Charlie Chaplin's Film Heroines
by Stephen M. Weissman, M.D.
"...in the last few days, Chaplin has been in Vienna...but it was too cold for him here, and he left again quickly. He is undoubtedly a great artist; certainly he always portrays one and the same figure; only the weakly poor, helpless, clumsy youngster for whom, however, things turn out well in the end. Now do you think for this role he has to forget about his own ego? On the contrary, he always plays only himself as he was in his dismal youth. He cannot get away from those impressions and humiliations of that past period of his life. He is, so to speak, an exceptionally simple and transparent case. The idea that the achievements of artists are intimately bound up with their childhood memories, impressions, repressions and disappointments, has already brought in much enlightenment and has, for that reason, become very precious to us."
--Sigmund Freud to Yvette Guilbert 1
Generations of filmgoers have laughed with tears in their eyes at Chaplin's scenes in The Gold Rush where his boyishly innocent Little Tramp naively attempts to woo and win Georgia, a wistfully soulful dance hall prostitute, away from her hollow life as a good-time girl in a boomtown saloon. But few people realize that the creation of Georgia -- like the creation of so many of his other other film heroines -- borrowed heavily from and reflected dramatically details of the life experiences of his own mother.
Like the high class courtesan in A Woman of Paris , the unwed mother in The Kid , the suicidally depressed ballet dancer in Limelight , and the two other dance hall girls in A Dog's Life and A Countess from Hong Kong , the figure of Georgia in The Gold Rush represents an ambiguous amalgam of a more and less innocent way of viewing a young woman whose problematic sexuality echoes significant issues in Chaplin's own mother's life: before he lost her to a mental illness when he was still a child.
It was that loss and the scars it left that later shaped Chaplin's development of an alter-ego screen character whose core identity (in the feature length films) was the rescue and repair of damaged and fallen women. And of all his rescue films it was The Gold Rush which Chaplin later said was the one picture by which he most wanted to be remembered by posterity.
While he was sufficiently dissatisfied with its artistic flaws that he tried to reedit it many years later, he always considered it his favorite film. He probably felt that way because it dealt with first causes. Read from a psychoanalytic perspective, The Gold Rush retraced (and symbolically corrected) the original real life circumstances which had ultimately let to his mother's mental illness probably resulting from an incurable case of third stage syphilis.
Like Georgia, Chaplin's mother was in a gold rush (she was in South Africa when gold was first being discovered). And also like Georgia, she may have been a prostitute. Was prostitution the way she first contracted syphilis? And was the third stage syphilis known as general paresis responsible for the insanity that later separated her from her son?
Hannah Chaplin did have syphilis, a disease which was a scourge in the 19th century and until antibiotics were discovered. The diagnosis can be found in her medical records. It was made at the Lambeth infirmary in the fall of 1898. But those records do not state which stage of syphilis she was suffering from at the time young Charlie was languishing in a charity institution. Was it primary, secondary or tertiary syphilis?
It matters because pyschosis can accompany an advanced stage of this disease. Primary syphilis is the earliest stage of the sexually transmitted illness. When treated unsuccessfully (as it was in the 1890s) it can lead to secondary and tertiary syphilis. Tertiary syphilis is a complication which can occur from five to 30 (or more) years later. It often shows up as neurosyphilis, a brain infection which can cause psychosis and personality change. And when acutely psychotic patients with neurosyphilis went untreated (as they did in the 1890s) they frequently became chronically psychotic within the span of a few years. 2
In the fall of 1898, when Hannah Chaplin was diagnosed with syphilis, she had just been transferred from the Lambeth poorhouse to the Lambeth infirmary for emergency evaluation of an acute pyschosis characterized by disorientation, confusion, delusional thinking and an abnormal sensation in her head. After ten days of medical observation, the psychosis persisted and she was transferred to the Cane Hill Lunatic Asylum. She remained there for two months and then was discharged in a state of remission.
