Created | Updated May 16, 2013
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in London, England, on 16 April, 1889. His father, Charles Chaplin Senior, was a vocalist and actor; his mother, Hannah Harriette Hill, was known under the stage name of Lily Harley and was an attractive actress and singer, who gained a small reputation for her work in the music hall. Soon after Charlie's birth his parents divorced. His father died early in Charlie's life and when Charlie was 12 years old his mother suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted to an asylum. She died in 1928. This left him and his half-brother Sydney to fend for themselves.
Charlie's first taste of the stage was together with his mother at the age of five. Both brothers, having inherited natural talents from their parents, took to the stage as the best opportunity for a career. Charlie made his professional debut as a member of a juvenile group called 'The Eight Lancashire Lads' and rapidly won popular favour as an outstanding tap dancer.
Chaplin is most remembered and loved for his famous character, usually just known as 'The Tramp'. This character had baggy pants, a tight coat, a bowler hat, a bamboo cane and a little moustache. The Tramp first appears in the short, Kid Auto Race, where he continually walks into the view of the camera filming the race. The Tramp had a funny walk and was a truly iconic, hilarious and complex character which grew in depth throughout all of Chaplin's films.
Beginning his Career
Chaplin went to America and gained some experience in the film and theatre world. He even roomed with Stan Laurel on a tour. It was during the time, when he was acting in movies, that he came up with the Tramp character. He then signed a contract with the Mutual Film Corporation to make 12 two-reel comedies. These include The Floorwalker, The Fireman, The Vagabond, One AM (a production in which he was the only character for the entire two reels with the exception of the entrance of a cab driver in the opening scene), The Count, The Pawnshop, Behind the Screen, The Rink, Easy Street (heralded as his greatest production up to that time), The Cure, The Immigrant and The Adventurer.
In 1917 Chaplin signed a contract with First National. After a couple of films, including Shoulder Arms, one of his first war comedies, he joined with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and DW Griffith to found the United Artists Corporation. BB Hampton, in his History of the Movies says:
The corporation was organised as a distributor, each of the artists retaining entire control of his or her respective producing activities, delivering to United Artists the completed pictures for distribution on the same general plan they would have followed with a distributing organisation which they did not own. The stock of United Artists was divided equally among the founders. This arrangement introduced a new method into the industry. Heretofore, producers and distributors had been the employers, paying salaries and sometimes a share of the profits to the stars. Under the United Artists system, the stars became their own employers. They had to do their own financing, but they received the producer profits that had formerly gone to their employers and each received his share of the profits of the distributing organisation.
Chaplin usually worked with no script and created his films almost completely on random inspiration. If he had an idea for a movie in a spa, he would have a set built in the studio. But like all true artists, not every day was filled with ideas. Chaplin would leave the set for days at a time before having enough ideas to continue. He would also reshoot scenes again and again until he was satisfied. Because he was using his own money, he could create movies whichever way he wished.
Chaplin also composed the majority of the music for his movies. He wasn't very good at working with notes and writing them on paper, but he knew what he wanted and would hum it to someone who would then write the notes. In addition to this he also wrote the theme to Limelight, which won the Oscar for Best Music Score in 1973, 20 years after it was released. Chaplin also composed the song 'Smile', the theme to his final silent movie Modern Times.
Under his contract with UA, Chaplin made eight full-length pictures: Woman Of Paris (1923) which he wrote, directed and produced; Gold Rush (1925); Circus (1928); City Lights (1931); Modern Times (1936); The Great Dictator1 (1940), in which he played the role of the dictator and a Jewish barber2; Monsieur Verdoux (1947) in which the public saw a new Chaplin, without his traditional moustache, baggy trousers and wobbly cane; and Limelight (1952). In 1957 he released his comedy A King in New York and in 1966 he produced his last picture A Countess from Hong Kong for Universal Pictures, starring Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando.
Controversy: Politics and Divorce
Chaplin was not on friendly terms with the government. He tended to sympathise with leftist political views and this was demonstrated in many of his movies, notably Modern Times. Chaplin retained his British nationality. During the era of McCarthyism, he was accused of 'un-American activities' as a suspected communist.
Chaplin was also known as a womaniser, whose preference for teenage girls, drew criticism. In 1918, when he was 28, he married Mildred Harris, a 16-year-old, whom he then divorced two years later. In 1924 he fell in love with 16-year-old Lita Grey and married her after she became pregnant. The couple had two sons, Charles in 1925 and Sydney in 1926. The marriage was troubled from the outset and due to Chaplin's many affairs, a bitter divorce followed, in 1927. The stresses of this divorce, which resulted in the largest financial settlement of the time, compounded by a tax dispute, allegedly turned his hair white. Then in 1936, Chaplin secretly married the actress Paulette Goddard. After a number of happy years, the marriage ended in Chaplin's third divorce in 1942.
J Edgar Hoover had instructed the FBI to keep extensive files on Chaplin and tried to end his residency in America. In 1952 Chaplin left the United States for a trip to England. While he was away Hoover learned about the trip and negotiated with the Immigration and Naturalisation Service to revoke his re-entry permit. Chaplin decided to stay in Europe and then moved to Switzerland with his family.
Because of the controversy surrounding Chaplin, Limelight was not seen in the United States until 1972. It was 20 years since the film had premiered in Europe and the political tension had died down by the time the Hollywood Academy offered him an Oscar for 'the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.' Even allowing for the prestigious nature of this award, the State Department granted the star a visa allowing his to return to America for one time only, and for the visit to last no more than two months. That was long enough for Chaplin; he made the trip to receive the Oscar.
The Final Years
Charlie Chaplin was a comedian of the rarest type. He not only financed and produced all his films (with the exception of A Countess from Hong Kong), but was also the author, actor, director and soundtrack composer of his films as well.
On 4 March, 1975, after many years of exile, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. The honour was first proposed in 1956, but had been vetoed by the British Foreign Office because the British feared that giving the honour to Chaplin, a known communist supporter, would damage their relations with the United States.
Chaplin and his family lived happily in Switzerland for the rest of his life. On Christmas Day, 1977 Chaplin passed away in Vevey, Switzerland, survived by eight children from his last marriage with Oona O'Neill and his youngest son from his short marriage to Lita Grey.
Controversy Beyond the Grave
On 3 March, 1978, two months after his death, his body was stolen from the cemetery. Robbers attempted to extort money from his family but their plot failed. They were captured, and the body was recovered near Lake Geneva on May 17th, eleven weeks after the event.
A day without laughter is a day wasted.
Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.
I remain just one thing, and one thing only, and that is a clown. It places me on a far higher plane than any politician.
In the end, everything is a gag.
Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain.
Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.
A tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure.
The saddest thing I can imagine is to get used to luxury.
All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl.
I have no further use for America. I wouldn't go back there if Jesus Christ was president.