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Sir Charles Spencer "Charlie" Chaplin, KBE(16 April 1889 – 25 December 1977) was an English comic actor, filmmaker, and composer who rose to fame in the silent era. Chaplin became a worldwide icon through his screen persona "the Tramp" and is considered one of the most important figures in the history of thefilm industry. His career spanned more than 75 years, from childhood in the Victorian erauntil a year before his death in 1977, and encompassed both adulation and controversy.
Chaplin's childhood in London was one of poverty and hardship. As his father was absent and his mother struggled financially, he was sent to a workhouse twice before the age of nine. When he was 14, his mother was committed to a mental asylum. Chaplin began performing at an early age, touring music hallsand later working as a stage actor and comedian. At 19 he was signed to the prestigious Fred Karno company, which took him to America. Chaplin was scouted for the film industry, and began appearing in 1914 forKeystone Studios. He soon developed the Tramp persona and formed a large fan base. Chaplin directed his own films from an early stage, and continued to hone his craft as he moved to the Essanay, Mutual, and First National corporations. By 1918, he was one of the best known figures in the world.
In 1919, Chaplin co-founded the distribution company United Artists, which gave him complete control over his films. His firstfeature-length was The Kid (1921), followed byA Woman of Paris (1923), The Gold Rush(1925), and The Circus (1928). He refused to move to sound films in the 1930s, instead producing City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) without dialogue. Chaplin became increasingly political, and his next film, The Great Dictator (1940), satirised Adolf Hitler. The 1940s were a decade marked with controversy for Chaplin, and his popularity declined rapidly. He was accused of communist sympathies, while his involvement in a paternity suit and marriages to much younger women caused scandal. An FBI investigation was opened, and Chaplin was forced to leave the United States and settle in Switzerland. He abandoned the Tramp in his later films, which include Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), A King in New York (1957), and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967).
Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, edited, starred in, and composed the music for most of his films. He was a perfectionist, and his financial independence enabled him to spend years on the development and production of a picture. His films are characterised by slapstickcombined with pathos, typified in the Tramp's struggles against adversity. Many contain social and political themes, as well as autobiographical elements. In 1972, as part of a renewed appreciation for his work, Chaplin received an Honorary Academy Award for "the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century". He continues to be held in high regard, with The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictatoroften ranked on industry lists of the greatest films of all time.
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born on 16 April 1889 to Hannah Chaplin (born Hannah Harriet Pedlingham Hill) and Charles Chaplin Sr. There is no official record of his birth, although Chaplin believed he was born at East Street, Walworth, in South London.[note 1] His mother and father had married four years previously, at which time Charles Sr. became the legal carer of Hannah's illegitimate son, Sydney John Hill.[note 2] At the time of his birth, Chaplin's parents were both music hall entertainers. Hannah, the daughter of a shoemaker, had a brief and unsuccessful career under the stage name Lily Harley, while Charles Sr., a butcher's son, was a popular singer. Although they never divorced, Chaplin's parents were estranged by around 1891. The following year, Hannah gave birth to a third son –George Wheeler Dryden – fathered by the music hall entertainer Leo Dryden. The child was taken by Dryden at six months old, and did not re-enter Chaplin's life for 30 years.
Chaplin's childhood was fraught with poverty and hardship, making his eventual trajectory "the most dramatic of all the rags to riches stories ever told" according to his authorised biographer David Robinson. Chaplin's early years were spent with his mother and brother Sydney in the London district ofKennington; Hannah had no means of income, other than occasional nursing and dressmaking, and Chaplin Sr. provided no financial support. As the situation deteriorated, Chaplin was sent to a workhouse when he was seven years old.[note 3] The council housed him at the Central London District School for paupers, which Chaplin remembered as "a forlorn existence". He was briefly reunited with his mother 18 months later, before Hannah was forced to readmit her family to the workhouse in July 1898. The boys were promptly sent to Norwood Schools, another institution for destitute children.
