Monday, September 27, 2010

Sir Charlie

Sir Charlie: Chaplin the Funniest Man in the World
by Sid Fleischman
268 pages
published by HarperCollins

Publisher's description:

See him? That little tramp twitching a postage stamp of a mustache, politely lifting his bowler hat, and leaning on a bamboo cane with the confidence of a gentleman? A slapstick comedian, he blazed forth as the brightest movie star in the Hollywood heavens.
Everyone knew Charlie—Charlie Chaplin.
When he was five years old he was pulled onstage for the first time, and he didn't step off again for almost three-quarters of a century. Escaping the London slums of his tragic childhood, he took Hollywood like a conquistador with a Cockney accent. With his gift for pantomime in films that had not yet acquired vocal cords, he was soon rubbing elbows with royalty and dining on gold plates in his own Beverly Hills mansion. He was the most famous man on earth—and he was regarded as the funniest. Still is. . . . He comes to life in these pages. It's an astonishing rags-to-riches saga of an irrepressible kid whose childhood was dealt from the bottom of the deck. Abundantly illustrated.

My Comments:

Sir Charlie jumped to the top of my reading pile after I saw my teenage nephew browsing through it. He said he liked it because of all the pictures. There are an abundance of wonderful black and white photographs, including publicity stills from Chaplin's movies, family portraits and news images. The pithy captions help to make browsing informative as well as enjoyable.

The print is large, but don't let that fool you into thinking that Fleischman's writing is facile. I found the text to be very engaging, and peppered with quirky phrases that I would describe as old-fashioned. Younger readers who are unfamiliar with them may pick them up from the context, look them up out of curiosity, or simply move on without worrying about their meanings.

Chaplin's story is the story moviemaking in America - you can't learn about one without learning about the other. Young people who dream of making comedies, whether on a big or small screen, can learn a lot from Chaplin, and this book has the potential to inspire them to seek out his best works.

Fleischman clearly admires Chaplin, but doesn't let that admiration blind him from his less admirable traits - like his foul treatment of younger actors. He doesn't gloss over Chaplin's failed marriages or movies that flopped. He also states that Chaplin, "outlived his genius," a phrase that bothers me in general. I would hope that readers are captivated enough to watch Chaplin's work and then make their own assessment.

Back end materials include a Charlie Chaplin time line, an extensive references section that includes extended comments about many aspects of Chaplin's life, a bibliography made up of books and a few documentaries, a select list Chaplin films, and an index that includes names, places, film titles, and relevant terms like "banana peel" and "pantomime."

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