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”A day without laughter is a day wasted”
Early life in London (1889–1909)
Chaplin gave his birthday as 16 April 1889 and his birthplace as East Street, Walworth, London, England. However, an MI5 investigation in 1952 was unable to find any record of his birth in England under possible surnames such as Chaplin, Pedlingham Hill, Harley or Thornstein nor any record of the birth of a child named Charles or Charlie in 1889. In 2011 a letter sent to him in the 1970s came to light which claimed that he had been born in a Gypsy caravan at Black Patch Park in Smethwick, Staffordshire. Chaplin’s oldest surviving son Michael has suggested that the information must have been significant to his father in order for him to retain the letter. His parents were entertainers in the music hall tradition; his father, Charles Spencer Chaplin, Sr., was a vocalist and an actor, while his mother, Hannah Chaplin (née Hannah Harriet Pedlingham Hill), was a singer and an actress who went by the stage name Lilly Harley. They separated before Chaplin was three. He learned singing from his parents. The 1891 census shows that his mother lived with Charlie and his older half-brother Sydney in Barlow Street, Walworth.
As a child, Chaplin also lived with his mother at various addresses in and around Kennington Road in Lambeth, including 3 Pownall Terrace, Chester Street and 39 Methley Street. His paternal grandmother’s mother was from the Smith family of Romanichals, a fact of which he was extremely proud, though he described it in his autobiography as “the skeleton in our family cupboard”. Charles Chaplin Sr. was an alcoholic and had little contact with his son, though Chaplin and his half-brother briefly lived with him and his mistress, Louise, at 287 Kennington Road. The half-brothers lived there while their mentally ill mother lived at Cane Hill Asylum at Coulsdon. Chaplin’s father’s mistress sent the boy to Archbishop Temple’s Boys School. His father died of cirrhosis when Charlie was twelve in 1901. As of the 1901 Census, Chaplin resided at 94 Ferndale Road, Lambeth, as part of a troupe of young male dancers, The Eight Lancashire Lads, managed by William Jackson.
A larynx condition ended the singing career of Hannah Chaplin. After her re-admission to the Cane Hill Asylum, her son was left in the workhouse at Lambeth in south London, moving several weeks later to the Central London District School for paupers in Hanwell where he stayed from June 1896 until January 1898.
In 1903 Chaplin secured the role of Billy the pageboy in Sherlock Holmes, written by William Gillette and starring English actor H. A. Saintsbury. Saintsbury took Chaplin under his wing and taught him to marshal his talents. In 1905 Gillette came to England with Marie Doro to debut his new play, Clarice, but the play did not go well. When Gillette staged his one-act curtain-raiser, The Painful Predicament of Sherlock Holmes as a joke on the British press, Chaplin was brought in from the provinces to play Billy. When Sherlock Holmes was substituted for Clarice, Chaplin remained as Billy until the production ended on 2 December. During the run, Gillette coached Chaplin in his restrained acting style. Acting in Sherlock Holmes entitled Chaplin to a West End actor’s pass for the funeral of Britain’s most respected Shakespearean actor, Sir Henry Irving, which he attended, sitting next to the actor Lewis Waller. It was during this engagement that the teenage Chaplin fell hopelessly in love with Doro, but his love went unrequited and Doro returned to America with Gillette when the production closed.
They met again in Hollywood eleven years later. She had forgotten his name but, when introduced to her, Chaplin told her of being silently in love with her and how she had broken his young heart. Over dinner, he laid it on thick about his unrequited love. Nothing came of it until two years later, when they were both in New York and she invited him to dinner and a drive. Instead, Chaplin noted, they simply “dined quietly in Marie’s apartment alone.” However, as Kenneth Lynn pointed out, “Chaplin would not have been Chaplin if he had simply dined quietly with Marie.”
First years in the United States (1910–1913)
Chaplin c. 1910
Chaplin first toured the United States with the Fred Karno troupe from 1910 to 1912. After five months in England, he returned to the U.S. for a second tour, arriving with the Karno Troupe on 2 October 1912. In the Karno Company was Arthur Stanley Jefferson, who later became known as Stan Laurel. Chaplin and Laurel shared a room in a boarding house. Laurel returned to England but Chaplin remained in the United States. In late 1913, Chaplin’s act with the Karno Troupe was seen by Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand, Minta Durfee, and “Fatty” Arbuckle. Sennett hired him for his studio, the Keystone Film Company as a replacement for Ford Sterling. Chaplin had considerable difficulty adjusting to the demands of film acting and his performance suffered for it. After Chaplin’s first film appearance, Making a Living was filmed, Sennett felt he had made a costly mistake. Most historians agree it was Normand who persuaded him to give Chaplin another chance.
