Weissman's biography brings to life not only new information about the life of Charlie Chaplin but also, for perhaps the first time, an in-depth examination of Chaplin’s youth...
THE COCKNEY GENIUS WHO
NEVER GREW UP: Mr.CHAPLIN MEET Dr. FREUD
Politically reviled in Nazi Germany (where all his films were banned) and the United States (during its Red Scare and HUAC days), cynically undervalued in Britain because of his "sentimentality," and denounced for moral turpitude everywhere conservatives thump their Bibles while concealing their own peccadilloes, Charlie Chaplin was, of course, a complex man in addition to being the greatest actor of the silent screen, with the grace and agility of a ballet dancer.
Chaplin's unparalleled tragicomic vision was rooted in a humane idealism. Its credo was summed up in the closing speech of the little Jewish barber mistaken for Hitler in The Great Dictator: "Greed has poisoned men's souls - has barricaded the world with hate - has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed ... we need humanity ... kindness and gentleness."
In short, Chaplin was for anyone anywhere who believes in human dignity above social station and who adopts an attitude of defiance in the face of helplessness against the forces of nature. Above all, he was for anyone who believes in the power of art to rescue man from his own worst tendencies.
Off the screen, Chaplin shed personae as easily as a snake sheds skin. Was he the neo-Dickensian hero of his own making in My Autobiography (1964) - a narrative that often gilds ugly realities and that conveniently omits one of his wives (Lita Grey, mother of their sons, Charles Jr. and Sydney)? Or was he the creature in the verbally unsophisticated, factually inaccurate Charlie Chaplin's Own Story, a badly written book assembled from Chaplin's oral narratives delivered to Rose Wilder Lane and first run in 29 instalments in the San Francisco Bulletin from July 5 to Aug. 4, 1915?
Chaplin tried to suppress publication of the book, which another Chaplin biographer, David Robinson, called "romantic and misleading nonsense." Yet respected scholar Harry Geldud was not so dismissive, contending that even if it contained pure fiction, it was the fantasy of a great artist, one whose self-imaginings were more meaningful than humdrum reality. Such a view invited the insights of psychoanalytic sleuths, and to this effect, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Stephen Weissman's new biography is a most valuable contribution to the issue of Chaplin's personal myth and the roles played by his dysfunctional parents in the making of such a myth.
His book is not a complete biography of Chaplin (it omits any discussion of Chaplin's final two films, his co-founding of United Artists, sex scandals and his personal life in later years), but it is essential reading because it contextualizes and analyzes things that other biographers had not. It is a case, as the author himself acknowledges, of Hollywood meeting Sigmund Freud. In fact, it was Freud who probably supplied the first cue for such psychoanalysis when he wrote that Chaplin always played himself as he was in his dismal youth. "He cannot get away from those impressions and humiliations of that past period of his life. He is, so to speak, an exceptionally simple and transparent case."
Freud was oversimplifying. Chaplin was hardly that simple or transparent. Actress Louise Brooks, one of his lovers, believed he was "the most bafflingly complex man who ever lived." The fact is that much of what came brilliantly alive on celluloid derived from his Cockney childhood and his family secrets, and this is the first book to delineate how Chaplin spun personal tragedy into universal comedy, creating the Little Tramp (as his daughter Geraldine Chaplin puts it in her introduction) as "a parody and memorialization of his alcoholic father," and his heroines as "sublimated, half-remembered, half-repressed memories of his tragic and adored mother." Using social history and medical science, Victorian music hall and Hollywood, Weissman intriguingly explores the relationship between Chaplin's experience and his creativity.
Chaplin's parents were stage-struck teenage sweethearts. Father Charlie Sr., a butcher's son, became a famous stage actor who portrayed himself as an elegant man about town while he was really an inveterate alcoholic who died young. Mother Hannah (stage name Lily Harley) was a shoemaker's daughter with dreams of being the next Lillie Langtry. She was vivacious, flirtatious and impulsive, taking as her icons Nell Gwyn (Charles II's mistress) and Joséphine de Beauharnais (Napoleon's empress) in addition to the Jersey Lily.
