In the spring of 1915, within days of a bungled British attempt to “knock Turkey out of the war” by an attack through the Bosphorous, World War I having not yet lasted a year, children in the streets of London were singing this song:

O the moon shines bright on Charlie Chaplin
Whose boots are crackin’
For want of blackin’
And his little baggy trousers need a-patchin’
Before they send him
To the Dardanelles.
My father knew the song. He must have heard it in one of the vaudeville or music-hall shows that flourished then in every town and city in Britain. He was four years younger than Chaplin and came of age on the eve of the First World War. Years later he used to regale his family with it.

The song can be found in several books on Chaplin, though with slightly different words, and it appears again in Kenneth S. Lynn’s new biography, Charlie Chaplin and His Times. It is a telling reminder of how early in his life Chaplin found fame and fortune. In 1915, at the time of the Dardanelles fiasco, he was only twenty-six years old. Born in 1889, he first came to America in 1910 as a member of one of Fred Karno’s vaudeville troupes. On a second visit late in 1912, he caught the eye of Mack Sennett and began work in what was still a raw film business. By 1918, he had appeared in more than sixty films (one or two reelers). The demand for a Chaplin film, it seemed, both inside and outside America, could not be satisfied fast enough. Other comedians were quick to imitate him, stores sold figurines and other spin-offs based on his trademark appearance, and his earnings rocketed. Sennett’s Keystone film company paid him $175 a week; Essanay, $1,250; Mutual, $10,000 (plus a transfer fee of $150,000). In 1918, in a much publicized deal with First National, he became a millionaire with a contract to make eight films over a period of eighteen months. He was not yet thirty. Not bad for a young Cockney from a south London poor-law school whose earliest ambition was to be top of the bill in a West End music hall!

Chaplin’s celebrity status stayed with him for the rest of his life despite his being in effect expelled from the United States in 1952 when scandals with women and underage girls and questions about his political loyalty led to the withdrawal of his American reentry permit. In the 1920s and 1930s, he was the most famous man in the world, mobbed in London and Paris, sought out by presidents, prime ministers, and celebrities in other professions. Money gave him the independence to do what he wanted in his films and live like a prince or a pasha, with a Japanese chauffeur and private sauna, a yacht in California, his own studio in Hollywood, and his own distribution company, United Artists, which he co-founded in 1919 with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith.

Something about Chaplin, however, lifted him out of the company of his fellow artists in the film world. When he died in 1977 in Switzerland, where he went to live after leaving the United States, he had already become an institution, honored belatedly by Hollywood, knighted in Britain, the subject of many books, memoirs, and academic studies. The flow of these has continued unabated since his death. In 1985, the film historian David Robinson drew on the Chaplin archive for his definitive work on Chaplin film lore, Chaplin: His Life and Art, while a more general biography by Joyce Milton, Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin, appeared as recently as last year.

Little about Chaplin’s life and art has remained unscrutinized in this long-running spate of words. In tackling the subject afresh, Lynn has not unearthed anything that sheds a radically new light on the filmmaker or his times, but he is an experienced literary historian who has carefully sifted through what others have written about Chaplin to form his own interpretation of the man. The result is a Chaplin notably lacking in glamour. While Chaplin’s films may still work their magic, the conjurer who made them is stripped of mystery and charm.

As Lynn tells it, there is not much that was edifying about Chaplin’s private or off-screen public life. It was often sordid, contentious, petty. He was a rotten husband, a poor father, an unpleasant, mean, and sometimes dishonest business man. His moodiness on the film set was legendary. Lynn constantly finds it necessary to correct Chaplin’s own account of events in his life. But underneath these “layers of obfuscation and prevarication” with which Chaplin covered his past Lynn believes that he was after all a “profoundly autobiographical” filmmaker. In other words, for Lynn, the art helps explain the life.

Lynn’s previous biography was a widely acclaimed study of Ernest Hemingway in which he proposed that the disconcerting nature of Hemingway’s life can be attributed to what happened to him when he was a child and his mother dressed him as a little girl. In his new book, Lynn also starts from the premise that the key to understanding Chaplin’s enigmatic personality lies in probing his relationship with his mother. He finds support for this approach in the writings of Thomas Burke, a man who apparently understood better than anyone Chaplin’s feelings about his London childhood. They spent many hours together in 1921 and 1931 when Chaplin returned to the streets of Kennington and Lambeth he knew as a boy. Burke’s chapter on Chaplin in his City of Encounters, published in 1932, remains one of the best things written about him.

The story of Chaplin’s childhood has been told many times over, and notably by Chaplin himself in My Autobiography, which he published in 1964 and which is still in print in paperback. According to Chaplin, his father was a music-hall artist in Victorian London who deserted his mother and drank himself to death. Chaplin’s mother also moved in theatrical circles, but gradually found herself unable to cope with life, drifted into insanity, and had to be committed to an asylum. With other men, she had other children. One of these was Chaplin’s half-brother Sydney, four years his senior, to whom Chaplin was devoted. They lived with their mother for a time in various tenement rooms, but were eventually consigned to poor-law schools and workhouses and had to fend for themselves. (In 1921 Chaplin brought his mother to America, where she later died.) The young Charlie found small parts on the stage and in vaudeville thanks to a middle-aged actor-director who introduced him to Karno. Then came the fateful tour of America with its grinding routine of vaudeville appearances in towns throughout the United States.

