Lynn's 'Chaplin': emotional vacuum?

April 06, 1997|By Dave Kehr | Dave Kehr,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Charlie Chaplin and His Times" by Kenneth S. Lynn. Simon & Schuster. 574 pages. $35.

"He only plays himself as he was in his early dismal youth. He cannot get away from those impressions and to this day he obtains for himself the compensation for the frustrations and humiliations of that past period of his life. He is, so to speak, an exceptionally simple and transparent case."

The subject is Charles Chaplin, the words are Sigmund Freud's, and they are quoted by Kenneth S. Lynn in his harsh new biography of the great comedian, where they constitute one of the very few gestures toward compassion and comprehension in this thick volume.

Paradoxically, Chaplin biographies seem to be enjoying a boom at a time when Chaplin's films are no longer in theatrical distribution in the United States (though they remain available on video). Lynn's volume is the latest in a series that began with David Robinson's dry but informative "Chaplin: His Life and Art," authorized by the Chaplin estate, and has continued through Charles J. Maland's scholarly "Chaplin and American Culture," Joyce Milton's politically oriented "Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin" and Richard Attenborough's reverential 1992 biopic "Chaplin."

Simple and transparent as Freud found his case to be, Chaplin clearly continues to fascinate, not least because of the great gap in style and character between the universal figure of the lovable outcast with his reedy cane, twitching moustache and oversized shoes and the well-dressed, smoothly manipulative ladies man and lifelong leftist sympathizer who stood behind him.

Lynn, a Johns Hopkins professor who has written studies of Mark Twain and William Dean Howells, brings a depth of research and a range of historical association to his subject that is new and often extremely enlightening. Using such primary sources as municipal records and contemporary sociological studies, Lynn establishes that Chaplin's often repeated account his Dickensian childhood in late Victorian London (in the elaborate work of fiction he published as "My Autobiography") was significantly exaggerated, but concludes that Chaplin's troubled mother -variously described in previous studies as "alcoholic," "syphilitic" or just "deeply neurotic" - was in fact schizophrenic.

But the madness of one parent and the absence of the other is not enough to earn Chaplin much slack in Lynn's eyes. Once Chaplin's career is under way - first with Mack Sennett, later as one of Hollywood's few true independent filmmakers - Lynn's biography becomes a numbing recitation of Chaplin's faults, which include his sexual promiscuity, his cruelty toward his young wives and many mistresses, his ingratitude toward his collaborators and employees, his coldness toward his children and (most damning of all for Lynn) the political naivete that led him into an uncomfortably close association with the Communist Party.

It's hard to dispute the facts of Lynn's case (though his eagerness to see a red under every bed leads him at one point to identify Howard W. Koch, the producer of the Oscar ceremony that occasioned the comedian's return to America in 1972, with Howard Koch, the blacklisted co-writer of "Casablanca"). But surely the profound humanity of such masterworks as "The Kid" and "City Lights" could not have emerged from the complete moral and emotional vacuum that is here labeled "Charlie Chaplin."

Dave Kehr, movie critic for the Daily News, is a member of the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress, which works to preserve films, including Chaplin's work. Previously he was the movie critic for the Chicago Tribune and chairman of the National Society of Film Critics.

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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