Sennett did not warm to Chaplin right away, and Chaplin believed Sennett intended to fire him following a disagreement with Normand. However, Chaplin’s pictures were soon a success, and he became one of the biggest stars at Keystone.
Chaplin was given over to Normand, who directed and wrote a handful of his earliest films. Chaplin did not enjoy being directed by a woman, and they often disagreed. Eventually, the two worked out their differences and remained friends long after Chaplin left Keystone.
The Tramp (1914–1915)
Chaplin (right) in his film debut Making a Living (1914)
The Tramp debuted during the silent film era in the Keystone comedy Kid Auto Races at Venice (released on 7 February 1914). However, Chaplin had devised the tramp costume for a film produced a few days earlier but released later (9 February 1914), Mabel’s Strange Predicament. Mack Sennett had requested that Chaplin “get into a comedy make-up”. As Chaplin recalled in his autobiography:
I had no idea what makeup to put on. I did not like my get-up as the press reporter [in Making a Living]. However on the way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small moustache, which I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born.
“The Tramp” is a vagrant with the refined manners, clothes, and dignity of a gentleman. Arbuckle contributed his father-in-law’s bowler hat (‘derby’) and his own pants (of generous proportions). Chester Conklin provided the little cutaway tailcoat, and Ford Sterling the size-14 shoes, which were so big, Chaplin had to wear each on the wrong foot to keep them on. He devised the moustache from a bit of crepe hair belonging to Mack Swain. The only thing Chaplin himself owned was the whangee cane.
Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914): Chaplin’s second film released and the audience introduction to his “tramp” costume, although he’d worn it in an earlier Mabel Normand short released later
Chaplin, with his Little Tramp character, quickly became the most popular star in Sennett’s company of players. He immediately gained enormous popularity among cinema audiences. “The Tramp”, Chaplin’s principal character, was known as “Charlot” in the French-speaking world, Italy, Spain, Andorra, Portugal, Greece, Romania and Turkey, “Carlitos” in Brazil and Argentina, and “Der Vagabund” in Germany.
Chaplin continued to play the Tramp through dozens of short films and, later, feature-length productions (in only a handful of other productions did he play characters other than the Tramp). He portrayed a Keystone Kop in A Thief Catcher filmed 5–26 Jan 1914.
The Tramp was closely identified with the silent era, and was considered an international character; when the sound era began in the late 1920s, Chaplin refused to make a talkie featuring the character. The 1931 production City Lights featured no dialogue. Chaplin officially retired the character in the film Modern Times (released 5 February 1936), which appropriately ended with the Tramp walking down an endless highway toward the horizon. The film was only a partial talkie and is often called the last silent film. The Tramp remains silent until near the end of the film when, for the first time, his voice is finally heard, albeit only as part of a French/Italian-derived gibberish song.
Chaplin’s early Keystones use the standard Mack Sennett formula of extreme physical comedy and exaggerated gestures. Chaplin’s pantomime was subtler, more suitable to romantic and domestic farces than to the usual Keystone chases and mob scenes. The visual gags were pure Keystone, however; the tramp character would aggressively assault his enemies with kicks and bricks. Moviegoers loved this cheerfully earthy new comedian, even though critics warned that his antics bordered on vulgarity. Chaplin was soon entrusted with directing and editing his own films. He made 34 shorts for Sennett during his first year in pictures, as well as the landmark comedy feature Tillie’s Punctured Romance.
The Tramp was featured in the first film trailer to be exhibited in a U.S. cinema, a slide promotion developed by Nils Granlund, advertising manager for the Marcus Loew theatre chain, and shown at the Loew’s Seventh Avenue Theatre in Harlem in 1914. In 1915, Chaplin signed a much more favourable contract with Essanay Studios, and further developed his cinematic skills, adding new levels of depth and pathos to the Keystone-style slapstick. Most of the Essanay films were more ambitious, running twice as long as the average Keystone comedy. Chaplin also developed his own stock company, including ingénue Edna Purviance and comic villains Leo White and Bud Jamison.
