Chaplin, A Life

“Come in, — Come In! And know me better…” — The Ghost of Christmas Present

As my good fortune would have it, I found myself spending six hours on buses and trains yesterday, meaning I got to spend National Book Lovers Day reading Chaplin, A Life by Stephen M. Weissman, M.D. Remarkably, the author had contacted me about his book in response to my post about Chaplin’s mother, which was published four days ago. The book was in my hands two days ago, read yesterday, reviewed today. That’s modern life in a nutshell. Yet, from another perspective, my review isn’t all that expeditious. The book was first published a decade ago. This will be a tenth anniversary review.

But a belated rave! Weissman handily cleared two fairly tall hurdles on his way to my heart: 1) the fact that the world has suddenly become glutted with dilettante authors of all sorts, including show biz biographers. Some that have found their way to my desk have been surprisingly good, but some were downright appalling; and 2)  Who has been written about more than Charlie Chaplin? Is it even possible to break new ground?

But Weissman does, or did, and in a style as enjoyable as it is eye-opening. It turns out Weissman is the farthest thing from a dilettante. Indeed, he’s one of the foremost experts on Chaplin in the world, it’s just that he’s pursued his research with a different eye than most. By profession he is a psychiatrist and a professor of psychiatry. He has psychoanalyzed Chaplin from afar for decades, by way of his writings and utterances, his films, and his behavior as related by those who knew him. (Chaplin is not the only historical figure he’s done this with. Among others, he’s analyzed and written about Samuel Taylor Coleridge).

Most biographers, the interesting ones anyway, are at least armchair psychiatrists, but Weissman brings the tools of a scientist and a scholar to the table. Furthermore, he’s neither a quack nor irresponsible. He happens to be the first to break the news that Chaplin’s mother’s madness was caused by end-stage syphilis. The information comes from hospital records, not (as in so many other cases) speculation, however well informed and logical. And in areas where he does presume to guess, most notably in broaching the possibility that Hannah Chaplin may have been forced into prostitution during her South African stay, he is cautious in qualifying it, and careful in laying out the reasoning behind his suspicions. In short, it’s not sensationalized, as it may well have been.

The bulk of the book ties moments from Chaplin’s films (of which Weissman displays a masterful knowledge) to moments from his childhood. The connections he makes seem for the most part not just plausible but likely. As a handy example: today happens to be the anniversary of the release date of the 1914 film The Face on the Bar-Room Floor, one of Chaplin’s best extended drunk turns. Using a film like that with an eye to Chaplin’s relationship to his drunken father is the sort of exercise Weissman engages in.

What makes the book especially rewarding is that you immediately get the sense that Weissman is not an outsider. He knows the films intimately and loves them. Beyond this he knows the art and culture that inform Chaplin’s life, just as well. He references Dan Leno and Marie Lloyd and Vsevelod Meyerhold with the deftness of a theatre scholar. He writes entertainingly, movingly and with an appreciation of the comedy end of things, something you can’t necessarily count on from a guy with initials after his name. It all adds up to what might well be the most insightful and best researched* portrait of Chaplin’s early life up to the Keystone years or so — a revolutionary contribution to our overall understanding of the comedian and his art. On a secondary level it functions well as a good all-around bio, too; a newbie would certainly get something out of it. But it will be especially appreciated by folks who’ve already been steeped in Chaplinania, and think they know it all. Guaranteed: after reading this book, you will know Chaplin better.

* He acknowledges that he stands on the shoulders of giants, above all David Robinson, whose 1985 Chaplin: His Life and Art, was a previous high water mark.