Charles Spencer Chaplin, known as Charlie Chaplin, born on April 16, 1889 probably in London (United Kingdom) and died on December 25, 1977 in Corsier-sur-Vevey (Switzerland), is an actor, director, screenwriter, producer and composer British.
He became a silent film idol from the mid-1910s, particularly in the burlesque genre, thanks to his character of Charlie Chaplin (referred to simply as “the tramp” in the original versions), and then gained wider recognition for his acting and directing. In a career spanning 65 years, he appeared in over 80 films. His public and private life, as well as the positions he took, were the subject of both adulation and controversy.
Chaplin grew up in poverty with an absent father and a mother in great financial difficulty, both music-hall performers, who separated two years after his birth. Later, his mother was committed to a psychiatric hospital when her son was fourteen. At the age of five, he made his first appearance on stage. He began performing in music halls at an early age and soon became an actor. At 19, he was noticed by the impresario Fred Karno and toured the United States. He played in the cinema for the first time in 1914 in the film For a Living and worked with the production companies Essanay, Mutual and First National. In 1918, he was one of the most famous personalities in the world.
In 1919, Chaplin co-founded the United Artists company and thus gained complete control over his works. Among his first feature films were The Tramp (1918), The Kid (1921), Public Opinion (1923), The Gold Rush (1925) and The Circus (1928). He refused to switch to sound cinema and continued to produce silent films in the 1930s, such as Les Lumières de la ville (1931) and Les Temps modernes (1936). His works then became more political, including The Great Dictator (1940), in which he mocked Hitler and Mussolini. His popularity declined in the 1940s due to controversies about his affairs with women much younger than him and a lawsuit for paternity. Chaplin was also accused of communist sympathies and investigations by the FBI and Congress caused him to lose his American visa. He chose to settle in Switzerland in 1952. He abandoned his character of Charlie Chaplin in his last films, including Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Les Feux de la rampe (1952), Un roi à New York (1957) and La Comtesse de Hong-Kong (1967).
Chaplin wrote, directed and produced most of his films, as well as acting and composing the music. He was a perfectionist and his financial independence allowed him to devote several years to the development of each of his works. Although his films are slapstick comedies, they have elements of pathos, social and political themes, and autobiographical elements. In 1972, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him an Honorary Academy Award for his invaluable contribution to the film industry, and many of his works are now considered among the greatest films of all time.
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born on April 16, 1889, the second child of Hannah Chaplin née Hill (1865-1928) and Charles Chaplin, Sr. (1863-1901). According to David Robinson, known as Charlie Chaplin”s official biographer, his paternal branch was of Huguenot origin: “The Chaplin family lived for generations in Suffolk. The name suggests that they were descended from the Huguenots, who had settled in East Anglia in large numbers since the late 17th century. His birth certificate was not found in the civil registry, but Chaplin considered that he was born in a house on East Street in the Walworth district of South London. Four years earlier, his parents married and Charles Sr. recognized Sydney John, a son from Hannah”s previous relationship with an unknown man. At the time of his birth, Chaplin”s parents were both music hall performers. His mother, the daughter of a shoemaker, had a relatively unsuccessful career under the stage name of Lily Harley, while his father was the son of a butcher. They separated around 1891 and the following year Hannah gave birth to her third son, Wheeler Dryden, from a relationship with the music hall singer Leo Dryden; the child was taken away by his father at the age of six months and remained distant from Chaplin for thirty years.
Chaplin”s childhood was marked by misery and deprivation, leading his official biographer David Robinson to describe his journey as “the most dramatic of all the tales ever told of the rise from rags to riches. He spent his early years with his mother and brother Sydney in the London borough of Kennington; apart from some sewing and nannying, Hannah had no income and Charles Sr. provided no support for his children. As the household”s financial situation deteriorated, Chaplin was sent to a workhouse at the age of seven. He later reported that he had a “sad existence” there and was briefly returned to his mother 18 months later; Hannah was soon forced to separate from her children again, who were sent to another institution for indigent children.
In September 1898, Chaplin”s mother was admitted to the Cane Hill Lunatic Asylum after developing a psychosis apparently brought on by malnutrition and syphilis. During the two months of her hospitalization, Chaplin and his brother were sent to live with their father, whom they barely knew. By this time Charles Sr. had fallen into alcoholism and his conduct led to a visit from a child welfare organization. He died of cirrhosis two years later at the age of 38.
