Chaplin’s trip abroad.
In the fall of 1921, journalists were clamoring to know if Charlie Chaplin intended to play Hamlet. They asked him in Chicago at the Blackstone Hotel. They cornered him at the Ritz. His response each time was coy and evasive: “Why, I don’t know.”
Of all the unlikely questions they tended to ask him at this point in his career—“Are you a Bolshevik?” “What do you do with your old mustaches?”—the Hamlet question seems most out of place. Why would an actor known for his comedy and silence take on a famously verbose and tragic role? Hamlet, with his hemming and hawing, didn’t seem a natural fit for an actor in Chaplin’s position. But then, no actor had ever been in Chaplin’s position before.
In 1921, Chaplin was the most famous man in the world, famous in a way that hadn’t been possible since the birth of cinema a mere twenty-odd years earlier. He’d just put out The Kid, his most ambitious film, and the first feature-length film comedy. There had been other attempts, mainly accidents: Harold Lloyd’s A Sailor-Made Man, which ran over its three intended reels into a fourth, and Chaplin’s earlier Tillie’s Punctured Romance had the length but lacked the architecture. The Kid was different. It merged tragedy and comedy into a third, fluid form. Chaplin wanted to wring out of audiences every single emotion at once without losing any narrative cohesion. The result was a high emotional realism not yet seen in the short history of the cinema.
This was, before 1921, unheard of—inadvisable, even. People thought Chaplin too ambitious, especially for his medium. “It won’t work,” his friend Gouverneur Morris told him. “The form must be pure, either slapstick or drama; you cannot mix them, otherwise one element of your story will fail.”
But Chaplin understood something of the complicated response he produced in his audience, a response belonging neither to pure joy nor pure sadness. In 1914, an actress had approached him with tears in her eyes after watching him film a two-reel comedy. “I know it’s supposed to be funny,” she said, “but you just make me weep.”
Needless to say, The Kid was a massive success. The cost of that success was Chaplin’s health and part of his sanity. The film premiered in January 1921; by that fall, he was facing influenza and depression, and he was homesick, maybe for the first time since coming to America, for his native England.
“I was in one of those ‘what’s the use’ moods,” he wrote in My Trip Abroad, his memoir of his return to Europe in 1922. “I wanted something and didn’t know what it was.”
My Trip Abroad is a catalog of this uncertainty—a story of being caught immobilized between the past and a bright but overwhelming future. It’s not hard to imagine how the gloomy Dane might have been on his mind—in his state, it wouldn’t have seemed such a violent character change.
“For seven years,” he begins,
I have been basking in California’s perpetual sunlight … working and thinking along a single channel and I wanted to get away. Away from Hollywood, the cinema colony, away from scenarios, away from contracts, cutting rooms, crowds, bathing beauties, custard pies, big shoes, and little moustaches … I wanted an emotional holiday.
“An emotional holiday”: Chaplin repeats this phrase throughout My Trip Abroad. A strange and fascinating document, at once a travelogue, a diary, and a personal essay, the book presents an oddly relatable, deflated version of the actor at the brightest moment of his career, plunging us into his deepest fears and pettiest worries, all while remaining curiously superficial. Chaplin describes everything—his moods, his actions, his sicknesses, flights of rapture, and depressions—in short, sharp sentences, often in the present tense. Throughout his travels, he’s greeted, mobbed, loved wherever he goes. All of it reinforces the fact that he can never return to the anonymity that preceded his fame. In 1922, all he wanted was to “get away from Chaplin.”
Instead, he describes being accosted by his fans—at one point he’s the subject of a brutal onrush in which pieces of his outfit are torn from his body. Everywhere he goes, he’s found out. In clubs, bathrooms, even steam rooms—he’s “a discovered man, even in my nakedness.” Fame, for Chaplin, came with a full litany of ways in which the reality of his person had disappointed his adoring fans. Why wasn’t he more muscular? Or why wasn’t he shorter, with larger feet, funnier? In essence, his admirers wanted to see someone more like his character the Tramp, who is, throughout Chaplin’s sad attempt at a vacation, painfully present. Everywhere he goes, “there are grave doubts,” he writes, “as to whether I am Charlie Chaplin or not.”