Chaplin’s popularity continued to soar in the early years following the start of WW1. He started to become noticed by stars of the legitimate theatre. Minnie Maddern Fiske, one of the legends of the stage endorsed Chaplin’s artistry in an article in Harper’s Weekly (6 May 1915). At the start of her article Mrs. Fiske spoke, “…To the writer Charles Chaplin appears as a great comic artist, possessing inspirational powers and a technique as unfaltering as Rejane’s. If it be treason to Art to say this, then let those exalted persons who allow culture to be defined only upon their own terms make the most of it…” In the following years Chaplin would make many friends from the world of the Broadway stage.
Chaplin was emerging as the supreme exponent of silent films, an emigrant himself from London. Chaplin’s Tramp enacted the difficulties and humiliations of the immigrant underdog, the constant struggle at the bottom of the American heap and yet he triumphed over adversity without ever rising to the top, and thereby stayed in touch with his audience. Chaplin’s films were also deliciously subversive. The bumbling officials enabled the immigrants to laugh at those they feared.
Pioneering film artist and global celebrity (1916–1918)
Chaplin circa 1916
In 1916, the Mutual Film Corporation paid Chaplin US$670,000 to produce a dozen two-reel comedies. He was given near complete artistic control, and produced twelve films over an eighteen-month period that rank among the most influential comedy films in all cinema. Of his Mutual comedies, the best known include: Easy Street, One A.M., The Pawnshop, and The Adventurer. Edna Purviance remained the leading lady, and Chaplin added Eric Campbell, Henry Bergman, and Albert Austin to his stock company; Campbell, a Gilbert and Sullivan veteran, provided superb villainy, and second bananas Bergman and Austin would remain with Chaplin for decades. Chaplin regarded the Mutual period as the happiest of his career, although he also had concerns that the films during that time were becoming formulaic owing to the stringent production schedule his contract required. Upon the U.S. entering World War I, Chaplin became a spokesman for Liberty Bonds with his close friend Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.
Most of the Chaplin films in circulation date from his Keystone, Essanay, and Mutual periods. After Chaplin assumed control of his productions in 1918 (and kept exhibitors and audiences waiting for them), entrepreneurs serviced the demand for Chaplin by bringing back his older comedies. The films were recut, retitled, and reissued again and again, first for theatres, then for the home-film market, and in recent years, for home video. Even Essanay was guilty of this practice, fashioning “new” Chaplin comedies from old film clips and out-takes. The twelve Mutual comedies were revamped as sound films in 1933, when producer Amadee J. Van Beuren added new orchestral scores and sound effects.
At the conclusion of the Mutual contract in 1917, Chaplin signed a contract with First National to produce eight two-reel films. First National financed and distributed these pictures (1918–23) but otherwise gave him complete creative control over production. Chaplin now had his own studio, and he could work at a more relaxed pace that allowed him to focus on quality. Although First National expected Chaplin to deliver short comedies like the celebrated Mutuals, Chaplin ambitiously expanded most of his personal projects into longer, feature-length films, including A Dog’s Life (1918), Shoulder Arms (1918), The Pilgrim (1923) and the feature-length classic The Kid (1921).
United Artists (1919–1939)
Charlie Chaplin Studios, 1922
In 1919, Chaplin co-founded the United Artists film distribution company with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith, all of whom were seeking to escape the growing power consolidation of film distributors and financiers in the developing Hollywood studio system. This move, along with complete control of his film production through his studio, assured Chaplin’s independence as a film-maker. He served on the board of UA until the early 1950s.
All Chaplin’s United Artists pictures were of feature length, beginning with the atypical drama in which Chaplin had only a brief cameo role, A Woman of Paris (1923). This was followed by the classic comedies The Gold Rush (1925) and The Circus (1928).
On 29 March, 1929 at the bungalow of Mary Pickford at United Artists brought together Chaplin, Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Norma Talmadge, John Barrymore, Dolores del Río, Gloria Swanson and D.W. Griffith to speak on the radio show The Dodge Brothers Hour to prove he could meet the challenge of talking movies.
