Book Bag: ‘Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey’ by Simon Louvish

Thursday, January 11, 2018


By Simon Louvish

Interlink Publishing


Summing up Charlie Chaplin’s achievements in one line is no small matter, but the late New York film critic Andrew Sarris may have come close when he called Chaplin “arguably the single most important artist produced by the cinema, certainly its most extraordinary performer and probably still its most universal icon.”

In his biography of the epic filmmaker, “Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey,” Simon Louvish focuses on Chaplin’s creation of his public persona — the Little Tramp — and his films as a means for telling a story that he says is well known in some ways but still has room for additional study.

“In all the unraveling of the ‘man behind the mask,’ there should now be room for a return, full cycle, to the initial view of Charlie when he first burst upon the world: the mask before the man,” Louvish writes. “This character [the Tramp], larger than life and perhaps more real than his creator, deserves a biography of his own.”

Louvish, a novelist and a biographer of noted comedians like the Marx Brothers, teaches at the London Film School. His biography of Chaplin, first published in 2009, has now been reissued in paperback by Interlink Books of Northampton.

A Scottish-born Israeli, Louvish begins his biography by reminding readers of how Chaplin, who gained worldwide fame in the U.S. after overcoming a childhood of extreme poverty in England, was essentially exiled from America in the 1950s because of his communist sympathies.

In his next-to-last film, “A King in New York” in 1957, a somewhat bitter satire, Louvish says Chaplin took aim at the paranoia and anti-communist hysteria in the U.S. — and in doing so likely touched on the disturbing tendency of the country to succumb at times to intense nationalism.

“Now, more than fifty years later, when we view the new ‘normalities’ of Fortress America’s suspicion of every tourist ... we might view Chaplin as more prescient than most,” he writes.

“Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey” covers all the important parts of the filmmaker’s story: his poverty-stricken youth in England; his career in theater and vaudeville as a young man in the early 1900s, which led him to movies; the landmark films themselves, from “Modern Times” to “The Gold Rush” to “The Great Dictator,” his parody of Adolph Hitler and his plea for world peace.

Douvish notes that Chaplin’s creation of the Little Tramp character reflected, in part, his concern for the downtrodden of the world. His biography provides an inside look at life in the Hollywood studios, including the era’s technological advances, while examining how the character of the
Little Tramp related both to society as whole and the people around Chaplin.

The author doesn’t shy away from Chaplin’s turbulent personal life, which included four marriages — including to some women much younger than him — 11 children and some well-publicized paternity cases, which led U.S. authorities to declare Chaplin guilty of “moral turpitude” as well as communist sympathies.

But the emphasis is always on Chaplin’s art. Louvish, who based his biography on archives at the Chaplin Research Centre in Bologna, Italy, as well as a close study of recent Chaplin film restorations, has also woven old film reviews, interviews, early screenplay drafts and period cartoons into the book to create what Publishers Weekly calls “an impressive, prismatic portrait of Hollywood's majestic jester.”

In the end, suggests Louvish, Chaplin was never quite at ease with 20th century technology: “Chaplin remained forever a vaudevillian, imbued with the sense of the stage event and its audience,” even as he moved from stage to silent movies to the “Talkies.”

Indeed, in his own autobiography, Chaplin deplored the “ugliness and congestion” of modern life and the way the individual was hemmed in by “gigantic institutions that threaten us from all sides.”

But in tapping into those feelings, writes Douvish, Chaplin created his unforgettable character, the one that millions of people across the globe came to identify with: the awkward but funny little clown who kept on fighting against adversity.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.