My Autobiography by Charlie Chaplin | Book review
Melville House revives the superstar’s famous book.
As a poor lad in South London, Charlie Chaplin would stare out the window while his mother invented stories about passersby: “Now there’s a refined young man, but at the moment he’s worried about the hole in the seat of his pants.” It cracked him up. A knack for improvisation ran in the family, serving Chaplin when he dropped out of school to earn a few shillings at unfamiliar jobs—printing, toy making, glassblowing, etc.—and, later, on the set of his second short film. The director told him to put on comedy makeup and come up with some gags, so Chaplin grabbed baggy pants, big shoes and a derby hat from the wardrobe. His beloved Little Tramp character was born. My Autobiography, originally published in 1964, is a detailed account of his rise from misfortune-plagued youth to worldwide celebrity.
Chaplin can write, and the “rags” portion of his rags-to-riches tale is particularly evocative: “Picasso had a blue period. We had a grey one, in which we lived on parochial charity, soup tickets and relief parcels.” As his star begins to rise, his tone grows more detached, dispassionate. Perhaps he simply had a lot of names to cram in. (“I met Gandhi shortly after my stay with Churchill.” “A few nights later the Einsteins came for dinner.”) Maybe he sought to downplay his persistent anxiety over fame’s impermanence. No other film star had achieved such popularity, and Chaplin was, in fact, eventually embroiled in a paternity suit and criticized for his left-wing politics. Today, the comedian’s star burns brightly, thanks in part to efforts such as Melville House’s publishing this long-out-of-print book. Part Dickensian tale, part Hollywood scrapbook, it introduces a new generation of fans to Chaplin’s genius.