ir Charles Spencer "Charlie" Chaplin, KBE (16 April 1889 – 25 December 1977) was a British comic actor and filmmaker who rose to fame in the silent era. Chaplin became a worldwide icon through his screen persona "the Tramp" and is considered one of the most important figures of the film industry. His career spanned more than 75 years, from a child in the Victorian era to close to his death at the age of 88, and encompassed both adulation and controversy.
Raised in London, Chaplin's childhood was defined by poverty and hardship. He was sent to a workhouse twice before the age of nine; his father was absent, and his mother was committed to a mental asylum. Chaplin began performing from a young age, touring music halls and later working as a stage actor and comedian. At 19 he was signed to the prestigious Fred Karno company, which took him to America. Chaplin was scouted by the film industry, and made his first appearances in 1914 with Keystone Studios. He soon developed the Tramp persona and formed a large fan base. Chaplin directed his films from an early stage, and continued to hone his craft as he moved to the Essanay, Mutual, and First National corporations. By 1918, he was one of the most famous men in the world.
In 1919, Chaplin co-founded the distribution company United Artists, giving him complete control over his films. His first feature-length picture was The Kid (1921), followed by A Woman of Paris (1923), The Gold Rush (1925), and The Circus (1928). He refused to move to sound films in the 1930s, instead producing City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) without dialogue. Chaplin became increasingly political and his next film, The Great Dictator (1940), satirised Adolf Hitler. The 1940s was a decade marked with controversy for Chaplin, and his popularity declined rapidly. He was accused of communist sympathies, while his involvement in a paternity suit and marriages to much younger women were considered scandalous. An FBI investigation was opened on Chaplin, and he was eventually forced to leave the United States and settle in Switzerland. He abandoned the Tramp for his later films, which include Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), A King in New York (1957), and A Countess From Hong Kong (1967).
Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, edited, scored, and starred in most of his films. He was a perfectionist, and his financial independence meant he often spent years on the development and production of a picture. His films are characterised by slapstick combined with pathos, and often feature the Tramp struggling against adversity. Many contain social and political themes, as well as autobiographical elements. In 1972, as part of a renewed appreciation for his work, Chaplin received an Honorary Academy Award for "the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century". He continues to be held in high regard, with The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator often ranked among the greatest films of all time.
BiographyEarly years (1889–1913) Background and childhood hardship
Hannah Chaplin, mother
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born on 16 April 1889 to Hannah Chaplin (née Hill, 1865–1928) and Charles Chaplin, Sr. (1863–1901). There is no official record of his birth, although Chaplin believed he was born at East Street, Walworth, in South London. His mother and father had married four years previously, at which time Charles Sr. became the legal carer of Hannah's illegitimate son, Sydney John (1885–1965). At the time of his birth, Chaplin's parents were both entertainers in the music hall tradition. Hannah, the daughter of a shoemaker, had a brief and unsuccessful career under the stage name Lily Harley, while Charles Sr., a butcher's son, worked as a popular singer. Chaplin's parents were estranged by around 1891. In 1892, Hannah gave birth to a third son – George Wheeler Dryden – fathered by music hall entertainer Leo Dryden. The child was taken by Dryden at six months old, and did not re-enter Chaplin's life for 30 years.
Chaplin's childhood was fraught with poverty and hardship, making his eventual trajectory "the most dramatic of all the rags to riches stories ever told" according to his authorised biographer David Robinson. His early years were spent with his mother and brother in the London district of Kennington; Hannah had no means of income, other than occasional nursing and dressmaking, and Chaplin Sr. provided no support for his sons. As the situation deteriorated, Chaplin was sent to a workhouse at seven years old. The council housed him at the Central London District School for paupers, which Chaplin remembered as "a forlorn existence". He was briefly reunited with his mother at nine years old, before Hannah was forced to readmit her family to the workhouse in July 1898. The boys were promptly sent to Norwood Schools, another institution for destitute children.
"I was hardly aware of a crisis because we lived in a continual crisis; and, being a boy, I dismissed our troubles with gracious forgetfulness."– Chaplin on his childhood
In September 1898, Hannah Chaplin was committed to Cane Hill mental asylum – she had developed a psychosis seemingly brought on by malnutrition and an infection of syphilis. Chaplin recalled his anguish at the news, "Why had she done this? Mother, so light-hearted and gay, how could she go insane?" For the two months she was there, Chaplin and his brother were sent to live with their father, whom the young boy scarcely knew. Charles Sr. was by then a severe alcoholic, and life with the man was bad enough to provoke a visit from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. He died two years later, at 38 years old, from cirrhosis of the liver.
Hannah entered a period of remission, but in May 1903 became ill again. Chaplin, then 14, had the task of taking his mother to the infirmary. He lived alone for several days, searching for food and occasionally sleeping rough, until his brother Sydney returned from the navy. Hannah was released from the asylum eight months later, but in March 1905 her madness returned, this time permanently. "There was nothing we could do but accept poor mother's fate," Chaplin later wrote, and she remained in care until her death in 1928.Young performer
Chaplin recalled that his first stage appearance came at five years old, when he took over from his mother one night in Aldershot. It was an isolated performance, but at nine years old Chaplin became interested in the theatre. He credited his mother, later writing, "[she] imbued me with the feeling that I had some sort of talent." Through his father's connections, Chaplin became a member of the Eight Lancashire Lads clog-dancing troupe. He began his professional career in this way, as he toured English music halls with the group throughout 1899 and 1900. Chaplin worked hard and the act was popular with audiences, but dancing did not satisfy the child and he dreamt of forming a comedy act.
"What had happened? It seemed the world had suddenly changed, had taken me into its fond embrace and adopted me."—Chaplin reflecting on his change in fortunes
By age 13 Chaplin had fully abandoned education. He supported himself with a range of jobs, but said he, "never lost sight" of his "ultimate aim to become an actor." At 14, shortly after his mother's relapse, he registered with a theatrical agency in London's West End. The manager sensed potential in Chaplin and he was soon on the stage. His first role was a newsboy in H. A. Saintsbury's Jim, a Romance of Cockayne. It opened in July 1903 in Kingston upon Thames, but the show was unsuccessful and it closed after two weeks. Chaplin's comic performance, however, was singled out for praise in many of the reviews. From October 1903 to June 1904, Chaplin toured with Saintsbury in "legendary impresario" Charles Frohman's production of Sherlock Holmes. He repeated his performance of Billy the pageboy for two subsequent tours, and was so successful that he was called to London to play the role alongside William Gillette, the original Holmes. "It was like tidings from heaven," Chaplin recalled. At 16-years-old, Chaplin starred in the West End production at the Duke of York's Theatre from 17 October to 2 December 1905. He completed one final tour of Sherlock Holmes in early 1906, eventually leaving the play after more than two and a half years.
Star of the Karno comedy company, c. 1912
Stage comedy and vaudeville
Chaplin quickly began work in another role, touring with his brother – who was also pursuing an acting career – in a comedy sketch called Repairs. He left the troupe in May 1906, and joined the juvenile comedy act Casey's Circus. Chaplin's speciality with the company was a burlesque of Dick Turpin and the music hall star "Dr. Bodie". It was popular with audiences and Chaplin became the star of the show. When they finished touring in July 1907, the 18-year-old was an accomplished comedy performer. Several months of unemployment followed, however, and Chaplin lived a solitary existence while lodging with a family in Kennington. He attempted to develop a solo comedy act, but his Jewish impersonation was poorly received and he performed it only once.
By 1908, Sydney Chaplin had become a star of Fred Karno's prestigious comedy company. In February, he managed to secure a two-week trial for his younger brother. Karno was initially wary, thinking Chaplin a "pale, puny, sullen-looking youngster" who "looked much too shy to do any good in the theatre." But the teenager made an impact on his first night at the London Coliseum, winning more laughs in his small role than the star, and he was quickly signed to a contract. His salary was £3 10s a week. Chaplin began by playing a series of minor parts, eventually progressing to starring roles in 1909. In April 1910, he was given the lead in a new sketch, Jimmy the Fearless. It was a big success, and Chaplin received considerable press attention.
