlie Chaplin Sr., was a brief minor star of the English Victorian music hall in London who burned out fast and died of drink. Dr. Weissman convincingly argues Charlie’s classic drunk slapstick routines as The Tramp were inspired directly by observation of his poor, permanently inebriated father.
Charlie’s tragic mother, Hannah, was an even worse story. Dr. Weissman reveals that she whe was enslaved into prostitution in South Africa by her first husband - a pimp (He was probably working for the notorious Zwei Dagan international white slavery organization, the largest and worst criminal cartel on the planet from 1860 to 1940). She escaped from that world, but not before contracting syphilis, which led to her becoming permanently insane when Charlie was still just 7 years old. He and his beloved half-brother Sydney were then committed to the horrific Hanwell School for Orphans and Destitute Children: It was a hellhole Charles Dickens would have recognized only too well.
Dr. Weissman convincingly argues that the passionately heartbreaking scenes of beautiful young mothers torn away from their terrified, weeping children that is such a recurrent theme in Chaplin’s films were inspired directly by this experience. So was his consistent and remarkable financial generosity and kindness to all his girlfriends and one-night stands.
For much of the past half century, Chaplin’s artistic heritage was widely derided and undervalued. The mawkish sentimentality of the silent cinema and the jerky high jinks of his early movies when played on then-contemporary movie projectors made him seem childish and absurd. But from the 1980s onward, the restoration of his early classics and the development of technology that allowed them to be viewed again in all their original fluid, balletic beauty and perfect synchronization, has restored his creative reputation. Excellent DVD collections of these masterpieces are now easily available, as close as Netflix or your nearest Blockbuster.
As director, writer, stuntman, special-effects pioneer and auteur, Charlie Chaplin has no equal. He did it all first and he did it all best. Now Dr. Weissman has revealed the agonizing, tragic wellsprings of his astonishing inspiration in this beautiful, engrossing book.
• Martin Sieff is defense industry editor for United Press International and has received three Pulitzer Prize nominations for international reporting. He is most recently the author of “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East,” 2008.