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Charlie Chaplin

Actor, Director, and Music Composer During the Silent-Movie Era

By Shelly Schwartz, Contributing History Writer

Picture of British comic actor and film director Charles Chaplin in character as the Little Tramp.

British comic actor and film director Charles Chaplin in character as the Little Tramp. (circa 1925)

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Historical Importance of Charlie Chaplin: Charlie Chaplin was a comic visionary who enjoyed a successful career as an actor, director, writer, and music composer during the silent-movie era. His comic portrayal of a drunk in a bowler hat and baggy pants, better known as “The Little Tramp,” captured the hearts of early movie-goers and became one of his most endearing and enduring characters. Chaplin became one of the most famous and admired men in the world until he fell victim to McCarthyism in 1952.

Dates: April 16, 1889 -- December 25, 1977

Also Known As: Charles Spencer Chaplin, Sir Charlie Chaplin, The Tramp

Charlie Chaplin’s Dickensian Childhood

Charles Spencer Chaplin was born on April 16, 1889, in South London. His mother, Hannah Chaplin (neé Hill), was a vaudeville singer (stage name Lily Harley). His father, Charles Chaplin, Sr., was a vaudeville actor. When little Charlie Chaplin was just three years old, his father left Hannah due to her adultery with Leo Dryden, another vaudeville actor. (The affair with Dryden produced another baby, George Wheeler Dryden, who went to live with his father soon after birth.)

Hannah was then single and had to find a way to care for her two remaining children: little Charlie Chaplin and an older son, Sydney, whom she had from an earlier relationship (Chaplin Sr. had adopted Sydney when he married Hannah). To bring in income, Hannah continued singing but also took up sweatshop piecework on a rented sewing machine.

Hannah’s stage career abruptly ended in 1894 when she lost her singing voice in the middle of a performance. When the audience began to throw things at her, five-year-old Chaplin rushed on stage and finished his mother’s song. The audience applauded the little fellow and tossed coins at him. Although Hannah was fired, she continued to dress up in her stage clothes at home and mimic characters to her sons’ delight. Soon, however, she was forced to pawn the costumes and just about everything else she owned since Chaplin Sr. never paid child support.

In 1896, when Chaplin was seven and Sydney was eleven, the boys and their mother were admitted to Lambeth Workhouse for the poor. Subsequently, the Chaplin boys were sent to Hanwell School for Orphans and Destitute Children. Hannah was admitted to Cane Hill Asylum; she was suffering from the debilitating effects of syphilis.

Eighteen months later, Charlie and Sydney were taken to Chaplin Sr.’s home. Although Chaplin Sr. was an alcoholic, the authorities found him to be an able-bodied parent and in child-support arrears. But Chaplin Sr.’s common-law wife, Louise, also an alcoholic, resented having to take care of Hannah’s children and often locked them out of the house. When Chaplin Sr. staggered home at night, he and Louise fought over her treatment of the boys, who often had to roam the streets for food and sleep outside.

Chaplin Signs on as a Clog Dancer

In 1898, when Chaplin was nine, Hannah’s illness gave her a temporary reprieve and so she was discharged from the asylum. Her sons’ were incredibly relieved and returned to live with her.

Meanwhile, Chaplin Sr. was successful in getting his 10-year-old son, Charlie, into The Eight Lancashire Lads, a clog-dancing troupe. (Clog dancing is a folk dance done in many parts of the world in which the dancer wears wooden clogs in order to make a stomping noise at each downbeat.) During Charlie Chaplin’s theatrical apprenticeship in British music halls with The Eight Lancashire Lads, Chaplin memorized his dance steps to precision. From the wings, he watched the other performers, especially the pantomimes in over-sized shoes outwitting comic policemen.

At the age of twelve, Chaplin’s clog-dancing career ended when he was diagnosed with asthma. That same year, 1901, Chaplin’s father died of cirrhosis of the liver. Sydney found a job as a ship’s steward and Chaplin, still living with his mother, worked odd jobs such as doctor’s boy, barber’s helper, retail assistant, hawker, and peddler. Sadly in 1903, Hannah’s health deteriorated. Suffering a bout of insanity, she was once again admitted to the asylum.

Chaplin Joins Vaudeville

In 1903, with the equivalent of an erratic fourth-grade education, fourteen-year-old Chaplin joined Blackmore’s Theatrical Agency. Chaplin learned timing while playing the part of Billy (Holmes’ page) in Sherlock Holmes. When a part became available, Chaplin was able to get Sydney (back from the sea) a role. Happily reunited with his brother, Chaplin enjoyed the applause in upper-end theaters and good reviews for the next two and a half years.

When the show ended, Chaplin had difficulty in finding leading roles to play, due partly to his small stature (5’5”) and his Cockney accent. Thus, when Sydney found work acting in a crude comedy in lower-end music halls, Chaplin reluctantly joined him.