Karno selected his new star to join a fraction of the company that toured North America's vaudeville circuit; he also signed Chaplin to a new contract, which doubled his pay. The young comedian headed the show and impressed American reviewers, being described as "one of the best pantomime artists ever seen here." His most successful role was a drunk called the Inebriate Swell, which drew him considerable recognition. The tour lasted 21 months, and the troupe – which also included Stan Laurel of later Laurel and Hardy fame – returned to England in June 1912. Chaplin recalled that he "had a disquieting feeling of sinking back into a depressing commonplaceness", and was therefore "elated" when a new tour began in October.Entering films (1914–1917) Keystone
Chaplin (left) in his first film appearance, Making a Living (1914) The Tramp debuts in Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), Chaplin's second released film
Chaplin was six months into the second American tour when his manager received a telegram from the New York Motion Picture Company (NYMPC). It asked, "Is there a man named Chaffin in your company or something like that", with a request that that this comedian contact the company. A member of NYMPC had seen Chaplin perform (accounts of whom and where vary) and felt that he would make a good replacement for Fred Mace, star of their Keystone Studios who intended to leave. Chaplin thought the Keystone comedies "a crude mélange of rough and rumble", but liked the idea of working in films and justified, "Besides, it would mean a new life." He met with the company, and a contract was drawn up in July 1913. After some adjustments, Chaplin signed with Keystone on 25 September. The contract stipulated a year's work at $150 a week.
Chaplin arrived in Los Angeles, home of the Keystone studio, in early December 1913. His boss was Mack Sennett, who initially expressed concern that the 24-year-old looked too young. Chaplin reassured him, "I can make up as old as you like." He was not used in a picture until late January, during which time the comedian attempted to learn the processes of filmmaking.Making a Living marked his film debut, released 2 February 1914. Chaplin strongly disliked the picture, but one review picked him out as "a comedian of the first water." For his second appearance in front of cameras, Chaplin selected the costume with which he became identified. He described the process in his autobiography:"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."
The film was Mabel's Strange Predicament, but "the Tramp" character, as it became known, debuted to audiences in Kid Auto Races at Venice – shot later but released two days earlier. Chaplin adopted the character as his screen persona, and attempted to make suggestions for the films he appeared in. These ideas were dismissed by his directors. During the filming of his tenth picture he clashed with director Mabel Normand, and was almost released from his contract. Sennett kept him on, however, when a request arrived for more Chaplin films. With an insurance of $1,500 promised in case of failure, Sennett also allowed Chaplin to direct his own film.
Caught in the Rain (issued 4 May 1914), Chaplin's directorial debut, was among Keystone's most successful releases to date. Chaplin proceeded to direct almost every short film in which he appeared for Keystone, approximately one per week, which he remembered as the most exciting time of his career. His films introduced a slower, more expressive form of comedy than the typical Keystone farce, and he developed a large fan base. In November 1914, Chaplin appeared in the first feature length comedy film, Tillie's Punctured Romance, directed by Sennett and starring Marie Dressler. Chaplin had only a supporting role, but the movie's success meant it was pivotal in advancing his career. When Chaplin's contract came up for renewal at the end of the year, he asked for $1,000 a week. Sennett refused this amount as too large, and so the comedian waited to receive an offer from another studio.Essanay
Chaplin and Edna Purviance, his regular leading lady, in Work (1915)
The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company sent Chaplin an offer of $1,250 a week with a signing bonus of $10,000. This large amount was irresistible to him, and in late December 1914 he travelled to Chicago to join the studio. Chaplin was unimpressed with the conditions there, and after making one film he moved to the company's small studio in Niles, California. There, Chaplin began to form a stock company of regular players, including Leo White, Bud Jamison, Paddy McGuire and Billy Armstrong. In San Francisco he recruited a leading lady – Edna Purviance. She went on to appear in 35 films with Chaplin over eight years. The pair also formed a romantic relationship that lasted into 1917.
Chaplin asserted a high level of control over his pictures, and started to put more time and care into each film. There was a month-long wait between the release of his second production, A Night Out, and his third, The Champion. The final seven Essanay films, of which there were 14, were all produced with this slower pace. Chaplin also began to alter his screen persona, which had attracted some criticism at Keystone for its "mean, crude, and brutish" nature. The character became more gentle and romantic, with The Tramp (April 1915) considered a particular turning point in his development. The use of pathos was developed further with The Bank, as Chaplin adopted a sad ending. Robinson notes that this was an innovation in comedy films, and marked the time when serious critics began to appreciate his work. At Essanay, writes film scholar Simon Louvish, Chaplin "found the themes and the settings that would define the Tramp's world."
During 1915, Chaplin became a cultural phenomenon. Shops were stocked with Chaplin merchandise, he was featured in cartoons and comic strips, and several songs were written about the star. In July, a journalist for Motion Picture Magazine wrote that "Chaplinitis" had spread across America. As his fame grew worldwide, he became the first international film star. With his Essanay contract coming to an end, and fully aware of his popularity, Chaplin requested a $150,000 signing bonus from his next studio. He received several offers, including Universal, Fox, and Vitagraph, the best of which came from the Mutual Film Corporation at $10,000 a week.Mutual
By 1916, Chaplin was a global phenomenon. Here he shows off some of his merchandise, c. 1918
A contract was negotiated with Mutual that amounted to $670,000 a year, which Robinson says made Chaplin – at 26 years old – one of the highest paid people in the world. The high salary shocked the public and was widely reported in the press. John R. Freuler, the studio President, explained, "We can afford to pay Mr Chaplin this large sum annually because the public wants Chaplin and will pay for him."
Mutual gave Chaplin his own Los Angeles studio to work in, which opened in March 1916. He added two key members to his stock company, Albert Austin and Eric Campbell, and embarked on a series of elaborate productions: The Floorwalker, The Fireman, The Vagabond, One A.M. and The Count. For The Pawnshop he recruited the actor Henry Bergman, who was to work with Chaplin for 30 years. Behind the Screen and The Rink finished off Chaplin's releases for 1916. The Mutual contract stipulated that Chaplin release a two-reel film every four weeks, which he had managed to meet. With the new year, however, Chaplin began to demand more time. He made only four more films for Mutual over the next ten months of 1917: Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant and The Adventurer. With their careful construction – and in the case of Easy Street and The Immigrant, their social commentary – these films are considered by Chaplin scholars to be among his finest work. Later in life, Chaplin referred to his Mutual years as "the happiest period of my career".
Chaplin was the subject of a backlash in the British media for not fighting in World War I. He defended himself, revealing that he had registered for the draft but was not asked to fight. Despite this campaign Chaplin was a favourite with the troops, and his popularity continued to grow worldwide. The name of Charlie Chaplin was said to be "a part of the common language of almost every country", and according to Harper's Weekly his "little, baggy-trousered figure" was "universally familiar". In 1917, Chaplin imitators were widespread enough for the star to take legal action, and it was reported that nine out of ten men attended costume parties dressed as the Tramp. The same year, a study by the Boston Society for Psychical Research concluded that Chaplin was "an American obsession." The actress Minnie Maddern Fiske wrote in Harper's Weekly that "a constantly increasing body of cultured, artistic people are beginning to regard the young English buffoon, Charles Chaplin, as an extraordinary artist, as well as a comic genius."First National (1918–1922)
A Dog's Life (1918). It was around this time that Chaplin began to conceive the Tramp as "a sort of Pierrot", or sad clown.
Mutual were patient with Chaplin's decreased rate of output, and the contract ended amicably. The star's primary concern in finding a new distributor was independence; Sydney Chaplin, then his business manager, told the press, "Charlie [must] be allowed all the time he needs and all the money for producing [films] the way he wants ... It is quality, not quantity, we are after." In June 1917, Chaplin signed to complete eight films for First National Exhibitors' Circuit in return for $1 million. He chose to build a new studio, situated on five acres of land off Sunset Boulevard, with production facilities of the highest order. It was completed in January 1918, and Chaplin was given freedom over the making of his pictures.
