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A Man Named Chaffin

My Autobiography

by Charles Chaplin

(Simon and Schuster; $6.95)

In 1913 the manager of an English music-hall company, which had been touring the US and was laying off for a week in Philadelphia, received a telegram from the New York office of a film company: "Is there a man named Chaffin in your company or something like that?" If so, the man was to communicate with the sender.

Turning points, clearly defined, occur in many theatrical careers. In 1866 in Liverpool, the 28-year-old Henry Irving, who had already failed in London, who felt himself condemned to a provincial actor's life and was considering changing professions, got an unexpected letter from Dion Boucicault that changed his life. Chaplin, at 24, was not discouraged; he was a thriving professional who might have gone on to a quite respectable music-hall or musical comedy career. Eventually he might have entered films another way. But that is conjecture. The fact is that this telegram changed his life and, one may say quite soberly, affected the world.

On a previous American tour, Chaplin had been seen in New York by Mack Sennett. Now Sennett, who had formed the Keystone company, was losing his comedy star and was searching for a replacement. He remembered the comic Englishman but could not quite remember his name.

The telegram arrives about one-third of the way through both Chaplin's life and autobiography. That first third is a chronicle of a childhood and early adolescence compounded of misery, hunger, considerable horror, and the desperate cheeriness of the poor in the intervals between the blackest depths. Several writers have noted the Dickensian quality in Chaplin's films. That is also the appropriate adjective for his early London life, with its workhouses, orphan asylums, drunken disappearing father, scrappy occasional meals, shivering cold.

He was the son of vaudeville performers. His older brother, Sydney, was only a half-brother and illegitimate, brought back from a South African escapade by his mother before she married. His father and mother separated when Charles was a baby and, at one time during these chaotic years, he and Sydney had to live with the father and his mistress. His mother was forced to quit the stage when she lost her voice. Her earnings as a seamstress were inadequate; the father's small weekly remittance was undependable. The father, also named Charles Chaplin, died at 37 of drink when his son was still a child. The mother, whose brain was damaged by malnutrition and who spent much of her later life in mental institutions, lived her last seven years in California, possibly aware that there was no one on earth better known than her son. Chaplin toured as a member of a troupe of dancing boys when he was eight but quit because of asthma which soon disappeared. He returned to the theater when he was twelve and, in effect, never looked back; he worked, improved, advanced. Long before the "Chaffin" telegram arrived, he had given evidence--and gave much more of it later--that he had a cool view of is worth. Samuel Goldwyn allegedly once said, "Chaplin is not a businessman, he only knows what he won't take a penny less than."

The story that he tells of his film career and his private life is fascinating, though incomplete in both aspects. He gives us the sense of the "company" feeling of the early studios, which were obviously modeled on resident theatrical companies and, more important, he conveys the free-and-easy feeling of film-making in those days.

     … [Sennett's] manner of working had given me
     confidence; it seemed right. His remark that first
     day at the studio; 'We have no scenario--we get
     an idea, then follow the natural sequence of events
     …' Had stimulated my imagination.

Later Chaplin says of himself in the days of the one- and two-reelers:

     Now I was anxious to get to work. Although I
     hadn't a story, I ordered the crew to build
     an ornate cafe set. When I was lost for a gag
     or an idea, a cafe would always supply one.

Concurrently, we get a view of Hollywood itself, expanding as a community to accommodate the money that was piling up there: the luxe hotels, athletic clubs, restaurants, beach houses, yachting basins. In those early California days, rajahs sprouted like oranges.

There are, of course, portraits, in depth or in sketch, of many famous persons: Valentino, reticent and likeable, who (Chaplin hints) was more sexually attractive than competent; Fairbanks, as ebullient off screen as on; Mary Pickford, America's Sweetheart of Financial Maneuver. At one point, she and Fairbanks and Chaplin and other stars were in the middle of negotiations with First National and hired a pretty girl as a private detective to go out with the president of FN to get from him the facts of a forthcoming merger. W. R. Hearst was, to Chaplin, the personality who "has made the deepest impression on me." (Hearst was worth $400 million, which, in Chaplin's quiet phrase, was "a lot of money in those days.")

There are insights into the sources of his principal films. The drastic change in the once-famous comedian Frank Tinney gave him the idea for Limelight. Orson Welles, in negotiations not unruffled, sold him the Landru idea for Monsieur Verdoux. Occasionally there are experiences which, though unremarked by Chaplin, seem to prefigure episodes in later films. His brief experience in a print shop as a boy--feeding a huge machine that kept threatening to get ahead of him--suggests Modern Times. A 4 a.m. drunken bout with a prizefighter in a Paris hotel room suggests City Lights. There are glimpses of abandoned projects: The Trojan Women with Edna Purviance, a screenplay of Shatiow and Substance for an inamorata named Joan Barry.

