At first glance this new book by premier film historian and biographer Eyman would seem to limit its coverage to the period of the 1940s—when Chaplin was burdened by a bogus paternity suit and accused of being a Communist—until his death on Christmas Day, 1977. But Eyman incorporates eye-opening details about Chaplin’s entire life and career throughout the narrative, making this one of the finest surveys of the man and the artist ever written.
Like the author, I first fell in love with Chaplin as a boy after seeing him in Robert Youngson’s comedy compilations. I saved up to buy 8mm prints of his Mutual short subjects from Blackhawk Films and read everything I could about Chaplin. I also vividly recall the disappointment I felt when I devoured his long-awaited autobiography in 1966. It was stuffy and uninteresting to me as a young movie buff. I didn’t care that he spent time with the Royal family or other members of the social elite. I wanted to know more about the making of his films. Eyman casts a clear eye on all of this and posits that moving to Switzerland removed Chaplin from everyday life and smothered his artistry.
There are so many takeaways from this volume I don’t know where to begin. I’ve never fully appreciated Charlie’s kinship with his half-brother Sydney until now. His relationship with his onetime leading lady, Edna Purviance, is evoked through correspondence that she maintained until her death. And, thanks to granular research by Marx Brothers expert Robert Bader, it is now possible to confirm without question that Charlie and the Marxes (or Groucho, at the very least) visited the same brothel in Salt Lake City in September of 1913. Groucho recalled that Charlie was too shy to take a girl upstairs for sex and spent the evening playing in the parlor with the Madame’s dog.
Charlie Chaplin had so many facets that it wouldn’t be possible for one author to explore them all in detail, but by casting a narrower net—and allowing for digressions—Eyman has produced a gem of a book.