She jilted Charlie Sr. (she pretended to her son that he was a dead ringer for Napoleon) to run off to South Africa, with a wealthy British aristocrat she had just met, in the hope of marrying him. Instead, he turned out to be a con man who got her pregnant out of wedlock, compelling her to turn briefly to prostitution, from which she contracted syphilis. The disease, in combination with malnutrition owing to poverty, turned her psychotic in 1898, landing her in a madhouse, where she belted out militant Christian marching songs at the most unexpected moments.
Chaplin, nevertheless, embellished a nostalgic image of his childhood, suggesting emotional security and financial prosperity. Certainly, his parents did live in a three-room flat and had a maid when Chaplin was 3. However, by the time Hannah was living with music-hall performer Leo Dryden, Chaplin and his older half-brother, Sydney, no longer enjoyed such luxury. When he was 7, he and Sydney were admitted to the Hanwell School for Orphans and Destitute Children, where the boys were stripped and deloused and had their heads shaved. When, as a screen superstar, he revisited this institution 30 years later, he returned to his hotel and wept for an hour.
Weissman never fails to make connections between autobiography and art, and though there is a mechanical predictability in his endeavour, the insights are undeniably interesting and significant. For instance, the horse-drawn bakery van that conducted Charlie and Sydney to Hanwell turned up in Modern Times, as well as in The Kid, although in the latter instance it had turned into an open, flat-bedded one. The delousing at Hanwell showed up as a flea-circus gag in Limelight, in which Calvero goes from an itching, flea-bitten tramp to an expert trainer of acrobatic fleas.
More important, Chaplin's bittersweet films commemorate his feckless parents. Many have "rescue fantasies," which come to the fore in City Lights, the final reunion of which, between the down-and-out street character and the delicate flower girl (cured of blindness), has been celebrated as "the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies."
Weissman's biography covers Chaplin's early years and career with painstaking meticulousness, noting his breakthrough stage performance in a West End production of Sherlock Holmes, his association with the Fred Karno troupe ("Fred's Fun Factory"), Chaplin's first and second U.S. tours with the Karno group (1910-13), his association with Mack Sennett and the Keystone Film Company, and his one-year association with Essanay studios. Weissman excellently details how many of Chaplin's props and comic routines (especially for The Tramp) derived from his exposure to Victorian music hall, and how his gestural inflections and facial expressions were influenced by music-hall vocalists - even though Chaplin conveniently forgot to acknowledge his former idols in order to preserve his own status as a genius.
Weissman's overriding strategy is to treat Chaplin's films as his life and his life as film, and while Chaplin himself always rejected the role of introspective psychology in art, connoisseurs of psycho-biography, and of Charlie Chaplin, will be hugely grateful for Weissman's book.
Toronto Globe & Mail
CHAPLIN LIFTED WEARY
Of writing books about Charlie Chaplin there is no end, and much study of them is a weariness after the flesh. But this wonderful work is different.
Chaplin was arguably the most innovative genius the movies have ever produced: Only
D.W. Griffith matches him for technical and artistic innovation: But Griffith was a vile racist whose masterwork "Birth of a Nation" is quite simply disgusting and absurd in the extreme. Chaplin's work, especially the amazing shorts he made for the Mutual Company during World War I, remain the definitive standard for screen comedy to this day.
Chaplin was not just "big," he was gigantic. In 1915, he burst onto a war-torn world bringing it the gift of comedy, laughter and relief while it was tearing itself apart through World War I. Over the next 25 years, through the Great Depression and the rise of Adolph Hitler, he stayed on the job. He was bigger in his time than Al
Jolson, Frank Sinatra or the Beatles in theirs. He was bigger than anybody. It is doubtful any individual has ever given more entertainment, pleasure and relief to so many human beings when they needed it the most.
