Comedy Kings

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Comedy Kings

Charlie Chaplin
Born April 16, 1889 (London, England)
Died December 25, 1977 (Vevey, Switzerland)

Buster Keaton
Born April 4, 1895 (Piqua, Kansas)
Died February 1, 1966 (Woodland Hills, California)

Harold Lloyd
Born April 20, 1893 (Burchard, Nebraska)
Died March 3, 1971 (Hollywood, California)

Actors, film directors, filmmakers

Many people who were young during the Roaring Twenties remember with special fondness the experience of going to the movies to see the great clowns of the silent films (motion pictures did not include sound technology until the late 1920s; before that, any dialog appeared as written text on the screen). These comic actors helped to set the tone of outrageous fun that characterized the decade. In many cases, their antics not only produced smiles, but helped to express the mixed feelings that many people had about the amazing, changing, and sometimes confusing world around them. The leading comedy star was undoubtedly Charlie Chaplin, who won lasting, worldwide recognition and adoration through his Little Tramp character. Close behind was Buster Keaton, who met each hair-raising situation with a deadpan (expressionless) face, and Harold Lloyd, whose character wore trademark round glasses and a straw hat.

Charlie Chaplin

Although he earned the bulk of his fame in the United States and is commonly considered a phenomenon of U.S. culture, Chaplin was actually born in London, England, and never became a U.S. citizen. His parents both performed on the British music hall circuit in shows that combined singing, dancing, comedy, acrobatics, and pantomime. Chaplin's early life was troubled, for his alcoholic father abandoned his family. His mother, who struggled with mental illness and was sometimes institutionalized, could barely support her children. Chaplin and his older brother Sydney spent much of their youth in work houses (a last resort for the poor) and orphanages, and he received only four years of schooling.

The slapstick days

Chaplin's stage career began when he was ten years old. He went on tour with a group called the Eight Lancashire Lads, beginning a kind of apprenticeship that gave him valuable experience in character development, pantomime, and acrobatics. He would put all these skills to good use in his later film work. Eventually Chaplin got a job with Fred Karno (1866–1941), who directed several acting companies. Chaplin traveled to the United States twice to tour with a group called the Speechless Comedians. On the second trip, Chaplin attracted the attention of Mack Sennett (1880–1960), a director who made the popular Keystone Cops films. These movies were full of slapstick comedy so physical that they actually seemed noisy, despite the lack of sound.

Chaplin joined Sennett's roster of talented actors, which also included Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, in 1913. During the two years he worked for Sennett, Chaplin would make nearly forty films. These were the popular short movies of the day, running on only one or two film reels and lasting less than fifteen minutes.

Chaplin's first appearance as the Little Tramp came in Mabel's Strange Predicament (1914). Told to get into a funny costume, the small-statured Chaplin had borrowed some very large pants from Arbuckle and put some oversized shoes on the wrong feet. He topped off his outfit with a small, round, bowler hat, a tiny mustache, and a cane. This created the look of a person who may once have been respectable but had fallen on hard times. The Tramp's funny walk came straight out of the music hall tradition, but his lovable, ever-hopeful personality was pure Chaplin.

The Little Tramp gains fame

Chaplin was eager to direct his own films, and Sennett gave him his first chance to do so in 1914 with Twenty Minutes of Love. The following year, Chaplin signed a new contract with Essanay Film Company, making fourteen films in which he refined his Tramp character, moving away from the pure slapstick of his earliest work and achieving a blend of romance, comedy, and sadness in such works as The Tramp and The Bank.

Chaplin's next contract was with the Mutual Film Corporation, where he made twelve films in one year. These included such memorable movies as The Vagabond, One A.M., Easy Street, and The Immigrant. Moving over to First National Films in 1918, Chaplin made A Dog's Life and Shoulder Arms; the latter expressed support for U.S. involvement in World War I (1914–1918; the United States entered the war in 1917). In 1921, he appeared in one of his most popular and acclaimed films, The Kid.

