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Chaplin, Charlie (1889-1977)

Chaplin, Charlie (1889-1977)

Comedian, actor, writer, producer, and director Charlie Chaplin, through the universal language of silent comedy, imprinted one of the twentieth century's most distinctive and lasting cultural images on the collective consciousness of the entire civilized world. In his self-created guise the Tramp, an accident-prone do-gooder, at once innocent and devious, he sported a toothbrush mustache, baggy pants, and tattered tails, tilting his trademark bowler hat and jauntily swinging his trademark cane as he defied the auguries of a hostile world. The Little Tramp made his first brief appearance in Kid Auto Races at Venice for Mack Sennett's Keystone company in 1914, and bowed out 22 years later in the feature-length Modern Times (United Artists, 1936). In between the Tramp films, Chaplin made countless other short-reel silent comedies, which combined a mixture of Victorian melodrama, sentiment, and slapstick, enchanted audiences worldwide, and made him an international celebrity and the world's highest

paid performer. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, 86 years after he first appeared on the flickering silent screen, Chaplin was still regarded as one of the most important entertainers of the twentieth century. He was (and arguably still is) certainly the most universally famous. On screen, he was a beloved figure of fun; off-screen, however, his liberal political views brought accusations of Communism and close official scrutiny, while his notorious private life heaped opprobrium on his head. Despite his personal failings, however, Chaplin's Tramp and astonishing achievements made him, in the words of actor Charles Laughton, "not only the greatest theatrical genius of our time, but one of the greatest in history."

Born Charles Spencer Chaplin in London on April 16, 1889, the man who would become one of the world's wealthiest and most instantly recognizable individuals was raised in circumstances of appalling deprivation, best described as "Dickensian." The son of music hall entertainers who separated shortly after his birth, Chaplin first took the stage spontaneously at age five when his mentally unstable mother, Hannah Chaplin, lost her voice in the midst of a performance. He sang a song and was showered with pennies by the appreciative audience. Hannah's health and career spiraled into decline soon after, and she was committed to a state mental institution. She was in and out of various such places until 1921, when Charlie brought her to live in California until her death in 1928. Meanwhile, the boy and his elder half-brother, Sydney, found themselves in and out of state orphanages or living on the streets, where they danced for pennies. Forced to leave school at age ten, Charlie found work with various touring theatrical companies and on the British vaudeville circuit as a mime and roustabout. In 1908 he was hired as a company member by the famous vaudeville producer Fred Karno, and it was with Karno's company that he learned the craft of physical comedy, developed his unique imagination and honed his skills while touring throughout Britain. He became a leading Karno star, and twice toured the United States with the troupe. While performing in Boston during the second of these tours in 1912, he was seen on stage by the great pioneering filmmaker of the early silent period Mack Sennett, who specialized in comedy. Sennett offered the diminutive English cockney a film contract, Chaplin accepted, and joined Sennett's Keystone outfit in Hollywood in January 1914.

Chaplin, soon known to the world simply as "Charlie" (and to the French as "Charlot"), made his film debut as a villain in the 1914 comedy Making a Living. In a very short time, he was writing and directing, as well as acting, and made numerous movies with Sennett's famous female star, Mabel Normand. His career thrived, and he was lured away by the Essanay company, who offered him a contract at $1,250 a week to make 14 films during 1915. They billed Chaplin as "the world's greatest comedian" and allowed him to control all aspects of his work including production, direction, writing, casting, and editing. At Essanay Chaplin made a film actually called The Tramp, and, in the course of the year, refined and perfected the character into, as film historian Ephraim Katz wrote, "the invincible vagabond, the resilient little fellow with an eye for beauty and a pretense of elegance who stood up heroically and pathetically against overwhelming odds and somehow triumphed."

In February 1916, however, Chaplin left Essanay for Mutual and a stratospheric weekly salary of $10,000 plus a $150,000 bonus, sums that were an eloquent testimony to his immense popularity and commercial worth. Among his best films of the Mutual period are The Rink (1916), Easy Street, and The Immigrant (both 1917) and during this period he consolidated his friendship and frequent co-starring partnership with Edna Purviance. By mid-1917, he had moved on to a million-dollar contract with First National, for whom his films included Shoulder Arms (1918) and, famously, The Kid (1921). This last, in which comedy was overlaid with sentiment and pathos, unfolded the tale of the Tramp caring for an abandoned child, unveiled a sensational and irresistible performance from child actor Jackie Coogan, and marked Chaplin's first feature-length film. Meanwhile, in 1919, by which time he had built his own film studio, Chaplin had joined Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith to form the original United Artists, designed to allow artistic freedom free of the conventional restraints of studio executives, a venture of which it was famously said that it was a case of "the lunatics taking over the asylum." As he moved from shorts to longer features, Chaplin increasingly injected his comedy with pathos.

In 1918, Chaplin had a liaison with an unsuitable 16-year-old named Mildred Harris. He married her when she claimed pregnancy, and she did, in fact, bear him a malformed son in 1919, who lived only a couple of days. The ill-starred marriage was over months later, and divorce proceedings were complete by November of 1920. In 1924, shortly before location shooting began in the snowy wastes of the Sierra Nevada for one of Chaplin's great feature-length masterpieces, The Gold Rush (1925), he found a new leading lady named Lillita Murray, who had appeared in The Kid. She was now aged 15 years and 10 months. He changed her name to Lita Grey, became involved with her and, once again called to account for causing pregnancy, married her in November of 1924. By the beginning of 1927, Lita had left Charlie, taking their two sons, Charles Spencer Jr. and Sidney, with her. Their divorce was one of the most public displays of acrimony that Hollywood had witnessed. Lita had been replaced by Georgia Hale in The Gold Rush, a film whose meticulous preparation had taken a couple of years, and whose finished version was bursting with inspirational and now classic set pieces, such as the starving Tramp making a dinner of his boots.

