Monday, August 9, 2010

Sir Charlie Chaplin, the funniest man in the world

Fleischman, Sid. 2010. Sir Charlie: Chaplin, The Funniest Man in the World. New York: Greenwillow.

For many, particularly the younger generation for whom this book is written, Charlie Chaplin is an icon,   but not an icon in the sense of its earlier definition - as a symbolic star, an iconic idol of the silver screen, but an actual icon - a face with a ridiculously small mustache and bowler hat; a silhouette with bowed legs, a cane, and over sized shoes. Sid Fleischman's book, Sir Charlie Chaplin, The Funniest Man in the World, breathes new life into this icon, the genius of the silent screen.

From Chaplin's meager beginnings as the son of minor vaudevillian performers, a drunken father and a mother beginning to lose her voice - Chaplin fell still farther into the depths of London's Cockney slums.  Already educated in the school of hard knocks, seven-year old Charlie and his older brother Sydney were sent to a workhouse in 1896, "owing to the absence of their father and the destitution and illness of their mother," according to the ledger entry at the "booby hatch." His mother, as she would many times throughout her life, was admitted to a ward for the mentally ill.

Using period quotes and engaging prose packed with personification and similes,
...Chaplin was losing confidence in his isolated and bullheaded judgment.  Disaster holding aloft a mallet, as in one of his slapsticks, might be waiting for him in the theater.  Silent films had become as out-of-date as the once-stylish spats he still wore over his shoes. 
Fleischman gives a chronological account of Charlie's rise to fame with the creation of his signature character, The Little Tramp, his personal foibles (including paternity scandals), his wartime contributions, his fall from favor with the American people (including his investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee and J. Edgar Hoover during the notorious "red scare" years), and his eventual arrival at the place of elevated regard that he finally held in his later years and beyond.  He was belatedly honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1972, and knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1975.

In the book's preface, Fleischman reveals that he arrived in Hollywood in the 1950s to write movie screenplays only shortly after Chaplin had left for Switzerland, but "his (Chaplin's) footprints were everywhere."  Fleischman credits Chaplin's films with tutoring him in the school of "spectator theater" and the gift "of the visual."  Fleischman's interest in and connection with his subject is apparent throughout.

Fans of Chaplin will appreciate this intense look into the ups and downs of a life devoted to the entertainment of others; sometimes at great cost to Chaplin himself and those closest to him.  Those who know Chaplin only as a bowler-wearing icon will (hopefully) scurry out to the public library in search of a Chaplin film on DVD.

Recommended for upper middle grades to adult. A thoroughly researched and referenced look at the diminutive film giant, Charlie Chaplin, from a giant of children's literature, Sid Fleischman.
Sid Fleischman passed away in March of this year at the age of 90, before this book was published, a great loss.

(A scene from Charlie Chaplin's 1921 movie "The Kid". Copyright has expired and the photo is in the public domain. Taken from
A personal aside: I once took a course, The History of Film.  I'd pop the silent comedy classics into the DVD player,  and my children would quickly dismiss or deride the grainy black and white images; but they would hear me laughing in the silence, and slowly wander in and take a seat on the couch, watching the antics of the Keystone Cops, Laurel and Hardy, or the Little Tramp.  Soon, they were asking which films I would be borrowing next.  Never underestimate the power of a pie in the face.

It’s Nonfiction Monday again!  Today’s host is Moms Inspire Learning. Stop by and visit all the contributors. 
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