Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Clown and Genius

It’s only 32 pages long but Chaplin: Clown and Genius — A Tribute to Charlie is the finest tribute I have read about one of four of the greatest comedians the world has known. The other three kings of slapstick comedy, in my opinion, are Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy and Marx Brothers. Do I hear murmurs?

Published in 1978 by World Distributors (Manchester) Ltd, this little-long book contains only three chapters—The Early Years, Exit the Clown and The Final Curtain—and is interspersed with large, and some rare, black-and-white photographs that trace Chaplin’s hugely successful cinematic journey from pre-WWI to post-WWII.

The narrative under each chapter is insightful in that it provides the reader with more than a peep into Chaplin’s chequered, and often controversial, life from his birth in England in 1889 to his death in Switzerland in 1977, at the age of 88.

The Early Years chapter begins with these words, “If there was one thing that the vaudeville stage and the slapstick screen was not lacking in America in the years that led up to the First World War it was comedians. It was into this thickly populated business in 1913 that Charles Spencer Chaplin, aged 24, came from Britain.”

The book is full of little but meaningful anecdotes. For instance, of his curious makeup and wardrobe, Chaplin has said, “On the way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and derby hat. I wanted everything a contradiction: the pants, the baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young but remembering (Mack) Sennett (American director of slapstick comedy) had expected a much older man, I added a small moustache…”

Perhaps, no other toothbrush-like moustache on the upper lip of a man has launched a career that has scaled to such stratospheric heights as Chaplin’s.

As the unknown writer of this tribute notes, “Chaplin’s choice of the baggy trousers, the bowler hat, moustache and cane was itself a stroke of genius, for it gave him eccentricity combined with a touch of realism. He was the universal man, battered but brave, whom everyone would recognise.” And none would forget for a long time.

Charlie Chaplin in a still from A Dog's Life (1918)

The photographs from cover to cover are a visual treat and even more so if you are a Chaplin fan. Most of the pictures are stills from his vast repertory of films; a few show the clown white-haired and ageing yet full of life; still others portray Chaplin with his family, wife Oona and daughter Geraldine, or receiving an Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1972. 

Two photographs stand out. One is that of Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando in a scene from A Countess from Hong Kong, written and directed by Chaplin in 1967. It also starred his younger son Sydney Chaplin. The other is that of a Swiss police officer in a poignant moment, giving a last salute to Chaplin as his coffin is carried to a cemetery in Switzerland.

“The great man—the little man—died peacefully on Christmas Day, 1977. Perhaps, the finest tribute to him then was paid by a writer who, echoing the shock of his passing to a world made sadder for it, said: ‘He achieved greater, more widespread fame in his own lifetime than perhaps anyone else in the history of mankind.’ For a slum-born who once laid down his head on a bare mattress on an attic floor, with only a bowl of soup to keep him alive, it had certainly been an amazing lifetime,” the writer concludes his eulogy.

In The Kid (1921)
Postscript: Chaplin: Clown and Genius — A Tribute to Charlie appears to be out of stock. Amazon and eBay don’t have it. I do, picked it up for $1 from a roadside bookseller in Bombay, and it’s not for sale. One must hold on to the clowns and geniuses in one’s life.


  1. Great blog - am checking your archives. Think I'll be a regular here.

  2. Thanks Gary/Jack for the kind feedback. I will be posting more often in weeks and months coming.