A Dog's Life, released April 1918, was the first film under the new contract. Chaplin paid yet more concern to story construction, and began treating the Tramp as "a sort of Pierrot." The film was described by Louis Delluc as "cinema's first total work of art." Chaplin then embarked on the Third Liberty Bond campaign, touring the United States for one month to raise money for the Allies of World War I. He also produced a short propaganda film, donated to the government for fund-raising, called The Bond. Chaplin's next release was war-based, placing the Tramp in the trenches for Shoulder Arms. Associates warned him against making a comedy about the war, but he recalled, "Dangerous or not, the idea excited me." It took four months to produce, eventually released in October 1918 at 45 minutes long, and was highly successful.Mildred Harris, founding United Artists, and The Kid
In September 1918, Chaplin married the 17-year-old actress Mildred Harris. It was a hushed affair conducted at a registry office; Harris had revealed she was pregnant, and the star was eager to avoid controversy. Soon after, this pregnancy was found to be a false alarm. Chaplin's unhappiness with the union was matched by his dissatisfaction with First National. After the release of Shoulder Arms, he requested more money from the company, which was refused. Frustrated with their lack of concern for quality and worried about rumours of a possible merger between the company and Famous Players-Lasky, Chaplin joined forces with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith to form a new distribution company – United Artists, established in January 1919. The "revolutionary" arrangement gave the four partners complete control over their pictures, which they were to fund personally. Chaplin was eager to start with the new company, and offered to buy out his contract with First National. They declined this, and insisted that he complete the final six films he owed them.
The Kid (1921), with Jackie Coogan, combined comedy with drama and was Chaplin's first film to exceed an hour.
Chaplin felt that marriage stunted his creativity, and he struggled over the production of his next film, Sunnyside. Harris was pregnant during this period, and on 7 July 1919, she gave birth to a boy. Norman Spencer Chaplin was born malformed, and died three days later. The event seems to have influenced Chaplin's work, as he planned a film that turned the Tramp into the care-taker of a young boy. For this new venture, Chaplin also wished to "do something more" than comedy and, according to Louvish, "make his mark on a changed world." Filming on The Kid began in August 1919, with four-year-old Jackie Coogan his co-star. It soon occurred to Chaplin that it was turning into a large project, so to placate First National, he halted production and quickly filmed A Day's Pleasure. Both it and Sunnyside were considered a disappointment by viewers.
The Kid was in production until May 1920. Shortly before this, Chaplin and his wife had separated after 18 months of marriage – they were "irreconcilably mismated", he remembered. Chaplin became fearful that Harris would claim The Kid as part of the divorce proceedings, so packed the 400,000-foot negative into crates and travelled to Salt Lake City to cut the film in a hotel room. At 68 minutes, it was his longest picture to date. Dealing with issues of poverty and parent–child separation, The Kid is thought to be influenced by Chaplin's own childhood and was the first film to combine comedy and drama. It was released in January 1921 to instant success, and by 1924 had been screened in over 50 countries.
Chaplin spent five months on his next film, the two-reeler The Idle Class. Following its September 1921 release, Chaplin chose to return to England for the first time in almost a decade. Robinson writes, "The scenes that awaited him in London were astonishing. His homecoming was a triumph hardly paralleled in the twentieth century". Chaplin was away for five weeks, and later wrote a book about the trip. He subsequently worked to fulfil his First National contract, and released Pay Day, his final two-reeler, in February 1922. The Pilgrim was delayed by distribution disagreements with the studio, and released a year later.Silent features (1923–1938) A Woman of Paris and The Gold Rush
Having satisfied his First National contract, Chaplin was free to make his first picture as an independent producer. In November 1922 he began filming A Woman of Paris, a romantic drama about ill-fated lovers. Chaplin intended it as a star-making vehicle for Edna Purviance, and did not appear in the picture himself other than in a brief, uncredited cameo. He wished for the film to have a realistic feel, and directed his cast to give restrained performances. In real life, he explained, "men and women try to hide their emotions rather than seek to express them". Filming took seven months, followed by three months of editing the large negative. A Woman of Paris premiered in September 1923 and was acclaimed for its revolutionarily subtle approach. The public, however, seemed to have little interest in a Chaplin film without Chaplin, and it was a box-office disappointment. The filmmaker was hurt by this failure – he had long wanted to produce a dramatic film and was proud of the result – and withdrew A Woman of Paris from circulation as soon as he could. During production of the film, Chaplin had been involved with the actress Pola Negri, a romantic pairing that received vast media interest. In January 1923, the pair announced their engagement; by July they had separated, leading to speculation that the relationship was a publicity stunt.
The Tramp resorts to eating his boot in a famous scene from The Gold Rush (1925)
Chaplin returned to comedy for his next film. Setting high standards, he told himself, "This next film must be an epic! The Greatest!" Inspired by a photograph of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, and later the story of the Donner Party, he made "an epic comedy out of grim subject matter." In The Gold Rush, the Tramp is a lonely prospector fighting adversity and looking for love amid the historic event. With Georgia Hale his new leading lady, Chaplin began filming the picture in February 1924. It was an elaborate production that included location shooting in the Truckee mountains with 600 extras, extravagant sets, and special effects. The last scene was not shot until May 1925, after 15 months. At a cost of almost $1 million, Chaplin felt it was the best film he had made to that point. The Gold Rush opened in August 1925 and became one of the highest-grossing films of the silent era with a profit of $5 million. It contains some of Chaplin's most famous gags, such as the Tramp eating his shoe and the "Dance of the Rolls", and critic Geoffrey Macnab has called it "the quintessential Chaplin film." Chaplin later said it was the film he would most like to be remembered for.Lita Grey and The Circus
While making The Gold Rush, Chaplin married for the second time. Mirroring the circumstances of his first union, Lita Grey was a teenage actress – originally set to star in The Gold Rush – whose surprise announcement of pregnancy forced Chaplin into marriage. She was 16 and he was 35, meaning Chaplin could have been charged with statutory rape under California law. He therefore arranged a discreet marriage in Mexico on 24 November 1924. When their son, Charles Spencer Chaplin, Jr, was born on 5 May 1925, Chaplin sent Grey and the child into hiding: it was seen as too close to their wedding, so a fake birth announcement was made to the press at the end of June.
Lita Grey, Chaplin's second wife, in 1925. Their unhappy marriage and bitter divorce was a great strain for the star.
Chaplin was markedly unhappy with the marriage, and spent long hours at the studio to avoid seeing his wife. Soon after The Gold Rush's release he was at work on a new film, The Circus. Chaplin built a story around the idea of walking a tightrope while besieged by monkeys, which became the film's "climactic incident," and turned The Tramp into the accidental star of a circus. David Robinson notes that the film provided "a welcome distraction" from the "wretchedness" of his home life; Grey was pregnant for a second time, frustrating Chaplin and exacerbating difficulties between the pair. Their second son, Sydney Earle Chaplin, was born on 30 March 1926. Filming on The Circus was continuing steadily when a fire broke out on 28 September, destroying the set. Although the studio was quickly brought back into operation, it marked the beginning of severe difficulties for Chaplin. In November, Grey took their children and left the family home. Unwilling to allow his film to be drawn into the divorce proceedings, Chaplin announced that production on The Circus had been temporarily suspended.
Grey's lawyers issued their bill of divorce on 10 January 1927. Louvish and Robinson believe the document, which ran to an exceptional 52 pages, was designed to ruin Chaplin's public image: allegations of infidelity and abuse were bolstered with descriptions of his "abnormal, unnatural, perverted and degenerate sexual desires." Chaplin was reported to be in the state of a nervous breakdown, as the story became headline news and pirated copies of the document were read by the public.Eager to end the case without further scandal, Chaplin's lawyers agreed to a cash settlement of $600,000 – the largest awarded by American courts at that time. Groups formed across America calling for his films to be banned, but the star's fanbase was strong enough to survive the scandal and he was heartened by declarations of support.
Production on The Circus resumed, and the film was completed in October 1927. It was released the following January to a positive reception. At the 1st Academy Awards, Chaplin was given a special award "For versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus." The Lita Grey affair was soon forgotten, but Chaplin was deeply affected by it; the stress of the ordeal turned his hair white, and both his second wife and The Circus received only a passing mention in his autobiography. He permanently associated the film with this stress and misery, and struggled to work on it in his later years.City Lights
"I was determined to continue making silent films ... I was a pantomimist and in that medium I was unique and, without false modesty, a master."—Chaplin explaining his defiance against sound in the 1930s
By the time The Circus was released, Hollywood had witnessed the introduction of sound films. Chaplin was cynical about this new medium and the technical shortcomings it presented, believing that "talkies" lacked the artistry of silent films. He was also hesitant to change the formula that had brought him such success, and feared that giving the Tramp a voice would limit his international appeal. He therefore rejected the new Hollywood craze and proceeded to develop a silent film. Chaplin was nonetheless anxious about this decision, and would remain so throughout its production.
