Charlie Chaplin is thought to be one of the most iconic stars of the early Hollywood period, and is generally remembered for his avant-guard acting abilities in the era of silent film. He is considered one of the top filmmakers in American cinema (he directed also), and his movies continue to be popular throughout the world. When we think of Chaplin, we most notably recall his memorable role of the Little Tramp – the man with the bamboo cane, bowler hat, toothbrush mustache and funny walk. The character of Little Tramp reached the hearts of millions because it depicted a positive outlook on life in a world full of disarray and showed that the human spirit is strong and will always remain that way.
The Early Days and Beyond
His full name was Charles Spencer Chaplin and he was born on April 16th, 1889 in Walworth, London, England. Both of his parents were artists; his father, Charles Chaplin, was an actor and multi-faceted vocalist, and his mother, Hannah Harriet Pedlingham (Hill), but who was known under her stage name of Lily Harley, was a beautiful singer and actress, who became known for her work in the field of light opera. Chaplin and his half-brother, Syd Chaplin, were often left on their own after their father left for New York City to find fame and his mother suffered from mental illness. The brothers spent their younger years in and out of foster homes and workhouses when their mother was hospitalized. She was eventually committed to an asylum in 1903 and stayed there until 1921 when she was moved to California to be with her sons.
Chaplin’s debut on stage came when his mother’s voice unexpectedly gave out and could no longer sing at a performance. The stage manager saw Chaplin (who was 5 years old at the time) hanging around in the wings and led him to the stage, where he began singing a popular tune and was welcomed by the crowd.
Charlie Chaplin officially began his acting career at 8 years old when he joined and toured with the Eight Lancashire Lads. He was with them for 10 years, and in 1910 when he turned 18, he started touring with Fred Karno’s vaudeville troupe on a US tour. In December 1913, he decided to make a move to California where he signed with Keystone Studios and worked with the popular director of comedy, Mack Sennett. Sennett had previously seen Chaplin perform in New York and liked what he saw. At that point, Chaplin contacted Syd and asked him to become his official manager and the two went on to make magic. During his time at Keystone Studios, Chaplin starred in 35 films, he even directed several, and created his iconic role, Little Tramp - he played Little Tramp in almost all of these films. Here, he began earning a salary of $150 a week, but due to his incredible overnight success, that steadily increased.
When his contract ended with Keystone, in 1915, he moved to Essanay at a much higher pay, and made 15 films. Two years later, he went to Mutual and made another 12 movies.
Interesting Trivia: His brother, Sydney subsequently arrived from England and replaced his brother at Keystone, becoming their leading comedian.
In 1917, after his contract with Mutual ended, he signed on to First National Studios. At this point, he was one of the best-known artists in the world but was getting restless and wanted more freedom to make the movies he wanted to make. He thus created his own studio, Chaplin Studios. In 1919, the still famous United Artists (UA) was created by Chaplin and his colleagues, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickord and D.W Griffith.
Scandal and Controversy
Chaplin’s life was interesting both on and off the screen and was full of controversy and scandal. He was hit the hardest in the 1940s when he found himself in several trials that took up much of his time and affected his public image – and his popularity quickly took a downward turn. His first big scandal was during World War I when his loyalty to his country of England was questioned. He arrived in the United States as a “paying visitor” and never applied for American citizenship. This caused outrage with the citizens of Britain who began calling him a slacker and a coward. This and his many eccentricities also led to an investigation by the FBI as well as by the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), who thought he was subtly inserting Communist propaganda into his movies. Chaplin was forced to leave the US and settle in Vevey, Switzerland.
Also creating a bit of a stir was his film called The Great Dictator, which was actually his first “talkie”. In it, Chaplin satirizes Adolf Hitler. Though many did not appreciate or approve of this caricature, the film went on to earn 5 Academy Award nominations and grossed $5+ million.
Women were another issue for Chaplin. Not only was he married a total of 4 times and had 11 children, and often got involved with his co-stars…but his wives were often much younger. His last wife, Oona O’Neill was only 18 when they married – Charlie was 54. This was quite scandalous at the time.
However it was his on-off affair with an aspiring actress named Joan Barry in 1941-42 that truly affected his career and reputation. Barry, who had displayed obsessive and stalking behavior, announced she was pregnant with his child a year after their relationship ended, and filed a paternity suit against him. Though blood tests proved he was not the father, at that time, they were not admissible in court which forced Chaplin to pay Barry $75 a week until the child turned 21 years old.
Contrary to his outgoing personalities on screen, Chaplin was actually a quiet man who, although very wealthy, lived in shabby conditions. He did not enjoy living like a millionaire and liked to remain under the radar. After retiring from acting, he went on to write several books and compose music. He even taught himself to play the violin and cello left-handed.
Chaplin was honored in 1972 with an Academy Award for his “incalculable effect in making motion pictures the art form of the century”. Many say it was a way for Americans to make amends for making him leave the country many years before.
On Christmas day in 1977, Chaplin died of natural causes at the age of 88 with his wife Oona by his side, at their home in Switzerland.