Sir Charles “Charlie” Spencer Chaplin (1889-1977) lived a tragic life. He was essentially abandoned by his parents as a child. When he grew up, he married four different women who were each much younger than him. He sired no less than eleven different children (many of whom were apparently poorly treated) and he entertained a long list of romantic liaisons. In time, Chaplin became a sympathetic socialist/communist despite being a wealthy millionaire and, as punishment for his political leanings, he was ultimately exiled from the U.S. and forced to live in Switzerland for the remainder of his life, returning only once in 1972 to accept an honorary Oscar.
Charlie Chaplin’s life was one of the greatest tales of rags to riches. Almost as if mirroring a Horatio Alger novel, Chaplin was born into the rowdy, impoverished region of South London on the cusp of the collapsing Victorian society. South London was filled with poverty, booze, prostitution, and entertainment. His mother Hannah gave birth to his brother Sydney (to this day the father is unknown) and fourteen weeks later she met Charles Chaplin Sr. and promptly married him. Hannah was a singer and Chaplin Sr. was a touring comic who made his rounds through the American music halls. When Charles Sr. returned to England he found another new baby boy in the house –Charlie Chaplin– but he also discovered Hannah having an affair with another man. In response, a year after Charlie was born, his father walked out on the family and began drinking heavily. Hannah, Sydney, and Charlie then lived in squalid poverty in London, moving from one flat to another, before Hannah was forced to stop performing due to bouts of blinding headaches. She began losing her voice and likely contracted syphilis while suffering malnutrition. She was committed to an insane asylum in 1895 with a severe case of psychosis. Charlie and his brother Sydney then entered the workhouses for poor children, a common staple of Victorian England.
Not long thereafter, Charlie and his half-brother Sydney were sent away to live with their alcoholic and violent father Charles Sr. (who died two years later at age 38 in 1901 due to cirrhosis of the liver). Sydney then joined the military and Charlie worked a variety of odd-jobs before he began touring with a traveling vaudeville group. His first big break came with the Fred Karno Company, a company with whom Chaplin had traveled to America on two tours. As their boat approached New York harbor, members of the troupe remembered Charlie Chaplin waving his hat at the Statue of Liberty while shouting “America, I am coming to conquer you!” He spent much of the next few years touring the U.S. where he became known for portraying a comedic drunk onstage. His roommate on the tour was Mr. Stanley Jefferson -or as we know him today Stan Laurel (of Laurel & Hardy).
On the second tour of the U.S., Chaplin was approached about a possible film career. Mack Sennett lured Charlie Chaplin to produce a series of short films paying about $150 per week. In 1913, Charlie Chaplin accepted the contract and he officially joined the Keystone film company in Los Angeles, California. The rest is now history. Chaplin rapidly rose to an unparalleled status of international icon as his short films were beloved the world over. He quickly moved from Keystone to Essanay, and Mutual, and then to First National –all film companies. With each move, his films grew ever-more creative and inventive while Chaplin continued to pursue ever-greater personal and artistic control over the process. While traveling around the country raising “war bonds” for the U.S. effort in World War I, Chaplin befriended Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. They soon joined forces with the great silent film director D.W. Griffith and formed United Artists where Chaplin produced, directed, and starred in his famous string of extraordinary feature films (a complete list of his films can be found below with links to my reviews).
Needless to say, Chaplin became a household name as a result of his “little tramp” character –a poor vagabond and a starry-eyed dreamer who ceaselessly pursues hope in life, while confronted with the full brunt of a cold and loveless modern society. In his autobiography, Charlie Chaplin describes the creation of his iconic ‘little tramp” character as follows:
“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…”
While his performances onscreen were delightful, Chaplin’s personal life was often tumultuous. His first wife was Mildred Harris, a teenage bride who faked a pregnancy in order to force Chaplin’s hand in marriage. Later, she gave birth to a boy who was malformed and died three days later. Apparently, Chaplin treated Harris horrendously and they soon divorced. Chaplin then immediately pursued a young teenager named Lita Grey. She was featured as an Angel in the famous dream sequence in The Kid (1921). When she became pregnant, Chaplin snuck her out of state to New Mexico where underage marriages were still permitted (this was in order to avoid statutory rape charges in California). Nevertheless, despite his nuptials, Chaplin continued engaging in numerous affairs with leading ladies in his day. The stories are too numerous to count. In one, he had an affair with an erratic, suicidal woman named Joan Barry who dragged Chaplin through a lengthy paternity lawsuit over a child. Chaplin’s inevitable divorce from Grey led to a massive scandal as she revealed grotesque details of their private love life. At the same time, Chaplin’s studio burned down, rumors were leaked to the tabloids about his supposedly lurid behavior, and the IRS was chasing him down for unpaid taxes. To top it all off, Chaplin also spent time aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht during the infamous Thomas Ince situation, in which Mr. Ince died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Conspiracies and rumors continue to abound to this day, perhaps Chaplin was having an affair with Mr. Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies and, upon learning of the affair, Hearst had actually intended to shoot Chaplin but instead he struck and killed Ince. However, the official story involves a murky “accident” wherein Ince suffered spontaneous heart failure, perhaps he after falling overboard, and he promptly died.
Chaplin’s politics have also been the subject of much discussion. As the film industry began changing with the rise of “talkies,” Chaplin left Hollywood and embarked on a world tour meeting all manner of leading dignitaries. During this trip he became aware of the rise of big labor and automation in its particular impact on the working classes. He returned to Hollywood with a certain sympathy for communism, or at least a broad left-leaning disposition, hence came his films Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940), along with another failed marriage, this time to actress and former Ziegfeld Girl, Paulette Goddard. After the end of World War II, and the rise of the Cold War, Chaplin was roasted in the press after declining to expicitly criticize Stalin. He was strongly opposed to fascism, professing to be a man of peace, and he delivered some apparently unfortunate comments about the attack on Pearl Harbor –Chaplin apparently longed for the days when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were united in their common mission to destroy fascism. By this time, Chaplin’s films like Monsieur Verdoux (1947) began to draw scrutiny rather than praise. The final nail in the coffin came when notorious newspaper columnist Hedda Hopper joined forces with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in an effort to take down Chaplin. Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities blacklisted Chaplin just as he finished Limelight (1952), his final Hollywood production. He and his wife (now his fourth wife Oona O’Neill, who was the daughter of the Nobel Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill) fled the U.S. for England. They were not allowed to return to their home country for over two decades, ultimately settling in Switzerland.
Charlie Chaplin returned only once more to the U.S. in 1972 in order to accept an honorary Oscar. He died in his sleep at the age of 88 in 1977 while at his vast estate located along the banks of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. He had always hoped to be best remembered for his seminal film The Gold Rush (1925), however in truth each one of his feature-length films is a unique masterpiece of cinematic splendor.
My Reviews of Charlie Chaplin’s Filmography
- Charlie Chaplin’s Keystone Shorts (~1914, 36 shorts)
- Charlie Chaplin’s Essanay Shorts (~1915, 15 shorts)
- Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual Shorts (1916-1917)
- Charlie Chaplin’s First National Shorts (1918-1923)
- The Kid (1921)
- A Woman of Paris (1923)
- The Gold Rush (1925)
- The Circus (1928)
- City Lights (1931)
- Modern Times (1936)
- The Great Dictator (1940)
- Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
- Limelight (1952)
- A King in New York (1957) –made in England, I intend to review at a later date.
- A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) –made in England, I intend to review at a later date.
It’s always food for thought when we realize how tragic the lives of some of our most iconic celebrities have been. Thank you for this article and thank you, Charlie Chaplin, for your wonderful career.
LikeLiked by 2 people