Syphilis (stage unspecified) was the only specific diagnosis listed in the Lambeth Hospital Register of Lunatics (HI/L/B17/Vol. 16 p. 364) at the time of that first Cane Hill transfer. And none of the surviving transfer records from Hannah's two subsequent Cane Hill admissions in 1903 and 1905 mentions any other diagnosis which could account for her rapidly deteriorating mental condition.
We also know that as her mental illness rapidly progressed from an acute to a chronical phase (ca. 1903-1905), she began having intermittent visual and auditory hallucinations. Each of those signs and symptoms of acute and chronic psychosis are compatible with third-stage syphilis. And her precipitous decline is also compatible with the natural progression of untreated neurosyphilis, as is the age of onset of her first pyschosis. The peak incidence of onset for neurosyphilis occurs between the ages of 35 and 45. Hannah Chaplin was 33 years old when she first became psychotic.
Finally, in retrospect, there is one more clue about the evolution and timing of Hannah Chaplin's syphilis. In the 1890's era, before the Wassermann test was developed, syphilis was known as "the great mimic." That well known medical aphorism underscored the fact that syphilis couldindistinguishably imitate other conditions, physical and mental. Often a revised diagnosis of masquerading syphilis was made only at the time of autopsy.
In Hannah's case what may have been her masqueraded symptom were headaches of unknown origin. While severe headaches have many causes, important among them in this case are migraine headaches, stress headaches and incipient neurosyphilis. In 1895, three years before her nervous breakdown, Hannah's head began to hurt so badly that she took to her bed for days at a time. Unable to work, she was crippled by splitting headaches, much to the dismay of her young son Charlie. Although his mother's show business career had already begun to hit the skids, he still remained her most faithful fan and admirer.
Having lost her singing voice and solo bookings the previous year (1894), the 30-year-old former vocalist-turned-ballerina was struggling to support herself and her sons by working as a poorly baid ballet girl in the corps de ballet of the famous Katti Lanner Troupe at the Empire Theater in Leicester Square. Unable to afford a babysitter, she brought Charlie with her to the theater every night. The stagestruck and worshipful 6-year-old boy was mesmerized by the nightly experience of standing in the wings, watching his graceful and beautiful young mother dance onstage in her glamorous ballet costumes, her pretty features highlighted by her dramatic stage makeup. And he also delighted in being made the backstage center of attention by his mother's showgirl friends and acquaintances. Many years later (1931), one of those women (Nellie Richards) would nostalgically remember Charlie as "a regular little demon," always up to mischief.
During this period of Hannah Chaplin's life, the headaches that crippled her and left her bedridden helped bring down the final curtain on her already declining show business career. And they also marked the start of a series of increasingly traumatic and protracted separations between mother and son. Lambeth Infirmary records reveal that Hannah Chaplin was admitted for headaches on 29 June 1895. She remained in hospital for one month, during which time her child was sent to live with a friend. The boy was told that the mother's headaches were migraine in origin. But it was just as possible that they were caused by an acute inflammation of the blood vessels in her brain lining ( a precursor condition of incipient neurosyphilis known as meningo-vascular syphilis). For one thing, medically indigent, otherwise healthy young women with stress or migraine headaches were not kep in hospital for one month in the 1890s (anymore than they would be today in the 1990s). And furthermore, severe headaches are a typical early sign of the initial invasion of the central nervous system by the syphilis microrganism ( treponema pallidum ).
But several important questions remain: Where, when and how did Hannah Chaplin first contract syphilis? Could she have tertiary syphilis without infecting her children? And was Charlie aware of the fact that she suffered from syphilis?
The fact that he never mentioned his mother's venereal disease in My Autobiography (1964) doesn't mean he didn't know about it. As a dignified and stodgy 75-year-old paternfamilias, Chaplin could hardly have been expected to air his family linen in public by frankly revealing his mother's sex life in graphic detail.
