Lovers of classic comedy and show biz biography undoubtedly know the name Simon Louvish. In recent years, the Scottish-Israeli film scholar has penned colorful, interesting books about W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Mae West, Mack Sennett, and Laurel and Hardy. In Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey he tackles the granddaddy of them all, providing his own quirky insight into one of the 20th century’s greatest enigmas.
As Louvish wisely points out in his prologue, there are probably already a hundred books on this juicy subject You can read my own biographical essay here.). Yet still the author has managed to carve out a niche for himself, mostly by presenting the most up-to-date scholarship on the topic, and by structuring his book playfully, as a sort of marathon Charlie Chaplin film festival starring the Tramp himself. Chapter headings are named after Chaplin’s key films, the themes of which are connected to events in Chaplin’s own life. Most significantly, he makes the touchstone of the book the greatest crisis of Chaplin’s adult life, and one of the most unfathomable events of (if you’ll excuse the expression) modern times: Chaplin’s 1952 exile from a land where he had been universally beloved only a decade before.
It would be hard to exaggerate the scale of Chaplin’s fall from grace. In his heyday he had been the highest paid man in America, the co-owner of his own movie studio, an icon, a toy, a comic strip. His Q factor was second only to Santa Clause. As Louvish mentions in one of the book’s more arresting sections, Chaplin actually enjoyed a following in the jungles of Africa – in a time not so long after Stanley first bumped into Livingston. An intimate of Shaw, Wells and Einstein, Chaplin was as close to a God as it is for a mortal man to get without actually commanding an army. But mortal is the key word. After one too many scandals involving girls half his age, and a rather foolish propensity to speak too generously about America’s Cold War enemies, Chaplin was given the “heave ho” by some grand-standing No Nothings, and the public betrayed him with a speed that would astound Timon of Athens. He spent the next 25 years in exile in Switzerland – a deposed king not so very unlike Napoleon in St. Helena, a subject about which he’d once wanted to make a film.
With the benefit of hindsight, it becomes easier to see why this unthinkable event happened. Yes, America loves the Little Guy. It also loves the Self-Made Man. But by the time of Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin had ceased playing the former, and seemed to be denying the right of his fellow citizens to join him in becoming the latter. When a child of grinding poverty in Europe becomes one of the wealthiest inhabitants in America, and then implies that her ideological enemy has the better system, it should at the very least not be surprising that the public reply becomes “don’t let the door bang you in the ass on your way out”. On the other hand, it is surely no coincidence that Chaplin’s detractors tended to be morons who showed no evidence of comprehending the Constitution or its Bill of Rights, the very instruments that made the American system superior to the communist one in the first place. These documents, when honored, were supposed to guarantee Chaplin’s freedom not only to make his fortune here, but to say whatever damn-fool idealistic notion came into his head. Otherwise, America may as well be Russia. Call him any names you like. But kick him out for his beliefs, and (to adapt a handy modern phrase) the communists will already have won.
But don’t be deceived. This political angle is really just the book’s eloquent framing device. Louvish is writing about a comedian after all. Much intelligent analysis is given to the content of the films, including thorough descriptions of their plots, for those who don’t know them. Strung together as they are in Louvish’s book, the chapters of Chaplin’s life spool together like the reels in a film. The trajectory of his life, occurring as it did in numerous discrete, definable steps, makes for an exceptionally coherent narrative arc even under the worst of circumstances. His Dickensian childhood, his apprenticeship with Karno, his stint as first among equals at Keystone, the breakout at Essanay, the formal brilliance of his Mutual period, the full flowering at First National, the masterpieces for United Artists, the talkies, and then the political and personal problems that brought him down. Weaving through it all, like a naïf on a fairy tale journey, is the character of the Tramp, far from Chaplin’s only creation, but the one that public clamor constantly demanded he return to.
As always, Louvish is smart, passionate and writes with clarity. Sometimes, he is almost too smart. A spirit of “gotcha” pervades his books. He’ll catch his subjects in some inaccuracy and match it against a documented truth he has uncovered elsewhere, often a date or some other salient detail, and then follow it with an (often literal) crow of “aha!” While correct facts are obviously necessary to the progress of knowledge, I frankly find Louvish’s attitude of triumphalism a bit illogical, even perplexing. Do entertainers often lie in the course of building their myths? Of course – public relations is, after all, the Siamese twin of show business. No revelation there. But just as importantly, and just as frequently, the actors themselves are not lying at all. They are people who have led extremely busy lives, often advanced in age when they slow down to pen their memoirs. Lapses in memory can often attain proportions appalling to their devoted fans, who revel in memorizing every minute fact of their heroes’ lives and careers. Think of George Harrison in the 1995 Beatles documentary, not remembering if a certain song was on Rubber Soul or Revolver. Inconceivable! Woody Allen claims not to have seen most of his own films since they first premiered in theatres. To my mind, it’s crazy to even bother citing the artists or their intimates as sources in such cases, except where the occasional example may reveal some particular illuminating truth. With Louvish, spotting the uttered untruths is a kind of bloodsport, often taken to absurd degrees. When writing about one of Chaplin’s many child-brides Joan Berry, Louvish writes “Note that press and FBI records consistently spelled her name as ‘Berry’”. Why? Why should we take any note of that at all? It speaks volumes about Louvish’s abilities as a fact-checker, but little if anything about Charlie Chaplin.
But these are nutshells in an otherwise tasty cake. While some of the notes on the dust jacket give the impression this book is for Chaplin aficionados only, my feeling is that it’s detailed descriptions of the films themselves (for those who don’t know them) ought to widen its appeal. Call me a Pollyanna, but who doesn’t want to know more about Charlie Chaplin? The book is available here.