City Lights (1931), regarded as one of Chaplin's finest works
When filming began at the end of 1928, Chaplin had been working on the story for almost a year. City Lights followed the Tramp's love for a blind flower girl and his efforts to raise money for her sight-saving operation. It was a challenging production that lasted 21 months, with Chaplin later confessing that he "had worked himself into a neurotic state of wanting perfection". One advantage Chaplin found in sound technology was the ability to record a musical score for the film; he also took the opportunity to mock the talkies, opening City Lights with a squeaky, unintelligible speech that "burlesqued the metallic tones of early talky voices".
Chaplin finished editing the picture in December 1930, by which time silent films were an anachronism. The surprise preview showing in Los Angeles was not a success, and Chaplin left the movie theatre "with a feeling of two years' work and two million dollars having gone down the drain." A showing for the press, however, produced positive reviews. One journalist wrote, "Nobody in the world but Charlie Chaplin could have done it. He is the only person that has that peculiar something called 'audience appeal' in sufficient quality to defy the popular penchant for movies that talk." Given its general release in January 1931, City Lights proved to be a popular and financial success – eventually grossing over $3 million. It is often referred to as Chaplin's finest accomplishment, and film critic James Agee believed the closing scene to be "the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies".Travels, Paulette Goddard, and Modern Times
City Lights had been a success, but Chaplin was unsure if he could make another picture without dialogue. He remained convinced that sound would not work in his films, but was also "obsessed by a depressing fear of being old-fashioned." In this state of uncertainty, Chaplin decided to attend the London premiere of City Lights in February 1931. He planned to give himself a brief European holiday, but ended up away from the United States for 16 months. He spent months travelling Western Europe, including extended stays in France and Switzerland, and spontaneously decided to visit Japan. Chaplin returned to Los Angeles in June 1932. "I was confused and without plan, restless and conscious of an extreme loneliness," he remembered. The option of retiring and moving to China was briefly considered.
Modern Times (1936), described by Jérôme Larcher as a "grim contemplation on the automatization of the individual"
Chaplin's loneliness was relieved when he met Paulette Goddard, a 21-year-old actress, in July 1932. Their relationship brought him much happiness, and Chaplin intended to use her as his next leading lady. He was not ready to commit to a film, however, and busied himself with writing a 50,000 word serial of his travels. The trip had been a stimulating experience for Chaplin, including meetings with several prominent thinkers, and he became increasingly interested in world affairs. The state of labour in America was troubling to Chaplin; he told an interviewer, "Something is wrong. Things have been badly managed when five million men are out of work in the richest country in the world." He felt that capitalism and machinery in the workplace would lead to more unemployment, and professed support for Roosevelt's New Deal. It was these concerns that stimulated Chaplin to develop his new film.
Modern Times was announced by Chaplin as "a satire on certain phases of our industrial life." Featuring the Tramp and Goddard as endurers of the Great Depression, it took ten and a half months to film. Chaplin prepared to use spoken dialogue, but upon rehearsal changed his mind. Like its predecessor, Modern Times employed sound effects but almost no speaking. Chaplin's performance of a gibberish song did, however, give the Tramp a voice for the only time on film. After recording the music, Chaplin released Modern Times in February 1936. Charles J. Maland notes that it was his first feature in 15 years to adopt political references and social realism. The film received considerable press coverage for this reason, although Chaplin tried to downplay the issue. It earned less at the box office than his previous features and received mixed reviews; some viewers were displeased with Chaplin's politicising.Today, the film is seen by the British Film Institute as one of Chaplin's "great features," while David Robinson says it shows the star at "his unrivalled peak as a creator of visual comedy."
Following the release of Modern Times, Chaplin left with Goddard for another trip to the Far East. The couple had refused to comment on the nature of their relationship, and it was not known whether they were married or not. Some time later, Chaplin revealed that they married in Canton during this trip.By 1938 the couple had drifted apart, as both focused heavily on their work. Chaplin later wrote, "Although we were somewhat estranged we were friends and still married." Goddard eventually divorced Chaplin in Mexico in 1942, citing incompatibility and separation for more than a year.Fading popularity (1939–1952) The Great Dictator
The 1940s saw Chaplin face a series of controversies, both in his work and his personal life, which changed his fortunes and severely affected his popularity in America. The first of these was a new boldness in expressing his political beliefs. Deeply disturbed by the surge of militaristic nationalism in 1930s world politics, Chaplin found that he could not keep these issues out of his work: "How could I throw myself into feminine whimsy or think of romance or the problems of love when madness was being stirred up by a hideous grotesque, Adolf Hitler?" He chose to make The Great Dictator – a "satirical attack on fascism" and his "most overtly political film". There were strong parallels between Chaplin and the German dictator, having been born four days apart and raised in similar circumstances. It was widely noted that Hitler wore the same toothbrush moustache as the Tramp, and it was this physical resemblance that formed the basis of Chaplin's story.
Chaplin satirising Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940)
Chaplin spent two years developing the script, and began filming in September 1939. He had submitted to using spoken dialogue, partly out of acceptance that he had no other choice but also because he recognised it as a better method for delivering a political message. Making a comedy about Hitler was seen as highly controversial, but Chaplin's financial independence allowed him to take the risk. "I was determined to go ahead," he later wrote, "for Hitler must be laughed at." Chaplin replaced the Tramp (while wearing similar attire) with "A Jewish Barber", a reference to the Nazi party's belief that the star was a Jew. In a dual performance he also plays the dictator "Adenoid Hynkel", a parody of Hitler which Maland sees as revealing the "megalomania, narcissism, compulsion to dominate, and disregard for human life" of the German dictator.
The Great Dictator spent a year in production, and was released in October 1940. There was a vast amount of publicity around the film, with a critic for the New York Times calling it "the most eagerly awaited picture of the year", and it was one of the biggest money-makers of the era. The response from critics was less enthusiastic. Although most agreed that it was a brave and worthy film, many considered the ending inappropriate. Chaplin concluded the film with a six-minute speech in which he looked straight at the camera and professed his personal beliefs. The monologue drew significant debate for its overt preaching and continues to attract attention to this day. Maland has identified it as triggering Chaplin's decline in popularity, and writes, "Henceforth, no movie fan would ever be able to separate the dimension of politics from the star image of Charles Spencer Chaplin." The Great Dictator received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor.Paternity suit and Oona O'Neill
The years following the commercial success of The Great Dictator were a challenging time for Chaplin, whose legal troubles stemming from an affair with an aspirant actress named Joan Barry took up most of his time and generated a large amount of negative publicity. Chaplin met Barry in May 1941, and gave her a contract with his studio.The contract was cancelled after a year, and it is thought Chaplin ended the affair around this time. Barry soon began displaying erratic behaviour; in December 1942, she broke into Chaplin's home with a handgun and threatened suicide while holding him at gunpoint.She left Beverly Hills after being arrested for vagrancy in January 1943, but in May she returned, again going to Chaplin's house uninvited. Barry announced that she was pregnant and believed Chaplin to be the father. Chaplin denied this and had her arrested. In June, Barry filed a paternity suit against Chaplin and told the press about the affair. The story exploded, and Chaplin went into hiding to avoid reporters.
Chaplin and Barry decided to wait until Barry's child was born before proceeding with the paternity suit, so that blood tests could be used to determine whether he could potentially be the father. However, soon after Barry had first filed the suit, the federal authorities became interested in the case. In February 1944, Chaplin was named in four indictments, three of them for allegedly interfering with Barry's arrest and sentence, and one for allegedly violating the Mann Act, which prohibits the transportation of women across state lines for sexual purposes. If he was found guilty, Chaplin faced 23 years in jail. The first three charges never proceeded to trial due to lack of evidence, but the Mann Act trial began on 21 March 1944, and ended in Chaplin's acquittal on 4 April. The case was frequently headline news, with Newsweek calling it the "biggest public relations scandal since the Fatty Arbuckle murder trial in 1921."
