Chaplin : His Life & Art by David Robinson


by David Robinson

CHAPTER EIGHT – ESCAPE (His return to London 1921)

On the train journey to London he found everything different and irresistibly beautiful, the girls, the countryside – despite the parched grass and the new buildings – the crowds that waited at every station to see his train go by. As they approached Waterloo, the train passed through the streets of his boyhood; he could glimpse Uncle Spencer’s old pub, the Queen’s Head in Broad Street, Lambeth. the scenes that awaited him in London were astonishing. His homecoming was a triumph hardly paralleled in the twentieth century apart from a few great royal or national events. From Waterloo to the Ritz the streets were thronged with people all waiting for a glimpse of their idol and a chance to cheer.

‘I feel like doing something big. What an opportunity for a politician to say something and to do something big! Then we approach, the tide comes up towards the gates of the hotel. They have been kept locked to prevent the crowd from demolishing the buliding. I can see one intrepid motion-picture camera man at the door as the crowd srarts to swarm. He begins to edge in, and starts grinding his camera frantically as he is lifted into the whirlpool of humanity. But he keeps turning, and his camera and himself are gradually turned up to the sky, and his lens is registering nothing but clouds as he goes down turning – the most honourable fall a camera man can have, to go down grinding. I wonder if he really got any pictures.

In some way my body has been pushed, carried, lifted, and projected into the hotel. I can assure you that through no action of mine was that accomplished.’

The crowd insisted on his showing himself at the window of his suite, but the management of the Ritz asked him to desist from throwing flowers to the people below for fear of causing a riot.

Chaplin now felt a desperate urge to see places of his youth without delay. With Geraghty and Crisp he managed to make his way out of the service entrance of the hotel; then he left his companions, to go alone in a taxi to Kennington. From his own description there seems to have been a passionate hunger in this search for the scenes and impressions from his childhood. Much remained: an old, blind, bible-reading beggar under the arches by the Canterbury Music Hall; Christ Church, where Hannah (Chaplin’s mother) worshipped when religion took her; Baxter Hall, ‘where we used to see magic lantern shows for a penny…you could get a cup of coffee and a piece of cake there and see the Crucifixion of Christ all at the same time’; Kennington Police Station’ Kennington Baths, ‘reason for many a days hookey’; Kennington Cross. In Chester Street he recognized the shop where he had once worked as lather boy, though the barber had gone, and an old tub where he himself once used to wash in the morning. He saw himself in the children who played in the street. He thought them lovely and was thrilled to hear them speak. ‘They seem to talk from their souls.’ Proceeding to Lambeth Walk he met a girl who had been the servant in a cheap lodging house where he had once stayed, who, he recalled, had lost her job because she had ‘fallen’.

His clothes made him conspicuous in Lambeth Walk. He was recognized and a crowd began to follow him, though at a respectful distance. He felt ashamed after asking a policeman for help and the policeman reassured him, ‘That’s all right, Charlie. These people won’t hurt you.’ They called ‘Goodbye, Charlie. God bless you!’ as he drove off in his taxi. He drove to Kennington Gate, where he had had his rendezvous with Hetty, to the Horns, and to Kennington Cross, where as a boy he had heard the clarinettist play ‘The Honeysuckle and the Bee’, and ‘music first entered my soul’. He reflected that he was seeing all this ‘through other eyes. Age trying to look back through the eyes of youth.’ Yet, he was only thirty-two years old.

A couple of nights later he decided to return to Lambeth, this time in the company of Robinson, Geraghty and Kelly. He noticed Sharps the photographers in Westminster Bridge Road, and went in and asked of he could buy prints of some of the photographs they took of him when he was with Casey’s Circus. The assistant replied the negatives had been destroyed long ago. He pointed out that they had still a photograph of Dan Leno, who had died seventeen years before, in the window.

‘Have you destroyed Mr.Leno’s negative?’ I asked him.

‘No’, was the reply, ‘but Mr Leno is a famous comedian.’

Such is fame.

There were other landmarks he remembered: an old bottle-nose tomato seller, ten years more decrepit; the coffee stall at Elephant and Castle which was the focus of the night life of the neighbouring streets, and where Chaplin noticed among the loungers a number of men maimed by the war. Then Chaplin took his friends to 3 Pownall Terrace. Mrs. Reynolds, the aging widow who now lived in the Chaplin’s former garret, was astonished to be got out of bed at 10.30p.m. by the celebrity of the moment, but not nonplussed:

‘The place was darkness…and when I heard a scuffling outside, I shouted,

‘Who is there!’

‘It is Charlie Chaplin,’ I heard a voice say.

