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Subverting Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin and His Times. By Kenneth S. Lynn . Simon & Schuster: 604 pp., $35

March 16, 1997|DAVID ROBINSON | David Robinson was for many years resident critic of the Financial Times and subsequently the Times of London, to which he still contributes regularly. His many books include "Buster Keaton," "Chaplin: The Mirror of Opinion," "Chaplin: His Life and Art" and "Charlie Chaplin: Comic Genius."

The life of Charlie Chaplin is an irresistible rags-to-riches story. Born in London in 1889, Chaplin was the only child of a young couple who hoped to make careers for themselves in the flourishing English music halls. His father was modestly successful; his mother was not. The marriage broke up; his father died an alcoholic; his mother, like her own mother, retreated into madness. Chaplin and his stepbrother spent periods in public institutions for destitute children. At 10, Chaplin made his escape from slum poverty to become a professional entertainer. By 20, he was on his way to stardom in the music halls. By 25, he was in Hollywood. At 30, he was rich and famous, a world celebrity.

Later his fortunes were to take a no less dramatic turn. During the Cold War, his politics and his morals came under attack. His popularity in America, his chosen country, declined dramatically. In 1952, when he had just embarked for a visit to England, his reentry permit to America was revoked by the Justice Department. Chaplin did not attempt to return, choosing to spend the rest of his life in exile. He died in Switzerland on Christmas Day, 1977.

Not surprisingly, most of Chaplin's biographers have tended to be political liberals, attracted by his screen character (the Tramp seen as a symbol of the underprivileged classes) and by his life, first as child victim of an oppressive society and later as a target of political paranoia. The climate nowadays, however, seems to favor more right-wing perspectives. Recently, there was Joyce Milton's "Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin," and now Kenneth S. Lynn's "Charlie Chaplin and His Times." Both books are big, each devoting more than 500 pages to his life, though Lynn's sets out to be more serious than Milton's garrulous and headline-grabbing account.

Lynn, whose previous biographies have covered the lives of Mark Twain and William Dean Howells, is an indefatigable reader, as more than 800 end-notes in this volume testify. He has discovered at least three documented mistresses, who eluded me when I researched a biography of Chaplin (admittedly more concerned with the studio than with the bedroom) a decade ago. His book has the charm of frequent Sternean digressions--on tramps, the making of early Hollywood, English music halls, London poverty, sexual identity in the early 20th century and Adolf Hitler.

"I have always been fascinated by the detective work of connecting the lives of artists to their art," Lynn writes in his introduction. Sometimes, though, he shows an odd schizophrenia in making this connection. His introduction claims that one of his goals is "to pay homage to a pantomimic achievement consisting of more than 70 pictures . . . one of the glories of American culture." Yet the greater part of his biography shows such mistrust and distaste for Chaplin's character, morals and politics that one wonders why he embarked on the project in the first place.

Lynn sets out to counter the liberal versions of the Chaplin biography on a number of specific points. He seeks to show that Chaplin's account of his early privations is exaggerated and self-pitying. (Even if Chaplin spent most of his eighth and ninth years in a children's home, Lynn is at pains to point out that the place was at least in "a lovely stretch of countryside.") Dealing with the grown-up Chaplin's romantic liaisons, Lynn portrays him as an "off-screen Svengali, who was capable of treating [women] with a sickening contempt." As to Chaplin's politics, Lynn generally finds himself in sympathy with the charges of dangerous communist leanings brought by the FBI and the right-wing press in the late '40s. Chaplin was the "multimillionaire tyrant who spouted the peace messages of the Communist line," while the "eagerness with which he sought out Communist friends and hired Communist associates led people to wonder whether he was under Communist discipline."

Perhaps Lynn's most startling thesis is that Chaplin secretly anticipated and welcomed the revoking of his reentry permit and the resulting life of exile, since it earned him the status of a Cold War martyr. It is a highly extravagant (and quite unsubstantiated) assumption that Chaplin could possibly have coveted this doubtful accolade so much as to pay for it with the unplanned, painful and costly severance from the home and studio that had been his empire for more than 30 years.

Lynn is driven by a profound disbelief in anything said or written by Chaplin himself. The autobiography is dismissed as a self-serving "compound of fact and fiction." I am chided for "blind faith" since in my own Chaplin biography, I admiringly remarked on the coincidence between Chaplin's memories of his childhood and a mass of corroborative documentation unearthed only after he had written his book.

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