Sid Fleischman’s Sir Charlie: The Funniest Man in the World

I wasn’t going to post here about Sir Charlie, but having found it difficult to comment cogently about it on this Heavy Medal post, I’m going to attempt to try to do so more clearly here. As I’ve noted here already I’m a long time fan of Charlie Chaplin, have shown his movies to my 4th graders for decades, and for the last year have been researching his life and art for my own book.  As a result I read Fleischman’s biography of Chaplin (several times by now) with a whole lot of background of my own.

But before offering my reservations about this particular book, I want to express my admiration for Sid Fleischman who was in a class by himself as a writer for children.  While I was well aware of his status as a wonderful writer of fiction, it was as a biographer that I came to know him best.  I was completely charmed by Escape: The Story of the Great Houdini in which Fleischman, a practicing magician himself who knew Houdini’s widow, gives a very personal and engrossing account of the remarkable escape artist. And then, having been a lifelong fan of Mark Twain, I delighted in The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West, Fleischman’s energetic and entertaining take on that witty man of letters. Having enjoyed these two so much I am sorry that I am unable to bring the same enthusiasm to Sir Charlie.

First and most of all, I feel that Fleischman does not succeed in communicating to his intended audience of young readers exactly how and why Charlie Chaplin was the “funniest man in the world.”  I can imagine potential young readers seeing that subtitle, enthusiastically diving into the book, and then being lost as to why this man was supposedly so funny. Sure, many people including Fleischman and myself think he is funny, but the challenge is to write in a way that makes young readers, those who know absolutely nothing about him,  think so too.

I realize that humor is very subjective, but does this make you laugh or want to check out a Chaplin movie?  Fleischman on page 58:

In his drunk act, Charlie enters to seat himself in a theater box, pausing first, with great dignity, to peel off a white glove.  Moments later, too hazy to remember, he again attempts to remove the glove.  He tries to light his cigar from an electric light.  When a stooge in the next box lights a match for him, Charlie reaches for it with his cigar and falls out of the box.

Charlie’s gift for constant invention reveals itself.  He climbs back into the box, only to balance out and hang on again, feet dangling.  The audience gasps.  Physical humor is triumphant. At the climax, the diminutive drunk finds himself onstage wresting a huge and terrible villain. (Fleischman, page 58.)

While it certainly is an appreciation of  Chaplin’s gags expressed by a sincere and true fan, I don’t think it succeeds at helping a young readers unfamiliar with Chaplin get that this is really funny and even make them eager to see for themselves. Having read many descriptions of Chaplin’s gags I feel that some of the best come from the man himself.    For example:

I entered with my back to the audience…I looked immaculate dressed in a frock coat, top hat, can and spats — a typical Edwardian villain.  Then I turned showing my red nose.  There was a laugh. That ingratiated me with the audience.  I shrugged melodramatically, then snapped my fingers and veered across the stage , tripping over a dumbbell. Then my cane became entangled with an upright punching bag, which rebounded and slapped me in the face.  I swaggered and swung, hitting myself with my cane on the side of the head.  The audience roared. (Chaplin’s Autobiography, pg 101)

Here are two more contrasting examples.

Fleischman (page 71) describing Chaplin as he launches the Little Tramp in Kid Auto Races in which Charlie plays a spectator who is obsessed with getting in front of the cameraman who is filming the race.

Every time the director moved the setup, in shuffles the tramp to mug for the camera.  Soon Charlie is almost run down by racing cars, only to duck a cop policing the crowd.  He goes from improvisation to improvisation until the cameraman delivers a swift kick to launch him out of the shot and the picture.

Versus this excerpt from Chaplin’s own version (describing Mabel’s Strange Predicament which was released after Auto Races, but may have been filmed first):

In all comedy business an attitude is most important, but it is not always easy to find an attitude.  However, in the hotel lobby [the setting of Mabel's Strange Predicament] I felt I was an impostor posing as one of the guests, but in reality I was a tramp just wanting a little shelter.  I entered and stumbled over the foot of a lady.  I turned and raised my hat apologetically, then stumbled over a cuspidor, then turned and raised my hat to the cuspidor.

