A hundred years ago, Charlie Chaplin was the biggest film comedian in the United States. Drawing on the pantomime he’d mastered in the British music halls, the 25-year-old expatriate had pioneered a new style of slapstick comedy in American silent films, more leisurely and character based than the frantic action of the Keystone Cops, and moviegoers were enthralled. As Peter Ackroyd recounts in his new biography Chaplin: A Brief Life, Chaplin’s fame spread around the world in 1915, his character the Tramp becoming a beloved figure to some 300 million people. He was celebrated in books, songs, comic strips, and nursery rhymes; the Tramp was merchandised with dolls, toys, clothing, charms, and plaster statuettes. Chaplin imitators adopted his signature costume of bowler hat, square mustache, too-small coat, bamboo cane, baggy pants, and oversize shoes; that summer at Luna Park, an amusement park in Cleveland, a crowd turned out for a Chaplin impersonation contest. The winner was a local 12-year-old who, 30 years later, would himself become the biggest film comedian in the U.S., performing as Bob Hope.
The two men are seldom mentioned in the same breath: Chaplin is revered not only as a performer but as one of the greatest Hollywood filmmakers, whereas Hope spent the last 40 years of his life tarnishing his great screen legacy with lazy, complacent NBC specials (he died in 2003 at the age of 100). Chaplin’s life and work have been documented so exhaustively that Ackroyd’s book, in keeping with the title, succeeds by virtue of its brevity; beautifully written, emotionally incisive, and critically astute, it provides the ideal entree for someone unfamiliar with Chaplin’s life. Richard Zoglin takes on quite a different agenda with his massive Hope: Entertainer of the Century; definitive and exhaustively researched, this new biography sets out to rescue Hope’s reputation, making a case for him not only as a groundbreaking comedian who conquered movies, TV, radio, and the Broadway stage but as a businessman and public servant whose accomplishments in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s have been emulated by Hollywood stars ever since.
Considered side by side, the books also reveal men who were strikingly similar despite the obvious polarities in their art (Chaplin’s comedy was physical, Hope’s primarily verbal) and their politics (Chaplin was a socialist, Hope a staunch conservative). Both were born in Britain and grew up in dire poverty, Chaplin emigrating to the U.S. as a young man and Hope coming to Cleveland with his family at age five. Both were ill educated and took up show business as a means of survival, growing addicted to the spotlight and obsessed with themselves. Both were compulsive workaholics of unchecked ambition who neglected their wives and children, public men who were perceived by their intimates as being empty inside. And each man traveled the same career arc, enjoying a period of synchronicity with the American mood but, in his old age, falling badly out of step, Chaplin with his pro-Soviet sentiments during the red scare of the late 1940s and Hope with his knee-jerk support of the Vietnam war and the Nixon White House in the early 1970s.
Chaplin’s traumatic upbringing in South London was etched into his art and his personal character. His mother, Hannah Hill, married Charles Chaplin Sr., an alcoholic music-hall singer, when she was already pregnant with another man’s child; he adopted the boy, Sydney, and in 1889, Hannah gave birth to Charles Jr., though she was so promiscuous that Charlie would always wonder who his true father was. After the couple split up, Hannah remarried, but that marriage collapsed too; from 1896 onward the two boys bounced around from their respective parents’ custody to the workhouse to a school for orphans, and by 1898 their mother had been consigned to an insane asylum. From a tender age Chaplin learned to swipe food from street stalls and dance for pennies outside the local public houses. The year his mother was institutionalized, he embarked on a music-hall career of his own, performing with a group of clog dancers called the Eight Lancashire Lads.
The music halls were the British equivalent of vaudeville—cheap, crowd-pleasing, lower-class entertainment—and from them Chaplin learned the traditional pantomime that would stand him in such good stead on the screen. “Movement is liberated thought,” he told an interviewer in 1942; when shooting a movie, he always made sure his feet were in the frame so people could see his whole body. He made a name for himself in England with the Fred Karno comedy troupe and in 1910 accompanied Karno to the U.S. for a vaudeville tour. When Chaplin was hired by the Keystone Studios in late 1913, he immediately distinguished himself with his elegant body language, and after a few appearances he came up with the Tramp character, an immediate hit. Comparing Chaplin with Ford Sterling, chief of the Keystone Cops, Ackroyd pinpoints the innovation that made the young Brit a star overnight: Sterling specialized in “florid gestures, exaggerated expressions and a general tendency to be over-theatrical. . . . Chaplin was in contrast more contained and much stiller . . . Sterling had only an outer, while Chaplin possessed an inner, life.”