Never dreaming it was really Mr Chaplin, I shouted from the bed, ‘Oh, don’t you try and play any joke on me. Charlie won’t come at this hour.’

But the knocking went on, so I got out of bed. I had to take a picture away before I could open the door, as it had no key and I have to wedge it up. Then I saw four gentlemen on the stairs, and one of them, slightly built and wearing a grey lounge suit, said in a gentle voice, ‘I really am Charlie Chaplin. Were you asleep? he asked, and I said, ‘No’ as I had been listening to the (news) boys calling the results of the great fight.

‘Oh,’ said Charlie, ‘I was supposed to be there.’

Then he looked round the room – I was very glad that the sheets on the bed were clean..and said, ‘This is my old room, I have bumped my head many times on that ceiling’ – pointing to the slope above the bed – ”and got thrashed for it. I should like to sleep here again for a night.’

I said, ‘It’s not like your hotel here,’ and he answered merrily, ‘Never you mind about my hotel. This is my old room, and I am much more interested in that than my Hotel.’

Having had their fill of drabness for the night (Chaplin quickly recovered from his urge to sleep in his old room), the friends went back to Park Lane to visit the American film director, George Fitzmaurice. There Chaplin quarrelled with another guest, an American actor who had gone sightseeing in Limehouse in search of the tough and highly coloured world of Thomas Burke’s Limehouse Nights, and was disappointed that nobody there wanted to pick a fight.

‘That was enough. It annoyed. I told him that it was very fine for well-fed, overpaid actors flaunting toughness at these deprived people, who are gentle and nice and, if ever tough, only so because of environment.. I asked him just how tough he would be if he were living the life that some of these unfortunate families must live. How easy for him with five meals a day beneath that thrust out chest with his muscles trained and perfect, trying to start something with these people, Of course they were not tough, but when it comes to four years of war, when it comes to losing an arm or a leg, then they are tough. But they are not going around looking for fights unless there is a reason.

It rather broke up the party, but I was feeling so disgusted that I did not care.’

On the way back to the Ritz they fell into conversation with three prostitutes; Chaplin was rather sad that having gaily hailed them, ‘Hello boys’, as soon as they recognized him the girls became solemn and respectful and called him ‘Mr Chaplin’. They helped a driver, on his way to Covent Garden with a load of apples, to push his wagon up a slippery street, and Chaplin was touched that the man ‘did not belay the tired animal with a whip and curse and swear at him in his helplessness. He saw the animal was up against it, and instead of beating him he got out and put his shoulder to the wheel, never for the moment doubting that the horse was doing his best.’

The derelicts huddled at night under the arches of the Ritz, the newest and most glamorous hotel in London at that time, seemed to symbolize the two poles of Chaplin’s life: the privations of boyhood and the triumph of this homecoming. Chaplin woke the sleepers to give them money. He never ceased observing behavour: ‘There was an old woman about seventy. I gave her something. She woke up, or stirred in her sleep, took the money without a word of thanks – took it as though it was her ration from the bread line and no thanks were expected, huddled herself up in a tighter knot than before, and continued her slumber. The inertia of poverty had long since claimed her.’



Published by Penguin Books 2001 (revised edition)


7 comments on “Chaplin : His Life & Art by David Robinson

  1. I’ve been telling people all weekend to take a look at your post…

  2. Peter Jones says:

    hi there I tried to leave a comment before but not sure if it worked. I’ve been trying to find out a bit about the history of coffee-stalls recently and was intrigued to see that the article you’ve included in this post talks about Chaplin visiting these stalls in his youth. I wondered if you could tell me what newspaper this was from, and what exact date it was? I have looked in the Robinson biography but this article wasn’t mentioned as far as I could see. Thanks!

  3. chaplin says:

    Hello, Peter. Hmm.. I can’t quite recall which newspaper that article was from. I’ll check back through my files and see if I can locate the scan info.

  4. RJ says:

    can you give me the ebook of this book?

  5. chaplin says:

    Sorry, but no. The Robinson biography is a fabulous read though, so I would highly recommend a purchase on Amazon. With its many rare photographs its probably best in real book form anyway. Make sure you get the updated version, since the older editions miss out on many an intriguing revision.

  6. Peter Jones says:

    Hi there. I just wondered if you had any luck tracing that quote? I want to use it in my thesis and would obviously credit you in this piece… but it’s tricky to use it if I can’t verify the source. Thanks!

  7. […] “That’s the great irony,” notes silent film scholar and official Chaplin biographer David Robinson. “Music has always been an important part of the process,” either through live musical […]

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