Sunday, January 19, 2014

Charlie Chaplin: Easy Street (1917)


Charlie Chaplin in Easy Street, a 1917 film in which he co-wrote and directed. As Wikipedia notes, "it is about how in a slum called "Easy Street", the police are failing to maintain law and order and so the Little Tramp character (Chaplin), steps forward (rather reluctantly) to rid the street of bullies, help the poor, save women from madmen."

Chaplin was familiar with this life, having himself grown up in the slums of South London, on East Street in Walworth (born April 16, 1889); it was a hardscrabble existence; and, yet, it did not give Chaplin undue hardship while growing up, since this is all he knew: Chaplin recounted years later: "I was hardly aware of a crisis because we lived in a continual crisis; and, being a boy, I dismissed our troubles with gracious forgetfulness."

Wikipedia writes:
Chaplin's childhood was fraught with poverty and hardship, making his eventual trajectory "the most dramatic of all the rags to riches stories ever told" according to his authorised biographer David Robinson.[13] Chaplin's early years were spent with his mother and brother Sydney in the London district of Kennington; Hannah had no means of income, other than occasional nursing and dressmaking, and Chaplin Sr. provided no support for his sons.[14] As the situation deteriorated, Chaplin was sent to a workhouse when he was seven years old.[note 3] The council housed him at the Central London District School for paupers, which Chaplin remembered as "a forlorn existence".[16] He was briefly reunited with his mother 18 months later, before Hannah was forced to readmit her family to the workhouse in July 1898. The boys were promptly sent to Norwood Schools, another institution for destitute children.[17]
In September 1898, Chaplin's mother was committed to Cane Hill mental asylum – she had developed a psychosisseemingly brought on by an infection of syphilis and malnutrition.[19] For the two months she was there, Chaplin and his brother Sydney were sent to live with their father, whom the young boys scarcely knew.[20] Charles Sr. was by then a severe alcoholic, and life there was bad enough to provoke a visit from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.[21] Chaplin's father died two years later, at 38 years old, from cirrhosis of the liver.[22]
Hannah entered a period of remission,[21] but in May 1903 became ill again. Chaplin, then 14, had the task of taking his mother to the infirmary, from where she was sent back to Cane Hill.[23] He lived alone for several days, searching for food and occasionally sleeping rough, until Sydney – who had enrolled in the Navy two years earlier – returned.[24] Hannah was released from the asylum eight months later,[25] but in March 1905 her illness returned, this time permanently. "There was nothing we could do but accept poor mother's fate," Chaplin later wrote, and she remained in care until her death in 1928.[26]
His earlier years no doubt coloured his views forever on social justice and served as an enduring influence on his films, where Chaplin used comedy in its highest and greatest forms as commentary; this we can say with a high degree of certainty.