When I was in high school it was typical to have John Lennon or Mick Jagger up on your bedroom wall. I had Charlie Chaplin — a lifesize poster, as a matter of fact. He may have been my grandfather’s age at the time, but for me he was that fey twenty-something in the films of his that I saw on public television. Elegant, flirty, sweet, clever, and adorable. As he charmed everyone in his day so he charmed me decades later.
My crush on Charlie has never left me and so I’ve been showing the Little Tramp films to my classes for decades. These nine and ten year-olds adore him and pass the word on to other classes with the result that my colleagues have been showing Chaplin too. I love that this clown and these early films are so successful with today’s media savvy kids.
For years I’ve had in mind a book on Chaplin, a book that would send young readers straight to his films. Sid Fleischman’s recent biography is solid, but he is showing the whole life of a complicated artist. I want to do something different — to focus on Chaplin’s art more than his life. I want to communicate to child readers the energy, wit, hilarity, and elegance in his early films that is Chaplin at his best. I have years and years of firsthand evidence that kids still find him hilarious. The word needs to get out — born in the 19th century, Charlie is still funny, funny, funny in the 21st — hopefully I’m the one to do it.
And so this summer I’m deep into Chaplin, reading and viewing and thinking about how to do this. Having been besotted with the man, his character, and his work for so long I figured I knew a lot, but I’m learning more every day. In particular, I’m interested in his particular comedy, gags, and the methodology of early film making — the stuff that I know that kids will be interested in too. And is the case with research (and made easier with the Internet), I’m easily led astray on one tangent or another. But I’m having fun learning about vaudeville and early film making along with the little guy himself.