This is a guest post by Ayşe Behçet for Silent London.
Welcome to another edition of Charlie’s London! For this segment and the next I’m going to look at some of the women in Chaplin’s life, showing how influential, important and ultimately empowering some of these women’s roles really were.
A lot has been written about Chaplin’s private life; he was a dashing and charismatic individual whose appeal extended beyond stage and screen. Recently I was talking to a fellow Chaplin fan and friend in Bologna. We both agreed that there was something so beautiful about Charlie, it was no surprise that his private life become front-page news, whether the stories were true or not. Putting the gossip aside, for me the women who shaped, moulded and even changed Chaplin were his mother Hannah, Mabel Normand, Edna Purviance and of course Oona O’Neill.
This subject will often be debated, with some enthusiasts and historians adding Hetty Kelly, Charlie’s first love, and even Paulette Goddard, his third wife and star of Modern Times and The Great Dictator, to that list. I hope with these two blogs I will explain why I have chosen this group. In this first instalment I will talk about Hannah Chaplin and Mabel Normand.
Hannah Hill, Chaplin’s mother, was arguably the most influential woman in his life. Her struggles in order to give Chaplin a decent upbringing, only to suffer such terrible mental health problems, no doubt haunted him for the rest of his days. I have spoken of Hannah before, and I am quite fond of her as a historical character, not only because she is the mother of my hero, but because I feel she is incredibly interesting. Historians have labelled Hannah as everything from a woman of ill repute to an undiscovered music hall genius whose renditions of the era’s classics would ignite her son’s thirst for the art.
The “fallen woman” analysis comes very much from psychologist Dr Stephen Weissman whose book Chaplin: A Life paints Hannah in a very unflattering light. His depiction of her affair with stage star Leo Dryden (the union that would produce Chaplin’s brother Wheeler) and his suggestion that syphilis was the cause of her madness (including references to her working as a prostitute) are seen as very controversial by other Chaplin enthusiasts and historians. David Robinson is quite rightly kinder to Hannah, noting the confirmed ancestral link to mental health dificulties within the Hill women as the roots of her tragic downfall, while also highlighting her faults such as her affair.