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The Wealthiest Tramp in the World

Simon Louvish was a freelance documentary film producer and director, and also a tutor and lecturer at the London Film School. He wrote novels on political satire as well as biographies on famous people like Chaplin, W.C. Fields, and the Marx Brothers. His education includes schools in Jerusalem, Israel and the London School of Film Technique.

Motion pictures first made their mark on history in the late 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution. At first, they were only a cheaper and easier way to provide entertainment and amusement to people. Soon though, advances in technology enabled the growth of cinema, and motion pictures grew exponentially. By the end of the century, movies blew out of proportion, and quickly became the most popular form of visual art. What came next for motion pictures was the silent era (1894-1929). In silent films, there was no synchronized recorded sound or spoken dialogue. Instead, dialogue was transmitted through gestures, pantomime, and title cards. Live music was often featured with silent films. It was not until the late 1920s that synchronized dialogue became known. It was in this era that “the world’s most famous screen person” made himself known.1 In Simon Louvish’s Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey, the readers embark on a journey that takes them through the life of The Tramp. The book tells the tale from the very beginning, when Charlie Chaplin played as Billy the page boy in Sherlock Holmes when he was twelve, to his last film, A King in New York.

It was an “era of empire building, bold technological and scientific change, and political reform” when Charles Chaplin and Hannah Chaplin wedded.2 Charles Chaplin of Walworth was a singer of comic songs while Hannah was known as Lily Harley, her stage name. Their first child, Sydney John, was born on March 16th, 1885, Charlie’s older brother. Charlie himself appeared on April 16th, 1889, in Walworth, London. Then Hannah gave birth to a third son, George Wheeler Dryden, fathered by Leo Dryden. After his parents split, Hannah had to take care of Charlie and Sydney because Charles Chaplin provided no support. Charles eventually died of cirrhosis of liver in 1901 at the age of thirty seven. At the age six, Charlie and Sydney were both placed in the Lambeth Workhouse when Hannah became ill and hospitalized at the Lambeth Infirmary. Then in 1903, Hannah was declared insane and was committed to the Cane Hill Asylum. She was discharged for a short time in 1904, but was then readmitted in 1905, and stayed there until 1912. Charlie’s childhood was terrible, but with his talents in the theater arts, he was able to raise himself up from the bottom and rocket to the top. Even at a young age, Charlie possessed the “gift of mimicry…and it would be fully confirmed in his teenage impersonations of such stage luminaries as Herbert Beerbohm Tree and the mercurial ‘Doctor’ Walford Bodie.”3 Charlie gave credit for his mime skills to him mother, saying that “his mother…inspired and coached him” the art of pantomime.4 Charlie became part of the Eight Lancashire Lads, a dancing troupe. In 1908, Charlie joined Fred Karno’s company with his brother. In 1910, Charlie, with a group of the Karno Company, boarded the SS Cairnrona to tour the United States that lasted until 1912, further spreading and expanding his popularity to the world. Two years later, while working at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio, Charlie accidently created the character that would “transform him into the twentieth century’s most recognized man.”5 The Tramp first debuted in the Keystone comedy Kid Auto Races at Venice. The character quickly became very popular, and was seen through many short films and feature-length productions. Charlie stayed with Keystone a while longer and featured in The Fatal Mallet, his fifteenth film, and A film Johnny. When his contract with Sennett was finished, he signed with the Essanay Studios, while his brother Sydney replaced him at Keystone.