Those doubts dogged Chaplin himself, afflicting him with a truly Hamlet-like indecision. After all, in 1921 he was betwixt, in every sense. He was on the verge of finishing up his contract with First National and going on to form his own production company, United Artists. He had just gone through a harrowing divorce with his first wife, Mildred Harris. He’d made his first full-length film. He’d envisioned his trip to Europe as a period of rest, but it ended up bringing his existential crisis to a head. Throughout the trip, he couldn’t decide whether to rest or work, socialize or hide, travel or stay put—he was even torn, in the pages of My Trip Abroad, between the American word vacationing and the British holidaying. Not that either seems especially accurate.
What obtains instead is a kind of homesickness—if we felt for an instant that Chaplin has any idea what home looks like for him. He’s reticent about calling England home, despite his Proustian nostalgia for the places of his youth—specifically the foods of his youth. The book begins with him answering an invitation to dine with a friend:
There were many other invitations, but this one carried an assurance that there would be a steak-and-kidney pie. A weakness of mine. I was on hand and ahead of time. The pie was a symphony. So was the evening … It awoke within me a chord of something reminiscent. I couldn’t tell what.
My Trip Abroad is full of “I couldn’t tell what” moments. Even crying is a thing that seems to happen to Chaplin—passively, unexpectedly. “My cheek is damp,” he writes. “I turn away and blot out the sadness. I am not going to look back again.”
Who is Chaplin, in 1922? He doesn’t know. He can only see that self through the eyes of adoring others, whose love of him terrifies and excites him. Everyone who meets him tells him he must be so happy to be so loved: to “have friends,” as they put it, “all over the world.” But he doesn’t. “Chaplin” has friends all over the world. Chaplin is relatively alone.
It’s perfectly understandable, in this light, that he wanted so badly to get away from himself while he could. In another fifteen years, it would be the public that wanted to get away from Chaplin, to the point of asking him, eventually, to leave the country. For now, he was content to figure out what that country meant to him. Was it his home, or his stage?
The character, too, had dealt with this question. Chaplin’s films are a paean to uncertainty, instability, loss, and change. The Tramp was the character, out of all the silent comedians, who most fully embraced these things. Keaton’s houses may fall around him, but Chaplin, in his mournful cynicism, had the good sense never to build a house in the first place. He knew he could never live in one.
So, yes—Hamlet seems about right. Hamlet, the man who can’t decide who to be, whether a man of action, a god of vengeance, or a simpering, whining boor—someone who doesn’t know who he is and makes everyone else suffer for it.
“I feel small—like a cheat,” Chaplin writes. “This worship does not belong to me. God, if I could only do something for all of them! But there are too many—too many.”
And there were too many. Too many people loved him. They wrote to him in such volume that he had to engage six secretaries just to answer them back. They wrote to say they were his long-lost mother; they asked him to use their sons in his films; they enclosed pawn tickets; they asked him what he was doing during the war. One man sent him his own Croix de Guerre, spurring on Chaplin’s own guilt at not having served. When he visits an English veteran’s hospital to sign autographs, a patient named Bill jokes that he will return the favor:
There is an uproar of laughter and Bill laughs just as loud as the rest. Bill has no arms.
But he bests them. He will sign at that. And he does. With his teeth. Such is their spirit. What is to become of them?
The signs of the recent war were everywhere, and they were harrowing for him. Each time he comes upon a young man who served, he seems stabbed by a strange pang, a desire to help these men who “for a fantasy and trick of fame go to their graves like beds.” They complicate the notion of home, fighting for a place they can no longer truly live in.
The notion of home would come to mean even more to him later on, when he was forced to leave his adopted country because of his politics. He moved to Switzerland in 1957, to live out the rest of his days in a mansion that’s now host to a museum honoring his life and work. Like the Tramp, he was for most of his life a man without a country, and deeply, painfully aware of it.
“A man cannot go back,” he concludes in My Trip Abroad. “He thinks he can, but other things have happened to his life. He had new ideas, new friends, new attachments. He doesn’t belong to his past except that the past has, perhaps, made marks on him.”
As for Hamlet, Chaplin never played him. A few years before that fateful trip abroad, though, when a reporter for the New York Times asked him—“Would you like to play Hamlet?”—he gave a less guarded answer than you might expect. “I am too tragic by nature to play Hamlet,” he said. “Only a great comedian can play the Dane.”
Henry Giardina is a writer living in Massachusetts.