Joking Aside

Sir Charlie Chaplin, The Funniest Man in the World
By Sid Fleischman
(Greenwillow Books, New York, 2010, $19.99)

With his trademark shuffle and small black mustache, Charlie Chaplin became one of the most recognizable and enduring icons in early American cinema. Off screen, his life resembled a sprawling, melodramatic novel. His London childhood had all the elements of Dickens: squalor, mysterious parentage, stints in workhouses, a cruel stepmother, and a mentally ill mother. He entered show business through vaudeville and theatre, and by his mid-twenties, he was a Hollywood star. Eventually, he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in his own films. But Chaplin was more than a master of slapstick. He satirized Adolf Hitler in 1940’s The Great Dictator. After World War II, Chaplin became a target of the anti-communist witch hunts sweeping the nation. His leftwing politics led to his deportation from the United States in 1952.

In Sir Charlie Chaplin, The Funniest Man in the World, Sid Fleischman relates the comedian’s remarkable rise to fame. Photographs, especially those of Chaplin’s most iconic film roles, bring the star’s work to life. However, Fleischman often forgets that his intended audience is children over nine. His approach to his subject presupposes a well-rounded liberal arts education. Here is how Fleischman describes one of Chaplin’s early leading ladies: “She had a figure like a Greek statue, but better arms.” Chaplin fell in love with his costar and began writing “billets-doux” to her. Fleischman’s many cultural allusions may confound even well-read teenagers; far fewer nine year olds will get his asides and references.

Sir Charlie Chaplin has much to recommend it: an intriguing subject, appealing photographs, and a witty author. However, the biography is an adult’s book in everything but length. For teens and adults, it is a breezy introduction to the comedian’s life and work; younger children will find it bewildering.

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