Chaplin and his fourth wife Oona O'Neill (centre) were married from 1943 until his death and had eight children (six of which are shown here). Their marriage caused a scandal due to their 36-year age difference. Photograph from 1961.
Although Chaplin was cleared of federal charges, the paternity suit needed to be settled. Analysis of the blood groups of Barry, Chaplin and the baby, Carol Ann (b. 2 October 1943), had determined that Chaplin could not be the biological father. Nevertheless, Barry wanted a trial, which began on 19 December 1944. The first trial ended in the jury being locked slightly in favour of Chaplin. Barry's lawyer demanded a re-trial with a new jury, which began on 12 April 1945. The use of blood tests as evidence was prohibited in the second trial, and on 17 April the jury declared Chaplin to be the father. He was ordered to pay $75 weekly in child support until Carol Ann turned 21, and was denied a new trial. Media coverage of the paternity suit showed no sympathy towards Chaplin, instead portraying him in an overwhelmingly critical light.
The controversy surrounding Chaplin had heightened when, two weeks after the paternity suit was filed, it was announced that he had married his newest protégée, 18-year-old Oona O'Neill. Chaplin, then 54, had been introduced to Oona by a film agent seven months earlier. In his autobiography, Chaplin described their meeting as "the happiest event of my life", and claimed to have found "perfect love". Chaplin's son, Charles Jr., reported that Oona "worshipped" his father. Chaplin and O'Neill remained married until his death, and had eight children over 18 years: Geraldine Leigh (b. July 1944), Michael John (b. March 1946), Josephine Hannah (b. March 1949), Victoria (b. May 1951), Eugene Anthony (b. August 1953), Jane Cecil (b. May 1957), Annette Emily (b. December 1959), and Christopher James (b. July 1962).Monsieur Verdoux and political problems
Monsieur Verdoux (1947), a dark comedy about a serial killer, marked a significant departure for Chaplin. He was so unpopular at the time of release that it flopped in the United States.
Chaplin claimed that the Barry trials "crippled [his] creativeness". In April 1946, he finally began filming a project that had been in development since 1942. Monsieur Verdoux was a black comedy, the story of a French bank clerk, Verdoux (Chaplin), who loses his job and begins marrying and murdering wealthy widows to support his family. Chaplin's inspiration for the project came from Orson Welles, who wanted him to star in a film about the French serial killer Henri Désiré Landru. Chaplin decided that the concept would "make a wonderful comedy", and paid Welles $5,000 for the idea.
Chaplin again vocalised his political views in Monsieur Verdoux, criticizing capitalism and arguing that the world encourages mass killing through wars and weapons of mass destruction, and the film met with controversy when it was released in April 1947. Chaplin was booed at the premiere, and there were calls for people to boycott the film. Critical reception was largely negative, and due to poor box office results, United Artists was forced to withdraw it from circulation in May to devise a new marketing campaign. The second release of the film in September was no more successful; it became the first Chaplin film that was both a critical and commercial flop in the United States, and it was United Artists' "biggest disappointment of 1947".It was more successful abroad, and Chaplin's screenplay was nominated at the Academy Awards. Chaplin himself was proud of the film, writing in his autobiography, "Monsieur Verdoux is the cleverest and most brilliant film I have yet made."
The negative reaction to Monsieur Verdoux was largely the result of changes to Chaplin's public image. As Jérôme Larcher writes, "The popular image of the clown who induces laughter and tears ... [was] superseded by a public image that was considered dangerously progressive and amoral." During World War II, Chaplin had campaigned for the opening of a Second Front to help the Soviets and supported various Soviet–American friendship groups. He socialised with several individuals linked with communism, such as Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht, and he attended functions given by Soviet diplomats in Los Angeles. Question was also raised over Chaplin's failure to take American citizenship. In early 1947, an FBI investigation was opened on Chaplin under the premise that he was a potential threat to national security.
Chaplin denied being a communist, but felt the government's effort to suppress the ideology was an unacceptable infringement of civil liberties. Unwilling to be quiet about the issue, he openly protested the trials of Communist Party members and the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Chaplin received a subpoena to appear before HUAC, but was not called to testify. His activities were not only widely reported in the press, but were mentioned by the United States Congress. Calls were made for him to be deported, with Representative John E. Rankin of Mississippi telling the House in June 1947:"[Chaplin] has refused to become an American citizen. His very life in Hollywood is detrimental to the moral fabric of America. [If he is deported] ... his loathsome pictures can be kept from before the eyes of the American youth. He should be deported and gotten rid of at once." Limelight and exile
Limelight (1952) was Chaplin's most serious and autobiographical film. His character, Calvero, is an ex-music hall star (described in this image as a "Tramp Comedian") forced to deal with his loss of popularity.
Although Chaplin remained politically active for two years following the failure of Monsieur Verdoux, his next project, a novel about a forgotten vaudeville comedian and a young ballet dancer in the London of his boyhood, was devoid of political themes. It was never intended for publication, but formed the basis for his next film, Limelight, which he, according to his son Charles Jr., intended to be his last before retirement.
Limelight was a heavily autobiographical film for Chaplin, alluding not only to his childhood and the lives of his parents, but also to his loss of popularity in the United States. The cast included various members of his family, including his five oldest children and his half-brother, Wheeler Dryden.Filming began in November 1951, by which time Chaplin had spent three years working on the story. He aimed for a more serious tone than any of his previous films; Simon Louvish has claimed, "From the opening sequence, in which Calvero staggers home, drunk ... we are made aware with absolute clarity that this film is not a comedy." Limelight is also notable for the cameo appearance of Buster Keaton, who Chaplin cast as his stage partner in a pantomime scene. This marked the only time "the two greatest comedians of silent pictures" appeared on screen together.
Chaplin decided to hold the world premiere of Limelight in London, since it was the setting of the film. As he left Los Angeles, Chaplin expressed a premonition that he would not be returning. At New York, he boarded the RMS Queen Elizabeth with his family on 18 September 1952.The next day, Attorney General James P. McGranery revoked Chaplin's re-entry permit and stated that he would have to submit to an interview concerning his political views and moral behaviour in order to re-enter the US.Although McGranery told the press that he had "a pretty good case against Chaplin", on the basis of Chaplin's FBI files that were released in the 1980s, Maland has concluded that the US government had no real evidence to prevent Chaplin's re-entry, and that it is likely that he would have gained entry if he had applied for it. When the star received a cablegram informing him of the news, however, he privately decided to cut his ties with the United States:"Whether I re-entered that unhappy country or not was of little consequence to me. I would like to have told them that the sooner I was rid of that hate-beleaguered atmosphere the better, that I was fed up of America's insults and moral pomposity"
Because all of his property remained in America, Chaplin refrained from saying anything negative about the incident to the press. The scandal attracted vast attention, but Chaplin and his film were warmly received in Europe. In America the hostility towards him continued, and, although it received some positive reviews, Limelight was subject to a large boycott. One critic who praised the film and lent Chaplin his support was Bosley Crowther, who wrote: "The main thing that comes through in the film [is] the appreciation of the courage and gallantry of an ageing man ...Limelight is a very moving film."European years (1953–1977) Move to Switzerland and A King in New York
Manoir de Ban, Chaplin's home in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland.
Chaplin did not attempt to return to the United States after his re-entry permit was revoked, and instead sent his wife to collect his fortune. The couple decided to settle in Switzerland, and in January 1953 the family moved into their permanent home: Manoir de Ban, a 37-acre estate overlooking the Lake Geneva in Corsier-sur-Vevey. Chaplin put his Beverly Hills house and studio up for sale in March, and surrendered his re-entry permit in April.He released a statement saying, "Under these conditions [of McCarthyite America] I find it virtually impossible to continue my motion picture work, and I have therefore given up my residency in the United States." The next year, Oona renounced her US citizenship and became a British citizen. Chaplin severed the last of his professional ties to the United States in 1955, when he sold the remainder of his stock in United Artists, which had been in financial difficulty since the early 1940s.