The story of Chaplin's life is well-known, or at least, it is thought to be: The hellish Victorian upbringing and terrifying poverty, the lightning, apparently inexorable rise of the vaudeville
protege, the journey to America, the early involvement in the
one-reeler movies and then the dizzying ascent to superstardom and legendary status. Also, the notorious promiscuity throughout his prime years, improbably settling down to belated domesticity and enduring happiness in late-middle age with what was, in effect, a child bride; the principled and courageous defiance and condemnation of fascism and Nazism, and then the utterly naive soft spot for communism and Stalin. However, psychiatrist Stephen Weissman shines a fresh and fascinating light on all these things so it is as if we are learning them all anew.
Here at last is a showbiz biography that is not just a tired collection of superficial press clippings. Here is a psychological study of a major artist delivered without pretension, jargon or absurdity - three curses that poor Orson Welles has attracted in especial intensity. Dr. Weissman tells a riveting story delivered like a good dry martini - in perfect proportion, just right.
It is also a story filled with surprises: Chaplin did not have a Jewish father. His father, Charlie Chaplin Sr., was a brief minor star of the English Victorian music hall in London who burned out fast and died of drink. Dr. Weissman convincingly argues Charlie's classic drunk slapstick routines as The Tramp were inspired directly by observation of his poor, permanently inebriated father.
Charlie's tragic mother, Hannah, was an even worse story. Dr. Weissman reveals that she whe was enslaved into prostitution in South Africa by her first husband - a pimp (He was probably working for the notorious Zwei Dagan international white slavery organization, the largest and worst criminal cartel on the planet from 1860 to 1940). She escaped from that world, but not before contracting syphilis, which led to her becoming permanently insane when Charlie was still just 7 years old. He and his beloved half-brother Sydney were then committed to the horrific Hanwell School for Orphans and Destitute Children: It was a hellhole Charles Dickens would have recognized only too well.
Dr. Weissman convincingly argues that the passionately heartbreaking scenes of beautiful young mothers torn away from their terrified, weeping children that is such a recurrent theme in Chaplin's films were inspired directly by this experience. So was his consistent and remarkable financial generosity and kindness to all his girlfriends and one-night stands.
For much of the past half century, Chaplin's artistic heritage was widely derided and undervalued. The mawkish sentimentality of the silent cinema and the jerky high jinks of his early movies when played on then-contemporary movie projectors made him seem childish and absurd. But from the 1980s onward, the restoration of his early classics and the development of technology that allowed them to be viewed again in all their original fluid, balletic beauty and perfect synchronization, has restored his creative reputation. Excellent DVD collections of these masterpieces are now easily available, as close as Netflix or your nearest Blockbuster.
As director, writer, stuntman, special-effects pioneer and auteur, Charlie Chaplin has no equal. He did it all first and he did it all best. Now Dr. Weissman has revealed the agonizing, tragic wellsprings of his astonishing inspiration in this beautiful, engrossing book.
A LIFE: A PSYCHIATRIST PUTS CHARLIE 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, insome 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 … and, more important, it conditioned his art.
… Chaplin's Little Tramp almost always moved …[in] the down-and-out London world he inhabited as a de facto orphan. …[he] 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… 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…and…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,
fresh entry in the evergreen field of works devoted to Charlie
Chaplin. If ever an artist's life lent itself to
psychoanalysis, it's Chaplin's. . .Weissman lends dimension
to the classics . . . and demonstrates Chaplin's ability to
transform family heartbreak into film comedies. . .With
lean, energetic prose, Weissman brings this colorful
theatrical period to life. . . He offers vivid sketches . .
.and carefully follows the confluence of several artists that
lead to the creation of the Chaplin's iconic Little Tramp.