Hannah”s health improved, but she had a relapse in May 1903. Chaplin, then 14 years old, took her to the dispensary, from where she was sent back to Cane Hill. He lived alone for several days and slept on the street while waiting for the return of his brother who had joined the Navy two years earlier. Hannah left the asylum after eight months, but she relapsed permanently in March 1905. Chaplin later wrote, “We could do nothing but accept our poor mother”s fate. In 1921, Charlie and his brother Sydney obtained permission to take her with them to Hollywood. Charlie bought her a house by the sea, and Hannah lived out her last seven years there, cared for at home. There she was able to see her third son, Wheeler Dryden, from whom she had been separated for thirty years. She died on August 28, 1928.
Chaplin began performing on stage at an early age. He made his first appearance at the age of five, replacing Hannah in a show in Aldershot. It was an exception, but his mother encouraged him in this direction, and “she had a kind of talent”, he became a member of the Eight Lancashire Lads dance troupe and performed in British music halls in 1899 and 1900. Chaplin worked hard and the troupe was popular, but he was not satisfied with dancing and wanted to turn to acting.
When Chaplin was on tour with the Eight Lancashire Lads, his mother made sure he continued to go to school, but he dropped out around the age of thirteen. After a period of odd jobs, at fourteen and shortly after his mother”s relapse, he joined an art agency in London”s West End. The head of the agency saw potential in Chaplin and quickly offered him his first role as a newspaper salesman in the play Jim, a Romance of Cockayne by Harry A. Saintsbury. The play premiered in July 1903, but it was not a success and performances stopped after two weeks; Chaplin”s comic performance was nevertheless noticed by the critics. Saintsbury then got him the role of the bellboy Billy in Charles Frohman”s play Sherlock Holmes. His performance was so well received that he was called to London to perform alongside William Gillette, who had co-written the play with Arthur Conan Doyle. He made his last tour of Sherlock Holmes in early 1906 after playing in it for over two and a half years.
Chaplin soon joined another company and starred in a sketch comedy, Repairs, with his brother Sydney, who had also embarked on an artistic career. In May 1906, he took part in the children”s show Casey”s Circus and developed his burlesque act, which quickly made him the star of the play. By the end of the tour in July 1907, the 18-year-old had become an accomplished comedian. However, he had difficulty finding work and a brief foray into stand-up comedy was not as successful as he had hoped.
At the same time, Sydney Chaplin joined Fred Karno”s prestigious comedy troupe in 1906, becoming one of its leading actors in 1908. In February, he managed to get a two-week trial period for his younger brother. Karno was initially unconvinced and regarded Chaplin as a “pale, sickly, scowling child” who “seems far too shy to do anything well in the theater. However, he was impressed by his first performance at the London Theatre and hired him immediately. After minor roles, Chaplin moved into leading roles in 1909 and was the lead actor in the new comedy Jimmy the Fearless in April 1910. It was a great success that drew the attention of the press to the young artist.
Karno chose him to participate with part of his troupe in a tour of North America. Chaplin led the music hall shows and impressed the critics who described him as “one of the best pantomime artists ever”. The tour lasted 21 months and the troupe returned to Britain in June 1912. Chaplin had the unsettling feeling that he was “returning to depressing platitudes,” and he was delighted when a new tour began in October.
Beginnings in the cinema (1914-1917)
While in the sixth month of his American tour, Chaplin was invited to join the New York Motion Picture Company; one of the company”s executives had seen one of his shows and thought he could replace Fred Mace, the star of the Keystone studio, who wanted to retire. Chaplin considered Keystone”s comedies a “crude mix” but appreciated the prospect of a new career; he signed a one-year contract in September 1913 with a weekly salary of $150 (about $3,880 in 2021.
Chaplin arrived at the Los Angeles studios in early December 1913 and met his manager Mack Sennett, who thought the 24-year-old looked too young. He did not act until the end of February 1914 and used this period to familiarize himself with filmmaking. He made his debut in the short film Pour gagner sa vie, released on February 2, 1914, but hated the film. In it, he presents himself as a kind of dandy in a tight frock coat, top hat and large drooping moustaches. For his second role, Chaplin chose the costume of Tramp (in his autobiography, he describes the process:
“I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the baggy pants, the tight jacket, the narrow hat and wide shoes… I added a little mustache that I thought would age me without affecting my expression. I had no idea who the character was, but as soon as I was dressed, the clothes and makeup made me feel who he was. I started to get to know him and when I walked on set, he was fully born.”