After switching studios, Chaplin was not happy with the environment of the Essanay studio, so he moved to a smaller studio in Niles, California. There, he recruited team of actors including Ben Turpin, Bud Jaminson, Charles Insley, Lloyd Bacon, Leo White, and Edna Purviance. Chaplin formed a romantic relationship with Edna Purviance, “falling in love with Edna for the next eight years, film after film, and off screen too.”6 In The Champion, Charlie would find the themes and the settings that would define the Tramp’s world. His sixth film for Essanay Studios was The Tramp, the true start that made the character most known throughout the world. Chaplin did eight more films for Essanay after The Tramp, including In the Park, A Jitney Elopement, and more. His last appearance for Essanay was in Police. He then signed with Mutual Film Corporation in 1916. Chaplin then added two key actors who would define the Chaplin Mutuals: Albert Austin and Eric Campbell. They created many productions together, including The Floorwalker, The Fireman, The Vagabond, One A.M. and The Count, The Pawnshop and Behind the Screen. Demanding more time to create the films, Chaplin only made four more films in the next ten months – Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant, and The Adventurer. Next, he signed a contract with First National Exhibitor’s Circuit.  As World War I approached, Chaplin would contribute to the war by sending $150,000 to help the British war effort. He also released a war-based film called Shoulder to Arms. Mildred Harris, “whom he had rushed to marry because of her apparent pregnancy, turn out not to be pregnant after all.”7 With his personal life stunting his creativity, his film Sunnyside was unsuccessful. In 1919, Mildred gave birth to his first son, but he died three days later. Because of this event, his next film, A Day’s Pleasure, “appeared truncated, barely structured and somewhat lame.”8 After the divorce with Mildred, Chaplin produced is next film, The Kid. In many ways, “the impact of the immediate events” of his first born’s death was written all over the movie.9 After finishing the two reeler The Idle Class, Chaplin took a five week trip back home to England. Chaplin returned to America to finish his contract with First National, and completed Pay Day.

In 1922, Chaplin started filming a new movie called A Woman of Paris, in which Edna would be the main character. The movie “remains unique for its demonstrations of Chaplin as [a] director.”10 The Tramp reappears in the next film, The Gold Rush. The film was such a success that it “attains a status not just as a ‘classic’ but as a vital part of cinema’s DNA, the elemental structure of twentieth century movie making.”11 While filming the movie, Chaplin married Lita Grey, an actress at age sixteen. His son, Charles Spencer Chaplin Jr. was born on May 5th, 1925. Soon after the release of The Gold Rush, Chaplin started on The Circus. He had to stop production of the film because Lita wanted a divorce and to ruin his public image. It wasn’t until after the court case that he resumed filming. By the 1930s, sound films had arrived, yet Chaplin refused to produce one, stating that he “shall never speak in a film.”12With the creation of the sound systems, synchronized dialogue was made possible. The Warner Brothers were the first to use it in 1927, with their vitaphone partnership with Western Electric. Despite the growing production of sound films, Chaplin released films without speech called City Lights and Modern Times. Modern Times contained talking, but it was not from dialogue; it came from the background and from objects such as the television or the radio. Also, it was the first film where Chaplin’s voice was heard in the song at the end. During this time, Chaplin was engaged in a romantic and professional relationship with Paulette Goddard, but the relationship ended in 1940. Chaplin took a break from his busy life to travel abroad. He traveled to many different countries and met many well known people like Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi. When Charlie Chaplin returned to America, he was accused of being Jewish. He then produced The Great Dictator and released it in 1940. The film resonated with “an equivocal cry for justice and peace.”13 The film was released just one year before the United States entered World War II. In the film, Chaplin plays a dual role- one as a Jewish barber and Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of Tomainia, modeled after Germany’s dictator Adolf Hitler. The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s first talking picture. It was nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actor for Academy Awards.

In 1943, Chaplin’s brief affair with Joan Barry came back to haunt him. After having a child, Barry filed a suit against him, just two weeks after he married Oona O’Neill. The child’s name was Carol Ann, who was born October 2, 1943. While that occurred, the federal authorities organized a case against Chaplin under the Mann Act, also known as the ‘White Slavery’ Act, which banned prostitution across state lines. The argument was that “Chaplin had ‘feloniously transported’ Joan Barry from Los Angeles to New York ‘with the intent and purpose of engaging in illicit sex relations’.”14 He was indicted on February 10th, 1944. In the case about the Mann Act, Chaplin was found not guilty. Although three different blood tests were taken to prove he was not the father of Joan Barry’s child, the Barry-Chaplin paternity case resumed on December 13th. In the end, he was ordered to support the child, to his disappointment, but was comforted with the new family life he had found with Oona, for she had given birth to a baby girl on August 1st, named Geraldine. In 1941, Chaplin paid Orson Welles $5000 for the idea of a documentary on the French murderer Henri Desire Landru, in which Chaplin took seven years to produce. The film was called Monsieur Verdoux. Chapin then produced a film in which can be related to his own personal life, called The Limelight, in 1952. His son Sydney played the young pianist who nobody finds amusing anymore. During this time, the era of McCarthyism, Chaplin was accused of un-American activities. It was when Chaplin left the US for a premiere of Limelight that he found out his re-entry permit had been revoked. Chaplin and his family then settled at the Manoir de Ban in Corsier sur Vevey, Switzerland, where he and Oona had four more children, totaling eight. His final film, produced in 1957, called A King in New York, was a “bitter farewell to the long history of Charlie/Chaplin’s struggle on behalf of the common individual.”15 The film was a “grand counter-attack on the blacklisters of the House of Un-American Activities Committee.”16 In 1966, he produced his last picture A Countess from Hong Kong, his only film in color. He spent the last of his years writing at least four books, like My Autobiography and My Life in Pictures. He also composed music, creating some scores for his films. He died on Christmas day in 1977, and was buried in Switzerland.