But as a fun-loving and lecherous young man in his early thirties -- who enjoyed and cultivated his film colony reputation as a debonair ladykiller and womanizer -- Charlie Chaplin was of a much different mindset. Defiantly proud of his working class Cockney origins and sexually liberated lifestyle, he told his friend Konrad Bercovici in 1922 that he was toying with the idea of writing and publishing an unexpurgated autobiography. A real eyeopener, Charlie's sensational expose would reveal in lurid detail "how the children of the poor find out the facts of life by themselves!" 4 He may have begun the book, but he never finished it.
Three years later, he told Bercovici why he abandoned the project: "Oh, Konrad, I shall never be able to tell anybody all the poverty and all the humiliation we -- my mother, my brother and I -- have endured. I shall never be able to tell, for no one would believe it. I myself at times cannot believe all the things we have gone through." 5
The extent of his own disbelief was such that, "I don't know, actually, who my father was:" Chaplin privately confided to another friend (Eddie Sutherland). Speaking without bitterness, Chaplin matter-of-factly said that his mother's encounters with men when he was a young boy left him wondering if the man who was his namesake father and psychological parent also was his biological father. 6
Instead of directly revealing his mother's unconventional love life in a sensational autobiography, Chaplin would seem to have disguised it in a series of films about fallen and damaged women. But it was in a semi-autobiographical novel which he never finished ( Footlights ), that he dealt most directly with the issue of "tragic promiscuity" in a woman whose character suggests a fictionalized version of his mother. In that uncompleted manuscript, the woman's promiscuity is fueled by "an insatiable desire that was pathological." 7
As a loyal and worshipful child, Charlie had always sided unconditionally with his mother in her many unhappy relationships with men, including her stormy courtship and volatile marriage to his father. But in Footlights , the 60-year-old novelist appears to have revisited their courtship and marriage from his father's point of view. He reexamined his mother's original betrayal of his father in 1884 when she jilted him and ran off to South Africa with a fast-talking Jewish con man of Cockney extraction (Sydney Hawkes) who lured her there under false pretenses by posing as a wealthy aristocrat and promising to marry her.
And afterwards, when 19-year-old Hannah returned back to England from South Africa -- unwed and six months pregnant -- Charlie's father married her and adopted the unborn child (Sydney) as his own. Nothing if not a two-time loser, Chaplin's father was betrayed six years later when his two-timing wife ran off with another man (Leo Dryden) who also impregnated and discarded her (but Dryden kept or stole their baby).
If in Footlights (1948), Chaplin disguised and fictionalized his star-crossed parents' courtship and marriage, instead of using one character to tell his mother's story, he has actually used three. In this late roman a clef , young Charlie's idealized boyhood image of his mother is portrayed by Terry Ambrose; while Eva Morton (and Eva's mother) are used to convey the mature Chaplin's much more circumspect assessment of his mother as a tragically promiscuous figure who fouled her own nest in spite of herself.
Chaplin the omniscient narrator's only criticism of the otherwise long-suffering and sorely wronged father character in the novel (Calvero) is that "had he known...[the full] extent of her [Eva/Hannah's] promiscuity, his attitude might have been different. He possibly might have taken her into his arms as he would a sick child; for that she was; and tended her and cared for her and saw that she had medical treatment. As it was, he felt bitter and resentful."
Four years later (1952) Chaplin used Footlights as a screenplay treatment for Limelight . In both the film and the book, the male protagonist, Calvero, seems to amalgamate the experiences of Chaplin and his father, Charlie Senior. Acting as one individual (psychologically speaking) this inextricably fused "father/son" pair rehabilitates the "mother's" failed show business career.
The film opens with Calvero dramatically rescuing "a diseased woman on the streets" from suicide. At least that is his initial assumption: why else would a beautiful, comatosed young girl in a sleezy boarding house try to kill herself by taking a lethal overdose of sleeping pills and turning on the gas jets?
But he has misjudged her. When she regains consciousness, Calvero learns that she is not a prostitute. She is a crippled ballerina (Terry Ambrose). Having been stricken by a hysterical paralysis of her legs, this bedridden young woman has lost her job in the corps de ballet of the Empire Theatre. While her self-inflicted disability blocks her from becoming a prima ballerina, it also prevents her from becoming a streetwalker. (When Charlie was a child -- he confided to Claire Bloom while shooting this film -- the prettiest prostitutes in London walked and worked the Promenade of the Empire, soliciting wealthy customers).
