The Tamsen Chronicles

The Little Tramp

As a very young boy I remember being totally captivated by the screamingly funny antics of the world’s iconic comedian known simply as Charlie Chaplin in what, at the time, were silent movies but I never thought for a moment that one day I would spend a week with him, with his glamorous wife, Oona, and two of his eleven children.

My initial meeting some 25 years later with this diminutive Londoner, whose entertainment career spanned over 75 years from childhood in the Victorian Era, was in 1955 when I worked in Africa as a foreign correspondent and journalist. We met, in fact, in an Indian-owned ‘dukka’ that specialised in selling pukka tropical khaki safari suits, boots and sun helmets in Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika.

I had been invited there to meet Charlie to say a quick “hello” prior to joining his photographic safari covering East Africa’s plentiful and varied wildlife in those days. Little did I know at the time that I was in for a week of more intense education than I experienced at university as I accompanied the Chaplin’s by road and foot over the many obstacles offered to man by some of the toughest and most remote natural wilderness on our globe.

My only previous experience of getting to know a leading comedian was the American actor,  Danny Kaye, who had starred in many notable films such as “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”, which many older readers will no doubt remember with streams of laughing tears in their eyes. But my new-found companion, Charlie, was a far different brand of man, known internationally as “The Little Tramp” with a sad face, baggy pants, a bowler hat, oversize feet and a Hitler moustache.

I soon discovered, however, that Sir Charles Spencer Chapman was no clown under his theatrical make-up. Instead, here was a walking library of knowledge and intellectual pursuit crammed into a small but highly energetic body. To those who met him, he could also be melancholic and anxious at times, particularly when we travelled for hours without finding the bull elephant or lion photo shot he desired with his camera at the ready.

Without any exaggeration, I personally learned in the course of seven days more about world politics, economics, the rules of social interaction and ethics than I had gleaned over most of my years to that date. I could hardly believe I was in the company of a wise and compassionate man who, publicly, was always desperate to make himself out to the world as a simple little man always down on his luck.
It was also hard for me to understand that, only a couple of years before our safari, Charlie had been banished from his famed filmmaking mecca and kingdom in Hollywood, ordered out of the United States and told he could never return. The U.S. Government claimed he was a secretive supporter of Communism and allied policies allegedly bred in him from his penniless childhood of extreme family hardships and his having been sent twice at a tender age to an 18th Century workhouse in England.

Born in 1889, Charlie became a music hall and vaudeville entertainer at nine years of age and dragged himself from rags to riches as a comic, actor, pioneer filmmaker, writer and composer with three divorced wives. After reaching middle age, he met Oona when she was the 18-year-old daughter of American playwright, Eugene O’Neill.

In his twenties, he was officially regarded as the most highly paid person in the world. During the Second World War, he raised funds for the Allied cause, entertained American and British troops and continued to be a comic strip in living reality.

During our safari, we also had gags aplenty with Charlie mimicking monkeys and many of the other wild animals we came across. But there were also periods of melancholic quiet when the funny man refused to converse with anyone. After one such occasion, he told me in a whisper how he had been misjudged by the F.B.I. in the U.S. simply because, as a “self-created peace monger,” he had denounced the start of the 1939 war and had supported various protests throughout the West.

He also confided in me that he disliked being a comic but felt he was not suited to being “an ordinary Joe.” As a perfectionist, his life had been one of turmoil, particularly as he was seriously afraid of failure and was obsessed by a depressing fear of being considered old-fashioned by his much younger filmmaking peers.

While we traversed a good slice of Tanganyika’s big game areas, I could see that Charlie’s ten-year-old daughter, Geraldine, was the apple of his eye. He rightly forecast that this youngster with schoolgirl platted hair would one day become a “star film actress in the talkies.”  

History has, of course, shown that she did just so in a variety of movies such as “Dr Zhivago” and in her portrayal of a saintly nun in “Mother Theresa.” Like her father, Charlie Chaplin, Geraldine’s name as an actress is recognised in most languages around the world.

My best memory today of my hero of the old silent movies was the way he treated everyone on the safari as an equal without any suggestion of the great man he was. Those of us who were fortunate enough to meet the ‘Little Fellow’ know that he was a man of dignity in spite of the U.S. Government’s efforts to tear him away from the star-lit Hollywood he had helped to create.

Hated Communist or not, to me he was just a comedian who had taken peace and laughter to millions of cinema goers everywhere in a way very similar to the current president of war-obstinate Ukraine, the brave Volodymyr Zelensky.

After his passing in Switzerland some years ago at the age of 88, Charlie suffered a final indignity when his coffin was unearthed by midnight thieves from his grave in a local cemetery and his body was held for ransom to be paid by Oona who had inherited his multi-million dollar fortune. By means unknown to me, his remains were later returned to his adoring wife who he always referred to as the love of “my unfunny life.”