Book Review: Chaplin: His Life and Art by David Robinson; Part 2: One Masterpiece After Another

When I wrote the first part of this review, I was about halfway through the text; I closed Part 1 with the creation of Chaplin’s first undeniable film masterpiece: The Kid. He would go on to make several more movies which also deserve to be called masterpieces, including The Gold Rush, City Lights, The Great Dictator, and my favorite: Modern Times. Robinson’s book goes into detail about how Chaplin made each of these films. He spent years on them as writer, director, composer, and star, shooting take after take until he got them right. He was a perfectionist, but he was able to get away with it because he owned his own studio. He could be sometimes encouraging and sometimes extremely harsh on his costars and technicians, but his attention to detail shows through in the final iterations of these magnificent films.

What made it even more difficult for him to work was his messed up personal life during much of his most creative years. Part of it was his own fault. When he was making a film, he would become so absorbed in the act of creation that he would neglect his loved ones. He also got into several unsuccessful marriages with very young and very incompatible women. His fourth marriage, though, proved to be a success. Although the age difference between Chaplin and Oona O’Neill, daughter of the playwright Eugene O’Neill, was thirty-six years (Chaplin was fifty-four and Oona was eighteen when they married) they fell deeply in love, were inseparable until Chaplin’s death, and had eight children together.

After the film Limelight was completed and Chaplin and his family had set off for London for the premier, the U.S. State Department revoked his reentry visa and he was unable to return. He and Oona and their children settled in Switzerland, where he was to live for the rest of his life and die on Christmas Day 1977 at the age of eighty-eight.

Before his death, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences invited him to come to Los Angeles to receive a special honorary Oscar. When he made the trip, it was his first visit back to the States in twenty years. Upon receiving the award, the audience gave him a twelve minute standing ovation, the longest in the history of the academy.

After I finished this book, I re-watched Richard Attenborough’s film biography Chaplin starring Robert Downey Jr. It got mixed reviews when it came out, but for a long time it has been one of my all-time favorite movies. Robert Downey Jr. is perfect for the part. When I say that I am not in any way exaggerating. It’s one of those rare occasions when the actor and the part he is playing mesh seamlessly. He dives so deeply into the role that you forget that it’s just a part an actor is playing. He becomes Chaplin.

One of the things for which Attenborough is criticized is taking artistic license with the material – in other words, shading the facts a bit for dramatic effect. He does this, yes, but only in minor ways. I think that the overall quality of the film eclipses any small factual lapses.

One thing that is fairly unique about Chaplin is that his fame rests on the creation of only one character: The Tramp. Instead of taking on diverse roles, once he formulated The Tramp he used the basic persona in a variety of situations, but The Tramp himself remained basically the same. The Tramp is one of the most beloved characters in cinematic history, and Chaplin was able to capitalize on his appeal to bring laughter and heartfelt sentiment to millions of people around the world. It’s possible that there has never been as popular an actor as Chaplin was in his heyday. He was truly unique, and this book is a great help in understanding the life and art of this cinematic legend.

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