Hope’s childhood wasn’t as horrible as Chaplin’s, but he grew up plenty hungry. His father, Harry Hope, was an underemployed stonemason who took to drink out of frustration, moving his family from London to Lewisham to Eltham (where the comedian was born Leslie Townes Hope in 1903) to Weston-super-Mare and, finally, to Cleveland, where two of Harry’s brothers had already emigrated. Hope’s mother, a much stronger woman than Hannah Chaplin, held the family together, but Leslie and his five brothers all went to work as soon as they were able, contributing their earnings to the family budget. Leslie was shaping up as a pool hustler and petty thief, and between 1918 and 1921 he spent at least a year and a half in reform school before his talents as a singer (like Chaplin, he performed on the street for pennies) and a dancer led him into show business. By age 21, he was touring vaudeville theaters as part of a comedy-dance duo, and in 1927 he made his premiere on Broadway in the revue Sidewalks of New York.
As a physical comedian, Hope had his moments—check out his rubber-legged walk after he’s released from a steamer trunk in The Ghost Breakers (1940)—but the key to his success was his verbal wit. He came of age in vaudeville when the old tradition of performers being heralded onstage with cards on an easel had been superseded by the emcee, who would tell jokes, ad-lib with the audience, and announce each act. Hope learned his craft from Frank Fay, a popular comedian of the era, and soon became a master, quick on his feet and skilled in handling any sort of audience. He began building an encyclopedic joke file and hired a giant staff of writers. When he got into radio in 1935, he developed a lightning-quick pace, and within a few years, elaborating on the political satire of his idol Will Rogers, he’d more or less invented the topical monologue that would become the template for Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and every late-night broadcaster after them.
Hope may have had the gift of gab and Chaplin the gift of mime, but as portrayed by their biographers, they were both meticulous in the art of getting laughs. As a director, Chaplin tended to begin with a premise and improvise on the set, burning through miles of film stock as he worked out his ideas; he would coach his players in the minutest aspects of movement and expression, putting them through dozens upon dozens of takes until he got exactly what he wanted. Hope was similarly precise in creating his material; his overworked writers would deliver dozens of jokes on a single subject and Hope would sift through them to assemble his monologues. “When you wrote for Hope, you learned not to put one word extra in,” recalled Sherwood Schwartz. “He knew how to pack it in, pace it, and fill it. You had to write all bone and make a great joke in twenty-four words or less.” In addition to his skill as an editor, Hope could come up with killer lines all his own, and his ad-libs often got bigger laughs than the prepared material.
“I want you to know that you are one of the best timers of comedy I’ve ever seen,” Chaplin told Hope when the two men met in April 1939. Hope was shooting The Cat and the Canary, a haunted-house comedy that would cement his movie persona as a wisecracking coward, and his costar was Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s third wife. The younger man was elated to hear such high praise from an artist he’d always worshipped, yet their meeting came at radically different points in their movie careers. Hope’s was about to explode: after The Cat and the Canary he would costar with Bing Crosby in Road to Singapore (1940), inaugurating a series of wildly anarchic buddy comedies, and on his own he would rack up such gems as Caught in the Draft (1941), My Favorite Blonde (1942), Monsieur Beaucaire (1946), The Paleface (1948), and Son of Paleface (1952). By contrast, Chaplin was preparing his antifascist satire The Great Dictator (1940), in which he would play the Tramp for the very last time; his Hollywood career would never recover.
Twenty years earlier, Americans had looked at the Tramp and seen themselves. The essence of the character, Ackroyd notes, can be seen in the famous final shot of The Tramp (1915), when Chaplin trudges sadly down a country lane, his back to the audience, but then rouses himself: “His little dance upon the road is a form of self-definition. He is free. He is essentially alone but he will never truly be lonely because he is infinitely resourceful. . . . He has the will to live in a world that may not be worth living in. The open road is an important conclusion to him; it implies an endless journey, with the Tramp implicitly in the role of Everyman.” But that was a different America, and silent movies a different medium. By the time Hope and Chaplin met, the older man had spent more than a decade trying to ignore the advent of sound: his only two movies since then, City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1935), were both silent, as anachronistic as they were brilliant.
By the war years, Americans were more likely to see themselves in Bob Hope. “He was brash, sophisticated, modern,” writes Zoglin. “He was an all-American wise guy, accessible to everyone.” Woody Allen, who adored Hope and based his own comic persona on Hope’s quivering quipster, appreciated his average-guy appeal: “He was not a sufferer, like Chaplin, or even as dimensional as someone like Groucho Marx, who suggested a kind of intellect,” Allen says. “Hope was just a superficial, smiling guy tossing off one-liners. But he was amazingly good at it.” What really endeared Hope to Americans, however, was his tireless career as a public servant, raising money for humanitarian causes and criss-crossing the globe to perform for servicemen in international hot spots. As a USO volunteer in World War II, he made extended (and sometimes genuinely dangerous) tours of Britain, North Africa, and the Pacific, showing up in the remotest outposts with his little entourage of singers and comedians. Soldiers far from home sent him thousands of letters, and he answered nearly all of them.
