86. My Autobiography by Charlie Chaplin
Publication: Simon and Schuster (1964), Hardcover, 512pp
Read: April 5-6, 2010
Summary from Amazon:
Born into a theatrical family, Chaplin’s father died of drink while his mother, unable to bear the poverty, suffered from bouts of insanity, Chaplin embarked on a film-making career which won him immeasurable success, as well as intense controversy. His extraordinary autobiography was first published in 1964 and was written almost entirely without reference to documentation – simply as an astonishing feat of memory by a 75 year old man. It is an incomparably vivid reconstruction of a poor London childhood, the music hall and then his prodigious life in the movies.
I’m somewhat of a newbie when it comes to Charlie Chaplin’s films, but I’m certainly a fan of the movie (starring the delicious Robert Downey Jr). Since I’ve seen the movie so many times I was already somewhat familiar with Mr Chaplin’s life though not too many details. The movie is a good start, but it condenses a lot (of course) and speculates on some other things, so I wanted to read what Mr Chaplin had to say about his own life.
Okay, first thing: Mr Chaplin isn’t that great a writer. When compared to memoirists like Roald Dahl or A.A. Milne, Mr Chaplin falls somewhere in the middle range of “how well can this person write.” Nevertheless, I found his autobiography entrancing. I’m really interested in early cinema history, and late 1800s theatre history, and basically everything that Mr Chaplin was involved in during his lifetime. Reading about his experiences on the stage and screen was inherently entertaining, even if it wasn’t presented in the best possible way.
Second thing: Mr Chaplin leaves a lot of stuff out. He doesn’t talk overly much about his brother, his children, or anything like that. He also doesn’t talk about at least one of his wives, possibly more (I forget how many times he was married). This isn’t a “tell all” book, and in fact knowing that he kept stuff out made me less trusting of his version of events. It definitely made me feel like I needed a second or even third opinion on things!
His memories about his childhood and his development into an entertainer are the best parts of the book. It’s when Mr Chaplin starts getting more famous that his memoirs becomes almost a laundry list of famous people he’s met. Now, he met a LOT of famous and interesting people, including Gandhi, Churchill, H.G. Wells and of course lots of actors like Douglas Fairbanks (who was his best friend) and Mary Pickford.
Once his memoirs turns into that “and then I had lunch with the Prince of Wales” thing that it becomes boring, and even Mr Chaplin talking about movies and his philosophy on making them at the end of the book couldn’t fix it.
Anyway, to get off the bad stuff– let’s go back to good stuff! Though Mr Chaplin is a somewhat untrustworthy memoirist, he did open himself up in other ways. For instance, he talks a lot about being shy and an introvert once he’s off screen. This leads to some problems in his personal life, as he often inadvertently insulted people or hid away when he didn’t want to see anyone.
He was also a perfectionist and maybe even a control freak, and that effected his art and relations with his actors/employees. It also probably caused him to divorce at least one of his wives, but he doesn’t talk about that wife so I’m just going off the movie, here.
Unfortunately, though he opened himself up in certain ways, I couldn’t help but think that there was still a wall between us, and I don’t think I ever got to know him as intimately as I expect when reading someone’s memoir. However, it was still a very entertaining book, and I think if you’re interested in Charlie Chaplin, early film history, Old Hollywood and so on, you’ll enjoy reading My Autobiography.
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