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

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

12 April 2014

9:00 AM

Charlie Chaplin Peter Ackroyd

Chatto, pp.262, £14.99, ISBN: 9780701169947

No actual birth certificate for Charles Spencer Chaplin has ever been found. The actor himself drew a blank when he went on a rummage in Somerset House. The latest research suggests that he was born ‘in a gypsy caravan in Smethwick, near Birmingham’. But surely 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. Both men first drew breath in April 1889. They had drunken fathers and nervous mothers. There were patterns of madness and illegitimacy in the family tree. They were short and sported an identical moustache. They had marked histrionic skills, each man ‘appealing to millions of people with an almost mesmeric magic’. They were despotic towards underlings — and Chaplin’s The Great Dictator is less political satire than back-handed homage. Hitler watched it at a private screening — twice.

By 1915, says Ackroyd, Chaplin was ‘the most famous man in the world’. Lenin said that ‘Chaplin is the only man in the world I want to meet.’ He stayed with Churchill at Chartwell. At Nancy Astor’s house he met Shaw and Keynes. Barrie and H.G. Wells were fans. Debussy told him, ‘You are instinctively a musician and dancer.’ Almost as a symbol of the Victorian age yielding to modern times, Chaplin had been invited to attend Henry Irving’s funeral at Westminster Abbey — and he accepted acclaim and precedence as his due. ‘I am known in parts of the world by people who have never heard of Jesus Christ,’ he boasted. His one unfulfilled ambition was to star in a biopic about Napoleon.

Chaplin’s hubris had no limits. Offered prizes and awards, he was ungracious: ‘I don’t think you are qualified to judge my work,’ he once said, returning a trophy. His knighthood was delayed until 1975 because he’d declined to appear on stage at a Royal Variety Performance, which was ‘construed as an insult to George V’.

The theme of Ackroyd’s book is the alarming contrast between the sweetness of the Little Tramp, the saviour of fallen women and lost children, and the monstrousness of Chaplin himself, who came across to every single person who ever met him as difficult, suspicious and angry. He was ‘dour and unsociable’, ‘nervous, withdrawn and morose’. He ‘smiled rarely and sourly’. Robert Florey, an assistant director, called him a ‘tyrannical, wounding, authoritative, mean, despotic man’. His children, as is always the way, came off worst. ‘The violence of his anger was always so out of proportion to the object that had stirred him that I couldn’t help being frightened of it,’ said one of his sons. It was part of Chaplin’s megalomania that he refused to be told what day of the week it was, and ‘he never wore a watch.’

Ackroyd, the laureate of London, and a previous biographer of Dickens, can be relied upon for a rich evocation of Chaplin’s Kennington, where his childhood was spent in the teeming thoroughfares, with the hat-makers, leather-tanners, gin palaces and hurdy-gurdy music halls. ‘They are my people, the cockneys. I am one of them,’ said Chaplin — and for his films he painstakingly recreated the scenes and rooms of ‘the haunted city’ on the Hollywood back lot. His genius, indeed, according to Ackroyd, lay in the way he transformed the hopelessness of slum life into a universal symbol that provoked laughter — immigrants, the indigent, the shabby-genteel, the homeless: all the brutal violence they suffered ‘rendered harmless by comedy’.

Hannah, Chaplin’s mother, was a singer, a soubrette, a mender of old clothes — possibly a prostitute. She was certainly a lunatic. Records show she was incarcerated in various asylums, put in a padded cell and given shock treatments. The young Chaplin was despatched to the Southwark workhouse, then to a school for orphans and the destitute. His father was useless — he died of drink aged 38. Chaplin’s various stepmothers were neglectful and cruel, failing to feed him and locking him out in the rain. All alone, he found himself clog-dancing outside pubs. He had nothing, save demonic self-belief — which onlookers never failed to register. He survived, he said, by being suffused with ‘the exuberance that comes from utter confidence in yourself. Without it, you go down in defeat.’ Hence, his demonic arrogance; and also the origins of the indomitable Little Tramp, who picks himself up and trots jauntily off into the sunset.

From performing in the street, Chaplin was hired, aged seven, to clog-dance in music halls, where he relished mixing with the magicians and acrobats. He played the role of perky pageboy in a Sherlock Holmes tour, where he became ‘a prime favourite with the audience’. This led to pantomimes and knockabout sketches, skits, stunts and spoofs with Fred Karno’s troupe: ‘custard pies and buckets of whitewash, trick cyclists and spinning plates, high wires and wooden stilts’.

Chaplin went to America with Karno’s in 1913, soon separating from the company to join Mack Sennett, the manager of Keystone. Chaplin made dozens of flickering films of ten or 15 minutes’ duration: ‘Paint buckets were upset; carpenters’ ladders swing wildly around; paint flies everywhere.’ The actors raced around and crashed into things. Doors slammed. Houses collapsed. And in the midst of such whirlwinds, the Little Tramp made his first appearances. In a typical film lasting 20 minutes, he’d fall over 46 times. Chaplin ‘shuffled, with his feet turned outwards. He twirled his cane and knocked off his own hat’. The character was cunning, kicking and biting — and surviving.

