by Simon Louvish

Thomas Dunne Books


412pp/$27.99/October 2009

Cover by Faber

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Thirty-two years after his death, Charles Chaplin remains one of the most identifiable figures of film history.  People around the world who have never seen a Chaplin film will still be able to recognize his trademark character, whether in a picture of the Little Tramp or with a suggestive sketch of a toothbrush moustache topped with a derby (and perhaps a hooked cane).  Simon Louvish turns his attention to Chaplin's life and career in Chaplin: The Tramp's Odyssey, a highly readable, and entertaining look at Chaplin's sometimes tumultuous life story.

Beginning with Chaplin's lowly beginnings in London, Louvish portrays Chaplin's rise in the world of English theatre.  He looks at the various claims made about Chaplin, both by the actor himself and by those who have previously written about him, and does his best to eradicate the falsehoods and contradictions which have been perpetuated over the years, many of which got their start with Chaplin.  Louvish also gives details descriptions of many of the acts Chaplin appeared in while he worked in England (and later in America) to show the growth of Chaplin's characters, material, and ability. Louvish continues to give synopses of Chaplin's roles on stage and in films throughout the book, which serves as a substitute for the ability to actually include a DVD which shows the numerous Chaplin films Louvish discusses.

Looking at Chaplin's life and films allows Louvish to show the complexity of Chaplin, who was generally optimistic about humanity in spite of the evil he saw around him.  Although this is most clear in speeches Chaplin delivered through his roles such as the barber in The Great Dictator or Monsieur Verdoux in the film of the same name, Louvish also shows it in Chaplin's own attitude about his treatment in the wake of his failed relationships with Mildred Harris, Lita Grey, and Joan Barry.  While Louvish does not attempt to white wash Chaplin's marriages and peccadillo concerning young women in relationships that would today be considered statutory rape, neither does he provide a look at the scandal they caused at the time.

While Chaplin did not leave a pristine life, Louvish attempts to give an understanding for Chaplin's motivations on an artistic, business, and personal level.  While, for instance, his mother's mental problems impacted his own career path and his treatment of women, Louvish simply presents the situation and allows his readers to draw their own conclusions and, perhaps, bring their own judgment to bear on Chaplin's character.  At the same time, Louvish does gloss over some of Chaplin's long-term loyalties, such as with Edna Purviance, his once-and-future leading lady. 

Chaplin: The Tramp's Odyssey is an excellent synthesis of the various Chaplin biographies which have previously been published.  Louvish discusses what they have added to the area of Chaplin research, looks at their strengths and weaknesses, and their role in creating (or maintaining) the public perception of Chaplin.  In addition, his synopses of so many of Chaplin's films almost comes across as a Chaplin film appreciation class, whetting the reader's appetite for the films discussed (many of which are available on DVD), and allowing the reader to see how Chaplin's life affected his character and his character affected his life.

Purchase this book in hardcover from Amazon Books.

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