Throughout the book, the author caps exhaustive sourcing with
an overlay of insightful observations about Chaplin's creative
process. Find space on the crowded Chaplin shelf for this
perceptive, literate take on the great screen clown."
uncovers the source for the “shabby gentility” of the
Little Tramp, as well as the development of that extraordinary
character. En route, he paints an engaging…portrait of how a
cinema artist is created and how he practices his craft.”
Forum of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis (Spring,2009)
Stephen Weissman, M.D. has done it again! A longstanding Academy member, Dr. Weissman’s superbly crafted psychobiography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
His Brother’s Keeper, appeared in 1989 and dealt with the creative process that resulted in poems like “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Now Dr. Weissman has written another biography,
Chaplin A Life — a brilliant study of the childhood events that shaped “the single most important artist produced by the cinema” (Andrew Sarris).
Charlie Chaplin’s daughter, Geraldine Chaplin, contributed a brief introduction. She asks: “Did Chaplin spin personal tragedy into universal comedy, creating The Little Tramp as a parody and memoralization of his alcoholic father? Are Chaplin’s film heroines, sublimated, half-remembered, half-repressed memories of his tragic and adored mother… This book, always provocative and at times heartwrenching, is an enlightening read, an important addition to our understanding of my father’s genius and art and a unique meditation on the mystery of creativity” (p. x).
There have been hundreds of books and thousands of articles worldwide devoted to Chaplin:
Genius of the Cinema by Jeffrey Vance and, most notably, Chaplin’s
Weissman’s biography differs in that he approaches his subject in the manner of a modern day Sherlock Holmes, discovering the origins of The Little Tramp’s persona, both the comic and tragic aspects.
Chaplin, a Life, therefore, is not a complete biography. The last years of Chaplin’s personal life, lawsuits, political harassment at the hands of the Un-American Activities Committee are barely noted. Interested readers should familiarize themselves with additional biographical material. Merely reading about this cinematic genius who wrote the scripts and composed the scores for his films, however, cannot do justice to Chaplin’s complexity — his humanity — his art. The films may be seen again and again, each viewing adds another dimension, another level of understanding.
Weissman’s interest in The Little Tramp resulted in a series of seminars for candidates at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute. The premise upon which Weissman based his lectures is clear: the film maker’s life can be used to read his films and the films can be used to read his life.
Chaplin was born in Walworth, England in 1889. His parents were popular music hall entertainers; Charles Chaplin, Sr. was an inveterate alcoholic and died as a result in his 30s. Hannah Hill, who chose the stage name Lily Harley, suffered from mental illness for which she was frequently hospitalized. It was, most likely, the result of neurosyphillis contracted when she was forced into prostitution by her first husband, Sidney Hawkes. Hannah believed Hawks was an aristocrat who promised a life of luxury and ease in South Africa. When she was able to escape from his clutches, she returned to London with her little son, Sydney. She married Chaplin Sr. and gave birth to Charles Jr. shortly afterwards. The Chaplins lived together until Charlie was three. The two brothers were forever close, Sydney serving as protector and ally throughout Charlie’s life. As youngsters, they were sent to a Dickensian orphanage and suffered extreme harshness at the hands of their caregivers. They often returned to the care of their hopelessly ill and impoverished mother whom they adored despite the frequent separations.
The boys experienced extraordinary physical deprivation. The inmates of the Hanwell School for Orphans and Destitute Children slept in crowded dormitories and were as cold and hungry as Oliver Twist. Yet during the 13 months Charlie spent at the orphanage, he coped by escaping into a fantasy world. “Even when I was in the orphanage,” he wrote, “When I was roaming the streets trying to find enough to eat to keep alive, even then I thought of myself the greatest actor in the world. I had to feel that exuberance that comes from utter confidence in yourself. Without it you go down to defeat” (p. 37).
Charlie was a gifted mimic who did hilarious imitations of drunks, most likely copied from his father’s inebriated walk. The persona of the Little Tramp undoubtedly stemmed from these observations.
There is no doubt that Charles was a child prodigy, a creative genius, constantly absorbing, like a sponge, fragments of his fragmented childhood.
