W. Somerset Maugham on Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chapli“Charlie Chaplin. He is of an agreeable exterior. He has a neat figure, admirably proportioned; his hands and feet are well shaped and small. His features are good, the nose rather large, the mouth expressive and the eyes fine. His dark hair, touched with white, is waving and abundant. His movements are singularly graceful. He is shy. His speech has in it still a hint of the Cockney of his early youth. His spirits are ebullient. In a company in which he feels himself at ease he will play the fool with a delightful abandon. His invention is fertile, his vivacity unfailing, and he has a pleasant gift of mimicry: without knowing a word of French or Spanish he will imitate persons speaking in one or the other of those languages with a humorous accuracy which is wildly diverting. He will extemporize dialogues between a couple of women in the Lambeth slums which are at once grotesque and moving. Like all humour they depend on a close observation and their realism with all its implications, is tragic; for they suggest too near an acquaintance with poverty and squalor…

… His fun is simple and sweet and spontaneous. And yet all the time you have a feeling that at the back of it all is a profound melancholy. He is a creature of moods and it dos not require his facetious assertion: ‘Gee I had such a fit of the blues last night I didn’t hardly know what to do with myself’ to warn you that his humour is lined with sadness. He does not give you the impression of a happy man. I have a notion that he suffers from a nostalgia of the slums. The celebrity he enjoys, his wealth, imprison him in a way of life which he finds only constraint. I think he looks back to the freedom of his struggling youth, with its poverty and bitter privation, with a longing which knows it can never be satisfied…


…One night I walked with him in Los Angeles and presently our steps took us into the poorest quarter of the city. There were sordid tenement houses and shabby, gaudy shops in which are sold the various goods that the poor buy from day to day. His face lit up and a buoyant tone came into his voice and he exclaimed: ‘Say, this is the real life, isn’t it? All the rest is just sham.'”

W. Somerset Maugham, A Writer’s Notebook , Penguin Books, 1949.