Top critical review
The Tramp was a Red!
on December 22, 2003
The best thing I can say about this biography by Kenneth Lynn is that counterbalances the 1992 biopic of Chaplin's life. In this film, Robert Downey Jr portrayed Chaplin as an artist-hero who was martyred by the political right. While the Chaplin movie didn't ring particularly true for me, Lynn's biography appears to go too far in the opposite direction. This biography is not about Chaplin the Tramp, Chaplin the filmmaker, Chaplin the comic. Its about Chaplin the sputtering, spastic tyrant, Chaplin the felon, Chaplin the sex fiend, Chaplin the Red.
This book reads more like an indictment than a biography. Lynn makes his case persistently and repetitiously. He grants weight to negative accounts of Chaplin's character while positive accounts are brushed aside, or are relegated to the footnotes. (A typical example: Lynn gives an account of the problematic relations between Chaplin and Brando. Lynn relies on Brando's account of an interaction between the two men, which reveals Chaplin as a petty tyrant. Then, in the footnote Lynn slips in a completely contradictory account of the same incident by another source. The footnoted source, which depicts Chaplin in a much more favorable light, seems far more credible than Brando's. Lynn repeatedly dismisses the veracity of Chaplin's autobiography. But when he comes to Brando - now there's a reliable memoirist!)
In some cases, Lynn delivers jabs at his subject which seem quite pointless (for example, Lynn states that Chaplin "ignorantly" named his Modern Times heroine the Gamin. (the word is correctly spelled gamine). To me, this sort of criticism seems petty and overly personal. In sum, this mean spirited and poorly informed biography of Charlie Chaplin can be safely bypassed. David Robinson's Chaplin biography remains the primary recommendation.