Of the three great comedians of the silent era—Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd—only Chaplin survived the transition to the talkies, and only Chaplin was surrounded by controversy about both politics and his romantic affairs. Chaplin continues to generate controversy and critical interest, interest that has been whetted by the discovery and examination of film outtakes, work notes, and studio records. (Some of this material was used in the David Gill and Kevin Brownlow film The Unknown Chaplin, 1983, in which Chaplin’s actual filming procedures are shown and analyzed.) David Robinson, film critic for The Times of London, has also had access to Chaplin’s archive of private papers, records, letters, and photographs, and in Chaplin: His Life and Art has written the authorized, and definitive, biography of film’s greatest comic artist.
In his preface, Robinson discusses the mass of documentation he reviewed and asserts that, for the most part, it corroborates Chaplin’s own account of his life, My Autobiography (1964). In fact, Robinson intends his biography to complement Chaplin’s autobiography, which Chaplin wrote from memory without recourse to records and which omits any discussion of his working methods and several people who were influential in his life and art. The omissions are significant, because Chaplin’s decisions to include primarily important personages and to neglect lesser-known colleagues reflect his own sense of self-importance and his desire to have his films seen as his own work. As the reader discovers in Robinson’s work, however, the auteur Chaplin produced films that, while undeniably stamped with the Chaplin trademark, are demonstrably derivative from Chaplin’s roots in pantomime and the English music-hall tradition.
Robinson regards Chaplin’s London boyhood in Victorian England as being appropriately Dickensian: an alcoholic father, an unstable but loving mother, half brothers, poverty, public institutions, and, despite the privations, a will to excel. It is in his first few chapters that Robinson seems most effective in relating Chaplin’s life to his art. The influence of Chaplin’s family, for example, followed him from England to America: The image of his alcoholic music-hall performer can be seen in several Chaplin films, his mother’s gift of observation shaped his miming abilities, and his half brothers appeared in his films and worked for him. Moreover, locales from his London boyhood appear, with some modifications, in several films. The principal influences on his art, however, derive from his experiences with the English entertainment industry: From the music hall, he observed short sketches rooted in character; from pantomime, he learned clowning; and from the circus, he learned acrobatics. Fred Karno, for whom Chaplin worked, had internalized these traditions and used them in the various acting troupes he engaged. During his stint with Karno, Chaplin learned much of his craft, picked up ideas that were later filmed, and met many actors, some of whom he used in his Mutual films. In addition to discussing these direct influences, Robinson identifies Jimmy the Fearless as the pivotal Karno act for Chaplin, because it established him as a potential star performer (Karno suggested that Jimmy anticipated the Tramp), and because its dream sequences, which recur in Chaplin films, with the awakening to reality, may account for Chaplin’s fear that his success (a “dream”) would not last.
While in Karno’s employ, Chaplin traveled to the United States, where he attracted the attention of Mack Sennett of the Keystone Company, which specialized in comedy. Stressing the ties between mime and the Keystone films, Robinson accounts for Chaplin’s success, first, as an actor and then as the director of his own films. Robinson, using production details, focuses on Chaplin’s film-by-film development and explains how Chaplin’s comedies differ from the typical Keystone comedy: While the Keystone comedy depends on exposition, Chaplin’s comedy depends on expression; while the Keystone comedy derives from the comic occurrence, Chaplin’s comedy derives from his relationship and attitude toward the occurrence. By the time he left Keystone, Chaplin’s Tramp persona was established. More important, however, Robinson stresses Chaplin’s commitment to his art, a commitment that Robinson uses to rationalize Chaplin’s selfishness, and sets the stage for the political problems that were to culminate in the Joseph McCarthy era. Chaplin moved from Keystone to Essanay to Mutual to First National, during which time he followed an impressive production schedule. Robinson’s treatment of these years is most...
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