"I was hardly aware of a crisis because we lived in a continual crisis; and, being a boy, I dismissed our troubles with gracious forgetfulness."
In September 1898, Hannah was committed to Cane Hill mental asylum – she had developed a psychosis seemingly brought on by an infection of syphilis and malnutrition. For the two months she was there, Chaplin and his brother Sydney were sent to live with their father, whom the young boys scarcely knew. Charles Sr. was by then a severe alcoholic, and life there was bad enough to provoke a visit from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Chaplin's father died two years later, at 38 years old, from cirrhosis of the liver.
Hannah entered a period of remission, but in May 1903 became ill again. Chaplin, then 14, had the task of taking his mother to the infirmary, from where she was sent back to Cane Hill. He lived alone for several days, searching for food and occasionally sleeping rough, until Sydney – who had enrolled in the Navy two years earlier – returned. Hannah was released from the asylum eight months later, but in March 1905 her illness returned, this time permanently. "There was nothing we could do but accept poor mother's fate", Chaplin later wrote, and she remained in care until her death in 1928.
Between his time in the poor schools and his mother succumbing to mental illness, Chaplin began to perform on stage. He later recalled making his first amateur appearance at the age of five years, when he took over from Hannah one night in Aldershot.[note 4] This was an isolated occurrence, but by the time he was nine Chaplin had, with his mother's encouragement, grown interested in performing. He later wrote: "[she] imbued me with the feeling that I had some sort of talent". Through his father's connections, Chaplin became a member of the Eight Lancashire Lads clog-dancing troupe, with whom he toured English music halls throughout 1899 and 1900.[note 5] Chaplin worked hard, and the act was popular with audiences, but he was not satisfied with dancing and wished to form a comedy act.
In the years Chaplin was touring with the Eight Lancashire Lads, his mother ensured that he still attended school, but by age 13 he had abandoned education. He supported himself with a range of jobs, while nursing his ambition to become an actor. At 14, shortly after his mother's relapse, he registered with a theatrical agency in London's West End. The manager sensed potential in Chaplin, who was promptly given his first role as a newsboy in H. A. Saintsbury's Jim, a Romance of Cockayne. It opened in July 1903, but the show was unsuccessful and closed after two weeks. Chaplin's comic performance, however, was singled out for praise in many of the reviews.
Saintsbury secured a role for Chaplin in Charles Frohman's production of Sherlock Holmes, where he played Billy the pageboy in three nationwide tours. His performance was so well received that he was called to London to play the role alongside William Gillette, the original Holmes.[note 6] "It was like tidings from heaven", Chaplin recalled. At 16 years old, Chaplin starred in the play's West End production at the Duke of York's Theatre from October to December 1905. He completed one final tour of Sherlock Holmes in early 1906, before leaving the play after more than two-and-a-half years.
Chaplin soon found work with a new company, and went on tour with his brother – who was also pursuing an acting career – in a comedy sketch called Repairs. In May 1906, Chaplin joined the juvenile act Casey's Circus, where he developed popular burlesque pieces and was soon the star of the show. By the time the act finished touring in July 1907, the 18-year-old had become an accomplished comedic performer. He struggled to find more work, however, and a brief attempt at a solo act was a failure.[note 7]
Meanwhile, Sydney Chaplin had joined Fred Karno's prestigious comedy company in 1906, and by 1908 he was one of their key performers. In February, he managed to secure a two-week trial for his younger brother. Karno was initially wary, and considered Chaplin a "pale, puny, sullen-looking youngster" who "looked much too shy to do any good in the theatre." But the teenager made an impact on his first night at the London Coliseum and he was quickly signed to a contract. Chaplin began by playing a series of minor parts, eventually progressing to starring roles in 1909. In April 1910, he was given the lead in a new sketch, Jimmy the Fearless. It was a big success, and Chaplin received considerable press attention.
