Book Review: Chaplin: His Life and Art by David Robinson; Part 1: The Early Years

One of my favorite films of all time is Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin starring Robert Downey, Jr. Another is Modern Times by Charlie Chaplin. We’ll get to Modern Times in another review, because I haven’t got to the part of the book that discusses it yet, but first I’ll talk about the biographical film Chaplin. The credits cite two sources of material on Chaplin’s life: My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin, which I have already read and reviewed, and Chaplin: His Life and Art by David Robinson. Chaplin’s biography is a light, entertaining book told with wit and intelligence. Robinson’s book is longer and much more comprehensive. Although it is out of print, through periodic online searches I managed to find a used copy in good condition.

The sheer physical weight of the book is intimidating. I often read for awhile in bed after my nap, and if I am still feeling drowsy, the book is so heavy that it is hard to hold upright. It is worth the effort, however; it provides a comprehensive look at the life of one of the greatest of cinematic geniuses. In his Autobiography, Chaplin reminisces as if he is conversing with you face to face. Robinson takes a much more scholarly approach. He goes into detail about just about every facet of Chaplin’s life for which there is documentation.

The first part of the book concerns Chaplin’s childhood in London. He was raised primarily by his mother and ignored by his indifferent father. He and his brother Sidney often had to go it alone as their mother became more and more overcome by mental instability and spent a lot of time in institutions and asylums. Sidney and Charley got into show business early. Charlie, in fact, first made an appearance on stage as a young boy. By the time they were in their early twenties, they were touring England in comedic theater groups. Charlie eventually embarked on tours of America, which is where he was discovered and offered employment in the infant motion picture industry.

At first the studios offered Chaplin mundane contracts, and he performed to the dictates of other directors. However, as his talent and popularity became more apparent, he was able to demand exponentially higher salaries and more control over his creative material. By the time he was in his mid-twenties, he was an international celebrity and the best-paid entertainer in the world.

From the beginning, Chaplin was no mere clown. He cared deeply about his art. He was a perfectionist, and as a director he would shoot scenes over and over until he was satisfied with the results. His work increased in sophistication until he was able to put together complex masterpieces of comedy, drama, and pathos.

The first of his undeniable masterpieces was the feature-length film The Kid. One of my sons subscribes to a streaming service that has several of Chaplin’s films, so I was able to re-watch The Kid just before reading about Chaplin’s process in creating it. Watch it for yourself and see if you can avoid both laughing out loud and shedding heartfelt tears. The tramp character that Chaplin made famous finds an abandoned baby in an alley. In a blanket is a note that implores the finder to take care of the baby. The tramp takes the child to his decrepit attic room and invents ingenious devices to help him feed and care for the baby. Cut to five years later. The baby is now a young boy (played by the child actor Jackie Coogan). They live together in poverty and great joy until authorities from an orphanage try to take the boy away from the tramp. There is an amazing scene in which Chaplin climbs over the rooftops to intercept the vehicle that has apprehended his child. In the happy ending, the boy is finally reunited with his mother, and she welcomes the tramp into her home as well.

The Kid marked a turning point in Chaplin’s career. After this breakthrough effort, he would write, produce, direct, and star in one amazing film after another. However, here we will end this review, in the midway point of the book. There are more great things to come.

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