From rags to riches. From insignificant to unforgettable. From loved, to hated, to loved again. DMG takes a look into the rollercoaster life of a cultural icon, and honors the birthday of arguably the most important figure in cinematic history. Ladies and gentlemen, the tramp himself, Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin.
Although Charlie Chaplin never had an official birth record, he was presumably born in London, England on April 16th, 1889. Born to two music hall performers, Hannah and Charles Chaplin Sr., Chaplin’s childhood consisted of poverty and turmoil. At an early age, Chaplin’s father walked out on the family, leaving Chaplin and his mother to fend for themselves. To make matters worse, Chaplin’s mother’s mental health was slowly deteriorating, resulting in institutionalization due to her psychosis.
In order to make ends meet, Chaplin found himself performing onstage as early as five years old. When performing opportunities were sparse, he went to poor schools and workhouses for financial support. A young Chaplin continued to act in a variety of stage performances throughout England until he got his life altering break. Fred Karno invited Chaplin to act in vaudeville performance that regularly toured America. On his second America tour, Chaplin signed a $150-per-week contract to do comedy shorts for Keystone Studios.
Although Chaplin was not thrilled to act in comedic shorts, he conceived his iconic “tramp” character in his second short, MABEL’S STRANGE PREDICAMENT (1914). When Chaplin selected his attire for the short, he stated:
“I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large … 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.”
Chaplin’s fascination with his new on-screen personality was unstoppable. Chaplin fiercely argued with directors to feature the “tramp” in their films, to the point that studio head Mack Sennett considered releasing Chaplin from Keystone Studios. However, Chaplin’s “tramp” character was so well received by audiences that Sennett allowed Chaplin not only to use the “tramp” character in the comedic shorts, but also to direct those same shorts.
The first short Chaplin directed was CAUGHT IN THE RAIN (1914). The short was a big hit for Keystone Studios. Sennett recognized Chaplin’s talent in front and behind the camera, allowing Chaplin to direct nearly every feature he appeared in for Keystone Studios. Gearing away from the fast paced, slapstick “Keystone cop” comedies, Chaplin developed a slower paced comedy that better resonated with audiences. Despite the success Chaplin brought to Keystone Studios, Chaplin was not able to negotiate a better contract deal with Sennett, and ultimately left for a higher paying job.
The highly sought actor bounced from studio to studio and continued to make popular shorts, such as A NIGHT OUT (1915), THE TRAMP (1915), THE VAGABOND (1916) and A DOG’S LIFE (1918). His fan base, known as “Chaplinitis”, grew rapidly. Chaplin’s “tramp” persona was known worldwide, and featured in songs, comics and merchandise. America’s infatuation with Chaplin’s lovable character resulted in Chaplin becoming one of the highest paid people in the world.
Despite Chaplin’s immense popularity, he felt the established studios restricted his creativity. In 1919, Chaplin partnered with D.W Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford to form their own distribution company, United Artists. The distribution company was revolutionary for the film industry, as it was the first time creative talent partnered together and personally funded their own pictures. The arrangement allowed the founders’ complete creative control, and Chaplin was eager to capitalize on this newfound privilege.
While forming United Artists, Mildred Harris, Chaplin’s first wife, gave birth to Chaplin’s first son, Norman Chaplin on July 7th, 1919. However, Norman passed away three days after birth. Chaplin used this tragedy, along with his own childhood experiences, as inspiration for the ground breaking film, THE KID (1921). The feature focuses on Chaplin’s tramp character finding an abandoned child and raising the toddler as his own. THE KID was one of the first feature length film to combine comedy with drama, which not only made the film a critically acclaimed hit, but also gave the film access to over 50 countries worldwide.
Chaplin continued to push himself creatively, determined to make his next feature legendary. 15 months and roughly $925,000 later, Chaplin released his trademark film, THE GOLD RUSH (1925). THE GOLD RUSH highlights the tramp’s search for gold and love during the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush. THE GOLD RUSH was a box office success, earning a profit of over $5 million. The film is a Charlie Chaplin essential, as some of Chaplin’s most iconic scenes appear in the movie, such as “The Dance of the Rolls”. Most important, Chaplin, a man who often changed his feelings about his own work, remained proud of this film, often declaring it as, “…the picture that I want to be remembered by”.
Although Chaplin was riding high after THE GOLD RUSH, his following film proved problematic. THE CIRCUS (1928) centers on the tramp working at a travelling circus and falling in love with the circus owner’s daughter. While producing THE CIRCUS, Chaplin dealt with a vicious divorce from his second wife, Lita Grey. Determined to win the divorce suit, Grey publicly smeared Chaplin, accusing the star of abuse and adultery. The weight of the scandal carried over to production, causing Chaplin to suspend filming for eight months. To make matters worse, the filming dealt with many disasters, including damaged reels, hazardous props, stolen property and even a studio fire. Although THE CIRCUS was a successful film, even earning Chaplin an honorary Academy Award, he preferred to forget the film ever happened.
Chaplin’s next feature, CITY LIGHTS (1931) would prove to have its own unique challenges as well. CITY LIGHTS describes the adventures of the tramp trying to pay for his blind lover’s medical treatment. By the time CITY LIGHTS was in production, sound had already been established in films. Despite craze over the new technology, Chaplin feared his voice would reduce his worldwide appeal and decided to stay away from producing “talkies”. Instead, Chaplin used the technology for the film’s sound effects and musical score. Even though Chaplin ignored the industry’s newest technology, CITY LIGHTS was a box office victory and earned over $3 million in profit.
