Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin KBE was an English comic actor, filmmaker, and composer who rose to fame in the era of silent film.
He became a worldwide icon through his screen persona, “The Tramp”, and is considered one of the most important figures in the history of the film industry.
His career spanned more than 75 years, from childhood in the Victorian era until a year before his death in 1977, and encompassed both adulation and controversy.
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.
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.
Chaplin’s childhood in London was one of poverty and hardship, as his father was absent and his mother struggled financially, and he was sent to a workhouse twice before the age of nine.
Chaplin began performing at an early age, touring music halls and later working as a stage actor and comedian.
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 Harry Arthur 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.
His performance was so well received in Charles Frohman’s production of Sherlock Holmes, where he played Billy the pageboy, that he was called to London to play the role alongside William Gillette, the original Holmes
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.
At 19, he was signed to the prestigious Fred Karno company, which took him to America. He was scouted for the film industry and began appearing in 1914 for Keystone Studios. He soon developed the Tramp persona and formed a large fan base.
He directed his own films and continued to hone his craft as he moved to the Essanay, Mutual, and First National corporations.
The one-reeler Making a Living marked his film acting debut and was released on 2 February 1914.
Caught in the Rain, issued 4 May 1914, was Chaplin’s directorial debut and was highly successful.
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.
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
Mutual Film Corporation signed Chaplin for a contract of $670,000 a year ($15.7 million today)– at 26 years old – making him 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.”
Chaplin was attacked in the British media for not fighting in the First World War.
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”.
By 1918, he was one of the best-known figures in the world.
A Dog’s Life (1918). It was around this time that Chaplin began to conceive the Tramp as “a sort of Pierrot”, or sad clown.
In 1919, Chaplin co-founded the distribution company United Artists, which gave him complete control over his films. The arrangement was revolutionary in the film industry, as it enabled the four partners Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith – all creative artists – to personally fund their pictures and have complete control.
His first feature-length film was The Kid (1921), followed by A Woman of Paris (1923), The Gold Rush (1925), and The Circus (1928).
Dealing with issues of poverty and parent–child separation, The Kid was one of the earliest films to combine comedy and drama. It was inspired by his own experience of losing his child, his own childhood experiences and poverty.
Chaplin felt The Gold Rush was the best film he had made. It opened in August 1925 and became one of the highest-grossing films of the silent era with a U.S. box-office of $5 million. The comedy contains some of Chaplin’s most famous sequences, such as the Tramp eating his shoe and the “Dance of the Rolls”. Macnab has called it “the quintessential Chaplin film”. Chaplin stated at its release, “This is the picture that I want to be remembered by”.
His divorce scandal with second wife Lita Grey – a cash settlement of $600,000 – the largest awarded by American courts at that time.
At the 1st Academy Awards, Chaplin was given a special trophy “For versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus”. Despite its success, he permanently associated the film with the stress of its production; Chaplin omitted The Circus from his autobiography, and struggled to work on it when he recorded the score in his later years
By the time The Circus was released, Hollywood had witnessed the introduction of sound films. Chaplin was cynical about this new medium and the technical shortcomings it presented, believing that “talkies” lacked the artistry of silent films. He was also hesitant to change the formula that had brought him such success, and feared that giving the Tramp a voice would limit his international appeal. He, therefore, rejected the new Hollywood craze and began work on a new silent film.
He initially refused to move to sound films in the 1930s, instead producing City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) without dialogue.
The British Film Institute cites it as Chaplin’s finest accomplishment, and the critic James Agee hails the closing scene as “the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies”. City Lights became Chaplin’s personal favourite of his films and remained so throughout his life.
Like its predecessor, Modern Times employed sound effects but almost no speaking. Chaplin’s performance of a gibberish song did, however, give the Tramp a voice for the only time on film. It was his first feature in 15 years to adopt political references and social realism, a factor that attracted considerable press coverage despite Chaplin’s attempts to downplay the issue
He became increasingly political, and his first sound film was The Great Dictator (1940), which satirised Adolf Hitler.
The film generated a vast amount of publicity, with a critic for The New York Times calling it “the most eagerly awaited picture of the year”, and it was one of the biggest money-makers of the era
The Great Dictator received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor.
The 1940s were a decade marked with controversy for Chaplin, and his popularity declined rapidly. He was accused of communist sympathies, and some members of the press and public found his involvement in a paternity suit, and marriages to much younger women, scandalous. 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).
By October 1977, Chaplin’s health had declined to the point that he needed constant care. In the early morning of 25 December 1977, Chaplin died at home after suffering a stroke in his sleep. He was 88 years old.
On 1 March 1978, Chaplin’s coffin was dug up and stolen from its grave by two unemployed immigrants, Roman Wardas, from Poland, and Gantcho Ganev, from Bulgaria. The body was held for ransom in an attempt to extort money from Oona Chaplin. The pair were caught in a large police operation in May, and Chaplin’s coffin was found buried in a field in the nearby village of Noville. It was re-interred in the Corsier cemetery surrounded by reinforced concrete
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 slapstick combined with pathos, typified in the Tramp’s struggles against adversity. Many contain social and political themes, as well as autobiographical elements.
In the 1975 New Year Honours, he was appointed a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (KBE).
He was also awarded honorary Doctor of Letters degrees by the University of Oxford and the University of Durham in 1962. In 1965, he and Ingmar Bergman were joint winners of the Erasmus Prize and, in 1971, he was appointed a Commander of the National Order of the Legion of Honour by the French government.
From the film industry, Chaplin received a special Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1972, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Lincoln Center Film Society the same year. The latter has since been presented annually to filmmakers as The Chaplin Award.
Chaplin was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1972, having been previously excluded because of his political beliefs
Chaplin received three Academy Awards: an Honorary Award for “versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing, and producing The Circus” in 1929, a second Honorary Award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century” in 1972, and a Best Score award in 1973 for Limelight (shared with Ray Rasch and Larry Russell)
He was further nominated in the Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture (as producer) categories for The Great Dictator, and received another Best Original Screenplay nomination for Monsieur Verdoux.
In 1976, Chaplin was made a Fellow of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).
Six of Chaplin’s films have been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress: The Immigrant (1917), The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), and The Great Dictator (1940).
Chaplin’s final home, Manoir de Ban in Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, has been converted into a museum named “Chaplin’s World”. It opened on 17 April 2016 after 15 years of development, and is described by Reuters as “an interactive museum showcasing the life and works of Charlie Chaplin”
On the 128th anniversary of his birth, a record-setting 662 people dressed as the Tramp in an event organised by the museum.
Previously, the Museum of the Moving Image in London held a permanent display on Chaplin, and hosted a dedicated exhibition to his life and career in 1988.
The London Film Museum hosted an exhibition called Charlie Chaplin – The Great Londoner, from 2010 until 2013.
In London, a statue of Chaplin as the Tramp, sculpted by John Doubleday and unveiled in 1981, is located in Leicester Square. The city also includes a road named after him in central London, “Charlie Chaplin Walk”
In other tributes, a minor planet, 3623 Chaplin – discovered by Soviet astronomer Lyudmila Karachkina in 1981 – is named after Chaplin
Throughout the 1980s, the Tramp image was used by IBM to advertise their personal computers
Many countries, spanning six continents, have honoured Chaplin with a postal stamp
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