This film was The Strange Adventure of Mabel, but the character of “Tramp” appeared for the first time in Tramp is Happy with Him, which was shot shortly afterwards but released two days earlier on February 7, 1914. Chaplin quickly adopted this character and made suggestions for the films in which he appeared, but they were rejected by the directors. During the shooting of his 11th film, Mabel at the Wheel, he confronted the director Mabel Normand and the incident almost led to the termination of his contract. Sennett nevertheless kept him after receiving orders for new films with Chaplin. He also allowed him to direct his next film after Chaplin promised to pay $1,500 (about $38,287 in 2021.
A Tramp”s Crush, released on May 4, 1914, marked Chaplin”s directorial debut and was a great success. Thereafter, he directed almost all of the Keystone shorts in which he starred; Chaplin later reported that this period, when he directed about one film a week, was the most exciting of his career. He introduced a slower form of comedy than the typical Keystone farces and quickly gathered a large following. In November 1914, he starred with Marie Dressler in the feature film The Comedy Novel of Charlie Chaplin and Lolotte directed by Sennett; the film was a success and increased his popularity. When Chaplin”s contract expired at the end of the year, he asked for a weekly salary of $1,000 (about $25,525 in 2021 dollars), a sum that Sennett refused because it was considered too high.
The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company offered Chaplin a weekly salary of $1,250 (about $31,591 in 2021 dollars) with a $10,000 signing bonus. He joined the studio at the end of December 1914 and joined other actors such as Leo White, Bud Jamison, Paddy McGuire and Billy Armstrong. While looking for a supporting female role for his second film, Charlie”s Wedding, he spotted a secretary named Edna Purviance in a coffee shop in San Francisco. He hired her and she worked with him in 35 films; they also had a romantic affair until 1917.
Chaplin exerted a great deal of control over his films and began to devote a great deal of time and energy to each of his productions. A month separated his second production, Charlot fait la noce, and his third, Charlot boxer, and he adopted this rhythm for his later productions with Essenay. He also modified his character, criticized by Keystone because of his “malicious, boorish and rude” character, to give him a softer and more romantic personality. This evolution is illustrated by The Wanderer in April 1915 and Charlot the Bank Boy in August, which feature a sadder ending. This was an innovation for comic films and serious critics began to appreciate his work more. With Essanay, Chaplin found the themes that defined the world of the Tramp.
Immediately after his film debut, Chaplin became a cultural phenomenon. Stores sold products associated with his character, Chaplin, who appeared in comic books and songs. By July 1915, according to a reporter for Motion Picture Magazine, “Chaplinitis” was spreading in America. His popularity also spread abroad and he became the first international film star. As his contract with Essenay expired in December 1915, Chaplin, fully aware of his celebrity, asked his new studio for a $150,000 (about $3,790,954 in 2021 dollars) signing bonus. He received several offers from Universal, Fox and Vitagraph, among others.
He was finally hired by the Mutual studio, which gave him an annual salary of $670,000 (about $1,693,293 in 2021 dollars), making Chaplin, then 26 years old, one of the highest paid people in the world. This large sum shocked the public and was widely reported in the press. Studio president John R. Freuler explained that they could afford to pay Chaplin this salary because “the public wants Chaplin and will pay to see him.
Mutual granted Chaplin his own studio in Los Angeles, which opened in March 1916. He recruited two new actors to work with him, Albert Austin and Eric Campbell, and made a series of more elaborate and melodramatic films: The Tramp, The Fireman, The Musician, The Tramp Comes Home Late, The Tramp and the Count. For Charlot, a loan shark, he hired the actor Henry Bergman, who worked with him for 30 years. The last films he made in 1916 were The Movie Tramp and The Skating Tramp. The contract with Mutual stipulated that he had to make a short film every four weeks, a commitment he kept. However, he began to ask for more time to create his films and he only made four more for Mutual in the first ten months of 1917: The Policeman, The Cure, The Emigrant and The Escape. Because of their meticulous direction and careful construction, these films are considered some of Chaplin”s best work by film scholars. For Chaplin, his years at Mutual were the happiest of his career.
