By Charlie Chaplin
“When Chaplin began to talk on-screen,” Pauline Kael once wrote, “he used a cultivated voice and high-flown words, and became a deeply unfunny man.” The cultivated voice and high-flown words are evident throughout Chaplin’s recently reissued autobiography, unmistakably not the work of the lowly Tramp but of his cosmopolitan creator. My Autobiography is, it should be said, quite without mirth; that’s not to say it isn’t a great work in its own way, a retelling of an unprecedented life, placed immediately before you by Chaplin’s vivid recall. He was born in 1889 on the wrong side of the Thames. The early chapters, describing his hardscrabble upbringing—the dipso actor father, the mother prone to madness, the periodic trips to the workhouse—make for compelling reading, for there are few figures who have come from so little to go so far. This strife is followed by an account of the young Chaplin’s life as a touring child actor on the music-hall and vaudeville circuit in England and then America, as vital a picture as we are likely to get of that vanished world.
Chaplin helped assure its obsolescence when, one morning in 1914, on set at Mack Sennett’s Keystone studios, he improvised the costume of The Tramp, his onscreen alter-ego for the next 20-plus years. This creation coincided with the emergence of modern mass media, through which Chaplin would achieve a level of celebrity that had been heretofore unimaginable. When he visited London and Paris after the triumph of The Kid in 1921, he received a welcome comparable only to that which Woodrow Wilson had enjoyed two years earlier—though perhaps the better comparison would be to Zelig, Woody Allen’s chameleonic character who somehow meets every noteworthy figure of the Jazz Age.
Chaplin’s epochal success brokered him an introduction to everyone, and once he achieved fame, a parade of the great and good came to pay court. There’s a litany of Dukes, Dutchesses, and Princesses, sketches of Doug Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, of Albert Einstein, H.G. Wells, William Randolph Hearst, Winston Churchill, Ghandi, even a chance encounter with Jean Cocteau in the South China Sea. Amid such rarified company, the confessional vulnerability of the early chapters disappears, and the proud self-possession which enabled Chaplin’s survival and eventual triumph takes over the narrative. A cultured autodidact, the author misses no occasion to put his learning before the reader, giving himself over to social-register name-dropping and swallowed-a-The-saurus prose. (It’s a curious coincidence that Chaplin finished his book in Vevey, Switzerland, on Lake Geneva, where Vladimir Nabokov was practically a neighbor.)
At times Chaplin’s orotund voice does manage a sort of wit as when, violating a rule of reticence on sexual matters, he describes the bosom of Joan Barry, her “upper regional domes immensely expansive.” Barry dragged Chaplin into a paternity suit in 1943, only one of the legal troubles that, combined with political harassment, caused him to flee America in 1952, all recorded herein. Chaplin’s great filmmaking years were thereafter behind him—while My Autobiography is as near as he would come to a fitting last testament.