Do principal players in history owe those who follow a privileged view of the momentous events they lived through? A question worth pondering, particularly when reading the newly reprinted 1964 My Autobiography of Charlie Chaplin. If ever there was a figure whose recollections and insights could reveal the behind-the-scenes machinations that brought about the initial explosion of cinema it was Chaplin, a stupefyingly brilliant actor, writer, producer, composer, and director whose seminal Hollywood films made him an international superstar of colossal proportions. Despite an Olympian sweep of the burgeoning art form and business rivaled by few others, Chaplin, by the time he set pen to paper as a septuagenarian, obviously had deep reservations about sharing the vista with mere mortals.
In a fascinating psychological twist, Chaplin is most forthcoming when documenting his heartbreaking childhood and grueling adolescence in turn-of-the century London; here lie the kind of brutal memories that may have stayed carefully guarded, if not outright repressed secrets for others. Not for Chaplin, though, who masterfully narrates a youth of Dickensian dimensions, including abject poverty, a drunken, absent father, a loving mother literally going mad, life on the streets, even a stay in the workhouse. It's horrible and wrenching, and Chaplin goes to the races with it all, turning tragedy into gripping drama. These pages crackle with emotion, poetry, and raw feeling. By the time Chaplin has found his footing as a comic and later makes his initial visit to the U.S. with a British touring company, the reader is in his grips, downright hungry for his recounting of the rags-to-riches payoff just around the corner. Chaplin then abruptly closes the door to the banquet room.
Suddenly a new, oddly myopic author takes over the narrative, one seemingly uninterested in providing details about the origins and inspiration behind his comedic persona or an insider's take on his groundbreaking films; unwilling to acknowledge many of his invaluable collaborators; largely mute on the fecund creative environment that was Hollywood in the teens and twenties; and, most surprisingly, barely reflective when considering the seismic shift in status granted him as he evolved, in a relatively brief period of time, from an unknown knockabout comedian to the most successful entertainer the world had yet seen. Chaplin's omissions quickly become as maddening as they are inexplicable.
Celebrities elbow through the pages: H. G. Wells, Stravinsky, Cocteau, Hart Crane, James Agee, Picasso, and a whole slew of fellow geniuses (Einstein!) crowd around the Little Tramp, who acknowledges each, if they are lucky, with little more than a random anecdote replete with an autodidact's conspicuous delight in ten-cent words. And while Chaplin makes sure we know what a ladies' man he was, he blithely ignores his shocking predilections for underage conquests. (His final wife, Oona O'Neill, Eugene's daughter, was eighteen when she married the fifty-four-year-old Chaplin.)
The great man may have been all too willing to discuss his vaguely socialist political leanings and the ruinous consequences that ensued after he publicly stated them. During the McCarthy Red Scare era, Chaplin, having left the country for travel, was shamefully restricted from reentering the United States and lived the final two decades of his life in self-exile in Switzerland. Yet Chaplin's self-righteous authorial voice diminishes even this grand American tragedy. Read the riveting early chapters of this frustrating memoir up until Chaplin is peering out on an ocean of unimaginable, upcoming success. Then turn to his films for a true taste of his embracing humanity and ageless genius.
Steve Futterman writes the "Jazz and Standards" listings for The New Yorker.