Then there is the writing. While I like much of it, I also agree with the commentator on Heavy Medal who complained that some of it veers into purple prose. (“…insolent as a cannonball” from page 1, for example.)  Additionally, there are moments in the book where Fleischman puts one sentence next to another in ways that require young readers to fill a dauntingly huge chasm in between.  Here’s an example when he is writing about Chaplin’s discovery of reading:

Later and offstage, he could almost always be found struggling through a book.  His ambitions had taken a profound shift. Performing was necessary for fried bread and haddock.  He would spend a lifetime pursuing a closeted aspiration to become well educated.  An intellectual. (Fleischman, pg 32)

Seems to me that young readers could do with something after that mention of bread and haddock to make the point that he was also looking for intellectual nourishment. Not to mention, I don’t think this is true of Chaplin as performing for him was definitely more than a way to make ends meet. I also don’t at all feel his wish to be an intellectual was closeted.  Far from it — he loved to befriend intellectuals, writers, and such and writes about them in name-dropping profusion (which Fleischman does indeed note) throughout his autobiography.

Fleischman does a good job with Chaplin’s harsh early life, but I did find some odd moments. For example, in “Chapter Four: Life With Father” I feel he sets the stepmother up as a complete villain even though Chaplin doesn’t himself in his autobiography. In it he shows how she was horribly abused by his father and how that clearly was the reason for her unhappiness. In fact he writes of his horror and shock when the father knocks her unconscious, “I was shocked at Father’s action, such violence made me lose respect for him… She loved Father.  Even though very young I could see it in her glance the night she stood by the fireplace, bewildered and hurt by his neglect.” (Autobiography, pg. 37)

Then there is this flippant comment of Fleischman’s about poor Charlie’s purchase of a Latin-English dictionary: “One can only guess what he intended to do with it.  Hit Karno over the head with Ovid in the original language?” (Fleischman, pg 50) Actually I feel that Chaplin’s mention of this in his autobiography is a poignant example of his life-long effort to educate himself.  Given the profound class differences in Britain he well knew that knowing Latin was a sign of status. Fleischman does note other examples of Chaplin buying and reading challenging texts such as Schopenhauser — it seems to me very possible that Chaplin thought he might be able to teach himself Latin as he’d done with other things.

I also disagree strongly with Fleischman’s statement on page 85 that “As an actor he had to learn not to look at the camera.” and then the note on page 245 where he comments that “Chaplin was not a genuis of consistency.  Sometimes on a reaction take or shot, he’d gaze directly at the camera.”  Actually this was very intentional.  Dan Kamin in his excellent book, The Comedy of Charlie Chaplin, spends several pages considering Chaplin’s way of engaging with the film audience.  “One of the most striking things about Chaplin’s film performances was that he seemed to relate to the world outside his films — he was aware that there was an audience out there watching him, and he looked directly at the camera to acknowledge it.” (Kamin, pg 14)

Finally, I’m highly uncomfortable with Fleischman writing in a note for page 66  “… Chaplin, writing in an earlier autobiography, Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story, Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, 1916, cited in McCaffrey’s Focus on Chaplin, p. 31…”  (Fleischman, pg 243) The problem is that this is a totally bogus autobiography.  Rose Wilder Lane (yeah, that Rose Wilder Lane who helped her mother write the Little  House books) interviewed Chaplin in 1915 for the San Francisco Bulletin. After the original publication the manuscript was juiced up with all sorts of made-up stuff and then published as Charlie’s autobiography. He was outraged when he encountered it.  After quoting from it, David Robinson in Chaplin: His Life and Art,  writes, “The book is full of such romantic and misleading nonsense, which has nevertheless continued to supply and confuse gullible Chaplin historians for seven decades.” (pg. 182)

There’s more, but I’m not on the Newbery Committee so I’ll stop now.  Good and decent book — yes.  Newbery quality — no, at least not in my opinion.

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1 Comment

Filed under Chaplin, Newbery

One response to “Sid Fleischman’s Sir Charlie: The Funniest Man in the World

  1. A.S

    Hi! I am one of Ms. Edinger’s students. She asked me to read Sir Charlie. since we are studying Chaplin, I knew some information in the book. I think it told lots of information, just not in the most fun way. Later in the book, it said a movie was hilarious, yet when it described it, it didn’t seem so funny at all. I do not think it was a fun read. I might not have finished if we weren’t studying Chaplin.

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