Although Epstein begins with a description of Charlie’s poverty-stricken childhood and his life in the United States, he focuses on the Chaplins’ exile in Switzerland, where he cemented his friendship with them and became, for all practical purposes, a family member. Epstein’s association with Charlie began in Los Angeles, where Epstein had started the Circle Theater in the 1940’s. Charlie’s son Sydney was one of the Circle Theater actors and brought in his father to advise them on one of their productions. Charlie was delighted to participate in the fledgling theater’s efforts and helped make the Circle Theater a success, providing everything from directorial assistance to props.
Epstein describes Charlie’s unusual thought process when brainstorming a film: He would think of a comical gag and then create a plot around the scene, building from that one scene to create a film. One of Charlie’s last films, A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG, starring Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando, is described in detail--an account which shows both the financially conservative, pennypinching side as well as the creatively demanding side of Charlie Chaplin.
The story of Epstein’s career successes and failures runs parallel to his growing friendship with Charlie and Oona, providing a personal time frame outside his visits with them. He offers only brief glimpses of his personal life, which momentarily give him a three-dimensionality that is otherwise eclipsed by Charlie’s dynamic personality.
Central to Jerry Epstein’s narrative is the relationship between Charlie and Oona Chaplin, a strong, interdependent bond that easily overcame a thirty-six-year age difference. Several times, Oona mediated between Charlie and Epstein, reconciling professional differences that had mushroomed disproportionately because of stubbornness and pride. Oona’s presence seemed to calm Charlie; Epstein’s portrayal gives her a quiet strength, complementing the energetic bursts of Charlie’s comic genius.
Like Epstein’s prose, the family photographs are intimate and informal, many of them taken on the lawn of the Chaplins’ home in Switzerland. Yet the strongest image of Charlie Chaplin left by the photographs and anecdotes is that of the Tramp--the eternal optimist who manages to persevere despite all the obstacles in his path.