Friday, 16 March 2012

My Autobiography: Charles Chaplin (England)

Born into a theatrical family, Chaplin's father died of drink while his mother, unable to bear the poverty, suffered from bouts of insanity, Chaplin embarked on a film-making career which won him immeasurable success, as well as intense controversy. His extraordinary autobiography was first published in 1964 and was written almost entirely without reference to documentation - simply as an astonishing feat of memory by a 75 year old man. It is an incomparably vivid reconstruction of a poor London childhood, the music hall and then his prodigious life in the movies.

This was the second time that I have read this book. Being brought up by parents who were a generation older than the norm, I was brought up watching Chaplin movies and so am a huge fan of his work. I bought my mother a copy of the paperback edition of this book as a birthday gift a few years before she died, and found it while clearing out her house, which is when I read it for the first time. I am not sure what happened to that original, but was inspired to download and read it for the second time following a visit to see The Artist.

Considering that this book was written when Chaplin was in his mid 70's (and unlike modern celebrity memoirs, he did indeed write this all himself) it is an astonishing feat of memory. As such it covers the period from his birth to the mid 1950's around the era of Limelight and Monsieur Verdoux, two of his most successful films, and his fall from grace in the United States, where he was accused of being a Communist sympathiser.

It is all in here, from his humble beginnings in Lambeth and Kennington and the grinding poverty that led his mother to repeated bouts of insanity, and his meteoric rise to fame. Despite his reputation as a womaniser, Chaplin is relatively coy about his love life, with little information on his four marriages - mostly it has to be said, to protect the elder of his many children.

Despite his rise to fame and incredible wealth, Chaplin never forgot his beginnings, and the things that matter. The book reveals an astute mind and understanding of what I would term humanist principles.

It is true what they say that films are not made the way they used to be, and I for one would welcome a revival of silent movies and this expressive form of acting and entertaining, where action reigns supreme and the true meaning is lost in words that act as mere symbols for what we feel.

To write a comprehensive review of this book would be a tome in itself, but suffice to say that this is a well written and exceedingly readable book, which makes a refreshing change from the egocentric modern celebrity tell-all memoirs. These so-called celebrities and indeed actors, could learn a lot from this man were he still alive.

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