Chaplin continued being a controversial figure throughout the 1950s, especially as he was awarded the International Peace Prize by the communist World Peace Council and lunched with Chou En-Lai in 1954, and when he briefly met Nikita Khrushchev in 1956. He abandoned his plans for retirement, and began developing his first European film, A King in New York, in 1954. The film is a political satire, that parodies HUAC and attacks elements of 1950s culture – including consumerism, plastic surgery, wide-screen cinema, and rock-and-roll music. Its protagonist is an exiled king, played by Chaplin, who seeks asylum in New York. Chaplin included several of his real-life experiences in the film, and cast his son, Michael, to play an intelligent boy whose parents are targeted by the FBI. In a review, playwright John Osborne called it Chaplin's "most bitter" and "most openly personal" film.
Chaplin founded a new production company, Attica, for the film and rented a studio from Shepperton Studios for the shooting. Filming in England proved a difficult experience, as he was used to his own Hollywood studio and familiar crew, and no longer had limitless production time. According to Robinson, this had an effect on the quality of the film. A King in New York was released in September 1957, and received mixed reviews. Chaplin decided not to release the film in the United States, which severely limited its revenue, but it achieved moderate commercial success in Europe. He also banned American journalists from its Paris premiere. A King in New York was not shown in America until 1973.Final works and renewed appreciation
In the last two decades of his career, Chaplin concentrated on re-editing and scoring his old films for re-release, as well as securing their ownership and distribution rights. In an interview he granted in 1959, the year of his 70th birthday, Chaplin stated that there was still "room for the Little Man in the atomic age". The first of these re-releases was The Chaplin Revue (1959), which included new versions of A Dog's Life, Shoulder Arms, and The Pilgrim.
In the 1960s, the political atmosphere gradually began to change and attention was once again directed to Chaplin's films instead of his political views. In July 1962, he was invested with the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by the universities of Oxford and Durham. In the same month, The New York Times published an editorial stating that "we do not believe the Republic would be in danger if yesterday's unforgotten little tramp were allowed to amble down the gangplank of a steamer or plane in an American port".The following year, in November 1963, the Plaza Theater in New York started a year-long series of Chaplin's films, including Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight, which gained excellent reviews from American critics on their second release. September 1964 saw the release of Chaplin's memoirs, My Autobiography, which he had been working on since 1957.The 500-page book, which focussed on his early years and personal life, became a worldwide best-seller, despite criticism over the lack of information on his film career.
Shortly after the publication of his memoirs, Chaplin began work on A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), based on a script he had written for Paulette Goddard in the 1930s, which was to be his last completed film. Set on an ocean liner, it starred Marlon Brando as an American ambassador and Sophia Loren as a stowaway found in his cabin. Although the film had comic moments, Chaplin described it as primarily a romantic film. Its production differed in several ways from his previous films, as he concentrated on directing and appeared on screen only in a cameo role as a seasick steward. Instead of producing the film himself, Chaplin signed a deal with Universal Pictures and appointed his assistant, Jerome Epstein, as the producer. A Countess from Hong Kong premiered in January 1967, to largely negative reviews. It was also a box office failure. Robinson writes that the film probably failed because "in the year of Bonnie and Clyde, The Dirty Dozen, The Graduate, Weekend and Belle de Jour, a gentle romantic comedy was an almost incomprehensible anachronism." Chaplin was deeply hurt by the negative reaction to his film.
Chaplin (right) receiving his Honorary Academy Award from Jack Lemmon in 1972. It was the first time he had returned to the United States in 20 years.
Chaplin broke his ankle at the end of 1966, and had to give up his formerly active lifestyle. He also had a series of minor strokes, which marked the beginning of a slow decline in his health. Despite the setbacks, Chaplin was soon writing a new film script, The Freak, a story of a winged girl found in South America, which he intended as a starring vehicle for his daughter, Victoria Chaplin. His fragile health prevented the project from being realised. In the early 1970s, Chaplin instead concentrated on the re-releases of his old films, such as The Kid and The Circus, and signed a distribution deal with Mo Rothman. In 1971, he was made a Commander of the national order of the Legion of Honour at the Cannes Film Festival; the following year, he was honoured with a special award by the Venice Film Festival.
In 1972, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences offered Chaplin an Honorary Award, which Robinson sees as a sign that America "wanted to make amends". He was initially hesitant about accepting, but decided to return to the US for the first time in 20 years. The visit attracted a large amount of press coverage, and at the Academy Awards gala, Chaplin was given a twelve-minute standing ovation, the longest in the Academy's history. Visibly emotional, Chaplin accepted his award for "the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century".
Although Chaplin still had plans for future film projects, by the mid-1970s he was very frail. He experienced several strokes, which made it difficult for him to communicate, and he had to use a wheelchair. His final projects were compiling a pictorial autobiography, My Life in Pictures (1974) and re-scoring A Woman of Paris for re-release in 1976. He also appeared in a documentary about his life, The Gentleman Tramp (1975), directed by Richard Patterson. In 1975, two years before his death Chaplin was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II.
Chaplin's grave in Vevey, Switzerland
By October 1977, Chaplin's health had declined to the point that he needed constant care. In the early morning of 25 December 1977, Chaplin died at home after suffering a stroke in his sleep. He was 88 years old. The funeral, on 27 December, was a small and private Anglican ceremony, according to his wishes. Chaplin was interred in the Vevey cemetery. The film industry expressed their tributes upon news of his death; director René Clair wrote, "He was a monument of the cinema, of all countries and all times ... the most beautiful gift the cinema made to us." Actor Bob Hope declared, "We were lucky to have lived in his time."
On 1 March 1978, Chaplin's coffin was dug up and stolen from its grave by two unemployed immigrants, Roman Wardas, from Poland, and Gantcho Ganev, from Bulgaria. The body was held ransom in an attempt to extort money from Oona Chaplin. After she refused to pay, they threatened Chaplin's youngest children with violence. Ganev and Wardas were caught in a large police operation in May, and Chaplin's coffin was found buried in a field in the nearby village of Noville. It was re-buried in the Vevey cemetery surrounded by reinforced concrete. In December 1978, Wardas received a sentence of four and a half years' imprisonment and Gantcho a suspended sentence for disturbing the peace of the dead and for the attempt of extortion.
Chaplin believed his first influence to be his mother, who would entertain him as a child by sitting at the window and mimicking passers-by. "She was one of the greatest pantomime artists I have ever seen," he said, "it was through watching her that I learned not only how to express emotions with my hands and face, but also how to observe and study people." Chaplin's early years in music hall allowed him to see stage comedians at work; he also attended the Christmas pantomimes at Drury Lane, where he studied the art of clowning. Chaplin's years with the Fred Karno company had a formative effect on him as an actor and filmmaker. Simon Louvish writes that the company was his "training ground", and it was here that he learnt to vary the pace of his comedy, and not depend on a hectic speed. The concept of mixing pathos with comedy was likely learnt from Karno, who also used elements of absurdity that would become familiar in Chaplin gags. From the film industry, Chaplin drew upon the work of French comedian Max Linder, whose films he greatly admired. In developing the Tramp costume and persona, he was likely inspired by the American vaudeville scene, where tramp characters were common.Method
A 1922 image of Charlie Chaplin Studios, where all of Chaplin's films between 1918 and 1952 were produced
Chaplin never spoke more than cursorily about his filmmaking methods, claiming such a thing would be tantamount to a magician spoiling his own illusion. After his death, film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill examined out-takes from the Mutual films and presented their findings in a three-part documentary Unknown Chaplin (1983).Brownlow and Gill revealed that Chaplin developed a unique method of filmmaking. Until he began making spoken dialogue films with The Great Dictator (1940), he never shot from a completed script, but instead usually started with only a vague premise – for example "Charlie enters a health spa" or "Charlie works in a pawn shop." He then had sets constructed and worked with his stock company to improvise gags and "business" around them, almost always working the ideas out on film. As ideas were accepted and discarded, a narrative structure would emerge, frequently requiring Chaplin to reshoot an already-completed scene that might have otherwise contradicted the story. Due to the lack of a script, all of his silent films were usually shot in sequence.
