A conversation with the legendary comedian’s sons as the first museum in his memory opens in Switzerland
Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | August 24, 2016 | Europe
Charlie Chaplin, the world’s most well-known comedian, hated Christmas – it reminded him of the grueling poverty of his childhood. As if by touch of a self-fulfilling prophecy, he died on the Christmas day in 1977.
“He was obsessed with the poverty he came from,” Michael Chaplin, the 70-year-old son of Charlie Chaplin, told this reporter. Perhaps, it was precisely this obsession that engendered his genius of developing a cinematic language that appealed universally as a story of the dispossessed, of resistance, and of human dignity in the face of unforgiving social realities.
Chaplin, in a trip in 1932 to an Indonesian island where only New York Times caricaturist Al Hirschfeld knew him, wondered if the Balinese people would find his comedy funny. So after a Garuda bird dance performance Chaplin took over the stage and tried his American antics with people who inhabited a wholly different culture from his own. The Balinese shrieked with laughter.
“My father covered almost the whole planet. People in India, China, South America could recognise the person. And he didn’t need to be translated. He said everything with his body. His fame was planetary but it’s true that he was never a pop icon like [Marilyn] Monroe or [Elvis] Presley,” Michael said.
Chaplin had once said that he was more known than Jesus Christ. And he was right. “I see my father’s life in three parts: his childhood in England, poverty. Then you have America, which is all this creativity. But it’s a troubled life as well in between different marriages as well as difficult changes,” says Eugene, the 62-year-old son of Chaplin. “Then he comes to Switzerland. In the last sentences in his autobiography he speaks of the mountains across the lake and how they reassured him. He loved to get back to a normal life,” he adds.
Scene I: Insanity and pantomiming
Charles Spencer Chaplin’s childhood in Walworth was marred by a series of tragedies. Both his parents, Charles and Hannah Chaplin (who went by the stage name of Lily Harley), were unsuccessful music hall performers. His father was an alcoholic who left his mother when he found her to have produced a child from another man. Hannah and her children moved from one house to another, sometimes in the middle of the night, unable to pay their rent. She ultimately fell victim to insanity and was moved to an asylum. She was separated from her two boys who were sent to Central London District Poor Law School. Chaplin’s father died from alcoholism at the age of 37, leaving the two boys to fend for themselves.
Charlie’s survival instincts had always been phenomenal, bolstered, perhaps, by his desperate situation. One day, Chaplin’s mother lost her voice in the middle of a stage performance much to chagrin of a jeering crowd, mostly comprising bulky soldiers. A five-year-old Chaplin, leaped on to the stage and filled in for her even though he had never sung on stage before, much to the applause of the crowd and the showering of farthings and pennies. When he declared that the performance would continue only after he had collected all the pennies, the crowd laughed even more. They loved him.
By the age of eight, the young Chaplin, along with his elder half-brother Sydney, was foraging the streets of London with small theatrical performances for a living.
Later, both the brothers joined the Fred Karno Pantomime Troupe. In 1910, a 21-year-old Charlie was sent to America instead of his elder brother – Sydney by then was too big a pantomimist for Karno to lose. He never returned to live in England again.
Charlie’s life-long fear was that he would go insane like his mother.
“The most insecure man I have met in my life was my father,” said Sydney Chaplin Jr., the eldest son of Charlie, in a biographical documentary on him.
“I felt like picking him up in my arms and saying ‘hey, Pa, you made it, you did it!’,” he said.
Scene II: A conquered America
When Chaplin’s ship approached the shores of America, he reportedly shouted, “America I am coming to conquer you.” Conquer he did, and how.
Few people know that Charlie’s roommate in his initial days in the US was Stanley Jefferson, now known as Stan Laurel, of the Laurel and Hardy fame. For the first few years, he played a drunk and achieved a level of perfection with his performance that American audiences were not accustomed to. But it is in 1913, in the Keystone studios in California, that Chaplin created the most famous character the world has known, ‘The Tramp’, thereby transforming his fortunes in extraordinary ways. The Tramp was a shabbily dressed interloper who, in Chaplin’s words, “is many-sided, a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure”. The splayed feet, a cane, awkward bow-tie, hat tipped to one side, apologising for the chaos he invariably created with his clumsiness, was an instant delight for the audience.
“He [The Tramp] touched something different. Something about human dignity, about being dressed in tattered clothes but never intimidated by people who were socially above him,” Michael said reasoning why this character was loved globally.
The Tramp costume was beset with contrasts – small hat and big shoes, baggy pants and tight jacket, shabby dress but with a bow tie – much like his real-life personality, which had stark contrasting elements to it.
Chaplin was known to be generous with his employees – he had the same staff with him for about 40 years who received a cheque every week for 35 years, even during the time that he did not make movies. However, he was known to be cruel in his relationships with lovers and children. He lived a life of luxury till the end but had avowedly communist sympathies. When he died, his estate was estimated to be about $45 million. He was described as a stingy person in his habits living on $500 even when he was financially steadfast.
The iconic Hollywood star was a complex person given to mood swings, volatile temper and extreme meanness.