By patiently nursing this sick but chaste young woman back to health and restoring her confidence in herself, Calvero rehabilitates her failed show business career. Nothing if not a nostalgic sentimentalist, Chaplin ends his film with Calvero dying in the wings backstage while watching his protege's triumphant resurrection onstage. As Calvero's life fades in the shadows, hers shines in the limelight as she triumphantly pirouettes her way to fame and fortune as a prima ballerina of the Empire Theater.
Whether Charlie's pretty young mother ever supplemented her meager pay as a ballet girl by moonlighting on the Empire Promenade as her show business days drew to a close is anyone's guess. But less a matter of conjecture is her filmaker son's obsessive preoccupation with fallen women as film heroines at all levels of society.
Instead of writing that version of his autobiography in the early 1920s, Chaplin sublimated his half-remembered, half-repressed memories and fantasies about his mother in his fallen women trilogy. The Kid (1921) portrayed an unwed mother seeking to be reunited with her lost child. A Woman of Paris (1923) portrayed a high class courtesan and the man whose heart she broke. And The Gold Rush (1925) offered a dance hall prostitute whose "mothering" of an ostensible stowaway earns her the love of a millionaire in disguise.
The last theme -- the dance hall prostitute -- also occured in two other Chaplin films: A Dog's Life (1918) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1966). It was only after the release of Countess in 1967, that the 78-year-old filmaker finally identified that recurrent figure of the dance hall girl as a prostitute in a New York Times interview. 8
But not content to confine his musings to fallen women, Chaplin also made one film about male prostitution (or its psychological equivalent): Monsieur Verdoux (1947). That film was consciously based on the real life story of Henri Landru: a mercenary ladykiller who slept with 283 women and murdered ten over a five year period. At another level, the film also expressed Chaplin the compulsive womanizer's unconcious identification with his mother.
All of this circumstantial evidence suggests that Charlie Chaplin may have believed that his mother Hannah Chaplin had been a part-time prostitute at different times in her life. If so, she was certainly not alone.
As many as one in four women may have shared that same occupational fate in Victorian London. Estimates of the number of prostitutes in the late 19th century London range anywhere from sixteen to eighty thousand women (of all types and descriptions) depending on the historical source. 9
Whatever their number actually was, they came from all walks of life. Some were fulltime professional sex workers whose rates ranged anywhere from a few mean pence to thousands of pounds a night. Others were semi-amateur, part-time prostitutes: working class women who occasionally turned a trick in order to supplement the critical gap between an inadequate honest wage and livable income.
In Hannah's case we know that once her show business days were over, the most she earned was seven shillings sixpence for sweating over a sewing machine fifty hours per week. And we also know that the actual poverty line for a family of four in the 1890s fell somewhere between eighteen and twenty-one shillings per week. How Hannah may have been obliged -- from time to time -- to supplement her family's precarious finances has never been fully clarified.
What has been "clarified" by Chaplin scholars with an ax-to-grind is the notion that Charlie Chaplin did not "really" grow up poor. They pooh pooh Chaplin's claim of having grown up in grinding Dickensian poverty as patently false and exaggeratedly self-pitying.
It is true that Charlie, Hannah and Syd never lived in the worst neighborhoods in London; the notoriously filthy and rat-infested slums of the underworld. But it is also true that the psychological reality of childhood poverty which Charlie Chaplin did experience included a daily domestic life of deficit spending in a pawn shop economy, numerous evictions, rare occasions of sleeping on streets, rare occasions of sleeping in homeless shelters, rare occasions of foraging for food in garbage cans, occasions of stealing food, longer periods of living off the charity of church missions and soup kitchens and -- finally -- two unforgetably humiliating experiences of being officially branded a ward of the state in a London poorhouse. And judging from Charlie's films and his off-the-record remarks to friends like Sutherland and Bercovici maternal prostitution might well be added to Charlie's long list of unforgettably humiliating and stigmatising childhood traumas.
