I absolutely love Charlie Chaplin. I love watching his movies, I love reading anything about him, and I love that I’ve been able to share his films with my daughter Madi, who’s been watching and laughing at his movies with me for six of her twelve years. The other evening, she and I were watching Richard Attenborough’s biopic Chaplin, and when we reached the point in the movie where Chaplin starts grumbling that he can’t figure out how to make a blind girl mistakenly believe the Tramp is a millionaire, Madi brightened and said, “Hey, he’s talking about the scene from City Lights!”
I love that she knows that.
Plenty has been written, and is continuing to be written, about Chaplin’s life and work (in fact, one of my colleagues at Arcade has just written a new one, due in late 2008, which you can see right here). But if you’re interested in getting to know a little more about One of My All-Time Favorites and don’t know quite where to start, I’m here to help.
First up, of course, are Chaplin’s films, many of which were recently released on DVD by Warner Home Video in two gorgeous boxed sets. The prints are beautiful, and each set is loaded with extra goodies and bonus features.
Naturally, I’d advise you to invest in both sets, but if you really have to choose only one, I lean toward set two. Sure, set one offers Modern Times and The Great Dictator, but set two offers what I consider to be Chaplin’s funniest film (The Circus), his best film (City Lights) and his biggest weepy (The Kid). It also offers The Chaplin Revue, a collection of six of his best shorter films, including A Dog’s Life and Shoulder Arms.
Next is David Robinson’s 1985 biography Chaplin: His Life and Art. Written with the cooperation of the Chaplin family, who allowed Robinson access to the family archives in Switzerland, Robinson’s book does a good job discussing Chaplin’s films, and takes a clear-eyed approach to Chaplin’s complicated personal life. It’s still the best biography available — it’s the book the film Chaplin is based on — and Robinson covers a remarkable amount of ground while still keeping the book to a manageable size.
If Robinson’s even-handed treatment of Chaplin’s tumultuous personal life leaves you wanting more dirt, Joyce Milton is more than happy to provide it in her 1998 biography Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin. In the past, I’ve characterized this book as mean spirited — and looking through it again, I still think it takes a bit too much relish in kicking Chaplin when he’s down. But it certainly does a thorough job of digging into Chaplin’s troubles with women and politics — a completely fair and valid focus, especially when Chaplin hands biographers both issues, neatly wrapped, on a platter.
But if you’re looking for Chaplin to dish any of the dirt himself in his My Autobiography, you’re out of luck. Chaplin certainly doesn’t portray himself as a saint — he’s always more than willing to acknowledge his own shortcomings — but he’s generally respectful towards those he lived and worked with. Where My Autobiography shines is in Chaplin’s stories of growing up poor in London, his experiences in the early days of film making, his friendships with Douglas Fairbanks, William Randolph Hearst and H.G. Wells, and his general humility when it comes to his work on humanitarian causes. Plus, it’s always fascinating to see what people think are the most important or interesting parts of their lives — it’s not always the elements that we might choose as fans!
Finally, there’s Kenneth Lynn’s hefty 1997 Charlie Chaplin and His Times, a book reviled by fans but admired by many critics. I’m mixed on it. Lynn definitely takes his task as a deep-driller and debunker seriously, working to paint Chaplin’s childhood as not quite as poverty-stricken as Chaplin has led us to believe, and analzying Chaplin’s relationship with, and embarassment over, his mentally ill mother. It’s fascinating stuff and the amount of detailed research is appreciated, if often head-spinning. Lynn’s most valuable contribution to the Chaplin story, however, is in his discussion of Chaplin’s politics. Was Chaplin a Marxist? Perhaps — but Lynn will help you put it all in context of his times.
Oh, and let me add one more interesting item to this list: Charles Chaplin: Film Music, a collection of music composed by Chaplin for use in his films. Besides acting and directing, Chaplin also wrote terrific music for his movies — his most famous piece is probably the hummable tune “Smile” from Modern Times, which Nat King Cole turned into a standard. More than mere incidental music, Chaplin uses music as mood; I defy you to listen to “Kidnap” from The Kid without choking up a bit. The music of Modern Times brings the album to an appropriate close, with the refrain from “Smile” fading out as the final fanfare swells — fittingly enough, it was this music that played as The Tramp (with the girl finally on his arm) walked off into the sunset (or sunrise, in this case) in the final scene of what would be his last truly “silent” film.
There. I hope that helps. And for any Chaplin fans out there, what do you think? What books do you recommend?