Now sixteen, Chaplin was acting as a plumber’s klutzy assistant in a show called Repairs. In it, Chaplin used the memories of his mother’s mimicking antics and his father’s drunken mishaps to form his own comical character. For the next two years in various skits, shows, and acts he would master his clowning technique with slapstick precision.

Stage Fright

When Chaplin turned eighteen, he was awarded the lead in a comedy play for Fred Karno and the Karno Troupe. On opening night Chaplin was struck with stage fright. He had no voice and feared what had happened to his mother would happen to him. Since the actors were taught all the character roles in order to stand in for one another, Sydney suggested that his brother play a lesser role, the part of a pantomime drunk. Karno agreed. Chaplin played it with gusto, creating continuous laughter night after night in the successful sketch, A Night in an English Music Hall.

In his spare time, Chaplin became an avid reader and practiced playing the violin, discovering a passion for self-education. He grew introspective with a horror of alcohol, but had no problem womanizing.

Chaplin in the U.S.

Landing in the U.S. with the Karno Troupe in 1910, Chaplin was one of the favorite Karno comedians playing Jersey City, Cleveland, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Kansas City, Denver, Butte, and Billings.

When Chaplin returned to London, Sydney had married his girlfriend Minnie and Hannah was living in a padded cell at the asylum. Chaplin was surprised and saddened by both events.

On his second tour of the U.S. in 1912, Chaplin’s character of the English drunk caught the eye of Mack Sennett, the head of Keystone Studios. Chaplin was offered a contract with the New York Motion Picture Co. at $150 per week to join the Keystone Studios in Los Angeles. Finishing his contract with Karno, Chaplin joined Keystone Studios in 1913.

Keystone Studios was known for its Keystone Kops short films, depicting slapstick cops in pursuit of zany criminals. When Chaplin arrived, Sennett was disappointed. From seeing Chaplin on the stage he thought that Chaplin would be an older man and therefore more experienced. Twenty-four-year-old Chaplin responded that he could look as old as Sennett wanted.

Unlike the complicated scripts prepared for today’s movies, Sennett’s movies had no script at all. Instead, there would be an idea for a beginning of a movie and then Sennett and his directors would just shout impromptu commands to the actors until it led to a chase scene. (They could get away with this because these were silent films, meaning no sound was recorded during filming.) For his first short film, Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), Chaplin donned a postage-stamp-sized mustache, baggy pants, tight coat, bowler hat, and large shoes from the Keystone costume hut. The Little Tramp was born, strutting about, swinging a cane.

Chaplin was quick to improvise when everyone ran out of ideas. The Tramp could be a lonely dreamer, a great musician, or kicking authoritarians in the derriere.

Chaplin the Director

Chaplin appeared in numerous short films, but all was not great. Chaplin created friction with the directors; basically, they didn’t appreciate Chaplin telling them how to do their jobs. Chaplin asked Sennett if he could direct a picture. Sennett, about to fire the cocky Chaplin, received an urgent wire from his distributors to hurry and send more Chaplin film shorts. He was a sensation! Sennett agreed to let Chaplin direct.

Chaplin’s directorial debut, Caught in the Rain (1914), with Chaplin playing a tipsy hotel guest, was a 16-minute short. Sennett was not only impressed with Chaplin’s acting but also his directing. Sennett added a $25 bonus to Chaplin’s salary for each short he directed. Chaplin flourished in the unexplored field of movie making. He was also able to get Keystone to sign Sydney as an actor in 1914.

Chaplin’s first full-length motion picture, The Tramp (1915), was a monstrous hit. After Chaplin made 35 films for Keystone, he was lured to Essenay Studios at a higher salary. There he made 15 films before being lured to Mutual, a Wall Street-backed production company where Chaplin made 12 films between 1916 and 1917, earning a hefty $10,000 a week plus bonuses, amounting to $670,000 that year. As the highest paid entertainer in the world, Chaplin continued to improve comedies with better plot and character development.

Charlie Chaplin Studios and United Artists

Between 1917 and 1918, First National Pictures, Inc., made one of the first million-dollar contracts in the history of Hollywood with Chaplin. However, they had no studio. The 27-year-old Chaplin built his own studio at Sunset Blvd. and La Brea in Hollywood. Sydney joined his brother as his financial advisor. At Charlie Chaplin Studios, Chaplin created many shorts and also feature-length movie dramas, including his masterworks: A Dog’s Life (1918), The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), and Limelight (1952).

In 1919, Chaplin co-founded the United Artists film distribution company with actors Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks along with director D.W. Griffith. It was a way of having their own power over the distribution of their films, rather than putting them into the hands of the rising consolidation of film distributors and financiers.

