He Had Exceptionally Humble Beginnings
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in London to two music hall actor/vocalists on April 16, 1889. His parents separated when he was only three and he lived with his mother and younger brother.
When Charlie was only five, he got his first taste of acting when he had to take stage to fill in for his mother, Hannah Chaplin, after her voice went out in the middle of a show. Throughout his childhood, he had to help his mother scrimp and save, particularly when she started losing her voice and increasingly began suffering from mental illness. The family was so poor, Hannah even pawned off her children’s spare clothing just to help make ends meet. By the time Charlie was seven, the family was forced to go to a workhouse and after only a few weeks, Charlie and his brother were sent to an orphanage. Hannah regained control of the boys soon after, but when she suffered from a serious mental breakdown, they were forced to live with their father and his mistress for a while.
This was when Charlie joined up with his first acting troupe, the Lancashire Lads. Only a few years later, his father died of cirrhosis of the liver. By 1910, Charlie had established a strong reputation in the local acting scene and he was able to tour the U.S. as a featured player in the Fred Karno Repertoire Company.
The American Dream
Upon traveling to America, he quickly became a favorite performer in the troupe. He returned home to England for a short while before touring America a second time in 1912. This was where Charlie got his big break. When the troupe was seen performing by director Mack Sennett and actors Mabel Normand, Minta Durfee and Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie was spotted and offered a contract with the Keystone Film Company.
Funny enough, one of the biggest names of film history actually had a hard time adjusting his acting methods to translate to film. Originally, Sennett thought he had made a big mistake after working with Charlie on his first film, Making a Living. Fortunately, Mabel Normand convinced the director to give Chaplin another chance and soon enough, a star was born.
The Gentleman Meets The Tramp
Charlie’s best known role was as the iconic “Tramp” character, which he portrayed in a number of films throughout the silent era of film and even in a few pictures after “talkies.” He first developed the character for his second movie role in Mabel’s Strange Predicament.
Mack Sennett had told Charlie “get into a comedy make-up,” but Chaplin didn’t really know what that meant, so he freestyled it. Charlie put together a cane, baggy pants, a tight coat, huge shoes and a small derby hat. Because his character in the movie was supposed to be old, he added a small mustache so he could look older by still show expressions. Charlie said the character of the Tramp came as soon as he 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.”
If you’re wondering just where Charlie got the Tramp’s clothing, you have his friends on the movie set to thank. Fatty Arbuckle provided the pants and the hat was Fatty’s father-in-law’s. Chester Conklin gave him the coat and the shoes belonged to Ford Sterling. The shoes were so large that Charlie had to wear them on the wrong feet just so they would stay on.
Interestingly, Charlie’s first movie featuring the Tramp character wasn’t the first one released to the public. Instead, it was his second film, Kid Auto Races at Venice. Also interesting, the Tramp was in the first ever movie trailer shown in an American theater.
But What He Really Wanted Was To Direct, And Produce, And Compose…
Charlie’s sense of humor and immaculate comedic timing led to his quickly being trusted to direct and edit his own films at Keystone. In his first (and only) year with the company, Chaplin made 34 shorts and a feature film.
In 1915, signed with Esseney Studios where he was also able to direct his own pictures, but he left their company within a year to begin working with the Mutual Film Corporation who gave him an even larger salary and nearly complete creative control. He started producing films in 1916 and when he started working with First National in 1917, he was given complete control of all of his projects.
He was a self-taught musician and played the cello and violin and even started composing the music to his films in 1918.
In 1919, Chaplin decided he had enough of the existing Hollywood studios and he co-founded United Artists with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith. This allowed him complete creative control on all of his projects for the rest of his life.
In July of 1925, Charlie was the first actor to be featured on “Time Magazine.”
Silence in the Era of Talkies
One of the reasons Charlie’s Tramp character did so well was that it was able to transcend language barriers and cultural differences. People from all over the world could view a Chaplin film and identify with the gentlemanly vagrant and laugh at the bumbling authority figures.
Charlie was so good at filming silent pictures that he continued to do so for years after the public demanded movies with dialogue from all of his peers. Some of his best known silent classics, including The Circus and Modern Times, were actually made after talking became commonplace in movies.
Modern Times even does contain talking, although it is still considered a silent movie. It’s just that the only things that really talk are inanimate objects like radios. At the very end, audiences were able to hear Chaplin’s voice on film for the first time, while he sang gibberish lyrics. This was the last film Charlie made with the Tramp and it let the character take a quick step into modern movie history while staying true to his silent roots.
A Perfectionist That Hated Commitments
Charlie was considered a difficult director to work with because he was so intent on ensuring everything looked perfect on the film. He was notorious for shooting several takes of every scene during the silent films era, a time period where it was rare to reshoot even one scene. Some people even said that he was willing to shoot the same scene more than one hundred times until he was satisfied. He was known to get so upset about the wasted time and film that he would lash out at his actors and crew members and often would shut down production in a fury.
At the same time though, Charlie almost never used scripts until he started working on talking pictures in 1940. He developed a method where he would start with a vague premise and then build a set and start working on gags and plot devices. He often would work out the ideas on film and then end up having to redo whole scenes because the narrative structure ended up making a scene no longer make sense in the context of the story.