By now Chaplin had become one of the most recognizable and beloved figures of popular U.S. culture. In portraying the underdog who rises above his circumstances to reach his goal, which usually involved getting girl of his dreams, Chaplin seemed to embody the traditional U.S. values of optimism and hope. In real life, he was certainly living out the dream of rising from poverty to riches. By the time he was twenty-five, he had earned the then-incredible sum of $670,000.

Concerned about the tremendous growth in the movie industry and the lack of creative freedom that might signal for actors and directors, Chaplin joined with actors Douglas Fairbanks (1883–1939) and Mary Pickford (1927–1979) and director D.W. Griffith (1875–1948) to form United Artists. This company would allow each partner control over his or her own films. Chaplin's first film for United Artists was A Woman of Paris (1923), which was critically acclaimed but not very popular with mass audiences, probably because Chaplin himself did not appear in it.

Always a perfectionist, Chaplin now had the clout to make movies his own way, which meant taking more time (sometimes as much as two or three years per movie) and exerting total control over both the actors and the production process. The positive results of this approach were evident in The Gold Rush (1925), which is generally considered Chaplin's crowning achievement. This unforgettable film had the Tramp struggling with cold, hunger, loneliness, and cruelty within the setting of the Klondike (a region of Alaska) Gold Rush of 1895. In what is perhaps the most famous comic scene in movie history, the starving Tramp attempts to eat a shoe for dinner, winding the shoelaces around his fork like spaghetti and appearing to savor the nails as if they were chicken bones.

A different kind of film

During the late 1920s, technology became available to allow the use of sound in motion pictures. The first "talkie," or film with sound, was The Jazz Singer, starring the Broadway singer and actor Al Jolson (1886–1950). This giant leap forward was not a happy moment for many silent screen actors, though, whose voices or accents made them unsuitable for movies with sound. All of the great screen comedians, who had never needed to speak to be funny, were affected by this development, and few adapted to it well.

Chaplin met the challenge, however. In his next acclaimed film, City Lights (1931), Chaplin chose to use music and sound effects but no dialogue. After the film was released, he went on a world tour to promote it and was warmly applauded in every country, highlighting his status as one of the world's most beloved celebrities.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Chaplin's films reflected a general trend in U.S. culture toward more socially conscious art. In Modern Times (1936), Chaplin took on such issues as technology's dehumanizing effect, labor struggles, police brutality, homelessness, and hunger. The Great Dictator (1940) was a spoof on German dictator Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) who was then at the height of his power. The first Chaplin film to include dialogue, it was very popular with audiences, despite a long, tedious speech against tyranny at the end of the movie.

Despite the adoration he received from the public, Chaplin was plagued by personal problems and scandals throughout his career. Some of these involved taxes and politics, but many were connected with his weakness for very young women, with whom he had both affairs and marriages. He was married to actresses Mildred Taylor (1918 to 1920), Lita Grey (1924 to 1927), and Paulette Goddard (1936 to 1941). Finally, at the age of fifty-four, Chaplin achieved a longer-lasting relationship when he married eighteen-year-old Oona O'Neill, daughter of the renowned playwright Eugene O'Neill (1888–1953; see entry), who disapproved of the marriage so much that he disowned his daughter. The couple would have eight children, including future film actress Geraldine Chaplin, and they would remain married until Chaplin's death.

In the last three decades of his life, Chaplin made only a few movies, and they were very different from those produced during the height of the silent comedy era. Monsieur Verdoux (1947) centered on a man who marries and then murders women for their money, while the semi-autobiographical Limelight (1952), in which the central character is a musichall performer, is set in the years just before World War I. The public proved unenthusiastic about seeing Chaplin in any role other than his familiar Little Tramp persona.

By the early 1950s, Chaplin had attracted the attention of the U.S. government through his interest in socialism (a system in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange are owned by the community as a whole) and sympathy for the Soviet Union (which had a Communist system, in which all property is owned by the community and each person contributes and receives according to his or her ability and needs). Fear and suspicion of countries and people with these ideologies had led to paranoia, resulting in the congressional hearings chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957), in which many Hollywood figures were questioned about beliefs and activities suspected of being "un-American."

