Chaplin, Charlie (Sir Charles Spencer; 1889–1977)

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CHAPLIN, CHARLIE (Sir Charles Spencer; 1889–1977)


English actor, director, and producer.

Charles Chaplin is one of the most famous artists of the twentieth century and remains well known by subsequent generations. Most of his films have been given a new wide release in theaters since 2002, especially in Europe.

Born in the suburbs of London, Chaplin entered professional theater in 1898 as one of the Eight Lancashire Lads, a juvenile music hall act. In 1910, with Fred Karno's London Comedians, he embarked on a tour of the United States. He returned to the United States in 1912 and stayed there until the early 1950s. After working with Mack Sennett's Keystone Company (for $150 a week) in 1913, then with Mutual Film Corporation (for $670,000 a year) in 1916, Chaplin signed a million-dollar contract with First National in 1917. He became his own producer in 1919, with United Artists, the company he formed with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith. The Kid (1921) was the first feature film that he starred in and directed; The GoldRush (1925), The Circus (1928), and City Lights (1931) were box office smashes.

Chaplin created a universal character, the Little Tramp. He could convey an experience of the world thanks to the language of pantomime, and because he embodied no national identity and spoke no mother tongue, he touched the hearts of spectators everywhere. Charlie, the Little Tramp, often finds himself on the wrong side of Law, facing the police, big business, the church—all those who hold power in an organized society. His immense success rested on popular acclaim but also on the recognition of intellectuals, especially in France in the 1920s, where many artists and authors praised his genius. In the eyes of the crowd, Charles Chaplin and Charlie the Tramp were the one and same citizen of the world. However, there was certainly a tension between the artist and his character, one that cannot be resolved in the too simple opposition between the "upstart" filmmaker's wealth and Hollywood respectability and the Tramp's voluntarily "outcast" status.

An American soldier in Shoulder Arms (1918), Chaplin became a German Jewish soldier in The Great Dictator (1940). In the 1920s a Jewish encyclopedia published in Berlin mentioned that Chaplin was the son of an eastern Jewish family that had probably emigrated to England during the middle of the nineteenth century and whose original name was Thonstein. This erroneous information was, predictably, used by Nazi propaganda. If the legend of Chaplin's Jewishness reemerged when he portrayed a Jewish barber in 1940, it was because his tramp character had already been compared to that of the schlemiel, a type found in the literature of the Jewish ghetto. As early as 1928, Joseph Roth compared Chaplin to the fictional double created by Siegfried Kracauer in his autobiographical novel Ginster: "Faced with department stores, wars, tailors, nations, Chaplin and Ginster are disconcerted and yellow, curious and awkward, ridiculous and tragicomical. At last, we have found a literary Chaplin: Ginster. " The most powerful description of the Tramp comes from Hannah Arendt: "In The Great Dictator," she wrote in 1944, "Chaplin attempted to play the monstrous and bestial character of Superman, by confronting 'the little man' with 'the big man' through his twin character. When at the end of the film he threw off his mask to reveal the real-life Chaplin behind the little man whose eminently desirable wisdom and simplicity he sought to represent to the world with seriousness tinged with despair, he, once the idol of the inhabited world, was barely understood."

The Great Dictator, said Chaplin, was his "first picture in which the story is bigger than the Little Tramp." He hesitated between a false happy ending and an open conclusion. He certainly saw the daily news catching up with him as, at the age of fifty, he made ready to give a last breath of life to his character, the Little Tramp, already weakened by the coming of talking movies. His reluctance to resort to derision or, conversely, to strike the pose of the political artist, indicates his belief in the power of conviction and in the sincerity and naïveté of his humanism. In Modern Times (1936), when he mimes being dragged into the cogs of the machine, the grace of his movements and of his body is not only preserved but also heightened, in spite of his subjection to a brutal mechanical logic. By constantly playing on the comedy or pathos of his character, Chaplin releases the tension that exists within the social world.

Chaplin always refused to accept American citizenship. During the era of McCarthyism, he was accused of "un-American activities" as a suspected communist, and J. Edgar Hoover, who had instructed the FBI to keep extensive files on him, tried to remove his residency rights. In 1947 he was verbally assaulted at a hostile press conference for Monsieur Verdoux. In 1952 he sailed for England to attend the London premiere of Limelight. Two days later the U.S. State Department rescinded his permit to reenter the country. Finally, he decided to leave Los Angeles and move to Europe, settling in Switzerland. He directed two more films, A King in New York (1957) and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967). The worldwide recognition of his genius was now a time long past. With his wife, Oona, he was enjoying fatherhood, raising eight children. In 1972 he returned to the United States to receive an honorary Academy Award and got a standing ovation from a repentant Hollywood. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1975.

The Chaplin Association, located in Paris, the municipal archives of Montreux, Switzerland, and the Film Library of Bologna, Italy, preserve the legacy of his work and provide access to his personal archives.

See alsoCinema; Popular Culture.


Arendt, Hannah. "Charlie Chaplin: The Suspect." In The Jew as Pariah. New York, 1978.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Selected and translated by Annette Lavers. New York, 1972.

Bazin, André. Essays on Chaplin. Edited and translated by Jean Bodon. New Haven, Conn., 1985. Contributions by François Truffaut, Jean Renoir, and Eric Rohmer.

Chaplin, Charlie. My Autobiography. New ed. London, 2003.

Delage, Christian. Chaplin, la grande histoire. Paris, 1998.

Maland, Charles J. Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image. Princeton, N.J., 1989.

Nysenholc, Adolphe, ed. Charlie Chaplin: His Reflection in Modern Times. Berlin and New York, 1991.

Robinson, David. Chaplin: His Life and Art. New York, 1985.

Christian Delage

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Chaplin, Charlie (Sir Charles Spencer; 1889–1977)

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