Strangely, no one in the general public knew about his filming techniques until after he died and the film Unknown Chaplin was released with outtakes and cut sequences showing his filming style.
A Daring Political Stance
While The Great Dictator is considered a classic these days, it was somewhat controversial when it came out in 1940 because the U.S. was still following a policy of pacifism. Chaplin’s Adenoid Hynkel infuriated the person it was based on, Adolf Hitler, and, unsurprisingly, the film was banned in Germany. While the movie was nominated for Academy Awards in the Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor categories, it did not bring home any awards, which many people believe had more to do with the politics of the film than its actual timing.
Being Persecuted By The Mann
Although Chaplin was obviously against Hitler and was encouraging the U.S. to join the war long before Pearl Harbor, he was still the subject of public anger when he declined to support the war effort once it did get started.
The biggest reason he did not help drive the sales of bonds, like he had in the first World War, was that he was in the middle of a political scandal that involved both civil and criminal charges. In 1942, he had a brief affair with a young actress named Joan Barry, and at one point, he may have paid for her to go to New York City, where they shared a hotel room together.
Unfortunately, Joan got pregnant in the next year or so and publicly claimed that the child was Chaplin’s (it wasn’t). When the news went public, it meant that Charlie had to go to court for child support hearings and it meant that federal investigators could chose to try him under the Mann act.
The Mann Act made it a crime to transport a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. While it was created to prevent prostitution, it ended up being used as a way to prosecute people who were seen as immoral.
Charlie beat the criminal charges, but he lost at the civil trial and was forced to pay child support even though a blood test proved that the child wasn’t his. This case was largely responsible for a change in California law stating that blood tests could be used as evidence in civil trials. Even if he had won though, the damage to his reputation could never be removed.
He Had A Thing For Younger Ladies
Speaking of Charlie’s love life, he was always attracted to women who were far younger than he was. When he spent the night with 22 year old Joan, Chaplin was 53, and that wasn’t the largest age gap of his relationships. In fact, biographer Joyce Milton claims that Charlie was the inspiration for the book Lolita.
His first marriage was to a 16 year-old actress, Mildred Harris (seen above), and took place when Charlie was already 29. Chaplin’s next wife was also 16 when they started dating, only at this point, he was 35. When he was 43, he started dating his next wife, 22 year old Paulette Goddard. The worst age difference though was between Chaplin and the wife he stayed with until death, Oona O’Neil. Charlie was 54 years old at the time of the wedding, while the bride had just turned 18.
McCarthyism Crushes An American Success Story
Modern Times was considered to be a bit critical of capitalism and when Charlie urged America to set up a second European front to support Russia, it was more than enough to convince J. Edgar Hoover (seen above) that Chaplin was a communist. The fact that he married two 16 year old girls by this time hadn’t helped improve his image with the feds.
Hoover ordered the FBI to keep detailed reports on him and tried to end his U.S. residency. At one point, congress tried to bring him in as a witness during the McCarthy hearings, but they kept pushing the date back and eventually canceled the order.
In 1952 though, Chaplin visited the U.K. to help push his newest film, Lamplight, and Hoover took the opportunity to exile him for good. He was able to pull some strings and get Charlie’s re-entry permit denied so he could not return to America. Rather than fight the decision, he got fed up and decided to instead move to Switzerland, saying:
“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."
Keeping Hope Alive
Chaplin didn’t let a little thing like relocation stand in the way of his work though, he instead started making films in Europe instead. Unsurprisingly, his first of these movies, A King in New York, was a satire of the political prosecution he had recently undergone.
Ten years later, he made his final film, A Countess from Hong Kong, which starred Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando. Charlie’s only appearance in the film was a brief cameo where he played a seasick man. He also composed the music for this film and the theme became a number one hit in the U.K.
His health started to fade around this point and he then started writing his autobiography, which was published in 1964. Next, he worked on composing original scores for his early silent pictures and re-released them. He also created a pictorial autobiography that was published in 1974.
Charlie was first suggested for knighthood in the thirties, but he was never actually knighted until 1975, when he was 85 years old. He also was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1970 after many people were angered that he was not one of the people originally honored in 1961. Funny enough, he had his handprints and footprints immortalized in the cement outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater, but after all the scandals, the section of cement was removed and now many believe it is lost.
Although Chaplin won one Academy Award at the first ceremony in 1929, he never one another until 1972 when he was awarded an Honorary Award. It was his first visit to the U.S. since he was denied re-entry and he received the longest standing ovation in the award show’s history.
Death And Travel
In the late 60’s, Chaplin’s health began to deteriorate and he eventually died on Christmas Day 1977 at the age of 88. All in all, his entertainment career lasted over 75 years.
Unfortunately, his trip underground wasn’t the last of his travels. His body was stolen in 1978 in an attempt to extort money from his family. After the robbers were captured, Charlie was buried under 6 feet of concrete to ensure this never would happen again.
Sources: Trivia Library, Wikipedia #1, #2, Time, BBC #1, #2, CharlieChaplin.com, Biography, Herald Sun, and IMDB.