Soon after the release of Limelight, Chaplin left for Europe to promote the movie. Almost immediately, he was informed that his permission to reenter the United States had been revoked until he could prove he was a respectable, upstanding citizen. Angered by this demand, Chaplin vowed not to return to the United States at all. With his family, he moved first to England and then to Switzerland, where he lived for the rest of his life. He made two more films—A King in New York (1957), a satire of U.S. society, and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), a romantic comedy—but neither was a critical nor popular success.

In his final decade, Chaplin wrote his autobiography as well as musical scores for several of his early films. By the early 1970s he was again recognized as a major cultural figure when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II (1926–) of Great Britain and honored by the Venice Film Society and the Academy Awards. (He even returned to the United States to accept the Oscar.) Chaplin died in his sleep at his Swiss home in late 1977.

Buster Keaton

Sometimes called the Great Stone face for his expressionless demeanor, Buster Keaton was one of the most talented screen comedians of the Roaring Twenties. Like Charlie Chaplin, he was born into a performing family: his parents made their living on the vaudeville circuit, which featured entertainment combining music and comedy. Named Joseph Francis Keaton at birth, he received his nickname from magician Harry Houdini, an acquaintance of his parents, after showing very little reaction to a fall down some stairs. Houdini remarked that the tough toddler could really take a "buster" (slang for a nasty fall).

By the time he turned three, Keaton had joined his parents' act, the Three Keatons. His father developed a routine that involved Buster in some very physical, even rough comedy;

Fatty Arbuckle: A Fallen Star

During the Roaring Twenties, the making of motion pictures became a major industry centered in Hollywood, California. Although idolized by the public, movie actors and actresses were also at the center of several shocking scandals. One of the most sensational involved overweight comic actor Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.

Born in Kansas in 1887, Arbuckle was a baby when his family moved to southern California. He spent his early years as a performer on the vaudeville circuit. There he perfected the acrobatic skills that he would later employ in his movies. Despite being overweight, Arbuckle was skilled at performing the crazy flips and falls that made up the very physical or "slapstick" comedy that audiences so enjoyed.

Arbuckle was out of work when, in 1913, he wandered into the Keystone film studio headed by Mack Sennett. The 250-pound (113-kilograms) Arbuckle was given the nickname "Fatty" and put to work as a wellmeaning, but oafish, hero involved in many funny scrapes. Arbuckle spent three years as part of the Keystone Cops comedy troupe, starring in many short films. He was particularly popular for the "Fatty and Mabel" series, in which he costarred with actress Mabel Normand.

In 1917 Arbuckle joined with producer Joseph Schenk to start a film company called Comique. He spent the next few years directing a string of hit comedies, including The Butcher Boy (1917), Out West (1918), and Back Stage (1919). Arbuckle's popularity with the public led to his signing a contract with the Paramount studio to appear in six feature films. He soon found, however, that his schedule was overly hectic and that he had little creative control over his work. In the early 1920s, he appeared in such films as Brewster's Millions and Traveling Salesman (both made in 1921).

In September 1921 Arbuckle took a short vacation to San Francisco, California. During a wild party in the St. Francis Hotel, a young actress named Virginia Rappe collapsed. Arbuckle helped her to a bed and called for medical help. Four days later, Rappe died of a ruptured abdomen. Based on the word of another actress, Arbuckle was accused of raping Rappe and causing her death. He was charged with murder.

Even before the trial began, the public was quick to condemn Arbuckle. Theater owners refused to show his films, religious leaders called him a symbol of Hollywood's evil, and the film industry banned him from appearing in any more movies. After three trials, Arbuckle was found innocent of the murder charge. The Hollywood ban was lifted, but it was too late. Arbuckle's career was ruined.

Arbuckle lived for eleven more years and did manage to find work as a director, operating under the name William Goodrich. He even appeared in a few more movies, but he never fully recovered from the stress of the scandal. He suffered from depression and alcoholism in the years leading up to his 1933 death.

for example, he would be turned upside down and used as the Human Mop. No matter what happened to him, the young Keaton maintained the same expressionless face, which would become a staple in his later work. Audiences loved the act, and the family made appearances in New York and London, among other cities.