After the arrival of sound films, Chaplin continued to focus on silent films with a synchronised recorded score, which included sound effects and music with melodies based in popular songs or composed by him; The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936) were essentially silent films. City Lights has been praised for its mixture of comedy and sentimentality. Critic James Agee, for example, wrote in Life magazine in 1949 that the final scene in City Lights was the “greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid”.
Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921)
While Modern Times (1936) is a non-talkie, it does contain talk—usually coming from inanimate objects such as a radio or a TV monitor. This was done to help 1930s audiences, who were out of the habit of watching silent films, adjust to not hearing dialogue. Modern Times was the first film where Chaplin’s voice is heard (in the nonsense song at the end, which Chaplin both performed and wrote the nonsense lyrics to). However, for most viewers it is still considered a silent film.
Although “talkies” became the dominant mode of film making soon after they were introduced in 1927, Chaplin resisted making such a film all through the 1930s. He considered cinema essentially a pantomimic art. He said: “Action is more generally understood than words. Like Chinese symbolism, it will mean different things according to its scenic connotation. Listen to a description of some unfamiliar object—an African warthog, for example; then look at a picture of the animal and see how surprised you are”.
It is a tribute to Chaplin’s versatility that he also has one film credit for choreography for the 1952 film Limelight, and another as a singer for the title music of The Circus (1928). The best known of several songs he composed are “Smile”, composed for the film Modern Times (1936) and given lyrics to help promote a 1950s revival of the film, famously covered by Nat King Cole. “This Is My Song” from Chaplin’s last film, A Countess from Hong Kong, was a number one hit in several different languages in the late 1960s (most notably the version by Petula Clark and discovery of an unreleased version in the 1990s recorded in 1967 by Judith Durham of The Seekers), and Chaplin’s theme from Limelight was a hit in the 1950s under the title “Eternally.” Chaplin’s score to Limelight won an Academy Award in 1972; a delay in the film premiering in Los Angeles made it eligible decades after it was filmed. Chaplin also wrote scores for his earlier silent films when they were re-released in the sound era, notably The Kid for its 1971 re-release.
The Great Dictator (1940)
Charlie Chaplin in the film The Great Dictator
Chaplin’s first talking picture, The Great Dictator (1940), was an act of defiance against Nazism. It was filmed and released in the United States one year before the U.S. entry into World War II. Chaplin played the role of “Adenoid Hynkel”, Dictator of Tomainia, modelled on German dictator Adolf Hitler, who was only four days his junior and sported a similar moustache. The film also showcased comedian Jack Oakie as “Benzino Napaloni”, dictator of Bacteria, a jab at Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
Paulette Goddard filmed with Chaplin again, depicting a woman in the ghetto. The film was seen as an act of courage in the political environment of the time, both for its ridicule of Nazism, for the portrayal of overt Jewish characters, and the depiction of their persecution. In addition to Hynkel, Chaplin also played a look-alike Jewish barber persecuted by the regime. The barber physically resembled the Tramp character.
At the conclusion, the two characters Chaplin portrayed swapped positions through a complex plot, and he dropped out of his comic character to address the audience directly in a speech denouncing dictatorship, greed, hate, and intolerance, in favour of liberty and human brotherhood.
The film was nominated for Academy awards for Best Picture (producer), Best Original Screenplay (writer) and Best Actor.
During the era of McCarthyism, Chaplin was accused of “un-American activities” as a suspected communist. J. Edgar Hoover, who had instructed the FBI to keep extensive secret files on him, tried to end his United States residency. FBI pressure on Chaplin grew after his 1942 campaign for a second European front in the war and reached a critical level in the late 1940s, when Congressional figures threatened to call him as a witness in hearings. This was never done, probably from fear of Chaplin’s ability to lampoon the investigators. In February 2012 an MI5 file on Chaplin was opened to the public which revealed that the FBI had contacted the British secret service to provide them with information which would enable them to ban Chaplin from the US. In particular, it wanted MI5 to find out where Chaplin was born and pursue suggestions that his real name was Israel Thornstein. MI5 searched, but to no avail. A suggestion that he “may have been born in France” also came to nothing.