“There is something in his genius that is chilling. He is not my favourite person. There is something in him that is unresolved,” said Andrew Sarris, a film critic and historian, in an interview.
“Yes, definitely, yes,” said Michael in reply to a question from me if his father could be described as having contradictory tendencies in his personality.
“He had seen unimaginable misery in his childhood: mother was in an insane asylum, he was not recognised by half the members of the Chaplin family, he was right at the bottom of the social [hierarchy], and yet he rose to enormous fame to the point that he was invited everywhere,” he added.
“He was a snob but he never forgot where he came from. And that kind of contradiction always played with him. He had money, he had fame but he couldn’t get out from the back of his head where he came from,” he said.
“I will contradict him. There are many parts of his life full of contradictions but I do believe his convictions were the same – from the day he was born till the day he died, he was a pure humanist. And I think it’s quite extraordinary,” said Eugene.
Charlie’s later years in America were marred by both personal and political challenges brought by his three marriages, sexual philandering, alliances with under-aged girls, political leaning towards communism and run-ins with the US Internal Revenue Service and the US State Department.
At the height of the US’s apprehensions about Soviet infiltration, the groundbreaking filmmaker praised the Soviet Union for allying with the US and said, “The communists are not any different from us.” He described himself as a “peace monger”.
“My father definitely had socialist sympathies. From where he came from he knew poverty. Obviously, he had sympathy for the Russian revolution as well. But he was not a party man. He was not as political as he was made out to be,” Michael says.
Chaplin lived a life of luxury that definitely would not have been possible under a communist regime. His films were a criticism of industrial technology, the assembly line and its jarring effect on the human soul. And that is what made him seem political. He also had many communist friends and that did not go down well with the western powers. Living in “exile” in Switzerland, he met Chinese premier Zhou Enlai and accepted an award from the Soviet Union – consolidating his sullied reputation as a communist in the US.
Chaplin in a visit to London in the early 1950s, where he also met Mahatma Gandhi, said that Europe suffered from a bad case of nationalism which would lead to war, thus, infuriating the Europeans as well.
In September 1952, when Chaplin along with his young wife, Oona O’Neill, and his four children were in London, the US State Department summarily revoked his automatic re-entry permit effectively barring him from coming back to the country. Chaplin conveyed his outrage by returning to the US only once after that in 1972 to collect an honorary Oscar. At the Academy Awards ceremony, he spoke emotionally and slowly, grappling with his faded memory and frail constitution. He received the longest standing ovation in the Oscar history. It was safe to adore him now.
Scene III: The Swiss life
Chaplin spent the last 25 years of his life until his death in 1977 at the age of 88 in the vast estate of Manoir de Ban in the stunningly picturesque village of Corsier-sur-Vevey on Lake Geneva overlooking the snow-capped Alps. Four other children were born to Chaplin and Oona – whom he called the true love of his life – in this estate.
“They formed such a tight unit that the children felt cut off, I used to feel that somehow. I wasn’t one of his children so I don’t know. It must have been difficult. He was brought up in Victorian era and sometimes it was funny and sometimes not,” said Claire Bloom, a co-star, in an interview.
Michael acknowledged difficulties in the relationship between Chaplin and his children saying that though he has many complaints he was a “good father”. He describes his childhood as a happy one with much fun around the estate and having about a dozen servants. “We were born into luxury but he always used to say you can’t take this for granted. This could stop. From one day to the next there could be a crash,” Michael said recalling the strict disciplinarian that his father was.
Part of the manor has now been converted into the first Charlie Chaplin museum called Chaplin’s World that opened in April this year, a day after the screen legend’s 127th birthday. It was 15 years in the making and cost $40 million. But the results are astounding.
The museum has a mock Hollywood studio marking the filmmaker’s onscreen journey that began around 1913. It retraces some of his personal life in impoverished London to his stupendous rise as a Hollywood legend. Visitors can also catch clips from his iconic Hollywood films like ‘The Great Dictator’ and ‘The Immigrant’ as well as re-live some famous scenes like tumbling in a cabin at the edge of a mountain as he did in ‘The Gold Rush’. The museum also has more than 30 wax statues created by Grevin wax museum in Paris of relatives, close friends like Albert Einstein, his actors and actresses as well as people inspired by him like Woody Allen.
“This is the first time I have seen the costume, or the cane, or the hat, or the shoes,” Michael Chaplin said describing The Tramp’s outfit. “So it’s quite moving to see that,” he said.
“I don’t think he would have wanted one,” Michael said responding to a question on whether the iconic filmmaker would have wanted a museum showcasing his life. “He died having left a script behind which he wanted to make it into a film. He’s a poet. His films are very poetic. The Tramp is a poet and he is walking through a world where poetry is vanishing, machines taking over but he remains a poet,” he added.
Eugene said that the iconic star, however, wanted people to remember him and that is why he made films.
Eugene Chaplin, who was born in the estate and was the longest resident having moved out only in 2008, said that the making of the museum was an emotional experience.
“I didn’t want to see the bulldozer digging into the lawns,” Euegene said as he kept away from the manor when the museum was being constructed.
“It’s a lot of memories,” he added.
(The article appears in the August 16-31, 2016 issue of Governance Now)
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