Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Hannah Chaplin, Part I: The tragic life of an unsung Chaplin hero

Hannah, look up Hannah! A portrait of Hannah Chaplin
Hi everyone, welcome to another instalment of Charlie's London.

As promised, I'm going to look at the life of Charlie's mother Hannah in more detail. Every time I think of Hannah, I have this very romantic image of her - I think this has a lot to do with the way Charlie describes her in his autobiography. I imagine this beautiful young woman singing, always singing, in as she twirls around the room of her run-down old lodgings. The only ray of sunshine that her sons have as they look on with love and amazement. But then I think of her laying upon the bed in those same rooms, staring aimlessly at the corner of the same room, constantly the same corner, with Charlie and Syd watching her despair as she descends further into madness. These were images that would haunt them in incredibly different ways for the rest of their days.

For me, it's this factor that helps us to understand the very essence of the brothers in relation to their different outlooks to both their lives and careers. Charlie would work until he could work no more! He would delve so deep into his pictures that sometimes the editing process alone took longer than the initial shoot. He creating masterpieces day and night until he reached perfection - but by working in such a way his private life suffered terribly on many occasions. However, Charlie would use his roots as the inspiration for some of his greatest works - this is without a doubt the part of Charlie's London I feel the closest too.

Sydney, on the other hand had a much more laid back approach. He enjoyed the fruits of his labour because he had worked so hard to earn them, and who could blame him. Maybe Charlie feared his background and poverty, feared he would find himself back there and used the thought of it as a way to remind himself to be humble. Charlie was often accused of being tight, penny-pinching and even miserly. Rollie Totheroh, Charlie's leading cameraman, once commented that although Charlie often filmed reels and reels of unnecessary footage and treated the process as if money was not an issue, he would watch the purse strings on other issues like a hawk. In my opinion, this was not miserly behaviour. It was the behaviour of a financially conscientious man who had stared poverty in the face, the results scarring him beyond repair. Even if the approach became a hypocritical one, with regards to his filming techniques he could argue that the ends justified the means when they resulted in successful Chaplin films!

Charlie in his editing room at the Chaplin Studios
For me this all goes back to one thing. Hannah. 

Born Hannah Harriet Pedlingham Hill on August 11th 1865 in Camden Street, Walworth, Hannah was a true South London girl. She seems to have spent much of her life in and around the area (contrary to popular belief that she gave birth to Charlie in a Birmingham Gypsy camp). A music hall artist herself, Hannah developed the stage persona of Lily Harley and seems to have had quite a modest career. Charlie often credited his mother with nurturing his own gift, commenting on her remarkable ability to mimic those around her. For me this is a very interesting element of Charlie's life, and one that I strongly believe ties his most famous character of the Little Tramp to his South London upbringing. 

One of the most famous acts performed by women upon the stage during the height of the English music halls was the popular character of "Burlington Bertie from Bow." Male impersonators would take on the role with much hilarity. Although no record exists of Hannah playing such a role, it's certainly one she would be familiar with. Perhaps familiar enough to put on her own rendition in her home for her small sons at any time. Charlie often remarked of such cold and damp days in Pownall Terrace when his mother would do just this for their entertainment, even keeping a box of her old music hall clothes for dress up. For me, this is where we see another interesting prelude to the tramp character. Burlington Bertie was a gentleman tramp, a man who slept under the stars and yet retained this never-say-die attitude and the stance of an aristocrat.....

Sound like anyone we know?

Charlie as the Little Tramp
Hannah's career, as previously stated, was a modest one - but it was while performing herself she met and married Charles Chaplin Snr. By this point, Hannah had one son from a previously relationship born on the 16th March, 1885 - Sydney John Hill. Sydney would later become Sydney Chaplin through the marriage of his mother and stepfather when he was just one year old. The identity of Syd's father remains a bit of a mystery. Four years later Sydney would find himself with a baby brother, born on the 16th April, 1889, and named after his father - our very own Charles Chaplin.
Charlie and Sydney Chaplin
At this stage, her husband  had acquired a certain amount of success on the English Music Hall circuit and the s lived in comfortable, plush housing - at No.39 West Square, Kennington, one of the Chaplin houses you can still see today. It's in a beautiful Georgian square, with a small park situated in the middle. It was at this home that Charlie remembered finding sweets, cakes and other such treats from his mother after her own performances on the stage. His childhood seems to have been a happy one here.

West Square today
Yet all that was to change, a dramatic twist of fate would see his father leave England for the United States on a tour of the Vaudeville circuit and return home to find his family had changed, and little Charlie's home life broken beyond repair.

Join us next time for Part II!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Ayse it's Anne

    Love this post, I was just reading a post I had done last Mother's Day with an exerpt from John McCabe's book on Charlie Chaplin, it speaks of Charlie's love of his mother and this part always makes me teary:

    He brought her a small house near the ocean and had a nurse and a couple to take care of her 24 hours a day. She lived there till her death in August of 1928

    Hannah Chaplin never fully understood the impact that her son had on the world.

    She loved to shop in Los Angeles department stores. She had run up a bill of several thousand dollars buying hundreds of yards of different color/types of silk.

    Knowing she would never use any of them, Charlie ordered them sent back, then suddenly he reversed himself.

    “Let her have all that and more, all that she wants of the frippery. The poor soul has been longing for such things all her life.”

    Charlie knew that Hannah had wanted them from the time she went on the stage as a girl, and now the silks had come thirty years too late.

    Let her have ten times what she had ordered he said, and wept.

    Charlie Chaplin - John McCabe 1978 (pg 119)