The Keaton family act broke up in 1917, due to the alcoholism of Keaton's father. Buster was offered a job in a Broadway show, and he soon met the famous comic actor Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (1887–1933). Keaton appeared in two 1917 films with Arbuckle, The Butcher Boy and Fatty at Coney Island. In 1918, Keaton was called to active duty in World War I, serving for about a year with the U.S. Army in France. Upon his return, he appeared in twelve more Arbuckle films.

Bringing order to a crazy world

Keaton's movie appearances throughout the 1920s featured a character memorable for his solemn, impassive face and his status as a calm observer of the sometimes zany events around him. Audiences seemed to appreciate the way that Keaton's persona imposed order on a chaotic world, never reacting to what happened to him, no matter how dangerous or crazy. Working with producer Joseph Schenk, who handled the finances while Keaton took creative control, Keaton both directed and starred in movies that included One Week (1920) and The Playhouse (1921). In the latter film, he used innovative special effects and a moving camera (most movies cameras operated from a fixed position).

Some of the Keaton's other films made with Schenk included Our Hospitality (1923), about a pair of feuding southern families; and Sherlock, Jr. (1924), in which a movie projectionist who wants to be a detective falls asleep and enters the movie playing on the screen. In The Navigator (1924), filmed aboard an ocean liner, Keaton has various adventures aboard an abandoned ship.

Over the next two years, however, Keaton's movies took dips in either critical acclaim or popularity. One of his personal favorites, The General (1926), was a Civil War romance, while Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) was centered on a Mississippi River boat race. Neither was a commercial success, and finally Keaton's contract was sold to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Studios. Keaton found that he had no creative control over the films in which he appeared. He soon developed a drinking problem, and his career fell into a slump.

A career in decline

The advent of movies with sound further damaged Keaton's prospects, as it did those of many silent film actors. He made a series of mediocre films with MGM until his contract ended in 1933. The year before that, he had been divorced from his first wife, Natalie Talmadge. Keaton was then briefly married to nurse and playwright Mae Scrivens, but the couple split up in 1935. After appearing in several European films during the 1930s, Keaton was hired by Columbia studios, but his performances were not up to his earlier standard.

After getting his alcoholism under control, Keaton married dancer Eleanor Ross in 1940. For the next decade, he made stage appearances and wrote jokes for several movie studios. His career took an upturn in the 1950s and 1960s, when he appeared in television commercials as well as programs like The Twilight Zone. He also returned to films with a cameo appearance in Sunset Boulevard (1950) and roles in Chaplin's Limelight (1952) as well as such popular movies as Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).

Near the end of his life, Keaton enjoyed a revival of interest in his early work. A few months before his 1966 death, he received an enthusiastic reception at the Venice Film Festival.

Harold Lloyd

Just as Charlie Chaplin was known for his Little Tramp character and Buster Keaton for his deadpan expression, Harold Lloyd was famous for a persona all his own. He was the hard-working, sometimes nervous "nice guy" in a too-small suit, round glasses, and a straw hat. During his childhood, Lloyd's family moved more than fifteen times as his father drifted from job to job. Lloyd began acting early, whenever local theater groups needed a child actor. Attending high school in San Diego, California, he excelled at both the intellectual sport of debate and the physical sport of boxing. He also acted in every school play as well as on local theater stages.

Lonesome Luke and beyond

After graduation, Lloyd continued with his stage work, but gradually he became interested in the movies. He moved to Los Angeles in 1913 and soon was hired as an extra (an actor who plays small parts, such as a member of a crowd scene) at Universal Studios. There he met another extra named Hal Roach (1892–1992), who was hoping to become a director. An inheritance allowed Roach to realize his dream, and he opened his own studio in 1914. He hired Lloyd to appear in a series of one-reel comedies, in which Lloyd attracted attention with a character called Lonesome Luke. Clearly modeled after Charlie Chaplin's Tramp in his social outcast status, Luke wore clothes that were too small instead of too big.

