Underneath the slapstick was an unrelenting perfectionist

Chaplin: His Life and Art, by David Robinson. New York: McGraw-Hill. 792 pp., with 80 pp. of photos. $24.95. It would be fun to step into a time machine and zip back some 70 years to a Nickelodeon and watch a Charlie Chaplin comedy.

We might enjoy the audience more than Charlie. To the public of his time he seemed extraordinary. The slapstick may have been vulgar for some, but to most people there was a wit and a wonderful kind of comedy never seen before. He quickly became the most famous performer in the world; his was the universal language of a great mime, everywhere understood, everywhere loved.

David Robinson's biography, ``Chaplin: His Life and Art,'' is a new landmark for students and fans of Chaplin and silent film. Unlike Chaplin's own telling of his story in ``My Autobiography,'' this book goes into his creative processes and work habits in detail.

It is fascinating to learn that the early films were made up as Chaplin went along, cameras rolling. He dominated all aspects of his pictures, taking total control early in his career.

Robinson has studied unreleased film, outtakes, scripts, and production schedules to come to his understanding of how Chaplin worked, and he had the cooperation of Oona Chaplin with the archives in Vevey, Switzerland, Chaplin's last home.

Apparently he would wear everyone out with endless retakes, refining, discarding scenes, always searching for that ideal semblance that would make the audience laugh or cry. From his vaudeville days in England he had learned to mix comedy with pathos. He wanted the audience to laugh till it cried, then he'd top that off with a scene that produced a sentimental sob.

He was the total artist, unrelenting, absorbed. He seemed to believe that in his art lay his only true happiness. His last marriage, to Oona O'Neill, was the exception.

His early days read like Dickens, living in a London slum with his music hall singer mother and alcoholic singer father. His older brother Sydney brightened the scene with his lifelong devotion to Charlie.

Charlie first appeared at age 11 with the Eight Lancashire Lads -- boys doing a clog-dance act. Sydney followed into show business six years later, and it was he who first went to America, with the Karno vaudeville troupe. Charlie crossed the Atlantic in 1910 with Stan Laurel, who was successful years later with partner Oliver Hardy.

Motion picture mogul Mack Sennett saw Chaplin on tour and asked him to Hollywood, and by 1917 Charlie was world famous.

He worked with some of the great names of the silent movies. Mabel Norman, Edna Purvience, Fatty Arbuckle, Chester Conklin, and Marie Dressler all struggled and mugged and gestured frantically with Charlie. His growing perfectionism finally resulted in many months being spent on each film. Such great pictures as ``The Kid,'' ``The Gold Rush,'' ``City Lights,'' and ``Modern Times'' were produced slowly and patiently.

By the late 1940s the fame turned to infamy. Chaplin had been a tempting target for those who were sensitive about Hollywood morals. His divorces and acrimonious legal battles helped him not at all, while his social and political ideas were an anathema in the McCarthy era. With his films picketed and much bad press (though it was not all bad), his American career ended. He moved to Switzerland in 1952.

Twenty years were to go by before enough was forgotten and forgiven on both sides for him to be honored in the United States with a special Oscar Award.

As the world's first universally famous man, he was a great clown, a musician (he played the violin left handed), a composer (scores for his films), a choreographer (that Chaplin walk is, after all, a dance), as well as a producer, director, and screenwriter.

Laurence Olivier said, ``He was, perhaps, the greatest actor of all time.''

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