|Hannah, look up Hannah! A portrait of Hannah Chaplin|
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|
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|
|Charlie and Sydney Chaplin|
|West Square today|
Join us next time for Part II!