Tramp – A Chaplin Book

As a researcher, but also as a fan, I am not adverse to reading about a multi-faceted, complex personality. One does not achieve the lasting fame (or infamy), like Charlie Chaplin, by being sweet natured, compliant or egoless. Loyal fans of various personalities, this does not exclude scholarly authors, do get very protective of their idols. It takes courage and emotional detachment for any writer to dig deep and risk outrage for exposing , hopefully, the whole truth.

There is an overworked “row to hoe” for author Joyce Milton in the newest tome about Charlie Chaplin, called Tramp (HarperCollins, 1996). There have been mountains of material written about Chaplin. Chaplin (1985), by David Robinson, is the best and most thorough bio on his life and career. By Chaplin; My Autobiography (1964); pro Chaplin, My Father, Charlie Chaplin (1960), by Charles Chaplin Jr.; con Chaplin, My Life with Chaplin (1966), by Lita Grey, Chaplin’s second wife; behind Chaplin’s back, Charlie Chaplin, King of Tragedy (1940), by Gerith von Ulm, which is based upon Charlie’s “faithful” valet and confidant Toraichi Kono’s insights; and pro and con Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin Intimate Closeups (1995), a posthumously published memoir by his co-star {in The Gold Rush (Chaplin/United Artists, 1925)} and close acquaintance Georgia Hale. There are more books, plus a library full of interviews and articles that date from 1915 to the present. The only person that we have yet to hear from is Chaplin’s proctologist!

Joyce Milton’s specialty seems to be in researching documents, articles and interviews. Her historical research for Tramp is quite satisfactory on Chaplin’s career, from the beginnings of his music hall experiences to his migration to Hollywood and subsequent climb in the motion picture business. Her writing style and selection of anecdotes move along at an entertaining pace. However, what I had hoped for in a new book about the man was a fresh angle, or at least the opportunity to hear from surviving relatives.

Chaplin has nine surviving children. Especially insightful would have been to hear from Sydney, who is the son from his marriage to Lita Grey, since he is the eldest surviving child and was on good terms with his father. How about any comments from his son Michael, eldest son from Chaplin’s marriage to Oona O’Neill. Michael was an angry teen when he wrote his own memoirs in 1966 I Couldn’t Smoke the Grass On My Father’s Lawn. Did the years heal their relationship? What about his daughter, accomplished actress Geraldine Chaplin (eldest of his 8 children with Oona)? How did she feel about her father? What was her personal insight about her (haunting) portrayal as her own Grandmother, Hannah Chaplin, in Richard Attenborough’s 1992 film bio of the man, Chaplin (Columbia Tri-Star/Lambeth/Carolco)? These are intriguing questions, but the answers are not to be found in Tramp.

It is interesting that Ms. Milton did include scattered tid bits of information gleaned from the private papers of close business/working associates, especially Harry Crocker. Mr. Crocker was Chaplin’s personal assistant and after a mysterious falling out, later his publicist. He was Chaplin’s confidant since Charlie’s silent film period of the late 1920’s. He figures deeply in Chaplin’s life, but he has not been given a discerning voice until Tramp. Crocker had comments on Chaplin’s background, personality and public relations. He also occasionally appeared with Chaplin in certain films, such as Showpeople (M.G.M., 1928) and City Lights (United Artists, 1931). In fact, Crocker was so trustworthy he was considered a safe haven for the great reclusive Greta Garbo. He literally provided his home for her use on occasion when she was in Los Angeles. He also provided her with his mailing address for her to use as her own to protect her privacy. Harry Crocker’s knowledge of the private life of Chaplin and his friends must have been on par with Howard Strickling, the chief publicist and “great secret keeper” for M.G.M. during the golden age of the studios. While they were alive, Crocker nor Strickling ever spoke about what they knew.

My argument with Tramp is the way this penetrating look at the private life of Chaplin concentrates more on a “tabloid,” microscopic examination of an individual’s personal life rather than a complete, yet discriminating, look at a great artist. This book could have been subtitled “From Piccadilly to Peccadillos,” due to the fact that Tramp is heralded with having new insight into Chaplin’s sexual intrigues. Oft times Tramp reminded me of the kind of book where researched text is skimmed over by the reader in order to find the naughty parts. I am not sure how Ms. Milton entered Chaplin’s bedroom. Possibly she could be relying on the memoirs of a “fly on the wall” for accuracy.

Chaplin was news. More than that, he was fodder for the sensationalist leanings of the press. The only thing that the press and the public love to judge more than a rising star is a fallen one. Chaplin always maintained loudly and clearly that “an artist should only be judged by his or her art.” In theory this is the ultimate standard. Realistically, Chaplin was too outspoken, both privately and publicly, to live under such a simple and pat statement. He desired recognition as an intellectual and as a person of worldly political influence – not simply as a comedian. His art did come first, but he certainly did not live by art alone. If anything, his art alone allowed him to maintain a face that was, and still is, much beloved. Chaplin said he wanted to be remembered most for his masterpiece The Gold Rush. This should be true, but what is truer is that Chaplin, as well as many other big stars of his era, like Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand and Wallace Reid, are remembered more for their scandals than their artistic accomplishments. It is Chaplin, the man and his actions, public and private, that enraged and confounded so many people – people who thought they were close to him personally and to the public who were presented with a flawed human being when all they wanted was Charlie to be the adorable “little Tramp” of the screen.

Joyce Milton’s final author’s note, at the end of Tramp, addresses the dilemma she faced in presenting Charlie Chaplin to us once again. Her revelations are sharp and concise more so that Tramp could and should have been to create a definitive book like David Robinson did. Ms. Milton maintains that Robinson was writing with the cooperation of Lady Chaplin, and therefore skimped on the hard, unattractive details. I disagree. Robinson covered his subject with an honesty that definitely questions Chaplin’s own revarnishing of his life and lapses of important commentary in his own, thick autobiography.

Ms. Milton also intimates in the very last paragraph of Tramp that Chaplin was suffering from manic-depressive illness. This is her clinical explanation for Chaplin’s decidedly complex and incongruent personality. Chaplin was never diagnosed as such, and Ms. Milton is not a clinical psychologist. Clinical manic-depressive disorder (Bipolar disease) is very real, debilitating illness. However, it is a malady that is ascribed to labeling individuals in the 1990’s as a quick, pop-cultural diagnosis as chronic fatigue syndrome or attention deficit disorder have been. This is pretentious, especially when individuals are not properly diagnosed by a medical professional. Chaplin was not immune to the infirmities of old age. He was in a state of mental and physical deterioration in the last few years of his long life.

The life that Chaplin lived, from his childhood on, was traumatic, dramatic and rarified compared to most people in the world, to be sure. However, it is possible to be difficult, complex, contrary and obsessively artistic without being mentally impaired. There is no doubt that Charlie Chaplin’s huge, documented fame has always held huge repercussions for him. Many times Charlie’s attitude about his rarified status in the world gave him license (he thought) to do things that ordinary, average people would deem very questionable.

The burning query is this: Was Charlie Chaplin a very sensitive human being who was a victim of traumas (early, humiliating poverty and his mother’s life-long battle for sanity) that culminated in his “acting out” his fears, anger and rejection? Or, was Charlie Chaplin a shrewd, embittered individual who knew exactly what he was doing and calculating enough to know better. Did he do and say the controversial things he did simply “because he could?” Or, is the answer somewhere in between? Given Chaplin’s great fame that was in a class by itself (and still is), Tramp attempts to address this, but it is the fans of Charlie Chaplin who must decide.

Madison Morrison