That this background provided Chaplin with material that found its way into his films is a venerable thesis for Chaplin’s critics. Burke was one of the first to point to the connections. Lynn is more skeptical of Chaplin’s “allegedly wretched” life as a boy in late Victorian London, what he calls his “myth of bottom-of-the-heap impoverishment,” though he, too, frequently refers to the special circumstances of Chaplin’s upbringing. But while Burke believed that the experiences suffered by the fourteen-year-old Chaplin were the key to his films, Lynn takes them to be the key to Chaplin’s life, and particularly to his behavior toward women. And where Burke wrote that it was only a guess, Lynn develops the argument with considerable dramatic license. Was the trauma then the loss of his mother to insanity? Is sexual abuse or incest also implied? Or was it doubts about his parentage, about his mother’s real trade?

It seems we will never know for certain the actual facts about Chaplin’s upbringing. The documentary record is spotty but suggestive enough to fuel Lynn’s portrait of a “sexually ravenous young man” at the outset of a career. At the end of the chapter that explores the early period of his life, titled “The Poisonous Wound” after a phrase of Burke’s, Lynn describes an episode from Chaplin’s first visit to Paris, made in 1909 when he was twenty. He was staying in the same hotel as a young dancer from the Folies-Bergère called Mabelle Fournier, who was chaperoned by her mother. In his autobiography, Chaplin describes how the mother made a pass at him to which he was in all innocence unresponsive. But Lynn goes on to quote another version of the encounter that Chaplin gave a friend some twenty years after the event. The girl was ten or twelve, according to Chaplin in this account, and her mother allowed Chaplin to comfort her daughter when she suffered from violent nosebleeds. “I just loved to caress and fondle her—not passionately— just to have her in my arms.” Lynn concludes the chapter this way:

With girls as young as Mabelle Fournier, Chaplin never had to worry about rejection, or betrayal, or about being adjudged inadequate. Never would he forget that his sense of not knowing what to do while gripped in his mother’s frantic embraces had made him feel like screaming. But lying for hours with Mabelle’s virginal slimness, her wholly girlish femininity, enveloped in his arms was very heaven.

Chaplin’s relations with women were notorious, and Lynn describes them in detail. The reader uninterested in being a voyeur of these activities may find some passages unnecessarily explicit. But it is in keeping with Lynn’s psychosexual theme to show us a Chaplin whose private life was often in turmoil at the very moments of greatest artistic creativity. He was furiously engaged in sex and politics while thinking up ideas for his films.

Chaplin had four wives, though “the overwhelming likelihood,” Lynn writes, is that he and Paulette Goddard, his third wife, were never legally married. As Lynn describes it, when making The Gold Rush Chaplin was “caught up in a sex-powered delirium” in his pursuit of a young girl, Lillita McMurray, who became his second wife, taking the professional name of Lita Grey. She was twelve years old when Chaplin first met her and at fifteen still under age when he—then thirty-five—first slept with her. When she found she was pregnant, he tried everything to persuade her to have an abortion or get out of his life, but was virtually blackmailed into marriage by Lita’s uncle, a tough lawyer. Two sons were born of this marriage. In 1943 he married Oona O’Neill, daughter of the famous playwright, who promptly disowned her. At that time, Chaplin was plagued with a paternity suit by another woman, which the court adjudicated in her favor despite blood tests that contradicted her claim. (California did not recognize such tests in those days.) Oona and Chaplin remained married for thirty-four years, until Chaplin’s death. She brought him happiness, gave him eight children, and nursed him in his eighties. But after Chaplin’s death, Lynn writes, Oona “snapped” and gave way to alcoholic dementia, proof to Lynn that she, too, succumbed to the stress of living with the man she fell in love with when she was seventeen and he fifty-three, a year younger than her father. She died in 1991, aged sixty-six.

The second major theme that weaves its way through this biography concerns Chaplin’s attitude toward Communism and the Soviet Union. It was what got him into trouble in the opening years of the Cold War, and it has been well worked over in other studies of him. Lynn has looked carefully at the connections that might have existed between the filmmaker and the Kremlin without turning up convincing evidence that Chaplin was a Soviet agent or received secret funds from Soviet paymasters. But he makes the valid point that in his public utterances Chaplin followed the Soviet party line as dutifully as any party member, on one occasion even praising the Soviet purges of the Thirties.

That was in 1942, after Hitler’s onslaught on the Soviet Union, when Stalin was pressing the Western democracies to start a second front. But Lynn also points to the famous speech given by the Jewish barber at the end of The Great Dictator, a passionate appeal for an end to fighting, which in America meant continued neutrality. Chaplin, Lynn points out, shot this scene at his Hollywood studio in June 1940, just one week after the fall of France. The Nazi-Soviet pact was still in force, Hitler was master of the continent of Europe, President Roosevelt faced a reelection campaign in which America’s neutrality was a major issue, and Britain’s future with that of the free world hung in the balance. The speech, then, in Lynn’s words, “perfectly complemented the Communist line in the pact period.” After The Great Dictator’s release in October 1940, Chaplin repeated the speech in a radio broadcast to an audience, Lynn writes, of sixty million Americans. In pamphlet form, it also made excellent propaganda for the Communist Party in Britain.