Karno selected his new star to join the section of the company that toured North America'svaudeville circuit. The young comedian headed the show and impressed reviewers, being described as "one of the best pantomime artists ever seen here". His most successful role was a drunk called the "Inebriate Swell", which drew him significant recognition. The tour lasted 21 months, and the troupe returned to England in June 1912. Chaplin recalled that he "had a disquieting feeling of sinking back into a depressing commonplaceness", and was therefore delighted when a new tour began in October.
Six months into the second American tour, Chaplin was invited to join the New York Motion Picture Company. A representative who had seen his performances thought he could replaceFred Mace, a star of their Keystone Studios who intended to leave. Chaplin thought the Keystone comedies "a crude mélange of rough and rumble", but liked the idea of working in films and rationalised: "Besides, it would mean a new life." He met with the company, and signed a $150-per-week ($3,591 in 2016 dollars) contract in September 1913.
Chaplin arrived in Los Angeles, home of the Keystone studio, in early December 1913. His boss was Mack Sennett, who initially expressed concern that the 24-year-old looked too young.He was not used in a picture until late January, during which time Chaplin attempted to learn the processes of filmmaking. The one-reeler Making a Living marked his film acting debut, and was released on 2 February 1914. Chaplin strongly disliked the picture, but one review picked him out as "a comedian of the first water". For his second appearance in front of the camera, Chaplin selected the costume with which he became identified. He described the process in his autobiography:
"I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large ... I added a small moustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born."[note 8]
The film was Mabel's Strange Predicament, but "the Tramp" character, as it became known, debuted to audiences in Kid Auto Races at Venice – shot later than Mabel's Strange Predicament but released two days earlier. Chaplin adopted the character as his screen persona, and attempted to make suggestions for the films he appeared in. These ideas were dismissed by his directors. During the filming of his eleventh picture, Mabel at the Wheel, he clashed with director Mabel Normand and was almost released from his contract. Sennett kept him on, however, when he received orders from exhibitors for more Chaplin films. Sennett also allowed Chaplin to direct his next film himself, after Chaplin promised to pay $1,500 ($35,914 in 2016 dollars) if the film was unsuccessful.
Caught in the Rain, issued 4 May 1914, was Chaplin's directorial debut and was highly successful. Thereafter he directed almost every short film in which he appeared for Keystone, at the rate of approximately one per week, a period which he later remembered as the most exciting time of his career. Chaplin's films introduced a slower form of comedy than the typical Keystone farce, and he developed a large fan base. In November 1914, he had a supporting role in the first feature length comedy film, Tillie's Punctured Romance, directed by Sennett and starring Marie Dressler, which was a commercial success and increased his popularity. When Chaplin's contract came up for renewal at the end of the year, he asked for $1,000 a week ($23,943 in 2016 dollars) – an amount Sennett refused as too large.
The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company of Chicago sent Chaplin an offer of $1,250 a week with a signing bonus of $10,000. He joined the studio in late December 1914, where he began forming a stock company of regular players, including Leo White, Bud Jamison, Paddy McGuire and Billy Armstrong. He soon recruited a leading lady – Edna Purviance, whom Chaplin met in a cafe and hired on account of her beauty. She went on to appear in 35 films with Chaplin over eight years; the pair also formed a romantic relationship that lasted into 1917.
Chaplin asserted a high level of control over his pictures, and started to put more time and care into each film. There was a month-long interval between the release of his second production, A Night Out, and his third, The Champion. The final seven of Chaplin's 14 Essanay films were all produced at this slower pace. Chaplin also began to alter his screen persona, which had attracted some criticism at Keystone for its "mean, crude, and brutish" nature. The character became more gentle and romantic; The Tramp (April 1915) was considered a particular turning point in his development. The use of pathos was developed further with The Bank, in which Chaplin created a sad ending. Robinson notes that this was an innovation in comedy films, and marked the time when serious critics began to appreciate Chaplin's work. At Essanay, writes film scholar Simon Louvish, Chaplin "found the themes and the settings that would define the Tramp's world."
