Putting Chaplin on the couch
In 1883 a young woman calling herself Lily Harley -- real name Hannah Hill -- abruptly left her lover and her small-time career as an English music hall performer to sail for South Africa and to marry a man she thought was the aristocratic heir to a prospering estate. In fact, this man, called Sydney Hawkes, was a penniless Cockney con man, and it is likely that he prostituted Lily. She returned to London and the theater -- with an illegitimate child and a case of syphilis, which, typically, did not announce itself for several years. She also returned to her rejected lover, whose name was Charles Chaplin.
No, not the Charlie Chaplin, but his father, then a rising performer in the halls. In the not-too-distant future, he would die of acute alcoholism and, by 1898, the pretty, charming Hannah was admitted to a hospital and diagnosed as syphilitic. The written record of this medical judgment has survived to this day, and the record of Hannah’s growing madness marks all of her son’s many autobiographical musings over the years. He, however, never publicly discussed the source of his mother’s condition; in his telling (and in many biographies) it remains a tragic mystery. And a shaming one.
In a day when we can imagine a star like Chaplin discussing this shaping fact of his life on “Oprah,” this residue of silence and gentility may strike some of us as strange -- and a few of us as, in some sense, admirable. In any case, it is important information, first revealed by the psychiatrist Stephen Weissman in a 1986 academic article, and it is now a crucial element in his new biography, “Chaplin: A Life.” In his persuasive view, it conditioned Charlie’s private behavior -- he showered as often as a dozen times a day, and it was his habit to paint his penis with iodine before indulging in sex, which he did almost as often as he bathed -- and, more important, it conditioned his art.
Weissman is scarcely the first to observe that the world through which Chaplin’s Little Tramp almost always moved was a version of the down-and-out London world he inhabited as a de facto orphan. Nor is the author alone in noting that Chaplin often cast himself as the rescuer of the innocent, the downtrodden and the disenfranchised (see, most obviously, “The Kid” and “City Lights”). Weissman is particularly strong when he traces the autobiographical elements -- in “Limelight,” Chaplin plays a version of himself and his father, while Claire Bloom is a version of his mother. The film was made when he was 68, an age when many of us have come to peace with whatever residual miseries our childhoods have burdened us.
This book is not a full-scale biography -- David Robinson’s long, masterful and beautifully written “Chaplin: His Life and Art” remains the standard work on the subject. Weissman, being a psychiatrist, naturally concentrates on Chaplin the child and the young man. He essentially ends his account after Chaplin’s first, star-making year at Mack Sennett’s raucous studio, where the not-entirely-happy Chaplin distinguished himself by the delicacy of his playing -- in opposition to the muscular frenzy of Sennett’s collection of cruder clowns.
There’s nothing wrong with this strategy, though it eliminates detailed, critically acute considerations of Chaplin’s kinetic genius (a weighty word I’m using advisedly), which was the source of his uniqueness and a matter that lies beyond the more quotidian realms of psychological explanation. I also wish Weissman had at least mentioned Chaplin’s somewhat mysterious relationship with his mother after he achieved his unprecedented -- and unduplicated -- international stardom. He was generous with her, eventually bringing her to Los Angeles and setting her up in a little house where she was conscientiously nursed. But Chaplin rarely visited her and only rarely mentioned her to friends and colleagues. All his significant references to her were symbolic and aesthetic. She provided the (disguised) soul of the many waifs and gamins in his pictures, but even after Hannah’s death in 1928, she remained an almost fictionalized figure -- beloved and sentimentalized -- in his account of his early life, proffered first in passing, then in greater detail in his autobiography.
Chaplin referred to his early years as Dickensian, and he was not being melodramatic. He might not have survived it without the protective ministrations of his half-brother Sydney -- child of Hannah’s South African venture -- who became his life-long best friend and even better manager. But something happened to Chaplin as his fame and wealth grew. It is somewhat beyond the purview of Weissman’s lively, attentive and sympathetic book, yet I can’t forebear mentioning it. To be sure, both Chaplin’s priapic sexuality and his Stalinist politics led him eventually to scandal, exile and the contempt of the lunatic right. Still, I’ve never been able to escape the thought that his deepest desire (even in the midst of all that hubbub) was for the settled comforts of a prosperous bourgeois gentleman and family man of the old-fashioned, 19th century variety. Such amiable figures are also, lest we forget, Dickensian.
Amiable is not a word easily applied to Chaplin. But in his Swiss exile, he completed fathering his huge, yes, Victorian family of eight children; puttered about with new, not-so-hot, film projects and refurbishments of his older ones; and wrote his autobiography, which was wonderful about his childhood, much less so about after he became famous. Increasingly, his exile seemed a self-imposed and withholding one. Still, he liked looking at his old films, regarding them appreciatively, but also it seems to me, almost as the work of someone else.
When his daughter, Geraldine, showed a gift for and interest in an acting career, he was dubious. He advised her, she once told me, to take up a career in nursing -- something steady and useful to the world. Happily, she refused that idea. Yet that was Charlie in his final incarnation, no longer the sometimes cruel, but eventually immortal, anarchist of his youth, but the settled, even occasionally playful, squire of old age, enjoying his happy -- indeed, revered -- ending.
Schickel wrote and directed the film biography “Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin” and edited “The Essential Chaplin,” an anthology of critical writing about him.