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Charlie Chaplin's Own Story
CHAPLIN'S OWN STORY
In which I relate my experiences up to the age of five; and describe the occasion of my first public appearance on any stage.
LIFE itself is a comedy — a slap-stick comedy at that. It is always hitting you over the head with the unexpected. You reach to get the thing you want — slap! bang! It's gone! You strike at your enemy and hit a friend. You walk confidently, and fall. Whether it is tragedy or comedy depends on how you look at it. There is not a hair's breadth between them.
When I was eleven years old, homeless and starving in London, I had big dreams. I was a precocious youngster, full of imagination and fancies and pride. My dream was to become a great musician, or an actor like Booth. Here I am to-day, becoming a millionaire because I wear funny shoes. Slap-stick comedy, what?
Still, there is not much laughter in the world and a lot of that is cynical. As long as I can keep people laughing good chuckling laughs I shall be satisfied. I can't keep it up long, of course. The public is like a child; it gets tired of its toys and throws them away. When that happens I shall do something else, and still be satisfied. I always knew that some day I would have my share of the spot-light, and I am having it, so after all I have realized my ambitions.
My mother is proud of it. That is another of life's slap-stick comedies — that my mother, one of the proudest, most gentle women in England, should hope for twenty years that some day I would be a great tragic actor, and now should lie in an English hospital, glad that I am greeted with howls of laughter whenever I appear in comedy make-up on the moving-picture screen.
When I was two or three years old my mother began to be proud of my acting. After she and my father came back from their work in the London music-halls they used to have little parties of friends for supper, and father would come and pull me out of bed to stand on the table and recite for them.
My father was a great, dark, handsome man. He would put me upon his shoulder to bring me out, and I did not like it, because his rough prickly cheek hurt me. Then he would set me upon the table in my nightgown, with the bright lights hurting my eyes, and every one would laugh and tell me to sing for the drops of wine in their glasses. I always did, and the party applauded and laughed and called for more. I could mimic every one I had ever seen and sing all the songs I had heard.
They would keep me doing it for hours, until I got so sleepy I could not stand up and fell over among the dishes. Then mother picked me up and carried me to bed again. I remember just how her hair fell down over the pillow as she tucked me in. It was brown hair, very soft and perfumed, and her face was so full of fun it seemed to sparkle. That was in the early days, of course.
I do not know my mother's real name. She came of a good respected family in London, and when she was sixteen she ran away and married my father, a music-hall actor. She never heard from her own people again. She drifted over England and the Continent with my father, and went on the music-hall stage herself. They never made much money, and my father spent it all. Most of the time we lived very poorly, in actors' lodgings, and my mother worried about food for us. Then there would be a streak of luck, and we all had new clothes and lived lavishly for a few days.
My brother Sidney was four years old when I was born in a little town in France, between music-hall engagements. As soon as my mother could travel we went back to London, and she went to work again. Her stage name was Lillie Harley, and she was very popular in English music-halls, where she sang character songs. She had a beautiful sweet voice, but she hated the stage and the life. Sometimes at night she came into my bed and cried herself to sleep with her arms around me, and I was so miserable that I wanted to scream, but I did not dare, for fear of waking my father.
He was Charles Chaplin, the singer of descriptive ballads. His voice was a fine baritone, and he was a great music-hall success and is still remembered in England. My mother and he were always laughing and singing together, and my mother was very fond of him, but a little afraid, too. When he was angry she grew white and her hands shook. She had thin delicate hands, which reminded me of the claws of some little bird when she dressed me.
In spite of the hit-and-miss life we led, always moving from town to town, and my mother's hard work on the stage and our lack of money, she took pride in keeping my brother and me beautifully dressed. At night, after her music-hall work was done and the party had gone, I woke and saw her pressing out our little white Eton collars and brushing our suits, while every one was asleep.
One day, when I was about five years old, Sidney and I were playing on the floor when my mother came in, staggering. I thought she was drunk. I had seen so many persons drunk it was commonplace to me, but seeing my mother that way was horrible. I opened my mouth and screamed in terror. I screamed and screamed; it seemed as if I could not stop.
Sidney ran out of the room. My, mother did not look at me; she stumbled across the room and tried to take off her hat. All her hair came tumbling down over her face, and she fell on the bed.
After a while I crawled over and touched her hand, which hung down. It was cold, and it frightened me so I could not make a sound. I backed under the bed, little by little, until I reached the wall, and sat there, still, staring at my mother's hand.
After a long time the door opened and I saw my father's boots walk in. I heard him swearing. The boots came over and stood by the bed. I smelled whisky, and after a while I heard my mother's voice, very weak.
"Don't be a hysterical fool. You've got to work to-night. We need the money," my father said.
"I can't. I'm not up to it. I'm sick," I heard my mother say, sobbing.
My father's boots stamped up and down the room.
"Well, I'll take Charlie, then," he said. "Where's the brat?"
I backed closer to the wall, and kept still. With no reason, I was terrified. Then the door opened again, my father's boots tramped out and down the stairs, and I heard my mother calling me. I came slowly out from under the bed.
My mother said she wanted me to go on the stage in her place that night and sing my very best. I said I would. Then she had me bring her a little new coat she had made for me, and a fresh collar. She still lay on the bed, and my chin barely came above the edge of it, so it took her a long time to dress me and to get my hair combed to suit her. She was still busy with it when my father came back.
Then she kissed me in a hurry and told me to do my best. My father took my hand and we started to the music-hall. We were at Aldershot, a garrison town, and soldiers were everywhere. I kept tipping my head back to see their uniforms as they passed us, and my father was jerking me along at such a rate my neck nearly snapped in two.
We were late when we reached the music-hall. I had never seen one before; my mother had always put us to bed before she went to work. My father took me down a little alley, through a bare dim place, to one end of the stage. I saw a big crowd on the other side of it — just hundreds of heads massed together. There were music and noise, and the stage was a glare of light.
A girl in tights and shiny spangles came and put grease paint on my cheeks, and when I wanted to rub it off they would not let me. Then it was time for my mother's act, and my father faced me toward the stage and gave me a little push.
"Go out and sing Jack Jones," he said.
"I didn't do a thing”