In 1923, Chaplin had departed from his natural oeuvre to direct a "serious" film, in which he did not appear himself. Starring Edna Purviance and Adolphe Menjou, A Woman of Paris was, in fact, a melodrama, ill received at the time, but rediscovered and appreciated many decades later. By the end of the 1920s, the sound revolution had come to the cinema and the silents were a thing of the past. Chaplin, however, stood alone in famously resisting the innovation, maintaining that pantomime was essential to his craft, until 1936 when he produced his final silent masterpiece Modern Times. Encompassing all his comic genius, the film, about a demoralized factory worker, is also a piece of stringent social criticism. It co-starred Paulette Goddard, whom he had secretly married in the Far East (they divorced in 1942), and ends happily with an eloquent and archetypal image of the Tramp waddling, hand-in-hand, with his girl, down a long road and disappearing into the distance. With World War II under way, Chaplin made his entry into sound cinema with The Great Dictator (1940). Again co-starring with Goddard, he essayed the dual role of a humble barber and a lookalike dictator named Adenoid Hynkel. A scathing satire on Adolf Hitler, the film is an undisputed masterpiece that, however, caused much controversy at the time and brought Chaplin into disfavor in several quarters—not least in Germany. It garnered five Oscar nominations and grossed a massive five million dollars, the most of any Chaplin film, for United Artists.

The Great Dictator marked the last Chaplin masterpiece. Monsieur Verdoux (1947) featured Chaplin as a Bluebeard-type murderer, fastidiously disposing of wealthy women, but it manifested a dark political message, ran foul of the censors, and was generally badly received. He himself regarded it as "the cleverest and most brilliant film I have yet made," and certain students of his work have come to regard it as the most fascinating of the Chaplin films, redolent with his underlying misogyny and rich in savage satire. By 1947 he had been the victim of a damaging paternity suit brought by starlet Joan Barry. In a bizarre judgment, based on forensic evidence, the court found in his favor but nonetheless ordered him to pay child support, and that year he received a subpoena from the HUAC, beginning the political victimization that finally drove him from America. He had, however, finally found what would be lifelong personal happiness with Oona O'Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene. The couple married in 1943, when she was 18 and he 54 and had eight children, one of whom became actress Geraldine Chaplin, who played Charlie's mother Hannah in Richard Attenborough's film, Chaplin (1992).

October 1952 saw the premiere of what is perhaps Charlie Chaplin's most personal film, Limelight. It is a collector's piece insofar as it features Chaplin and Buster Keaton together for the first and only time. It also marked the debut of the then teenaged British actress Claire Bloom but, most significantly, this tale of a broken-down comedian is redolent of his own childhood background in its return to the long gone era of music hall, and the slum streets of Victorian London. Remarkable for its atmosphere, it is, however, mawkish and clumsily shot. After this, there were only two more features to come, neither of which were, or are, considered successful. A King in New York (1957) is an attack on Mccarthyism; A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, is a lightweight comedy that misfired disastrously to become the great filmmaker's biggest single disaster and an unworthy swan song.

By the time Limelight was released, Chaplin had been accused of Communist affiliations. It was the culmination of many years of resentment that he had not adopted American citizenship, and had further outraged the host country where he found fame by his outspoken criticisms and his unsuitable string of liaisons with teenage girls. He did not return from his trip to London, but settled with his family at Corsier sur Vevey in Switzerland, where, by then Sir Charles Chaplin, he died in his sleep on December 25, 1977. On March 1, 1978, his body was stolen from its grave, but was recovered within a couple of weeks, and the perpetrators were found and tried for the theft.

By the time of his death, America had "forgiven" Chaplin his sins. On April 16, 1972, in what writer Robin Cross called "a triumph of Tinseltown's limited capacity for cosmic humbug" Chaplin, old, overweight, frail, and visibly overcome with emotion, returned to Hollywood to receive a special Oscar in recognition of his genius. That year, too, his name was added to the "Walk of Fame" in Los Angeles, and a string of further awards and honors followed, culminating in his knighthood from Queen Elizabeth in London in March,1975. Charlie Chaplin, who published My Autobiography in 1964, and My Life in Pictures in 1974, once said, "All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman, and a pretty girl." His simple, silent comedies have grown more profound as the world has grown increasingly chaotic, noisy, and troubled.

—Charles Coletta

Further Reading:

Robinson, David. Chaplin: His Life and Art. London, William Collins Sons & Co., 1985.

Douglas, Ann. "Charlie Chaplin." Time. June 8, 1998, 118-121.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. New York, Harper Collins, 1994.

Karney, Robyn, and Robin Cross. The Life and Times of Charlie Chaplin. London, Green Wood Publishing, 1992.

Kerr, Walter. The Silent Clowns. New York, Plenum Press, 1975.

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars. New York, Hill & Wang, 1979.

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