Monday, December 07, 2009

Chaplin: A Life by Stephen M. Weissman

Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) entered the Hanwell School for Orphans and Destitute Children in London at age seven, when his mother could no longer support her children with singing in music halls or with sweatshop piecework. His alcoholic father, also a music hall singer, had already abandoned them. Chaplin's life quickly fell from being a child dressed in velvet to being a ward of the state. In Chaplin: A Life, psychiatrist Stephen M. Weissman weaves an account of Chaplin's Dickensesque early years with an examination of his surprisingly autobiographical films.

Two periods of Chaplin's long life get detailed examination in ths psychological biography. Readers learn much about Chaplin's poverty stricken childhood, some of which was actually spent on the street, and his two years making films with Mack Sennett for the Keystone Film Studio, the period that he quickly became famous for his Little Tramp character. By focusing on these times, Weissman shows how Chaplin matured but never totally overcame his childhood needs for recognition and security. Readers also learn what a great debt he owed to his older brother Sydney, who kept Charlie from starving and later arranged most of his early auditions.

I am left wanting to see all the early short films. Weissman warns that surviving footage is often incomplete, somewhat faded, and difficult for a modern filmviewers to understand. Still, I want to see them. After being totally absorbed by this short book, I want to know more about Chaplin.

Weissman, Stephen M. Chaplin: A Life. Arcade, 2008. 315p. ISBN: 9781559708920

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