Charlie Chaplin, by Peter Ackroyd, Chatto & Windus, RRP£14.99, 272 pages

Charlie Chaplin photographed c1915
Charlie Chaplin photographed c1915 © Getty

Peter Ackroyd’s compact new life of Charlie Chaplin opens magnificently in the heart of south London in the last decade of the 19th century. This is a London rife with the “suspect pleasures” of gin and music halls; a London crammed with factories making biscuits, glue and pickles; a London of timber warehouses and slaughterhouses; a London reeking of smoke, beer and poverty. Young Chaplin’s existence in this world was never stable. No birth or baptismal certificates relating to him have ever been found. He was not even certain of the identity of his biological father, taking the name of a successful music hall singer who was, for a spell, married to his mother – herself a music hall artiste and later a mender of old clothes.

Chaplin’s childhood was perilous and often frightening, with disturbances and deprivation to rival Oliver Twist. Frequent flits from a series of rented rooms with a mattress on his back were a fact of his boyhood. There were periods spent in the Southwark workhouse, nights sleeping rough with his half-brother Sydney, a time at a school for the destitute. His mother’s mental illnesses meant that she was in and out of asylums and there was little interest from his “father”. John Doubleday, who made a sculpture of Chaplin a few years after the actor’s death in 1977, said he retained all his life the “undeveloped thorax of an underfed child”.

In Charlie Chaplin, Ackroyd makes it clear that humiliating childhood sensations relating to poverty and his mother’s madness stayed with Chaplin. These things and the psychological defences he employed against them perhaps explain his constant need for power and control, his terror of losing everything and even his brutal affairs of the heart that do him no credit at all. “To gauge the morals of our family by commonplace standards would be as erroneous as putting a thermometer in boiling water,” Chaplin wrote in his 1964 autobiography. Hmmm. Yet Chaplin’s boyhood sufferings were also inextricably linked to his monumental success. His ability to transform his early experience of hopelessness into a universal symbol is, for Ackroyd, the mark of his genius.

Chaplin’s journey from the London theatres smelling of “oranges and beer, of unwashed bodies and tobacco” to the moving picture industry was relatively swift. From a stage clog dancer, he progressed to the part of cat in Cinderella at the Hippodrome. His big break was the role of page in a celebrated West End production of Sherlock Holmes. From Holmes he graduated to Wal Pink’s Workmen in Repairs, a sketch in which a firm of rogue decorators called Spoiler and Messit worked their slapstick magic on a defenceless suburban villa. After this Chaplin moved to Casey’s Circus, a variety show. It was here that he discovered that the more serious he appeared, the funnier he became.

Next was the Karno Company, where Chaplin learnt the art of timing as well as the humour of the unexpected. “Keep it wistful,” he was told – kiss the man on the head after you’ve knocked him down. In 1910, following a stint in Paris, where he had won praise from Claude Debussy, he sailed with Stan Laurel to America to perform in a version of an English music hall. In the flat these two men shared, cooking wasn’t permitted so, as Laurel fried pork chops, Chaplin would play his violin very loudly to cover the noise of sizzling. (What they did to mask the smell is not revealed.)

Not long after this Chaplin was invited to join the Keystone Comedy Company, a subsidiary of the New York Motion Pictures Company. His salary would be $150 a week.

Ackroyd’s analysis of and fidelity to the “little fellow” film character invented by Chaplin lies at the heart of this fine biography. “This is a tramp who demands all the attention …He may be eccentric, even a little mad, but already he is an original …He wants to commune with that camera but, more significantly, with the vast and unknown audience that is assembled behind the lens.” Ackroyd writes of the desire of the “little fellow” to make a life in a world that may not be worth inhabiting, of his infinite inner resources that go against the grain of his loneliness, of his vulnerability and his detachment and his gumption: always impeded, he is never defeated.

After the wildly exaggerated acting of the earliest period of film comedians, Chaplin’s “little fellow” was subtle and fresh. With the walk perhaps borrowed from “Rummy” Binks, a man who held the horses of customers outside a south London pub, the mannerisms of the drunkards from his childhood, and the influence of the seen-better-days swells from music halls, Chaplin soon had all the technicians on the set laughing. He knew he had discovered something very valuable. Groucho Marx praised him. A newspaper styled him “a comedian of the first water”. A cinema in New York started running only Chaplin films. Photoplay wrote that even people who never went to the cinema now had to see what all the fuss was about. The “little fellow” was compared to both Huckleberry Finn and Hamlet.

In 1914 Chaplin made 36 films. By 1915 he was the most famous person in the world, the “emblem of popular culture”. To some he was the embodiment of film itself. He was 25 years old.

Ackroyd is excellent on the daily crises that stem from being owner-operator of a world-class talent: the terrible romances (before the final, peaceful marriage to Oona O’Neill) and the dictatorial spirit of those cocooned by fame. It is true that the squalor and troubles of London are more vivid in this book than the American years that follow, but I suspect this was the case for Chaplin also. Reading Charlie Chaplin, I sometimes wished that Ackroyd’s compressed narrative might have had a little more room to expand, but the luxury of a short book about a vast life cannot be overestimated.

Susie Boyt is an FT columnist and author of ‘The Small Hours’ (Virago)

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