Throughout the entire book, Simon Louvish portrays Chaplin’s life as a reprise of The Odyssey, in which Charlie Chaplin is Odysseus, going on an epic journey that takes him to the ends of the earth and back. Louvish portrays Chaplin as a man who endured lots of sorrow and suffering, and is victim to the cruel world. Chaplin was even compared to Jesus Christ in that “rather than hammer and nail, but, in its political impact,”17 he was crucified.

Simon Louvish sees Charlie Chaplin as a man who left an everlasting mark on the world. In the book, Louvish opens up Chaplin’s social and political ideas, and the challenges that eventually led to his exile. Because Simon Louvish studied in film school, it inspired and motivated him to study the lives of great individuals in the film industry. Already producing major biographies iconic figures in history such as W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy, Mae West, and the Marx Brothers, Louvish looks at the mask behind the man, The Tramp. There had been many books published about the man behind the mask; many film historians and archivists have “excavated his archaeological layers in project…while…the central Chaplin archive in Bologna have made sure every piece of evidence of his long life and work is preserved.”18 Louvish believed that there should now be a view of Charlie when he first “burst upon the world: the mask before the man.”19

Simon Louvish’s Charlie: The Tramp’s Odyssey reveals a whole new point of view to the famed cinematic comedian. The book shows the development and creation of the Tramp through the films. Simon Louvish does an excellent job at reveals a “prismatic portrait of Hollywood’s majestic jester.”20 Although there are already so many books on Charlie Chaplin, none has written about the journey of the character, the Tramp. Although the book may be about Chaplin, “Louvish sets out to explore not the man but the mask through synopses of his films and perceptive observations into the relationship between an artist’s creation and his audience.”21

The book was truly a journey in which Chaplin’s story was told through the many works that he had accomplished. The story takes him on an odyssey where he meets many challenges and obstacles that he must overcome. His story was truly that of rags to riches. He started out deep within poverty, and rose out of it to become the wealthiest man in the world. Although reading the book exposed the many flaws of Chaplin, he was nevertheless a man with a defiant spirit of freedom. In the end, it was the character, the alter ego, “the truer-than-real-life Charlie, the Tramp,”21 that had an everlasting effect on the world.

Chaplin was the most influential and famous film star in the world during the silent era of motion pictures. Through his films, a character called the Tramp was created. The book is about the Tramp, and how he became “larger than life and perhaps more real than his creator.”23

1. Louvish, Simon. Chaplin: The Tramp’s Odyssey. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009. Xvi.
2. Louvish, Simon. 5.
3. Louvish, Simon. 9-10.
4. Louvish, Simon.  14.
5. Louvish, Simon. 52.
6. Louvish, Simon. 87.
7. Louvish, Simon. 141.
8. Louvish. Simon. 143.
9. Louvish, Simon. 154.
10. Louvish, Simon. 185.
11. Louvish, Simon. 195.
12. Louvish, Simon. 227.
13. Louvish, Simon. 279.
14. Louvish, Simon. 291.
15. Louvish, Simon. 342.
16. Louvish, Simon. 341.
17. Louvish, Simon. 361.
18. Louvish, Simon. Xvi.
19. Louvish, Simon. Xvii.
20. Publisher’s Weekly, Reviews, July 20, 2009
21. Shiel, Teri. Library Journal. Reviews, Aug 1 2009, MA
22. Louvish, Simon. 12
23. Louvish, Simon. Xvii.