Thursday, August 3, 2017

Chaplin on Chaplin

My Autobiography (1964/ This edition with new introduction 2007) by Charlie Chaplin: The first third of Charlie Chaplin's autobiography was excerpted and sold as its own book, My Early Life. This suggests that Chaplin (or someone in his estate) knew that his autobiography was excellent pretty much right up to the point that he became the most famous person, film star or otherwise, on Earth -- in 1916, roughly speaking.

The first third details Chaplin's Dickensian childhood in London, England. And it is detailed, and marvelously described. Chaplin didn't use a ghost writer -- the prose is all his, with some corrections for spelling and grammar. He's a gifted memoirist, at least until he becomes famous. Then he becomes an anecdotalist, with the narrative switching to an exhausting string of Chaplin's encounters with famous people.

The first third of My Autobiography, though, is dynamite. Chaplin draws a picture of late Victorian England that is grimy but often full of life and heartbreak. His early adventures on the stage as a member of a travelling acrobatic troupe, as an actor, and ultimately as a dance-hall comedian are memorable and informative.

The introduction to this edition -- written 40 years after the initial mid-1960's release -- notes some of Chaplin's curious omissions. Unless his long-time collaborators are actresses, he omits them almost entirely. He also omits almost any mention of the process of making his films, especially once he's on his own. His first two wives get less than a page's worth between them. He does deal with his 1940's trial and subsequent exile to Switzerland, along with his last marriage, to the then-18-year-old daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill when Chaplin was in his mid-50's. He fails to mention his last movie -- A King in New York -- at all. 

Oh, well. Some of the anecdotes are interesting, depending on your tolerance for name-dropping, especially when many of those names have faded into history. The several pages devoted to Chaplin's relationship with William Randolph Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies are probably the most rewarding of the lot.

One thing is certain -- Chaplin was no Communist, even if he did get branded as such for some of the speechifying he did in person and on film. He really, really loves money and he lets it show. Given his impoverished background, it all makes sense.

In all, My Autobiography is immensely rewarding for the first 150 pages or so. After that, one really must proceed at one's own risk. Recommended.

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