That was in public; in private Chaplin and Hope were both difficult personalities. Chaplin went through a string of wives and treated most of them abominably. He liked them young—his first and second wives, Mildred Harris and Lita Grey, were each 16 when he married them—and he always maintained the upper hand. His last marriage, to Oona O’Neill (daughter of the playwright Eugene O’Neill) lasted 34 years, but only because she catered to his every whim. Hope stuck with his second wife, Dolores Reade, for nearly 60 years, but he was notorious for his serial affairs, which were studiously ignored by Reade, a devout Catholic. (Among Hope’s conquests, Zoglin reveals, was none other than America’s sweetheart, Doris Day.) Both men neglected their children, breezing in and out of their lives, and bullied their colleagues. Marlon Brando, who starred in Chaplin’s A Countess From Hong Kong (1967), called him “an egotistical tyrant,” and Katharine Hepburn, who costarred with Hope in The Iron Petticoat (1956), thought him “the biggest egomaniac with whom I have worked in my entire life.”
Poverty left its mark on both men. When they became successful, they instinctually turned to their siblings for protection; Sydney Chaplin cut short his own career as a performer to become his brother’s manager, and Hope pulled his brothers Jack and George into his organization. Chaplin was haunted by the fear of winding up on the street again and, contrary to his socialist tendencies, invested heavily in the stock market; Hope sank most of his money into real estate, and at one point Forbes magazine estimated his net worth at $280 million (after he protested, the magazine revised the figure down to $115 milllion). Despite their philanthropic endeavors, both men were known as terrible cheapskates. “On payday,” writes Zoglin, “Hope used to stand at the top of the circular staircase in his house, make paper airplanes out of the writers’ paychecks, and float them downstairs, forcing the writers to grovel on the floor for their wages.” He gave millions to charity but would complain when the video editors working late on his TV shows ordered pizza on his dime.
Chaplin and Hope may have been most alike in their sheer impenetrability; both men lived for the spotlight but seemed to have no inner life, shying away from any sort of emotion. As Ackroyd writes, Chaplin became more remote as his fame increased: “The popularity drove him further into himself; he became more aware of his fundamental isolation.” Thomas Burke, a British writer who squired Chaplin around East London when the star returned to the UK in 1921, observed that “he is first and last an actor. He lives only in a role, and without it he is lost. As he cannot find the inner Chaplin, there is nothing for him, at grievous moments, to fall into.” Burke’s words are eerily echoed by Martin Ragaway, one of Hope’s gag writers in the early 1960s: “Deep down inside, there is no Bob Hope. . . . He’s shallow in the sense that he’s never taken the time to look into himself, and he won’t let others do it either.”
In the end both men saw their cherished relationships with the public turn bitter. World War II may have made Hope, but it unmade Chaplin. “Patriotism is the greatest insanity the world has ever suffered,” he had declared during another trip to London in 1931, and American critics were incensed by the Tramp’s speech at the end of The Great Dictator: “Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to these brutes . . . who will drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, and use you as cannon fodder.” His absence from the USO circuit was noted, and after the war his pro-Soviet sympathies landed him in the crosshairs of the House Un-American Activities Committee. His black comedy Monsieur Verdoux (1947), in which he plays a wealthy serial killer, was vilified as an attack on American mores, and in 1952, while he was overseas promoting his nostalgic drama Limelight, he was denied reentry into the U.S. unless he would submit to an FBI investigation of his political affiliations. For the rest of his life, he made his home in Switzerland.
Chaplin returned to the U.S. only once, to accept a lifetime-achievement Oscar at the 1972 Academy Awards. (Driven around Los Angeles, which he hadn’t seen in 20 years, he marveled, “It’s all banks, banks, banks!”) By that time Hope too had lost the pulse of America, defending the Vietnam war with condescending jokes about antiwar hippies and serving as a mouthpiece for President Nixon. His Christmas shows for American troops had become a TV perennial, but in 1969 he was roundly booed during a stop in Lai Khe when he mentioned Nixon’s plan to end the war. “When the TV cameras panned the crowd, the GIs were standing up and giving the finger and making power salutes,” one observer told Rolling Stone. “Then the troops started throwing things and tried to rush the stage. . . . Hope, who was visibly shaken, had to stop the show and leave.” Hope’s stock plummeted even further during the Watergate scandal, when he came to Nixon’s defense and stuck by the president even after he’d resigned in disgrace.
“He seemed in the end to be at peace,” Ackroyd writes of Chaplin, “but in effect he had withdrawn into a vast and silent sphere of self-regard.” By the time Chaplin died in 1977, at age 88, his reputation had been restored, and new generations of moviegoers have embraced him even as the silent cinema continues to slip away. Hope outlived Chaplin by more than 20 years, refusing to go away and wearing out his welcome as an elder statesman of comedy; young people today, if they remember Hope at all, remember a smug octogenarian carrying a golf club and reading from cue cards. Whether Zoglin’s book will prompt people to rediscover the edgy young movie comedian of the 1940s remains to be seen, but both Chaplin and Hope understood only too well that the selves they created for the public would be the only thing they left behind.
Correction: This article has been amended to reflect the year that Charlie Chaplin died.