Returning to the question of Hannah Chaplin's syphilis: there is no way to determine medically when, where and how she first became infected. The fact that none of her children developed congenital syphilis does not help us pinpoint the timing of her original infection. Contrary to popular belief, a case of syphilis (at any stage) in a pregnant woman does not invariably cause congenital syphilis in her child. 10 The fact that none of Hannah's children ever showed signs of congenital syphilis does not mean that she was free of that disease (in one stage or another) at the time of her pregnancy with that child.
Nor of course, is it the case that a woman had to be a whore in order to contract syphilis. Women who are only active with one partner their entire lives can and do contract sexually transmitted diseases. In Hannah's case, it is possible that she first contracted syphilis as an unsuspecting 18-year old when she was conned into eloping to South Africa in 1884. Two years later, stories like hers were commonplace.
In 1886, when the Gold Rush began to reach its peak, the cynical enticement of gullible young Cockney girls to South Africa with false promises of marriage, where they were then raped and forced into lives as white slaves in the boomtown dance halls on the Witwaterstrand by fast-talking Jewish pimps from London's East End was a regular occurence. Whether this was meant to have been Hannah's fate in 1884 -- a time when a less sustained and lucrative gold strike had just taken place -- is anyone's guess.
Given her filmmaker son's fantasy tale in which his boyishly innocent and comically chivalrous Little Tramp tries so valiantly and lovingly to rescue that trapped dance hall girl from her unhappy life in a Gold Rush saloon, there is every good reason to wonder if that might have been the case. But as Charlie told Konrad Bercovici, if he had ever attempted to fully and frankly tell his readers about the many incredible hardships and humiliations his young mother had suffered, no one would have believed it. And so 75-year-old Chaplin summed her up in My Autobiography by simply saying: "to judge the morals of our family by commonplace standards would be as erroneous as putting a thermometer in boiling water." With great delicacy and tact, the loving son left the rest of her story to the reader's imagination.
(1) Quoted from Chapter XIV, p.2-3 of an unpublished biography of Charlie Chaplan in the manuscript collection of the Margaret Herrick Library at the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles, California. Title: Charlie Chaplin: Man and Mime , Author: Harry Crocker.
(2) For a general discussion of the psychiatric manifestations of syphilis see p.223-236 in Kolb, Lawrence C.: Modern Clinical Psychiatry , 8th edition, W.B. Saunders, Philadelphia, 1973.
(3) Film Weekly , 4 April 1931 as quoted in Gifford, Denis: Chaplin , Doubleday, New York, p.12
(4) p.156: Bercovici, Konrad: It's The Gypsy In Me , Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 1941.
(5) Bercovici, Konrad: Charlie Chaplin an Authorized Interview , Colliers Magazine, 15 August 1925.
(6) p.298-299: Albert Edward Sutherland, Columbia University Oral History Archives , Volume Pop Arts II.
(7) Chaplin Charles, Footlights Manuscript , Unpublished, Vevey Archives. N.B. All subsequent quotes from Footlights in this article are from the same source. I am grateful to Pan Paumier and the Chaplin Estate for making this manuscript available to me.
(8) New York Times Encyclopedia of Film , January 7, 1967: "An Irked Chaplan Calls Critics 'Bloody Idiots'."
(9) INTERNET, Victoria Digest : Discussions on Prostitution in 19th-Century London, Proceedings of September 10-11 and September 11-12 1996. E-mail Address: Victoria@IUBVM.UCS.INDIANA.EDU
(10) In a recent study of 262 infants born to mothers with a positive syphilis serology, 26 had congenital syphilis. "Congenital Syphilis and Syphilitic Mothers: Survey of the Past Ten Years," Spanish Annual of Pediatrics , 1992 August; 37 (2): 135-9.
(11) For background see: p.10 in McNab, Roy: Gold and Their Touchstone , Jonathan Bell Publishers, Johannesburg, S.A. 1987 and p.4
Charlie Chaplin: Intimate Close-Ups
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