This morning (Saturday), I finished reading Peter Ackroyd's 2014 biography--Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life. (Ackroyd, by the way, is an astonishingly productive writer--novels, nonfiction, poetry, biographies, criticism; I still think his bio of Dickens is about the best biography I've ever read.)
As many of my former Harmon Middle School students could tell you, I was--once upon a time--a full-blown Chaplin freak. It began in the early 1970s when I taught a little elective course at the middle school on film history--and then filmmaking (oh, the joys of chasing youngsters around the building (and town) while they shot their 8mm and Super 8 films!). I would show some Chaplin shorts, and the kids were surprisingly entertained--despite the silence, the scratchy film, the black-and-white, etc.
Later, in the 1980s and 1990s when I was teaching Jack London's The Call of the Wild, I would spend some time with Chaplin before showing his classic The Gold Rush (1925), a film that takes place in some of the very sites Jack London records in Wild. I actually showed the later release of the film (1942), which features Chaplin's narration and original music. (If you've got Hulu, you can watch it online: link to Hulu site.)
My fan-atacism extended to books, of course. I read Chaplin's autobiography and all the other major biographies of him. I saw all of his films--some up at the New Mayfield Cinema on Mayfield Road in Cleveland, a venue that specialized in old films--now, sadly, gone. It's quite an experience, seeing Chaplin move on a large screen.
Once, at a music festival in the summer of 1989 in Purchase, New York, with Joyce and my older brother, Richard, I saw that David Robinson--a major Chaplin biographer--was there signing copies of his book. (Yes, I have one now.)
Gradually, my passion faded after I retired from middle school teaching (January 1997), and I moved on to other things (Mary Shelley, Edgar Poe, etc.). Still, I now own the films on DVD, and I still have a shelf stocked with Chaplinalia.
Anyway ... Ackroyd. I'd seen the book in shops (remember those?) quite a few times before I actually bought it. Since we're in the process of "downsizing," I didn't see any reason to have yet another Chaplin book in the house. But still ...
I bought it.
Put it aside.
Then read it.
I can't say I learned a lot--after all, I'd read pretty much all the things that Ackroyd had read. But it was fun to remember so many of those wonderful films. And Ackroyd is a pleasant tour guide (and a Chaplin fan).
Of course, Chaplin's personal life was a mess. Four marriages (all to women much younger than he). Much infidelity. Temper. Ego. Etc. The press was unforgiving, and when the House Un-American Activities Committee (yes, with Sen. J. McCarthy) started pursuing him, he left the country and did not return until the 1970s when he received an honorary Oscar in 1972. You can see the emotional moment on YouTube (link).
He died in 1977, and I still remember how I used to be able to tell my students, back when, that they and that little dancing figure on the screen had been alive at the same time. But then the years went on, and I could no longer say it.
Ackroyd left out one of the truly bizarre events in Chaplin's story: the theft of his body in March 1978. Somebody dug up his coffin, took it away. (Here's a link to the whole story.) He wasn't recovered for over eleven weeks, and the perps, two Belgian auto mechanics, seem to have stumbled out of the cast from an early Keystone film (Chaplin worked for Keystone at the dawn of his career). Perhaps the Keystone Cops would have had better luck finding him.