Chaplin was criticized by the British press for his lack of participation in the First World War. He responded that he volunteered to fight for the United Kingdom if called upon and that he had already answered the American draft; neither country asked him to enlist, and the British Embassy in the United States issued a statement saying that Chaplin “is far more useful to Britain earning money and buying war bonds than in the trenches.” Despite these criticisms, Chaplin was one of the soldiers” favorite actors, and his popularity continued to grow around the world. The American magazine Harper”s Weekly reported that Charlie Chaplin”s name was “part of the lingo of almost every country” and that the image of Chaplin was “universally familiar. By 1917, professional impersonators of Charlie Chaplin were so widespread that he took legal action, and it was reported that nine out of ten men attending costume parties took up his get-up. Actress Minnie M. Fiske wrote that “a steadily increasing number of educated people are beginning to regard the young English buffoon, Charlie Chaplin, as an extraordinary artist and comic genius.
First National (1918-1922)
Mutual did not mind Chaplin”s reduced output and the contract ended amicably. For his new studio, his main goal was to have greater independence; his brother Sydney, who had become his artistic agent, told the press that “Chaplin must be allowed to have all the time and money he needed to produce the films in his own way… It is quality, not quantity, that we want. In June 1917, Chaplin signed a $1 million (about $19,955,844 in 2021 dollars) contract for eight films with the theater owners” association First National Pictures. He decided to build his own studio on a 5-acre (20,200 m2) lot near Sunset Boulevard with the best facilities and equipment available. The studio opened in January 1918 and Chaplin was given a great deal of freedom to make his films.
A Dog”s Life, distributed in April 1918, was his first film under this new contract. In it, he demonstrated a growing attention to plot and his treatment of Charlie Chaplain as a kind of Pierrot. The film was described by French critic Louis Delluc as “the first total work of art in cinema. Chaplin then participated in the war effort by touring the United States for a month to raise money for the Allies. He also produced a short propaganda film for the government called The Bond. His next film, Charlot Soldier, featured Charlot in the trenches; his associates warned him against making a comedy about the war, but he thought otherwise: “dangerous or not, the idea excited me. The shooting lasted four months and the 45-minute film was a great success when it was released in October 1918.
After the release of Charlie the Soldier, Chaplin asked for more funds from First National, which refused. Frustrated by the studio”s lack of consideration for quality and worried about rumors of a merger with Famous Players-Lasky, he approached his colleagues Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D. W. Griffith to found a new distribution company. The creation of United Artists in January 1919 was a revolution for the film industry, as the four founders could now personally finance their works and have total control over them. Chaplin was eager to get started with his new company and offered to buy out his contract with First National. The studio refused and insisted that he deliver the last six films promised.
Before the creation of United Artists, Chaplin married for the first time. The 17-year-old actress Mildred Harris was pregnant, and they married quietly in Los Angeles in September 1918 to avoid controversy. Chaplin was not happy with this union, which he felt affected his creativity, and the making of An Idyll in the Fields was difficult. Harris then became really pregnant and she gave birth to a boy on July 7, 1919. The newborn, Norman Spencer Chaplin, was malformed and died three days later. The couple divorced in April 1920 and Chaplin explains in his autobiography that they were “absolutely not made for each other.
This personal tragedy influenced Chaplin”s work, as he considered making Charlie the guardian of a young boy. Filming of The Kid began in August 1919 with the then four-year-old Jackie Coogan. Chaplin realized that the project was larger than expected and, to appease First National, stopped production and quickly shot A Day of Fun. The Kid took nine months to complete, until May 1920, and its 68-minute running time made it the filmmaker”s longest film to date. Marked by themes of poverty and separation, The Kid is considered to be influenced by Chaplin”s own childhood and is one of the first films to combine comedy and drama. It was an immediate success when it was released in January 1921 and was distributed in more than 50 countries over the next three years.
Chaplin spent five months on his next 31-minute film, Charlie Chaplin and the Iron Mask. After its release in September 1921, he decided to return to Britain for the first time in nearly a decade. He then fulfilled his contract with First National by making Payday in February 1922 and The Pilgrim a year later.