At this distance in time, Lynn is inclined to believe that Chaplin’s ideological posturing, “the breathtaking naïveté” of his public utterances, must be attributed to the strivings of a “dilettante radical” who wanted to be taken seriously by left-wing intellectuals. “Flapdoodle” is Lynn’s term for the final speech in The Great Dictator. Obviously Chaplin was a subversive—in every film his screen character undermines the powers that be. At the very core of his being was the instinct to be “against the government” or “bolshy,” as an earlier generation called it. Churchill, no friend of real Bolsheviks, admired Chaplin as a comedian, but seems not to have taken his politics seriously. Lynn, however, is surely right to point out that the real charge against Chaplin is not that he once held radical views, but that he sought to sanitize them when he came to write his autobiography in 1964.

Chaplin’s status as a world celebrity rested on the unique personality of the screen character he first created in February 1914. In the era of silent film, common people the world over warmed to “the little fellow” (Chaplin’s preferred term for the tramp) in his baggy trousers with his hat and cane. The mime and slapstick required no translation to be understood by other cultures speaking other languages, and by all classes, too. Lynn and others who print the music-hall song about sending Charlie to the Dardanelles do so in the context of describing how Chaplin was attacked by sections of the British press for shirking his duty to sign up for the trenches in World War I. This is not, however, how I understood the song from listening to my father sing it. The meaning he gave it reflected the feelings of British tommies ridiculing the brass hats who were making such a mess of the war, feelings so successfully recaptured in Joan Littlewood’s O What a Lovely War. The tommies had seen Chaplin’s films almost as soon as they were released, in special tents erected behind the front lines, and they knew Charlie was one with them in this war. Why, they were known to place life-size figures of the tramp beside their dugouts as a kind of cardboard mascot against the Germans! (Chaplin was then unknown in Germany.) His movies were even played on the walls of military hospitals. Despite Chaplin’s misgivings about Shoulder Arms, the film found a warm-hearted reception from troops returning from the war in 1918.

But then came sound. In Modern Times, Chaplin said farewell to the tramp, and it seems that by that time he had begun to lose touch with his public. Lynn shows us that all Chaplin’s later films were vehicles for his discontents and quarrels with the world, Limelight being, in Lynn’s judgment, the “most overtly autobiographical” of them all. In addition to the parts in the film that Chaplin assigned members of his family, Lynn discovers references to Chaplin’s tormented memories of his mother in Terry’s paralysis of the legs. Likewise, he finds the suicide of Florence Deshon—a mistress Chaplin shared with Max Eastman—in Terry’s attempt to take her own life, which motivates the plot. For most people, however, what will remain most vividly in the mind after seeing Limelight is Chaplin’s self-portrait as an old entertainer whose public has deserted him.

Thanks to the modern technology that Chaplin hated, more people can see his films today than he could have thought possible. All the full-length silent and sound films and many of the early shorter ones are now available on video cassette. And thanks to the same modern technology, Chaplin lovers can view the fascinating British television series Unknown Chaplin, produced in 1982 but available on VHS, in which Chaplin’s working methods are revealed with outtakes and reconstructed sequences found in the Chaplin archive. Modern Times was released in 1936, the same year that the BBC inaugurated the first regular television service in the world. Lynn makes no mention of this, nor does he deal in depth with the changing nature of mass audiences as first radio and then television created new forms of popular culture in which vaudeville was reborn, though his study is packed with other information about people and topics that have some bearing on his principal subject. While Lynn’s prose is free from the jargon that often obscures academic writing about film, the way he organizes all this material in discrete packages, often pages at a time, like hypertext links on a CD-ROM, frequently places a strain on the narrative. The digressions and footnotes certainly add to our knowledge, but do we understand Chaplin any better for them?

Whatever his faults, Chaplin brought pleasure to millions through his art. He still does. Every time we see one of his films we are drawn again to the mythic quality of his screen character. Yet Chaplin himself does not emerge from this study as a heroic figure, for all the author’s psychological explanations. Lynn quotes Aldous Huxley saying that, after he’d seen Monsieur Verdoux, he felt “terribly sorry for Charlie— such talents, such a mess—in art no less than in life.” As Chaplin’s biographer, Lynn has grappled with the outward traces of this mess, giving us an unsentimental picture of the art as well as the life. He has searched the records, scoured everything written about Chaplin, viewed all the films, listened to Chaplin’s music, spoken with as many people who knew him as he could reach; and yet something about Chaplin’s willful, anarchic personality remains hidden. Perhaps only someone who knew the Cockney mentality of the south London streets as Thomas Burke did can properly enter into this enigma. But even Burke in the end had to admit that Chaplin was unknowable.