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. Ackroyd talks of Chaplin’s London, ‘the centre of his inspiration’, as a version of Dickens’s London — but was it not also Jack the Ripper’s?

Chaplin died on Christmas day 1977. Ackroyd doesn’t mention this, but the comedian’s coffin was stolen by grave robbers, who phoned Paulette Goddard, one of his wives and the co-star of The Gold Rush, hoping they could make a ransom demand. ‘We’ve got Chaplin,’ they announced. ‘So what?’ she said, slamming down the phone.

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  • MikeF

    I think you will find that Hitler was, in fact, quite considerate towards ‘underlings’, such as his secretaries. What that says about Chaplin other than that he was indiscriminate in his arrogance I am not certain.

  • Paul Vickers

    I have never enjoyed – or found remotely funny – any of Chaplin’s films.
    Buster Keaton’s work, in contrast, I found absolutely brilliant.

    • gram64

      In that case you have evidently not seen ‘The Great Dictator’.

      • Paul Vickers

        I have. Not even a smile.

    • Brad

      Funny. My take is just the reverse. To each his own.

    • meliorist

      Chaplin is far funnier than Keaton, which is why he was a much bigger star, famous all over the world. I’m not sure why it suddenly became fashionable a couple of decades ago to pretend that Chaplin is unfunny, but it’s nonsense.

  • Betsie

    Paulette Goddard co-starred in Modern Times and The Great Dictator. She was not in The Gold Rush

  • red allover

    Orson Welles did not write MONSIEUR VERDOUX.
    He researched the case of a wife murderer named Landru, intending to cast Chaplin as the dapper killer & showed his notes to Chaplin, who,
    instead, bought the notes & idea from Welles for $5000 & a screen credit.
    Chaplin was one of the greatest film makers who ever lived as well as one of the greatest performers and biggest stars who ever lived.
    Yet his masterpiece & wildly popular films always take the point of view of the common, average man. To compare this artist, who courageously fought fascism (listen to his denunciation of fascism at the end of THE GREAT DICTATOR) and gave laughter and enjoyment to millions around the globe to Hitler is really an insult to the readers’ intelligence.

  • gram64

    ‘The Great Dictator’ is a magnificent film, a savage satire on Hitler, and not in the least a ‘back-handed compliment’. It was brave of Chaplin to make the film at a time when Hitler’s power was very much on the rise, and it showed Chaplin’s commitment to countering the terrible menace of Nazism.

    Chaplin was put on a Nazi death list as a result of making the film. To suggest that Hitler liked it is absurd.

    • Dodgy Geezer

      Indeed. But that is what this piece is – all suggestion. There’s not one fact supporting the assertion that Chaplain was a monster in the whole piece. It reads like a pastiche of a scurrilous journalist’s smear copy. For instance:

      …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?

      Who can tell? It sounds like standard behaviour for most of the acclaimed directors I’ve ever heard of. You could claim that it was also evidence of an attempt to bankrupt the studio, or evidence that he didn’t want to go home early because he didn’t like his wife. This piece is full of such random meandering I wonder why the editor let it through…


      ya because communism was sooooooooo much better.

  • David Ehrenstein

    Charles Chaplin and Paulette Goddard were never married. Anyone who knew or cared about film history would be well aware of this but you aren’t. it doesn’t Suit your purpose. You are naught but the tiniest of maggots desperate for a chew of the great man’s corpse/

    • EF

      Are you serious? Maybe you need to take your medication.

      • 1bar1

        EF – useless ad hominem

  • He clearly had a personality disorder, so often occuring in people who were not nurtured by a loving mother. He certainly wasn’t a Hitler, but probably a high achieving narcissist. A condition that is very hard to treat for obvious reasons. The narcissist won’t believe he has a problem.

  • Gblaaa

    Peter Ackroyd seems to have done another hatchet job to sell a book. He might look to his own history before throwing stones.

    • dm10003

      Why do people keep using this cliche? It is absolutely meaningless and doesn’t reflect how the creative — or any other — process works.

  • Brad

    Chaplin’s adult life obviously was marked by the grinding poverty in which he grew up. One never fully recovers psychologically from poverty in childhood. This doubtlessly accounts for his naïve attraction to the communist fever of his era, which caused him so much pain and bitterness in later life. Though a brilliant comedian, he was uneducated and couldn’t sort out the fraud that was communism

  • Stuart Greif

    Paulette Goddard was not even an extra in the GOLD RUSH much less a co-star. To me the last movie of value Chaplin put out was CITY LIGHTS. MODERN TIMES is plagiarized from Rene Clair’s A NOUS LA LIBERTE. The GREAT DICTATOR”S only value is in Jack Oakie’s parody of IL DUCE, MUSSOLINI. The best of Chaplin’s work are all silent films.
    He was also a cheapskate; he never gave even a dime to the various funds supporting the Re[public during the Spanish Civil War.

