The tramp who ruled the world

He had talent, money and an ego to rival Hitler's. So it's no surprise that Charlie Chaplin became the first Hollywood celebrity, says David Thomson. But what appeal do his films have for us today?
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The Independent Culture

The striking thing about the Charlie Chaplin celebrations starting soon at the National Film Theatre in London is that there doesn't seem to be any anniversary in sight. Born in 1889, died in 1977 - so why now? The answer is impressive: for Chaplin simply persists; his sheer fame urges itself before us. He was not ordinary (though he said he wanted to be), not like other comics. And perhaps this is the point: he invented celebrity.

In the Sixties and Seventies, there was a shift among critics and historians to argue that Buster Keaton was the purer or nobler comedian. I still believe in that. But Keaton's life is inescapably sad, and contained. Whereas Chaplin becomes the more fascinating, the more we know about him. Not even that dreadful biopic film, Chaplin, by Lord Attenborough, has dispelled our interest.

Charlie is one of the essential figures of the 20th century, a pioneer of movie art, and an ego that found a shifting rapport with the masses. What makes The Great Dictator - his 1940 film re-released by the BFI this month - so absorbing now is the almost primitive rivalry Charlie feels with Adolf Hitler (the pair were born in the same week in 1889).

For there was some mix of righteousness and vanity in which Chaplin felt the world's attention belonged to him - until Hitler stole it. Of course, in his own eyes, Charlie saw himself as not just the archetypal little man from everywhere, but the light of the world.

The silent movie star Colleen Moore remembered in her autobiography Silent Star a moment in 1922 when Chaplin heard that First National had purchased a book on the life of Christ. "I want to play the role of Jesus," he said, in absolute earnest. And when queried on why, he responded, "I'm a logical choice. I look the part. I'm a Jew. And I'm a comedian."

There speaks the fantasist, for Chaplin had no obvious reason for thinking he might be Jewish. Unless he preferred to dream that his true father must have been someone more illustrious or magical.

This chimes oddly with the way in which, when famous, Chaplin would be named by one pained young woman in a paternity suit. And in the disapproving American gaze of the 1940s that scandal helped lead to Chaplin's eventual exile. He was said to be "red", un-American, behind on his taxes and given to seducing very young women. There was truth in all those charges, but no one thought to say he might be Jewish, too.

It's part of London folklore that Chaplin was born and raised in Dickensian hardship, the child of a mentally disturbed mother and a forlorn, failed father who died young. The mother had a breakdown, though later on. Succesful and wealthy, Chaplin took her to Beverly Hills where she lived in gloom and anxiety until her death. One of her worries was that her son's glory could not last.

But somehow, this uneducated kid who went to America as part of Fred Karno's touring company, not only invented the indelible image and winsomeness of the tramp. He also promoted the slapstick short into feature-length films.

Beyond that, he ran his own business, so that he owned his pictures, made an enormous fortune and was able to take as much time as he wanted when making a film. In the space of a few years, his income rose from humble spending money to $10,000 (£6,200) a week (a sum that one would have to multiply by at least 20 to get its modern purchasing power). For years he ignored sound and waited for it to fade away. But he took every woman he saw, like one of those ogre bullies terrorising the slums in his own pictures.

Well, not every woman. He laboured on the movies with complete concentration, and his taste in the opposite sex hovered around the age of consent. Just look at the real guy - small, yes; but as elegant as a dancer, his bold face split by one of the best smiles of the century and with those flames of premature silver hair.

According to the book written by Lita Grey (his second wife, 16 at the marriage, but 12 when he found her), he was some sweet mixture of Don Juan, Romeo and the then Prince of Wales (he did hobnob with the latter), whose only offence was his urge to introduce oral sex to southern California. But once bored he turned cold, downright cruel, and was surrounded by lawyers.

Why did he marry these women (Mildred Harris had been number one, Paulette Goddard would be number three) when the film business was a wide-open frontier sexually, and when Chaplin had proved to himself that he could have other women whenever he wanted? I think power went to his head.

Oppressed and anonymous in London, he became exultant in Los Angeles. Selling war bonds in 1917-18, with Mary Pickford and Doug Fairbanks, he was worshipped by the mob. He could hardly help but perform for them, and so he became a popular hero. When he made his films, every other actor (male and female) had to imitate Charlie's performance of their role.