In 1952, Chaplin left the US for what was intended as a brief trip home to the United Kingdom for the London premiere of Limelight. Hoover learned of the trip and negotiated with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to revoke Chaplin’s re-entry permit. Chaplin decided not to re-enter the United States, writing: “Since the end of the last world war, I have been the object of lies and propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who, by their influence and by the aid of America’s yellow press, have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted. Under these conditions I find it virtually impossible to continue my motion-picture work, and I have therefore given up my residence in the United States.
That Chaplin was unprepared to remain abroad, or that the revocation of his right to re-enter the United States, was a surprise to him, may be apocryphal: An anecdote in some contradiction is recorded during a broad interview with Richard Avedon, celebrated New York portraitist.
Avedon is credited with the last portrait of the entertainer to be taken before his departure to Europe and therefore the last photograph of him as a singularly “American icon”. According to Avedon, Chaplin telephoned him at his studio in New York while on a layover before the final leg of his travel to England. The photographer considered the impromptu self-introduction a prank and angrily answered his caller with the riposte, “If you’re Charlie Chaplin, I’m Franklin Roosevelt!” To mollify Avedon, Chaplin assured the photographer of his authenticity and added the comment, “If you want to take my picture, you’d better do it now. They are coming after me and I won’t be back. I leave … (imminently).” Avedon interrupted his production commitments to take Chaplin’s portrait the next day, and never saw him again.
Chaplin then made his home in Vevey, Switzerland. He briefly and triumphantly returned to the United States in April 1972, with his wife, to receive an Honorary Oscar, and also to discuss how his films would be re-released and marketed.
Final works (1957–1976)
Charlie Chaplin Statue in Vevey, Switzerland
Chaplin’s final two films were made in London: A King in New York (1957) in which he starred, wrote, directed and produced; and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), which he directed, produced, and wrote. The latter film stars Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando, and Chaplin made his final on-screen appearance in a brief cameo role as a seasick steward. He also composed the music for both films with the theme song from A Countess From Hong Kong, “This is My Song”, reaching number one in the UK as sung by Petula Clark. Chaplin also compiled a film The Chaplin Revue from three First National films A Dog’s Life (1918), Shoulder Arms (1918) and The Pilgrim (1923) for which he composed the music and recorded an introductory narration. As well as directing these final films, Chaplin also wrote My Autobiography, between 1959 and 1963, which was published in 1964.
In his pictorial autobiography My Life In Pictures, published in 1974, Chaplin indicated that he had written a screenplay for his daughter, Victoria; entitled The Freak, the film would have cast her as an angel. According to Chaplin, a script was completed and pre-production rehearsals had begun on the film (the book includes a photograph of Victoria in costume), but were halted when Victoria married. “I mean to make it some day,” Chaplin wrote. However, his health declined steadily in the 1970s which hampered all hopes of the film ever being produced.
From 1969 until 1976, Chaplin wrote original music compositions and scores for his silent pictures and re-released them. He composed the scores of all his First National shorts: The Idle Class in 1971 (paired with The Kid for re-release in 1972), A Day’s Pleasure in 1973, Pay Day in 1972, Sunnyside in 1974, and of his feature length films, firstly The Circus in 1969 and The Kid in 1971. Chaplin worked with music associate Eric James whilst composing all his scores.
He received a knighthood on 4 March 1975, at the age of 85. Chaplin’s last completed work was the score for his 1923 film A Woman of Paris, which was completed in 1976, by which time Chaplin was extremely frail, even finding communication difficult.
Chaplin’s grave in Switzerland
Chaplin’s robust health began to slowly fail in the late 1960s, after the completion of his final film A Countess from Hong Kong, and more rapidly after he received his Academy Award in 1972. By 1977, he had difficulty communicating, and was using a wheelchair. Chaplin died in his sleep in Vevey, Switzerland on 25 December 1977. Charlie Chaplin was survived by his wife, nine children and 24 grandchildren.
Chaplin was interred in Corsier-Sur-Vevey Cemetery, Switzerland. On 1 March 1978, his corpse was stolen by a small group of Swiss mechanics in an attempt to extort money from his family. The plot failed; the robbers were captured, and the corpse was recovered eleven weeks later near Lake Geneva. His body was reburied under 6 feet (1.8 m) of concrete to prevent further attempts.