TRAMP by Joyce Milton


The Life of Charlie Chaplin
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 The little tramp takes some hard, muddy pratfalls in this masterful portrait of the artist as a swine. With anyone as well-chronicled as Charlie Chaplin, a new biography must pass the strictest tests of originality. Does it say something new or recast what is known in a different light? Milton (Loss of Eden, 1992, etc.) meets these criteria and more in this major reevaluation of a filmmaker whose one saving grace was his ability to make people laugh. His squalid London childhood was appalling--poverty, a mentally unstable actress mother, an absent alcoholic father. Chaplin got out as soon as he could, finding unexpected success as a music hall pantomime performer. Though Hollywood was eager to have him, he made little mark in his first few films. Then he created his ``Tramp'' character--the absurd mustache, the bowler and cane, the uneasy mix of pathos and buffoonery--and became a star of almost unimaginable proportions. Fame is rarely ennobling, but with Chaplin it offered too many opportunities to indulge his weaknesses. He pursued women-- especially teenagers--obsessively; he cheated friends, cheated the IRS, stole ideas, supported unpleasant causes. All of this had little effect on his movies; perhaps it was even the wellspring of his talent, until he succumbed to the comedian's fatal temptation of taking himself seriously. Milton is particularly devastating in her analysis of how his films turned from ingenious slapstick to leaden, Stalinist posturings. Diagnosing the dead is always an iffy proposition, but she also makes an excellent case for Chaplin having been afflicted with manic-depression. Certainly, this would help explain his innumerable inconsistencies as well as his wild mood swings in which bursts of activity were followed by idle, sullen stretches. Despite the profusion of negatives, this is not a hatchet job. Rather, Milton presents a complex, insightful portrait of a man in whom genius and iniquity were inseparably combined. (16 pages b&w photos, not seen) (Author tour)

Pub Date: June 19th, 1996
ISBN: 0-06-017052-2
Page count: 640pp
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1996