During 1915, Chaplin became a cultural phenomenon. Shops were stocked with Chaplin merchandise, he was featured in cartoons and comic strips, and several songs were written about him. In July, a journalist for Motion Picture Magazine wrote that "Chaplinitis" had spread across America. As his fame grew worldwide, he became the film industry's first international star. When the Essanay contract ended in December 1915,[note 9] Chaplin – fully aware of his popularity – requested a $150,000 signing bonus from his next studio. He received several offers, including Universal, Fox, and Vitagraph, the best of which came from the Mutual Film Corporation at $10,000 a week.
A contract was negotiated with Mutual that amounted to $670,000 a year, which Robinson says made Chaplin – at 26 years old – one of the highest paid people in the world.The high salary shocked the public and was widely reported in the press. John R. Freuler, the studio president, explained: "We can afford to pay Mr. Chaplin this large sum annually because the public wants Chaplin and will pay for him."
Mutual gave Chaplin his own Los Angeles studio to work in, which opened in March 1916. He added two key members to his stock company, Albert Austin and Eric Campbell, and produced a series of elaborate two-reelers:The Floorwalker, The Fireman, The Vagabond, One A.M.and The Count. For The Pawnshop he recruited the actorHenry Bergman, who was to work with Chaplin for 30 years. Behind the Screen and The Rink completed Chaplin's releases for 1916. The Mutual contract stipulated that he release a two-reel film every four weeks, which he had managed to achieve. With the new year, however, Chaplin began to demand more time.He made only four more films for Mutual over the first ten months of 1917: Easy Street, The Cure, The Immigrant and The Adventurer. With their careful construction, these films are considered by Chaplin scholars to be among his finest work. Later in life, Chaplin referred to his Mutual years as the happiest period of his career.
Chaplin was attacked in the British media for not fighting in the First World War. He defended himself, revealing that he would fight for Britain if called and had registered for the American draft, but he was not summoned by either country.[note 10] Despite this criticism Chaplin was a favourite with the troops, and his popularity continued to grow worldwide.Harper's Weekly reported that the name of Charlie Chaplin was "a part of the common language of almost every country", and that the Tramp image was "universally familiar". In 1917, professional Chaplin imitators were so widespread that he took legal action, and it was reported that nine out of ten men who attended costume parties dressed as the Tramp. The same year, a study by the Boston Society for Psychical Research concluded that Chaplin was "an American obsession". The actress Minnie Maddern Fiske wrote that "a constantly increasing body of cultured, artistic people are beginning to regard the young English buffoon, Charles Chaplin, as an extraordinary artist, as well as a comic genius".
Mutual were patient with Chaplin's decreased rate of output, and the contract ended amicably. His primary concern in finding a new distributor was independence; Sydney Chaplin, then his business manager, told the press, "Charlie [must] be allowed all the time he needs and all the money for producing [films] the way he wants ... It is quality, not quantity, we are after." In June 1917, Chaplin signed to complete eight films forFirst National Exhibitors' Circuit in return for $1 million. He chose to build his own studio, situated on five acres of land off Sunset Boulevard, with production facilities of the highest order. It was completed in January 1918, and Chaplin was given freedom over the making of his pictures.
A Dog's Life, released April 1918, was the first film under the new contract. In it, Chaplin demonstrated his increasing concern with story construction, and his treatment of the Tramp as "a sort of Pierrot". The film was described by Louis Delluc as "cinema's first total work of art". Chaplin then embarked on the Third Liberty Bond campaign, touring the United States for one month to raise money for the Allies of the First World War. He also produced a short propaganda film, donated to the government for fund-raising, called The Bond. Chaplin's next release was war-based, placing the Tramp in the trenches forShoulder Arms. Associates warned him against making a comedy about the war but, as he later recalled: "Dangerous or not, the idea excited me." He spent four months filming the 45-minute-long picture, which was released in October 1918 with great success.
