Book review: The Charlie Chaplin Archives presents a detailed look at the work of a revolutionary

How the silent film star shaped the fledgling movie industry

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 November, 2015, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Friday, 22 April, 2016, 4:47pm

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The Charlie Chaplin Archives

edited by Paul Duncan

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It’s a little more than a century now since the appearance of the first short silent films starring The Tramp, Charlie Chaplin’s most enduring creation. According to this lavish book, which chronicles in exhaustive (and at times exhausting) detail the creative process behind Chaplin’s art, The Tramp seemed to come unbidden from Chaplin’s unconscious when he was asked to quickly create a “comedy makeup” by Mack Sennett at Keystone studios in 1913.

From a dressing room backstage, Chaplin grabbed trousers and shoes that were too big, a jacket and bowler hat that were too small, and a cane. Chaplin said he instantly knew this character, even though he’d never thought of him before, and by the time he stepped onstage in front of Sennett’s camera he was already twirling the cane and walking with his feet splayed. Thus was born the character that made Chaplin the world’s first global superstar.

Chaplin had long yearned for success. On his way to America for the first time in 1910, one of a party of vaudeville players, the 21-year-old Chaplin, at the sight of the new world, puts his foot up on the rail, swings his arm landward and announces to the group: “America, I am coming to conquer you! Every man, woman and child shall have my name on their lips – Charles Spencer Chaplin!” It was delivered as though it were a joke, but Chaplin, haunted by a childhood blighted by poverty and spells in the poorhouse when his mother was committed to hospital for mental illness, meant every word.

Within 10 years, he was the most famous man the world had ever known, rich beyond the dreams of avarice, and one of the leading artists of the new medium of motion pictures. Interestingly, Chaplin thought “the flickahs” were a fad that would soon burn out; his interest in them at first was purely pecuniary – he wanted easy money fast, to allow him to concentrate on his stage acting. Instead, by gradually taking control of so many aspects of production, he revolutionised how the movies were made.

This tome, edited by Paul Duncan, is a stunning (literally – you could stun an ox with this 6.2kg behemoth) combination of oral and pictorial history of one of cinema’s most consequential figures. It goes deep into every aspect of Chaplin’s filmmaking, from his early single-reel shorts to his final features. Despite being made with the full cooperation of the Chaplin estate, it doesn’t gloss over Chaplin’s scandalous off-screen life – paternity suits, teenage brides and a taste for girls who were the wrong side of the age of consent. And even if you think, as I do, that as Chaplin’s films get longer their sentimentality and naivety overwhelm the humour, this handsome book conveys a true sense of a driven man and the way he shaped a nascent industry of the modern age.