Recurring through the book are passages that deal with acting in general, with comedy in particular, with filmmaking. Although there are few surprises in his opinions - they verbalize what his films dramatize--they are valuable both as his statements and as puncture of much of the aesthetic balloonry that has blown up around him. He gives us insight into the crisis posed for him by the advent of sound. Rumor at the time, prompted by the fate of some other silent stars, was that he would have vocal difficulties, even though his past record should have quashed such nonsense. But the real problem was solely artistic. After Modern Times he pondered:

     … I was faced with the depressing question:
     should I make another silent picture? I knew
     I'd be taking a great chance if I did. The whole
     Of Hollywood had deserted silent pictures and
     I was the only one left. ... If I did make a talking
     picture, no matter how good I was, I could never
     surpass the artistry of my pantomime. I had thought
     of possible voices for the tramp--whether he
     should speak in monosyllables or just mumble.
     But it was no use. If I talked 1 would become like
     >Any other comedian.

His solution was to leave His solution was to leave the tramp back there in silent pictures. The barber in The Great Dictator, Calvero in Limelight, have certain kinships with him, but they are not the tramp.

The last third of the book declines in interest. It is strongly colored with retribution, complaint, explanation, justification: about Joan Barry's paternity suit, about his supposed Communist sympathies, about his shameful treatment by such pressure groups as the American Legion and by government arms acting as agents of those pressure groups, like the Immigration Department. His impulse to justification and revenge is easily understandable, but the tone might have been less querulous and spiteful, more in keeping with the justice in his position, his stature as an artist, and the fact that-as must already be apparent to him - history is on his side. What are certainly of minimal interest are his views on politics, economics, society, as he conversed or debated on these matters with world leaders.

Chaplin rewrote this book six times. At its best the style is attractively simple. Sometimes it is coy, and occasionally it is oppressively literary, presumably to prove his intellectual status. Speaking of his few youthful possessions: "My ignoble congeries … a drab and sorry sight." Of Balinese music: "Even the deep doleful passages had the sinister yearning of a hungry minotaur." As history, the book is incomplete. His reticence about the love affairs he mentions and about his marriages cannot be argued with, but why could he not have been more generous with dates and with other pertinent facts of his career? Sydney is prominent in the early sections, disappears, suddenly reappears as Chaplin's business manager, disappears again, and then we are told that he retired; virtually nothing is said of Sydney's own film career or later life. Details are about the making of Chaplin's major pictures, slimmest about Modern Times. The King in New York, which has not been shown here, goes absolutely unmentioned except for inclusion in an appendix of his films.

Then, too, there is little reflection by Chaplin on his phenomenal, lightning-like success. He knew that his pictures were making money soon after he was allowed to direct himself. Only a year after he joined Keystone, he was wooed away by Essanay with a fatter contract, and a year later Mutual paid him a $150,000 bonus to sign a $670,000 contract. But the human proportions of his success never struck him until, on his way to New York to sign that Mutual contract, he telegraphed his brother in the East about his arrival and found his train besieged by giant crowds at every stop. The telegrapher had passed the word that Charlie was coming. Still, outside of some reflections on the isolation and loneliness entailed, there is little examination by him of this incredible leap to world fame in two years, the most overwhelm- ing success in theatrical history.

What the film form did--the silent film, at any rate--was to make the clown available to more millions of people than had ever been possible; at the same time, it gave the clown the physical world to play with as he could not have done before. The film thus tapped a treasury that had been accumulating for two thousand years of theaters and circuses and simultaneously lavished greatly expanded means on these performers. When circumstances are right--in environment for work and in public appetite-artists flower in clumps, like the Elizabethan dramatists. Keaton, Langdon, Lloyd, and (a bit later) Laurel and Hardy were part of this new Elizabethan outburst. Chaplin was the Shakespeare of the lot.

But, after the omissions and shortcomings in this book have been noted, as they must be, they can be seen in proportion. It is doubtless foolish to expect the autobiography of a great nonliterary artist--particularly a theatrical one--to be a great book. To my knowledge, no such autobiography exists, with the possible exception of Stanislavsky's. All we can hope for is the fullest possible account of those insights and data that no historian, however thorough, can provide, hopefully not too obscured by inevitable subjectivity. The account here might have been fuller, and the subjectivity itself, on the matter of his art particularly, might have been more rewardingly exploited. But there it is, finished: the statement of his life by the greatest artist that the film has produced, one of the paramount artistic geniuses of the century. It is therefore a document of permanent worth.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.

By Stanley Kauffmann