08 November, 2012
Review: Chaplin A Life by Stephen Weissman
Charles Chaplin was a complex man. His life story is a compelling one. From a child among many in London's poorhouses to the single most famous man in the world, Charles Chaplin walked a unique road. No one (save perhaps his brothers) knew what it was like to be Chaplin. No one ever will.
Weissman undertakes what could easily have been a tedious conceit in his approach to biography. Chaplin is placed on the couch, his childhood explored and analyzed in the context of his work. While Weissman is at times repetitive, on the whole this offers a fresh look at the man inside the costume. The author's respect for Chaplin's talent is deep. He discusses both the early life of the family and the influences the boy carried into adulthood. From early stars of the London stage to lessons in the family home, Charles Chaplin was a born mimic who absorbed all then refashioned it into the new media. He was a genius in the true sense of the word. Viewed through Weissman's eyes, Chaplin's film works are recreated scenes from his life. Coogan flips his pancakes as The Kid in a facsimile of Chaplin's own home. The streets they walk are replicas of the streets Chaplin walked. He is a stand in for young Charles in multiple ways.
My complaint is that for all it's length, Weissman wraps up too soon. His book is not so much Chaplin, A Life as it is Chaplin, A Career. The author is interested only in Chaplin's childhood as it is explored in his films. (The book ends shortly after Chaplin leaves Keystone.) Weissman spends small amounts of time on Chaplin's life in exile and his later films, but his heart belongs to the pre war era. As a reader I enjoyed the author's insights into Chaplin's professional process and longed to see them applied to his private life as well. What drove Chaplin's possibly self destructive personal choices? How did his broken relationship with his parents alter the choices he made with his children? What did exile from multiple homelands mean to him? These, as well as his professional partnerships outside of the Keystone years, are passed over. As a starting point, Chaplin, A Life is well worth reading. It would be a shame, however, if a reader left the book thinking they'd experienced the sum of the man.