After the release of Shoulder Arms, Chaplin requested more money from First National, which was refused. Frustrated with their lack of concern for quality, and worried about rumours of a possible merger between the company and Famous Players-Lasky, Chaplin joined forces withDouglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith to form a new distribution company –United Artists, established in January 1919. The arrangement was revolutionary in the film industry, as it enabled the four partners – all creative artists – to personally fund their pictures and have complete control. Chaplin was eager to start with the new company, and offered to buy out his contract with First National. They declined this, and insisted that he complete the final six films he owed them.
Before the creation of United Artists, Chaplin married for the first time. The 17-year-old actress Mildred Harris had revealed that she was pregnant with his child, and in September 1918 he married her quietly in Los Angeles to avoid controversy. Soon after, the pregnancy was found to be a false alarm. Chaplin was unhappy with the union and, feeling that marriage stunted his creativity, struggled over the production of his film Sunnyside. Harris was by then legitimately pregnant, and on 7 July 1919, gave birth to a son. Norman Spencer Chaplin was born malformed, and died three days later. The marriage eventually ended in April 1920, with Chaplin explaining in his autobiography that they were "irreconcilably mismated".
Losing a child is thought to have influenced Chaplin's work, as he planned a film which turned the Tramp into the caretaker of a young boy. For this new venture, Chaplin also wished to do more than comedy and, according to Louvish, "make his mark on a changed world." Filming on The Kid began in August 1919, with four-year-old Jackie Coogan his co-star. It occurred to Chaplin that it was turning into a large project, so to placate First National, he halted production and quickly filmed A Day's Pleasure. The Kid was in production for nine months, until May 1920, and at 68 minutes it was Chaplin's longest picture to date. Dealing with issues of poverty and parent–child separation, The Kid is thought to have been influenced by Chaplin's own childhood and was one of the earliest films to combine comedy and drama. It was released in January 1921 with instant success, and by 1924 had been screened in over 50 countries.
Chaplin spent five months on his next film, the two-reeler The Idle Class. Following its September 1921 release, he chose to return to England for the first time in almost a decade. He then worked to fulfil his First National contract, releasing Pay Day in February 1922. The Pilgrim – his final short film – was delayed by distribution disagreements with the studio, and released a year later.
Having fulfilled his First National contract, Chaplin was free to make his first picture as an independent producer. In November 1922 he began filming A Woman of Paris, a romantic drama about ill-fated lovers. Chaplin intended it to be a star-making vehicle for Edna Purviance, and did not appear in the picture himself other than in a brief, uncredited cameo. He wished for the film to have a realistic feel, and directed his cast to give restrained performances. In real life, he explained, "men and women try to hide their emotions rather than seek to express them". A Woman of Paris premiered in September 1923 and was acclaimed for its subtle approach, then an innovation. The public, however, seemed to have little interest in a Chaplin film without his presence, and it was a box-office disappointment. The filmmaker was hurt by this failure – he had long wanted to produce a dramatic film and was proud of the result – and withdrew A Woman of Paris from circulation as soon as he could.
Chaplin returned to comedy for his next project. Setting his standards high, he told himself: "This next film must be an epic! The Greatest!"Inspired by a photograph of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, and later the story of the Donner Party of 1846–47, he made what Geoffrey Macnab calls "an epic comedy out of grim subject matter." In The Gold Rush, the Tramp is a lonely prospector fighting adversity and looking for love. With Georgia Hale as his new leading lady, Chaplin began filming the picture in February 1924. Its elaborate production, costing almost $1 million, includedlocation shooting in the Truckee mountains with 600 extras, extravagant sets, and special effects. The last scene was not shot until May 1925, after 15 months of filming.
Chaplin felt The Gold Rush was the best fil