the troubled background of hollywood's biggest star -- 12/29/23

Today's encore selection -- from The Whole Equation by David Thomson. Charlie Chaplin, who became Hollywood's biggest star, came from a life of destitution:

"[Charlie Chaplin's] father? There was a Charles Chaplin, Sr., a music hall singer, who was briefly with the mother, Hannah Hill, though never married to her. Charles was likely the father of [Charlie's reputed half-brother] Sydney, though the family story was that Sydney was a bastard. Charlie saw Charles Chaplin a few times -- as a drunk in pubs, mostly -- and the 'father' died when the boy was twelve. As for the mother, she did not die until 1928, in California, a hospitalized schizophrenic supported by, but rarely visited by, her son. Her 'cultivation' was in Charlie's eyes or memory alone.

"In his autobiography, Chaplin remembers having her up to his new house on Summit Drive one day. She gazed at the extravagant property and supposed he must be rich. He told her he was worth $5 million. 'So long as you're able to keep your health and enjoy it,' she replied.

"She died without ever settling for him who his father was. The question remains open because it's likely that she had taken to prostitution to make ends meet. So it could have been anyone -- to explain the Italianate looks, or even the Semitic cast (Charlie often said that he wondered whether he was Jewish), the educated voice, and the fastidious air of good manners. I doubt he wanted it settled. Without plain facts, he was so much more mobile and lofty a soul, like any of those foundlings in Dickens. It's a wonder in these days that someone hasn't pinned him down as the love child of some royal figure, or Jack the Ripper.

"I do not mean to exclude the chance that Chaplin was simply the son of an unstable music hall singer on the game, and some south London rake. After all, Louis Armstrong, born in New Orleans only a few years after Chaplin, and as tumultuous a genius, was plainly the child of a poor, teenage prostitute. What is more intriguing, with Charlie, is the invented persona that seems to reach from tramp to king. Something in his self-regard accommodated the urchin and a nearly divine grace. I suspect he wondered whether he came from God.

"Charlie did get a little schooling, but he went from cheap terraced housing to the Lambeth Workhouse. Still, his mother's connections got him as a youth into the Fred Karno music hall touring company, a first-class operation. That's how he reached America, met Mack Sennett, and was hired on at Keystone, initially at $150 a week (a grand sum of money then). He told Sydney to hurry over: 'We will be millionaires before long.' In 1916, Chaplin moved to Essanay, at $1,250 a week, and was required to make one one-reel picture every three weeks (a time span that already attested to the care of genius).

"The business then was a mass of small companies, and people jumped around (and up). But actors were seldom masters of their fate. (So many other comedian careers are woeful next to Charlie's.) It's as if Charlie moved to his plan: when he moved, he transformed his status. Less than a year later, he was at Mutual at $10,000 a week, with a signing bonus of $150,000 and guarantees of a freshly equipped studio for his personal use. (Ten thousand dollars a week in those days is, by today's standards, at least $10 million a year, but this does not adequately convey Chaplin's self-promotion or his wealth. And the top rate of income tax was 7 percent, so Charlie in a week was taxed what a factory laborer might earn in a year.)"



David Thomson


The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood


First Vintage Books


Copyright 2004 by David Thomson


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