April 19, 2014


Charlie Chaplin, monster : A review of Peter Ackroyd's Charlie Chaplin. His films may have been all sweetness and light - but Chaplin's ego had few limits (Roger Lewis 12 April 2014, The Spectator)

[S]urely the truth has been staring people in the face ever since the Little Tramp first popped on the screen: Chaplin is the lost twin of Adolf Hitler.

Peter Ackroyd almost suggests as much.  [...]

He also wiggled and simpered, particularly in the presence of women. Ackroyd is correct to point out that all the flower-sellers and wistful prostitutes in Chaplin's films represent the doomed love he'd experienced as a child. In fact, says Ackroyd, after his mother had gone mad and vanished, 'Chaplin never really trusted women. He always feared loss and abandonment, slight and injury, indulging in paroxysms of jealousy on the smallest provocation.' The girls he liked were dewy 15-year-olds -- he'd wait until they were 16 before he married them, when they'd find themselves mistress of a large mansion in Beverly Hills and a body of servants, plus an obligation to the School Board of Los Angeles 'to continue their education'. As with Woody Allen, Chaplin could help his brides with their homework -- or maybe not. 'Charlie married me and then he forgot all about me,' was a frequent complaint cited in divorce hearings. He was always off chasing fresher meat, painting his private parts with iodine to ward off the clap. Louise Brooks was terrified to see his 'bright red erection' coming at her in the dark.

Did Chaplin inspire Nabokov to write Lolita? He'd have been a better Humbert Humbert than James Mason. 'I look bleary-eyed, like a murderer,' Chaplin exclaimed, seeing a photograph taken at home, when he was out of make-up. His last wife, Oona O'Neill, was 36 years his junior. 'Part of her always had to be a little girl, Charlie's little girl.' It sounds horrific. Oona became an alcoholic and people often witnessed Chaplin 'in a terrible rage and she'd run into her room and lock the door. He'd try and get her out and it was all hell.'

Meanwhile, Chaplin was earning $10,000 a week. As a director he was a dictator: 'Do this, do not do that, look this way, walk like this, now do it over.' He'd shoot 36,000 feet of negative and print 1,800 feet of it. He ordered 342 takes over a two-year period of a single shot in City Lights -- the blind flower-seller handing over a bunch of violets to the Little Tramp. Was this perfectionism? A manifestation of obsessive compulsive disorder? Or was he behaving like a simple power-crazed brute?

As America grew prosperous, it grew tired of Chaplin's sentimental visions of being down and out. His political beliefs were branded as communist. His sexual scandals, as revealed in numerous paternity suits, upset morality. In 1952, his re-entry visa to the United States was rescinded, so he moved to a villa in Switzerland. (A neighbour was Vladimir Nabokov, interestingly. Did they meet? There's a subject for Tom Stoppard.) He made Limelight, 'an echo-chamber of Chaplin's own memories and desires', about an old clown in the gaslit music halls, and Monsieur Verdoux, my own personal favourite, about a dapper Edwardian-era serial killer. (Evelyn Waugh loved it too, calling it 'a startling and mature work of art', though Ackroyd does not quote this. ) Orson Welles wrote the script. It is typical of Welles's perspicacity that he saw in Chaplin the soul of a psychopath.

...is because you can't help rooting against the Tramp.
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Posted by at April 19, 2014 8:48 AM

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