"No other filmmaker ever so completely dominated every aspect of the work, did every job. If he could have done so, Chaplin would have played every role and (as his son Sydney humorously but perceptively observed) sewn every costume."—Chaplin biographer David Robinson
This is one reason why Chaplin took so much longer to complete his films than most other filmmakers at the time. If he felt out of ideas on what to do with the story, he would often take a break from the shoot that could last for days, while keeping the studio ready for when he felt inspired again. In addition, Chaplin was an incredibly exacting director, showing his actors exactly how he wanted them to perform and shooting scores of takes until he had the shot he wanted. The ratio between shot footage and footage forming the final edited film would often be high, for example 53 takes per a finished take in The Kid. This combination of story improvisation and relentless perfectionism – which resulted in days of effort and thousands of feet of film being wasted, all at enormous expense – often proved very taxing for Chaplin, who in frustration would lash out at his actors and crew, keep them waiting idly for hours or, in extreme cases, shutting down production altogether.
Due to his complete independence as a filmmaker, Chaplin has been identified by Andrew Sarris as one of the first auteur filmmakers. However, he also often relied on help from his closest collaborators, such as his long-time cinematographer Roland Totheroh, brother Sydney Chaplin, and various assistant directors, such as Harry Crocker and Charles Reisner.Style and themes
Instead of a tightly unified storyline, Gerald Mast has seen Chaplin's films as consisting of sketches tied together by the same theme and setting. Although most of Chaplin's films are characterised as comedies, most of them also employ strong elements of drama and even tragedy. Chaplin could be inspired by tragic events when creating his films, as in the case of The Gold Rush (1925), which was inspired by the fate of the Donner Party. Some scholars, such as Constance B. Kuriyama, have also identified more serious underlying themes, such as greed (The Gold Rush) or loss (The Kid), in Chaplin's comedies.
"It is paradoxical that tragedy stimulates the spirit of ridicule ... ridicule, I suppose, is an attitude of defiance; we must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature – or go insane."—Chaplin on comedy and tragedy in The Gold Rush
Chaplin's silent films usually follow the Tramp's struggles to survive in an often hostile world. According to David Robinson, unlike in more conventional slapstick comedies, the comic moments in Chaplin's films centred on the Tramp's attitude to the things happening to him: the humour did not come from the Tramp bumping into a tree but from his lifting of his hat to the tree in apology. Chaplin also diverged from conventional slapstick by slowing down his pace and exhausting each scene of its comic potential, and focusing more on developing the viewer's relationship to the characters. He also often employed inanimate objects in his films, often transforming them into other objects in an almost surreal way, such as in The Pawnshop (1916) and One A.M. (1916).
Chaplin disliked unconventional camera angles and only used close-ups to highlight an emotional scene, and usually preferred to employ a static, "stage-like" camera setting where the scenes were portrayed as if set on a stage. To some scholars, such as Donald McCaffrey, this is an indication that Chaplin never completely understood film as a medium, but Gerald Mast has argued that by deliberately adopting this approach, Chaplin made "all consciousness of the cinematic medium disappear so completely that we concentrate solely on the photographic subject rather than the process". Both Richard Schickel and Andrew Sarris have also written that many of the gags in his silent films needed the "intimacy of the camera" to work and could not have been performed on the stage to the same effect.
Chaplin portrayed social outcasts and the poor in a sympathetic light in his films from early on. His silent films usually centred on the Tramp's plight in poverty and his run-ins with the law, but also explored controversial topics, such as immigration (The Immigrant, 1917), illegitimacy (The Kid, 1921) and drug use (Easy Street, 1917). Although this can be seen as social commentary, Chaplin's films did not contain overt political themes or messages until later on his career in the 1930s. Modern Times (1936), which depicted factory workers in dismal conditions, was the first of his films that was seen by critics to contain an anti-capitalist message, although Chaplin denied the film being in any way political. However, his next films, The Great Dictator (1940), a parody on Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini that ended in a dramatic speech criticising the blind following patriotic nationalism, and Monsieur Verdoux (1947), which criticised war and capitalism, as well as his first European film A King in New York (1957), which ridiculed the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee, were more clearly political and caused controversy.
Partly due to Chaplin's complete control over the production of his films, Stephen M. Weissman has also seen them as containing autobiographical elements. This was already noted by Chaplin's contemporaries, such as Sigmund Freud, who thought that Chaplin "always plays only himself as he was in his dismal youth", and by some of his collaborators, such as actress Claire Bloom, who starred in Limelight. For example The Kid is thought to reflect Chaplin's own childhood trauma of being sent into an orphanage and the main characters in Limelight (1952) are thought to contain elements from the lives of his parents. Many of his sets, especially in street scenes, bear a strong similarity to Kennington, where he grew up. Weissman has also argued that Chaplin's problematic relationship to his mentally ill mother was often reflected on the female characters in his films and the Tramp's desire to save them.Music
Chaplin playing the cello in 1915
Chaplin developed a passion for music as a child, and taught himself to play the piano, violin, and cello. After achieving fame, he founded a short-lived music company, the Charles Chaplin Music Corporation, through which he published some of his own compositions. Chaplin considered the musical accompaniment of a film to be important,and from A Woman of Paris onwards, he took an increasing interest in this area. With the advent of sound technology, Chaplin immediately adopted the use of a synchronised soundtrack – composed by himself – for City Lights (1931). He thereafter composed the score for all of his films, and from the late 1950s to his death, he re-scored all of his silent features and some of his short films.
Because Chaplin was not a trained musician, he could not read notes and needed the help of professional composers, such as David Raksin, Raymond Rasch and Eric James, when creating his scores. Although some of Chaplin's critics have claimed that credit for his film music should be given to the composers who worked with him, Raksin – who worked with Chaplin on Modern Times – has stressed Chaplin's creative position and active participation in the composing process. This process, which could take months, would start with Chaplin describing to the composer(s) exactly what he wanted and singing or playing a tune he had come up with on the piano. These tunes were then developed further in a close collaboration between the composer(s) and Chaplin. According to film historian Jeffrey Vance, "although he relied upon associates to arrange varied and complex instrumentation, the musical imperative is his, and not a note in a Chaplin musical score was placed there without his assent."
Chaplin's compositions produced two popular songs. "Smile", composed originally for Modern Times (1936) and later set to lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons, was a hit for Nat King Cole in 1954. "This Is My Song", performed by Petula Clark for A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), reached #1 on the UK Charts. Chaplin also received his only competitive Oscar for his composition work, receiving the Academy Award for Best Original Score for Limelight (along with Raymond Rasch and Larry Russell) in 1973.
Chaplin as the Tramp in 1915, cinema's "most universal icon".
In 1998, the film critic Andrew Sarris called Chaplin "arguably the single most important artist produced by the cinema, certainly its most extraordinary performer and probably still its most universal icon". His legacy lies in both his influence as a filmmaker and in the impact of the Tramp. Described by the British Film Institute as "a towering figure in world culture",Chaplin was included in TIME magazine's list of the "100 Most Important People of the 20th Century" for the "laughter [he brought] to millions" and because he "more or less invented global recognizability and helped turn an industry into an art". In 2002, he was included in the BBC's list of the "100 Greatest Britons".
The Tramp is considered one of the most iconic images in cinema; Simon Louvish has noted that the character is recognisable to people who have never seen a Chaplin film, and in places where his films are never shown. Leonard Maltin has written of the "unique" and "indelible" nature of the Tramp, and argued that no other comedian matched his "worldwide impact". Richard Schickel believes that Chaplin's films with the Tramp contain the most "eloquent, richly comedic expressions of the human spirit" in movie history. Memorabilia connected to the character still fetches large sums in auctions: in 2006 a bowler hat and a bamboo cane that Chaplin wore as part of the costume were bought for $140,000 in a Los Angeles auction.
As a filmmaker, Chaplin is considered a pioneer and one of the most influential figures of the early twentieth century. He is often credited as one of the medium's first artists. Film historian Mark Cousins has written that Chaplin "changed not only the imagery of cinema, but also its sociology and grammar" and considers Chaplin to have been as important to the development of comedy as a genre as D.W. Griffith was to drama. He was the first to popularise feature-length comedy and to slow down the pace of action, adding pathos and subtlety to it. Although his comedies are mostly classified as slapstick, Chaplin's only drama film, A Woman of Paris (1923) was a major influence on Ernst Lubitsch's film The Marriage Circle (1924) and he therefore played a part in the development of the "sophisticated comedy". According to David Robinson, Chaplin's innovations were "rapidly assimilated to become part of the common practice of film craft." Filmmakers who cited Chaplin as an influence include Federico Fellini (who called Chaplin "a sort of Adam, from whom we are all descended"), Jacques Tati ("Without him I would never have made a film"), René Clair ("He inspired practically every filmmaker"), Michael Powell, Billy Wilder, and Richard Attenborough.
