Thursday, March 05, 2015

Chappie

Peter Ackroyd's biography of Charlie Chaplin is described by his publisher as "brief yet definitive."  Brief, to be sure, but as for definitive I'd have to go with David Robinson's classic bio.  But that book is about 800 pages, while Ackroyd's is well under 300, and that's a virtue.  Chaplin lived a long, productive and controversial life, which makes the action fast and furious in Ackroyd's no-nonsense account.

Ackroyd is a novelist and critic who's written a number of biographies, so he's in his element.  He often writes about great artists.  Chaplin is his first movie star, but Ackroyd makes sure to situate him in a longer line that includes names like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens.

By now the general outline of Chaplin's life should be well known to anyone interested in film.  Born in Dickensian poverty in London in the late 1800s, he gets on the stage and becomes a major comedian in his early 20s.  He goes on tour in America where he's seen by Mack Sennett, who signs him to a contract at Keystone pictures.

Chaplin had a different rhythm from the other clowns, and in almost no time becomes an international film star--arguably the biggest ever.  He goes from Keystone to Essanay to Mutual to First National and finally to his own company, United Artists, growing as an artist with each move, and turning out mostly hits, many of them classics, such as The Kid, The Gold Rush, City Lights and Modern Times.

But he has trouble in the domestic sphere, marrying four times and being involved in a number of notorious lawsuits.  He also has political troubles, and is suspected of communist sympathies.  After forty years in America he leaves for Switzerland, only to return twenty years later to receive an honorary Oscar and make up with the country where he had his greatest success.

Ackroyd does an admirable job of moving the story along, and is also willing to judge his subject. Ackroyd is incisive in analyzing Chaplin's film's, which are the work of a major artist who, especially in later years, could get self-indulgent.  As a man, Chaplin comes off less well.  He was an egomaniac (wouldn't you be if you pulled yourself out of poverty and became the world's biggest star in your twenties?) and inflexible in his relations with others, including family members.  But that was all part of being someone who stopped at nothing to do it his way, which led to some very idiosyncratic work, but also greatness.

If you need an introduction to the man's life, this is an excellent place to start.

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