After the release of CITY LIGHTS, Chaplin found himself in a state of depression. Chaplin was afraid his work would soon be outdated due to “talkie” films. Chaplin decided it was best to take a break from his career. Although Chaplin embarked on a world tour for 18 months, he still found himself depressed when he returned to America. At one point, Chaplin even considered retiring from film and relocating to China. However, in Chaplin’s depression, he was able to look at America with a different perspective, and use this new perspective to enhance his work.
Consumed by America’s social and economic problems, Chaplin believed industrialization and capitalism were crushing the working class. Chaplin decided to transform his fear into comedy, producing the satirical classic MODERN TIMES (1936). The film tells the tale of the tramp’s attempt to survive in a hyper industrial society. Although the feature was the last appearance of Chaplin’s “tramp” character, the film had a relatively soft release and only gained modest earnings at the box office.
Unable to ignore the rise of Nazi Germany, Chaplin began to write his next feature, THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940), in secrecy. THE GREAT DICTATOR tells the story of a dictator’s territorial expansion while a Jewish barber eludes anti-Semitic persecution. Due to many odd connections with Adolph Hitler, such as similar moustaches and close birthdays, Chaplin found it fitting to act as both the Jewish barber and Dictator Adenoid Hynkel. Chaplin’s attack on Hitler increased tension between the US, Britain and Germany. Although Chaplin’s film was controversial by placing himself in the forefront of politics, the risky move paid off. THE GREAT DICTATOR was another Chaplin masterpiece, as it received five Academy Award nominations and praise from President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
Most importantly, Chaplin’s final speech in THE GREAT DICTATOR gave him the opportunity to confess his personal political beliefs. Since the speech was the first time Chaplin truly spoke in front of the camera, the speech was forever immortalized by “Chaplinitis” worldwide.
Despite finding a new voice on-screen, Chaplin ran into a series of scandals off-screen. While Chaplin was with his third wife, Paulette Goddard, he had an affair with actress Joan Barry. When Joan Barry became pregnant, she stated Chaplin was the father. Despite evidence proving Chaplin was not the father, the judge ordered him to pay child support to Barry. To make matters worse, the FBI began to pay close attention to Chaplin due to his politically charged features. The FBI got involved with the paternity suit as well, charging Chaplin with four federal indictments. The news of Chaplin’s indictments quickly spread throughout Hollywood, tarnishing his reputation within the film community.
The smear campaign, brought on by the FBI, negatively affected Chaplin’s next feature, MONSIEUR VERDOUX (1947). The film, inspired by a suggestion made by Orson Welles, tells the story of a French bank clerk that marries wealthy widows only to kill them for their inheritance. Chaplin’s anti-capitalism black comedy faced much controversy, ranging from right-wing picketers to bitter reviews. Although the film flopped in the United States, MONSIEUR VERDOUX not only received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, but also received a positive reception abroad.
Determined to kick Chaplin out of the country, the FBI launched an investigation against him due to “communist activities”. The FBI also questioned why Chaplin never applied for US citizenship. Although Chaplin denied being a communist, the FBI’s disregard towards his civil liberties bothered Chaplin. Chaplin began to openly protest against the FBI’s and the HUAC’s communist witch hunt.
When Chaplin went to London for the premiere of his following feature, LIMELIGHT (1952), the US government revoked Chaplin’s re-entry permit. Instead of reapplying for the permit, Chaplin decided to abandon America and permanently move to Switzerland.
Chaplin severed all ties with the US and relocated his family to Switzerland in January 1953. Chaplin wanted to build his European presence, opening his own European production company. Chaplin went on to produce A KING IN NEW YORK (1957) and A COUNTESS IN HONG KONG (1967). As Chaplin continued to work abroad, Americans began to reconsider their opinion on Chaplin and expressed their desires for the famous filmmaker to return to the United States.
In 1972, the United States extended an olive branch to Chaplin. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences offered the 83-year-old Chaplin an Honorary Oscar. Although Chaplin was hesitant on accepting the award, he returned to America and attended the 1972 Academy Award ceremony. When presented with the Oscar, Chaplin received a twelve-minute standing ovation, the longest in Academy Award history.
Chaplin returned to Switzerland and made plans for future films, however his health slowly declined. On December 25th, 1977, Charlie Chaplin suffered a fatal stroke in his home. Chaplin was survived by his nine children and fourth wife, Oona O’Neill. He was 88 years old.
DMG is proud to offer the international film community a look into the remarkable life of revolutionary filmmaker and universally recognized icon, Charlie Chaplin.
“Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.” – Charlie Chaplin.
- Charlie Chaplin placed third in a Charlie Chaplin look-a-like contest.
- A rumor spread that Charlie Chaplin’s real name was Israel Thornstein.
- Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter, Oona Castilla Chaplin, appeared in numerous films and television shows, such as QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008), GAME OF THRONES (2012 – 2013), and BLACK MIRROR (2014).
- Charlie Chaplin was the first actor on the cover of TIME magazine.
- Charlie Chaplin has an asteroid named after him: 3623 Chaplin.