    • StukaPilot

      in which case he wasn’t a good communist at all. Viva Franco! And viva Chaplin

  • mmoser

    The ‘Great Dictator’ was a brave film, Chaplin had to finance it on his own; the Mogul’s did not it that Jews would be portrayed in a positive light. See “The Moguls and the Dictators: Hollywood and the Coming of World War II” by David Welky p 230

  • Oliver_C

    Lazy, fashionable iconoclasm, belatedly kicking the corpse of one of the most influential and successful men in cinema history, a book destined to gather as much dust as Albert Goldman’s many libels.

  • geraldgrow

    Folks, just go back and watch City Lights again. That’s the only biography that counts for an artist.

  • jimcraq

    Did I miss the number of people Chaplin murdered?

  • ArtPepperMeetsTheRhythmSection

    Well, you convinced me that Chaplin was literally as bad as Hitler.

  • Leeds the Way

    Chaplin made the Overrated Times’ list last year:

  • Elliot Hearst

    Your article is filled with inaccuracies. The photo of which he remarked that he looked “bleary-eyed” was taken after he spent 48 hours without sleep editing “The Immigrant,” and that picture was not taken at home. You mention paternity suits in the plural — there was one, brought by Joan Barry. You sloppily transition from a discussion of his marriage to Oona, which took place in the late 1940’s, to a quote of his $10,000/week salary which he earned in one year only, 1916-1917. Orson Welles certainly did not “write the script” for Verdoux — he provided Chaplin with the idea of making a black comedy about a Bluebeard-type character. If you’re going to set out to trash the greatest genius the cinema has produced, at least engage in some fact-checking and refrain from simply making things up. It truly undermines any shred of credibility you might have.

  • Elliot Hearst

    Paulette Goddard in The Gold Rush? Now you have proved what an idiot and incompetent journalist you really are.

  • FrancescaMacfarlane

    I’ve never seen anyone laugh at a Chaplin movie, but then not many people find mawkish sentimentality funny. Even the easily amused kids at the Saturday morning matinee in our local fleapit used to be unimpressed; they would fidget, chatter, occasionally jeer but there was seldom any signs of amusement. However when a Laure & Hardy was announced on the screen the cheers would resound all round the cinema.
    Buster Keaton, Harold Loyd, Laurel & Hardy were comic geniuses whose films still delight every new generation. My children and grandchildren have all adored Laurel & Hardy and demanded to see our video and dvd sets of them over and over again. However when Chaplin appeared in compilations of old movies they generally sat in silent bemusement; there was just nothing in his antics that they could relate to.

  • Oliver_C

    Chaplin was a meticulous perfectionist? So were Yasujiro Ozu and Josef von Sternberg. So is David Fincher.

    Chaplin demanded dozens of takes, shot lots of footage and sometimes — oh, the humanity! — shouted at his poor actors? So did Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah, Otto Preminger and William Wyler.

    All these directors, along with Chaplin, have one thing in common: they made masterpieces of cinema.

    How many masterpieces is Peter Ackroyd responsible for?

  • owen_joseph

    Welles did not write verdoux. Chaplin did not use any script of welles’. Welles tried to make a meal out the association with Chaplin’s film, that’s why he regretted giving him a credit. Chaplin was a genius, not a monster.

  • Anne Munnelly

    Akroyd is a hater and a lot of his information is incorrect.

  • SnorreM89

    About Chaplin’s comment that ‘I look bleary-eyed, like a murderer’; he said that of a picture of himself not simply when he was “at home, when he was out of make-up.” He said it of a picture taken when he’d just finished editing his film THE IMMIGRANT (1917), and had stayed awake for four nights without any sleep (source: MY LIFE IN PICTURES, by Chaplin). Little wonder he looked a bit odd on that occasion.
    About the comment that “The girls he liked were dewy 15-year-olds — he’d wait until they were 16 before he married them…” This was, to my knowledge, only the case with Lita Grey. OK, so one might say that one time is one time too many, but this article makes it sound as if “dewy 15-year-olds” sums up all the women Chaplin was romantically involved with in his life. Chaplin also had several romantic relationships with women closer to his own age (source: numerous biographies), but Lita Grey happened to get pregnant, and in the 1920s pregnancy meant marriage.
    Also, Orson Welles did not write the script for MONSIEUR VERDOUX. Welles had contacted Chaplin in the early 1940s suggesting Chaplin to play Henri Landru, in a film Welles planned to make on the real-life “Bluebeard.” Chaplin declined, but realized that a Bluebeard-story could make a good comedy, and wrote MONSIEUR VERDOUX, giving Welles an “idea” credit in the finished film. Welles did claim to have contributed to the screenplay, but all research I know of suggests otherwise (source: CHAPLIN HIS LIFE AND ART by David Robinson and Chaplin’s autobiography).
    Furthermore, I find the title of this article, “Charlie Chaplin Monster,” incredibly judgmental and sensationalistic. By numerous accounts, Chaplin was a complicated human being, but did possess enough virtues to not deserve being reduced to a “monster.”