Chaplin was similarly influential on future comedians. Marcel Marceau said he was inspired to become a mime after watching Chaplin, while the actor Raj Kapoor based his screen persona on the Tramp. Chaplin's comedic style has also been detected in the French character Monsieur Hulot and the Italian character Totò. In other fields, Chaplin helped inspire the cartoon characters Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse, and was an influence on the Dada art movement. As one of the founding members of United Artists, Chaplin also had a role in the development of the film industry. Gerald Mast has written that although UA never became a major company like MGM or Paramount Pictures, the idea that filmmakers could produce their own films was "years ahead of its time".
In the 21st century, several of Chaplin's films are still regarded as classics and among the greatest ever made. The 2012 Sight & Sound poll, which compiles "top ten" ballots from film critics and directors to determine the most acclaimed films of all time, saw City Lights rank among the top 50 with critics; Modern Times was inside the top 100, and The Great Dictator and The Gold Rush placed in the top 250. The top 100 films as voted on by directors included Modern Times at number 22, City Lights at number 30, and The Gold Rush at number 91. Every one of Chaplin's features received a vote. In 2007, the American Film Institute named City Lights the 11th greatest American film of all time, while The Gold Rush and Modern Times again ranked in the top 100. Books about Chaplin continue to be published regularly, and he is a popular subject for media scholars and film archivists. Chaplin's reputation and popularity has, however, largely fallen behind that of Buster Keaton, whose films are thought to resonate more with modern audiences.Commemoration and tributes
Several memorials have been dedicated to Chaplin. In his home city, the London Film Museum hosts a permanent exhibition on his life and career called Charlie Chaplin – The Great Londoner, which opened in 2010. A statue of Chaplin as the Tramp is located in Leicester Square, sculpted by John Doubleday and unveiled in 1981. The city also includes a road named after him, "Charlie Chaplin Walk" in central London, which is the location of the BFI IMAX.
Chaplin's final home, Manoir de Ban in Switzerland, is in the process of being converted into a museum exploring his life and career, to be opened in 2015. The Swiss town of Vevey, where he spent the last 25 years of his life, named a park in his honour in 1980 and erected a replica of the Doubleday statue there in 1982. In 2011, two murals depicting Chaplin on two 14-storey buildings were unveiled in Vevey. Chaplin has also been honoured by the Irish town of Waterville, where he spent several summers with his family in the 1960s. A statue was erected in 1998, and since 2011 the town has been host to the annual Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival, which was founded to celebrate Chaplin's legacy and to showcase new comic talent.
Chaplin's 100th birthday anniversary in 1989 was celebrated with several events around the world. On his birthday, 16 April, City Lights was screened at a gala at the Dominion Theatre in London, the site of its British premiere in 1931. In Hollywood, a screening of a restored version of How to Make Movies was held at his former studio, and in Japan, he was honoured with a musical tribute. Retrospectives of his work were presented that year at The National Film Theatre in London, the Munich Stadtmuseum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which also dedicated a gallery exhibition, Chaplin: A Centennial Celebration, to him.
Chaplin has also been remembered in several other ways. A minor planet, 3623 Chaplin, discovered by Soviet astronomer Lyudmila Karachkina in 1981, is named after him. Throughout the 1980s, the Tramp image was used by IBM to advertise their personal computers. Many countries have honoured Chaplin with a postal stamp, from the United States to Argentina to Rwanda. On 15 April 2011, a day before his 122nd birthday anniversary, Google celebrated Chaplin with a special Google Doodle video on its global and other country-wide homepages.
Chaplin's life is preserved in several national archives. The central archive, administered through Association Chaplin, is held at the Cineteca di Bologna and includes "81181 images, 84 scripts, 695 manuscripts, 7451 letters and thousands of documents". The British Film Institute established the Charles Chaplin Research Foundation, with the first international Charles Chaplin Conference held in London in July 2005.
Statues of Chaplin around the world, located at (left to right) 1. Teplice, Czech Republic; 2. Chełmża, Poland; 3. Waterville, Ireland; 4. London, United Kingdom; 5. Hyderabad, India; 6. Alassio, Italy; 7. Barcelona, Spain; 8. Vevey, Switzerland Characterisations
Chaplin is the subject of a biographical film, Chaplin (1992, directed by Richard Attenborough). It stars Robert Downey, Jr., who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor and won a BAFTA Award for Best Actor for his performance. Chaplin is also a character in The Cat's Meow (2001), played by Eddie Izzard, and The Scarlett O'Hara War (1980), played by Clive Revill. A television series about Chaplin's childhood, Young Charlie Chaplin, ran on PBS in 1989 and was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Program.
Thomas Meehan and Christopher Curtis created a musical about Chaplin, Limelight: The Story of Charlie Chaplin, first performed at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego in 2010. It was adapted for Broadway in 2012, retitled Chaplin – A Musical. Chaplin was portrayed by Robert McClure in both. In 2013, a play about Chaplin's life, Chaplin, by Finnish playwright Sven Sid, premiered in the Svenska Teatern in Helsinki, Finland. It stars Kristofer Möller and Patrick Henriksen in the title role. Chaplin is also one of the central characters in Glen David Gold's novel Sunnyside, which is set in the World War I period.
Awards and recognition
Chaplin received several awards and recognitions during his lifetime, especially during his later career in the 1960s and the 1970s. In the New Year Honours 1975 Chaplin was appointed as a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Chaplin was also awarded honorary Doctor of Letters degrees by the University of Oxford and the University of Durham in 1962. In 1965 he received a joint Erasmus Prize with film director Ingmar Bergman and in 1971 he was made a Commander of the national order of the Legion of Honour at the Cannes Film Festival in France.
Chaplin's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6751 Hollywood Blvd. Although the project started in 1958, Chaplin only received his star in 1970 because of his political views.
Chaplin also received several special film awards. He was given a special Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1972. When he briefly returned to the United States in 1972, the Lincoln Center Film Society honoured him with a gala and awarded him a lifetime achievement award, which has since been awarded annually to filmmakers as The Chaplin Award. Chaplin was also given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1970, after having been excluded due to his political beliefs when the project was initially started in 1958.
Chaplin also received three Academy Awards, one competitive award for Best Original Score, and two Honorary Awards, and was nominated for three more:
- 1st Academy Awards (1929): Special Award "for versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus". Chaplin had originally been nominated for Best Production, Best Director in a Comedy Picture, Best Actor and Best Writing (Original Story) for The Circus. However, the Academy decided to withdraw his name from all the competitive categories and instead give him a special award.
- 13th Academy Awards (1941): Best Actor and Best Writing, nominations, for The Great Dictator. The film was also nominated for further three awards.
- 20th Academy Awards (1948): Best Screenplay, nomination, for Monsieur Verdoux.
- 44th Academy Awards (1972): Honorary Award for "the incalculable effect he [Chaplin] has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century".
- 45th Academy Awards (1973): Best Original Score, win, for Limelight. Although the film had originally been released in 1952, due to Chaplin's political difficulties at the time, it did not play for one week in Los Angeles, and thus did not meet the criterion for nomination until it was re-released in 1972.
Six of Chaplin's films have been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry: The Immigrant (1917), The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940).
- The Kid (1921)
- A Woman of Paris (1923)
- The Gold Rush (1925)
- The Circus (1928)
- City Lights (1931)
- Modern Times (1936)
- The Great Dictator (1940)
- Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
- Limelight (1952)
- A King in New York (1957)
- A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)
|Relation name||Relation type||Description|
|1||Oona O'Neill Chaplin||Wife|
|3||Pola Negri||Civil wife|
|4||Albert Einstein||Friend, Familiar|
|14||Harold Lloyd||Coworker, Idea mate|
|17||Lee Ann Remick||Coworker|
|20||Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast||Coworker|
|25||Erich Maria Remarque||Familiar|
|34||Stan Laurel||Idea mate|
|35||Oliver Hardy||Idea mate|