Between 1914 and the early Twenties, Chaplin went from a mass of one-reelers to longer films undertaken with increasing care. By 1923, he was supposed to make films that would be released by United Artists (the company he had formed with Fairbanks, Pickford and Griffith). But in the rest of his life, another 55 years, the care became so studied that he made only ten films, all feature-length.

The first of these was A Woman of Paris (1923), an attempt at Ernst Lubitsch's sophisticated social comedy, with Charlie in only a tiny part. Then came the commercial sensation of The Gold Rush (1925), actually shot in the snowy Sierras, and The Circus (1928).

Sound was the new orthodoxy but Chaplin added only music (written by himself) for the exquisite City Lights (1931), one of those films where self-pity becomes rhapsodic, as Charlie finds money to save a blind girl's sight but then realises she does not notice him. Next came Modern Times (1936), evidence of the tramp philosophy identifying faults in society - that automation may smother humanity.

Chaplin was by then such a celebrity that he collected others: he loved to meet people such as Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Gandhi and William Randolph Hearst (Charlie's seduction of Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies, may have prompted a scandalous killing on Hearst's yacht). And as he chatted with political leaders - amid Depression and the rise of fascism - it was easy for Charlie to slide leftwards. He was the kind of idealist who thought politics was too important to be left to politicians.

In that mood he came to The Great Dictator (1940), where he plays a humble barber mistaken for Adenoid Hynkel - a power-crazed dictator. At last Chaplin talked - and talked. The film ends with a straight into camera speech, urging kindness to all, that is plaintive, and painful. Whereas the scene with a Mussolini-like figure (Jack Oakie) in which the two thugs play with a balloon globe is cinematic perfection, the closing speech is a lecture. For the first time Charlie seemed clumsy.

The war years were hard, because he didn't know what else to do. His fame had been eclipsed. Then there was the Joan Barry affair. She was a "discovery" he signed up in 1941 and then lost interest in. The gossip columnist Hedda Hopper had been trying to get Charlie for years, and she took up the Barry case as part of an attack that Chaplin the multi-millionaire had never taken US citizenship. Joan Barry was pregnant. This was especially embarrassing since Chaplin was eager to marry Oona O'Neill, the teenage daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill.

There was a trial eventually in which blood tests acquitted Charlie as the child's father - but the jury still found against him. It was a decisive moment in which the crowd seemed to have turned ugly. The embittered Chaplin then made his darkest film, Monsieur Verdoux, full of loathing for hypocrisy and mature women. It proved a box-office disaster. The House Un-American Activities Committee wanted Chaplin to testify on his Communist ties.

He had made another film, Limelight (the story of an old comedian and a young ballerina, Claire Bloom), a film with sound but imbued with Victorian sentiments. As he and his family sailed to London for its premiere in 1952, he learned that his re-entry visa for the US depended on his giving testimony. So he stayed in Switzerland.

He and Oona were to have eight children, of whom Geraldine is the best known, and he made two more bad films - The King in New York (1957) and The Countess from Hong Kong (1966), in which he got Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren to copy his every gesture. He did not go back to America until 1972, to receive an honorary Oscar.

There must be kids who have never seen Chaplin, as well as others who don't appreciate the range of his work. I'd advise them all to see some of the great shorts, such as like One A.M. (1916) and Easy Street (1917). See Shoulder Arms (1918), The Kid (1920) and above all see City Lights and The Great Dictator.

There's a fine documentary by Kevin Brownlow coming to the NFT on the making of The Great Dictator, worthy company to the earlier Unknown Chaplin by Brownlow and David Gill. There are biographies, by David Robinson and Kenneth Lynn, and there is My Autobiography (1964).

The films are often wonderful still, but it is the life of this man and the unprecedented arc he made in our sky that mean the most. Born to be a minor figure in Dickens, Chaplin turned out to be a prototype of fame itself, and the source of a great wind that nearly swept him away.

'The Great Dictator': National Film Theatre, London SE1 (020 7928 3232) from 22 August and at selected cinemas nationwide. A retrospective of Chaplin's restored feature films follows at the NFT in November. Warner Home Video launches a special collection of ten Chaplin films on DVD in September. A collection of Chaplin's short films is released on BFI video this month