Today is Charlie Chaplin’s birthday. He was born in Walworth, South London in 1889. His early years were very difficult. His parents were both music hall entertainers, neither provided a stable family home and they had separated by the time he was two. He, his elder half-brother, Sidney, and his mother, Hannah, lived in extreme poverty. He was admitted to the workhouse once at the age of seven and again at nine. After that, Hannah was admitted to a mental asylum and remained there for two months. Charlie and Sydney were sent to live with his father who had become an alcoholic. Their life with him was so bad that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children intervened.
Hannah was hospitalized again in 1903 and for a final time in 1905. She remained in care for the rest of her life. During the times she was well, she encouraged Charlie when he showed an interest in acting. She used to sit by the window and mimic passers-by and from her, he learned to express emotions with gestures and also how to study people. He first appeared on stage at the age of five. His mother was performing and he was watching from the wings. She was booed off and he was pushed on as a replacement. He remembered it going quite well. People laughed. By the time he was ten, he was performing with a clog-dancing troupe called ‘Eight Lancashire Lads’, despite being from nowhere near Lancashire.
At fourteen, he signed with a theatrical agency. He landed a successful role as Billy the page boy in a play about Sherlock Holmes which was touring the provinces. His performance was so well received that he was called to London to play the role alongside William Gillette, the first person ever to play Sherlock Holmes on the stage. Gillette had also co-written the play with Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. Chaplin was Billy the page boy for two and a half years. After that he toured with a couple of companies developing his skills as a comic performer. In 1908 he joined Fred Karno‘s company, where his brother Sidney had been working for two years. By 1910, he was playing leading roles and was chosen as one of a group of performers who went on a tour of North America’s vaudeville circuit. He got on very well there. Reviewers described him as the best pantomime artist they had ever seen. When the troupe returned to England in June 1912, Chaplin felt a bit flat. When they returned to America in October for a second tour, he was offered a contract with Keystone Studios.
He wasn’t terribly happy with his first film, but for his second, he picked out the costume that would define him. A jacket that was too tight, trousers that were too baggy, a hat that was too small, shoes that were too big and a cane. He added the moustache as the studio were worried he looked too young. He thought it would make him look older without hiding his expressions. For Keystone, he produced short films at the rate of about one a week and, by May 1914, he was also directing. After a year with Keystone, he moved to Essanay. Here, he developed his tramp character into a more gentle, romantic figure. A character people could sympathise with as well as laugh at. By 1915, everyone had gone crazy for Charlie Chaplin. There was Chaplin merchandise, comic strips and cartoons. Songs were written about him and he became the first international film star. Next, he moved to Mutual and then First National and in 1919, along with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D W Griffiths he formed United Artists. It was a company that allowed film makers to personally fund their own pictures, thus retaining complete creative control.
Chaplin made so many films, I can’t possibly mention them all. I’m very fond of ‘The Kid’ which he made between 1919 and 1920. In it, his famous tramp character becomes responsible for an abandoned baby. He probably drew on his own experiences of childhood poverty. There is a part where the child is taken off to an orphanage that it genuinely heartbreaking, especially when you realise he probably knew what that felt like. His co-star, five-year-old Jackie Coogan, was also a vaudeville performer. When he grew up, he went on to play ‘Uncle Fester’ in the 1960’s TV series ‘The Addams Family’.
Chaplin’s ‘The Gold Rush’, which was released in 1925, made a strong impression on me in the days when the BBC used to run old black and white films in the afternoons. It is set in the time of the Klondike Gold Rush. His character being reduced by starvation to eating his own boot is probably one of my earliest film memories. He manages to make the scene sad and funny at the same time and his character always remains kind and upbeat, no matter how life treats him.
Chaplin had made his name in silent film and he resisted the coming of sound to the industry for a long time. His character worked through facial expressions and through physical performance. He didn’t think it would work with sound and I think he was right. His film ‘City Lights’, released in 1931, had sound but nobody spoke. Or if they did, they spoke through a kazoo. ‘Modern Times’ released in 1936, almost had dialogue, but it didn’t really work and he abandoned the idea. Because it deals with the plight of workers in an industrialised society, it was less well received that his previous films. Not everyone liked the political message.
In 1939/40 he made his first proper ‘talkie’, ‘The Great Dictator’ in which he parodied Adolph Hitler. He played both the dictator, ‘Adenoid Hynkel’ and a persecuted Jewish barber. The similarity between Hitler and Chaplin’s tramp had been remarked upon. Both had a toothbrush moustache. Both Chaplin and Hitler had risen to prominence from poverty, and they had been born only four days apart. He was haunted by their similarities. One a madman, the other a comic. What if it had been the other way around? I’ve read mixed accounts of how the film was received, one that it went down well in allied countries, another that people didn’t like the speech at the end. Some mark it as the beginning of his decline in popularity. It is a wonderful speech which is always worth revisiting, but it seems particularly poignant in the current world climate. You can find it here.
Chaplin’s 1947 film, Monsieur Verdoux, had quite an anti-capitalist message and he wound up leaving the United States after being accused of communist sympathies. The last film he made in the US, ‘Limelight’, was very autobiographical, alluding to his life with his parents and to his failing popularity. It is also the only film in which he appears alongside my other favourite silent film star, Buster Keaton. The film was boycotted in America and was not widely shown until 1972, when it received an Oscar for its music score, which was also written by him.