One of the most iconic images of the Golden Age of Hollywood is a man dressed in a suit, bowler hat on his head, floppy shoes on his feet, twirling a bamboo cane in his hand as he walks off into the sunset. He entertained audiences throughout the silent era with his daily struggles and by rescuing the damsel in distress. His ability to find humor in any situation or thumb his nose at authoritative figures made people feel better about their own dire situations, if only for a few minutes. Actors are often asked to reveal the inspiration behind their characterizations. Charlie Chaplin looked no further than his own childhood. In his new book, Chaplin: A Life, Dr. Stephen Weissman traces Chaplin’s humble beginnings and makes startling connections between his mother’s tragic life, his father’s alcoholic ways and one of the most beloved movie characters of all time, the Tramp. Charlie Chaplin Sr. was a famous stage actor when he met the lovely Lily Harley, also known as Hannah Hill. They dated for a while, before Hannah fled to South Africa for what she thought was a better life with another man. When she returned, she and Charlie Sr. married.
Born in 1889, Charlie Jr. entered the world as his parents’ careers began to deteriorate. Weissman employs a method of tracking the Chaplin’s home addresses, from a nice apartment to poverty row, in order to show their financial decline. When Charlie Sr. would perform, he’d drink to maintain the appearance of a well-to-do person, which is the type of character he portrayed on stage. Hannah performed until Charlie was five years old. One fateful night, her voice cracked and faded. Young Charlie was forced to go out in front of a hostile audience to save his mother’s honor and their paycheck. By the time he was seven, Charlie and his brother Sydney were put into an orphanage, despite the fact that his parents were still alive. Hannah began suffering migraine headaches and psychotic episodes that would plague the rest of her life. But when she was well, the boys would live with her, and she would entertain them, often acting out entire shows. Charlie learned how to do mimicry from these performances. Hannah worked as a seamstress to earn money for their lodgings and meals, but because of the migraines and mental hospital visits, she could not work for long. Weissman discovers that the Tramp is always rescuing fallen or misunderstood women in Chaplin’s movies. For example, the blind girl in his 1931 movie City Lights: the Tramp falls in love with her, and goes through a series of adventures to get the money she needs to restore her sight and open her own flower shop. It is Chaplin’s way of rescuing his mother in a way that he never could as a child. The character of the Tramp is based on Chaplin’s father. Charlie Sr. was a talented character actor with a beautiful baritone voice. He specialized in playing the man-about-town, immaculately dressed from head to toe, singing songs about the high life. His venues provided him with free alcohol, with the hopes that it would encourage their patrons to drink whatever “Charlie Sr. was drinking at the time.” This unlimited access to free alcohol developed into the alcoholism that would eventually cause his death in 1901. Chaplin would later perform in some of the same theaters where his parents entertained so many years before. For a while, his ultimate goal was to act on the respectable West End stages. But fate would intervene, steering him toward America and Mack Sennett, who would give Chaplin his first break in the new world of movies. It was at Sennett’s studio, Keystone, that the Tramp was born. Evidence of his father’s influence is clear when the Tramp is carefully examined: he has the look of a well-to-do man, except for the shoes, which are obviously too big for him. The Tramp enjoys a drink now and then, but is still able to maintain his dignity. He is polite, kind and tender-hearted, but at the same time, has no problem giving a cop a swift kick in the pants when necessary. Although Chaplin would never admit it, his troubled childhood greatly influenced his life, both on-screen and off. Weissman’s analysis of Chaplin’s life will give the reader a better understanding of Chaplin the man, and of his iconic character, the Tramp.