Lloyd was lured away from Roach by the Pathe studio by the promise of better pay (fifty dollars a week instead of five dollars a day) and better roles. For a while he continued to play Lonesome Luke in simple films full of slapstick humor. Lloyd's first appearance in what would become his trademark character was in Over the Fence (1917). Just as he would in so many movies to come, Lloyd played the average, timid boy-next-door who is neither particularly good-looking nor wealthy but whose determination and quick thinking allow him to conquer adversity (and win the girl, of course). In many of his movies, Lloyd's character would start out with a fault, such as foolishness or laziness, but by the end of the film he would have shown his true courageousness and resourcefulness.

Lloyd developed a reputation for his physical courage and agility by pulling off daring stunts. For example, in perhaps his most acclaimed film, Safety Last (1923), he plays a shy store clerk who ends up hanging precariously off the face of a high clock tower. Lloyd continued to perform his own stunts even after losing a thumb and part of a finger when a stunt bomb exploded in his hand. Lloyd showcased his considerable athletic ability by scaling buildings and carrying on complicated chases involving cars and trucks.

Peak of popularity

In 1922, the appearance of Grandma's Boy (in which a coward gains courage from what he believes is a magic charm) marked Lloyd's shift to longer films. Between 1924 and 1930, he produced many of his own films while also still working with Roach and Pathe. His most notable movies include Why Worry (1923), about a rich young man who overcomes his hypochondria (when someone is unusually anxious about his or her health) to win a girl's love; and The Freshman (1925) which features a timid, awkward water boy for a college football team. Somehow, the unlikely hero manages to score the game's winning touchdown, thus winning the acceptance he has craved.

Lloyd's films were remarkably popular and commercially successful, making him one of the richest of the silent-film comedians. In 1923 he married actress Mildred Taylor, and the couple moved into a Hollywood mansion they called Greenacres, where they raised their three children.

The coming of sound movies signaled the end of many silent-film actors' careers. This was often due to the unsuitability of their voices for the new, so-called "talkies." But there also was the fact that audiences began to turn away from the slapstick comedy of the silent-film era toward the greater complexity and depth that spoken dialogue allowed. Lloyd did appear in a few sound films, including Movie Crazy (1932) and Professor Beware (1938), but neither was particularly popular.

Lloyd retired from acting to focus on producing films for RKO studios, but he returned to the screen a final time for the disastrous The Sins of Harold Diddlebock (1945), later released as Mad Wednesday, which was a sequel to The Freshman. In his final decades, Lloyd was active in community work and in Republican politics. Having invested his early earnings wisely, he enjoyed a large income until end of his life. In the 1960s, he made some films comprising scenes from his famous silent comedies. He died in 1971.

For More Information


Dardis, Thomas. Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

D'Augustino, Annette M. Harold Lloyd. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Kerr, Walter. The Silent Clowns. New York: Knopf, 1975.

Lynn, Kenneth C. Charlie Chaplin and His Times. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

MacCann, Richard Dyer. The Silent Comedians. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1993.

McCaffrey, Donald W. Great Comedians: Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton, and Langdon. New York: A.S. Barnes, 1968.

McPherson, Edward. Keaton: Tempest in a Flat Hat. New York: Newmarket Press, 2005.

Milton, Joyce. Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

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

Schroeder, Alan. Charlie Chaplin: The Beauty of Silence. Danbary, CT: Franklin Watts, 1997.

Web Sites

"Buster Keaton." American Masters (PBS). Available online at Accessed on June 22, 2005.

Charlie Chaplin. Available online at Accessed on June 22, 2005.

"Charlie Chaplin." American Masters (PBS). Available online at Accessed on June 22, 2005.

"Charlie Chaplin." The Time 100: Artists and Entertainers. Available online at Accessed on June 22, 2005.

"Harold Lloyd." American Masters (PBS). Available online at Accessed on June 22, 2005.