As teenagers the Chaplin brothers became successful in the London music halls. At the age of 21 Charles was hired by the Fred Karno Company and eventually toured America where he was seen by the producer Mack Sennett. His earliest films were made in Hollywood with the Keystone Film Company. From that time forward Charlie became a tremendous success in almost everything he attempted.
In the early films one can see the crude actions, vulgar antics, pratfalls, fights, in the style of comic vaudeville acts of the day — the banana peel humor familiar to all. Generations of comics have imitated the sheer physicality of the comic genius, from Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, to Jerry Lewis, Donald O’Connor and Ray Bolger. In terms of actors who have studied the deeper aspects of Chaplin’s character and art — one thinks of Woody Allen who captures poignant longing in Chaplin’s deeply moving expressions.
There was much more to Charlie’s inventiveness than his well-honed comic routines. His pictures revealed the pain of early suffering — starvation scenes in The Gold Rush and heart wrenching separations from a beloved caregiver as portrayed in
The Kid emerged into a seamless life tapestry.
Charlie was one of those individuals who takes life events — often the ordinary experiences shared by all — and then transforms them into something new: a magic synthesis, as Silvano Arieti described it, so that others can view the world from different perspectives.
Creativity implies invention — the making of new machines by putting together old parts, or making new concepts by combining old (or new) facts in unique ways (i.e., the dinner
rolls transformed into ballet slippers in The Gold Rush).
Sigmund Freud was deeply interested in the metapsychology of creative artists and found parallels with fantasies, dreams, and childhood play. In his paper, “Creative Writings and Daydreaming,” Freud wrote that the genesis of art and the adult’s fantasy life were both derived from repressed infantile wishes. Freud believed that the artist, by sublimation of the drives, could cause pleasure in others by stimulating their own repressed wishes. Obviously, as Kubie pointed out, one had to be endowed with exception abilities as well.
Chaplin certainly fits the picture. His extraordinary ability to live in a fantasy world where he was master of all he surveyed is proof of his creative genius, even in early childhood. His memories — or fantasies — of union and reunion with his adored mother play out in his life’s work — an attempt to recreate the paradise from which he was so rudely expelled time and again.
Chaplin’s masterpiece, in my opinion, is the 1931 silent film City
Lights. It captures the essence of The Little Tramp, so filled with compassion and hope. When the blind girl is finally able to see again, the result of Charlie’s finding the means to pay for her eye surgery, and her shock of recognition as she touches his face and realizes that her poverty stricken admirer is none other than her benefactor, is nothing short of a miracle of film making. The Little Tramp’s expression is unforgettable.
After a lifetime of seeking dreams of love, disappointment in his once beautiful mother now confined to a mental institution, the real life Charles Chaplin finally found happiness in his marriage to 18-year old Oona O’Neill, daughter of Eugene O’Neill. He was 54. They had a long and happy marriage and produced eight children.
Weissman’s book is masterful and captures the true essence of Chaplin’s genius. It should be read and savored by all who love art and obviously love life.
Reviewed by Clarice J. Kestenbaum, M.D.
Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and the Director of Training in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons
A detailed, exhaustive and concise biography . . . The gritty details of his life may come as a surprise. . . . Weissman's afterword is not to be missed. It provides thoughts on Chaplin’s conflicted versions of his life story. His sources are many and varied and make the book the winner it is. . . . A must-read biography on one of the greatest entertainers the world has known.
"This book, written in a narrative form, is based on extensive research of Chaplin's personal life, the characters he created—the tipsy bumbler, the wily trickster, the streetwise hustler, the comic misfit, the clever chameleon and the poet-magician—and his greatest
movies—The Kid, The Gold Rush, City
Lights, Modern Times and Limelight. This examination not only provides insight into Chaplin's creativity, it also demonstrates how historical events influence art form. It is an exceptional and provoking read, which prompts one to seek out Chaplin's films, many of which are available... on the Internet."
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