In 1921, Chaplin moved his mother from the asylum to a house he bought for her in California where she was cared for until her death in 1928.

Chaplin and Younger Women

Chaplin was so popular that when people saw him they were reduced to tears and struggled against each other to touch him and tear at his clothes. And women pursued him.

In 1918, at the age of 29, Chaplin met 16-year-old Mildred Harris at a Samuel Goldwyn party. After dating a few months, Harris told Chaplin that she was pregnant. To save himself from scandal, Chaplin quietly married her. It turned out that she wasn't really pregnant. Harris later did get pregnant but the child died shortly after birth. When Chaplin asked Harris for a divorce at a settlement of $100,000, she asked for a million. They were divorced in 1920; Chaplin paid her $200,000. Harris was treated as an opportunist by the press.

In 1924, Chaplin married 16-year-old Lita Grey, who was to be his leading lady in The Gold Rush. When Grey announced pregnancy, she was replaced as leading lady and became the second Mrs. Charlie Chaplin. She bore two sons, Charlie Jr. and Sydney. On grounds of Chaplin’s adultery during the marriage, the couple divorced in 1928. Chaplin paid her $825,000. The ordeal is said to have turned Chaplin’s hair prematurely white at the age of 35.

Chaplin’s leading lady in Modern Times and The Great Dictator, 22-year-old Paulette Goddard, lived with Chaplin between 1932 and 1940. When she didn’t get the part as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939), it was assumed it was because she and Chaplin weren't legally married. To prevent Goddard from being possibly further blacklisted, Chaplin and Goddard announced they had been secretly married in 1936, yet they never produced a marriage certificate.

After numerous affairs, some resulting in legal battles, Chaplin remained single until he was fifty-four. He then married 18-year-old Oona O’Neil, daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill, in 1943. Chaplin fathered eight children with Oona and remained married to her for the rest of his life. (Chaplin was 73 when his last child was born.)

Chaplin Denied Re-Entry to the U.S.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) became suspicious of Chaplin during McCarthy's Red Scare (a period in the United States where rampant accusations of communism or communist leanings, usually without supporting evidence, led to blacklisting and other negative repercussions).

Although Chaplin had lived in the U.S. for several decades, he had never applied for U.S. citizenship. This gave the HUAC an opening to investigate Chaplin, eventually claiming that Chaplin was interjecting communist propaganda into his films. Chaplin denied being a communist and argued that even though he never became a U.S. citizen, he had been paying U.S. taxes. However, his previous affairs, divorces, and indulgences for teenage girls didn’t help his case. Chaplin was labeled a communist and subpoenaed in 1947. Although he answered questions and tried to rationalize his actions, the committee saw him as a nonconformist and therefore a communist.

In 1952, while abroad on a trip to Europe with Oona and the children, Chaplin was denied re-entry into the U.S. Unable to get home, the Chaplins eventually settled in Switzerland. Chaplin saw the entire ordeal as political persecution and satirized his experiences in his European-made film, A King in New York (1957).

Chaplin’s Soundtracks, Awards, and Knighthood

When film-making technology began to include sound in the late 1920s, Chaplin began writing soundtracks for nearly all of his films. No longer would he have to leave the melodies to the chance of random theater musicians (musicians used to play live music during the screening of films), he could now take control over what the background music would sound like as well as add special sound effects.

One particular song, “Smile,” which was the theme song Chaplin wrote for Modern Times, became a hit on the Billboard charts in 1954 when lyrics were written for it and sung by Nat King Cole.

Chaplin did not return to the U.S. until 1972, when he was honored with an Academy Award for his “incalculable effect in making motion pictures the art form of the century.” The 82-year-old Chaplin could barely speak while receiving the longest standing ovation in Oscar history, a full five minutes.

Although Chaplin made Limelight in 1952, before he was denied U.S. re-entry, his music for the film won him an Oscar in 1973 when the movie was finally played in a Los Angeles theater.

In 1975, Chaplin became Sir Charlie Chaplin when knighted by the Queen of England for his services to entertainment.

Chaplin’s Death and Stolen Corpse

Chaplin’s death of natural causes occurred in 1977 at his home in Vevey, Switzerland, surrounded by his family. He was 88. Chaplin was buried in Corsier-Sur-Vevey Cemetery, Switzerland.

Just over two months after his death, two motor mechanics dug up Chaplin’s coffin, reburied it in a secret location, and telephoned Chaplin’s widow that they were holding it for ransom. In response, police tapped 200 kiosk telephones in the area and traced the two men when they made calls to Lady Chaplin.

The two men were charged with attempted extortion and disturbing the peace of the dead. The coffin was dug up from a field, about a mile away from the Chaplin home, and cemented in its original gravesite.

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