United Artists (1923-1938)
Having fulfilled his obligations with First National, Chaplin was now free to make his films as an independent producer. In November 1922, he began shooting Public Opinion. He wanted this romantic drama to launch the career of Edna Purviance and made only a brief uncredited cameo in this production. Wanting the film to be realistic, he asked his actors to act in a restrained manner, explaining that in real life “men and women try to conceal their emotions rather than show them. The premiere of L”Opinion publique in September 1923 was critically acclaimed for its subtle approach, which was then an innovation. However, the public seemed uninterested in a Chaplin film without Charlie Chaplin and it failed. Proud of his film, the director was affected by this setback because he had wanted to make a dramatic film; he withdrew Public Opinion from theaters as quickly as possible.
Chaplin returned to acting for his next project and thought, “This next film must be an epic! the biggest!” Inspired by a photograph of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush and the story of the Donner Expedition of 1846-47, he made what journalist Geoffrey Macnab called “an epic comedy about a serious subject. In The Gold Rush, Chaplin is portrayed as a lonely prospector facing adversity and searching for love. With Georgia Hale as his partner, Chaplin began shooting in the mountains of western Nevada in February 1924. The production was complex, with over 600 extras, extravagant sets and special effects; the last scene was not completed until May 1925, after 15 months of shooting.
At a cost of nearly one million dollars, Chaplin considered The Gold Rush to be the best film he had made to that point. After its release in August 1925, it became one of the biggest successes of silent cinema, with five million dollars (approximately $72,893,738 in 2021. The comedy features some of Chaplin”s most famous scenes, such as the one of Charlie eating his shoe or the so-called “bun dance”, and he later stated that he would like people to remember him from this film.
While directing The Gold Rush, Chaplin married for the second time. As with his first marriage, Lita Grey was a young actress who was to appear in the film and whose unexpected pregnancy forced Chaplin to marry her. She was then 16 years old and he 35, and according to California law this relationship can be qualified as rape of a minor. According to the divorce papers, Chaplin wanted to have an abortion, but she refused. Lita Grey”s mother also threatened Chaplin that if he did not marry her daughter, he would report her to the police. He therefore organized a discreet ceremony in Mexico on November 24, 1924. Lita gave birth to a first son, Charles Chaplin Jr. on May 5, 1925, and a second, Sydney Earle Chaplin, on March 30, 1926.
This union was unhappy and Chaplin spent much time in the studio to avoid seeing his wife. In November 1926, Lita Grey left their home with their children. During the difficult divorce proceedings, Lita Grey”s documents accusing Chaplin of infidelity, violence and “perverse sexual desires” were published by the press. It is reported that Chaplin is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, as the story makes the headlines and groups are formed to call for a ban on his films. Eager to end the case, Chaplin”s lawyers agreed in August 1927 to pay $600,000 (about $8,831,034 in 2021 dollars), the largest amount awarded in a U.S. lawsuit to that point. Chaplin”s popularity enabled him to overcome the incident, which was quickly forgotten, but he remained deeply affected by it.
Before the divorce proceedings began, Chaplin began work on a new film, The Circus. Filming was suspended for ten months during the scandal of his divorce and the production was marked by difficulties. Finally completed in October, The Circus was released in January 1928 and received a positive reception. At the first Academy Awards ceremony, Chaplin received an honorary Oscar “for his versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus. Despite the film”s success, Chaplin associated it with the stress of his production; he did not mention it in his autobiography and had trouble working on it when he re-released it in 1967.
Sound cinema appeared around the time of the release of The Circus. Chaplin was skeptical of this new technique and felt that “talkies” were not as good as silent films from an artistic point of view. He was also reluctant to change the formula that had made him successful and feared that giving a voice to Charlie Chaplin would limit his international appeal. He therefore rejected this Hollywood fashion and began working on a new silent film; this decision nevertheless made him anxious and he remained so throughout the production of this new project.
When filming began in late 1928, Chaplin had been working on the story for nearly a year. City Lights depicts Chaplin”s love for a blind florist, played by Virginia Cherrill, and his efforts to raise money for an operation to restore her sight. Chaplin worked “to the brink of insanity to achieve perfection” and the film lasted 21 months, until September 1930.
Chaplin completed City Lights in December 1930 at a time when silent films had become anachronistic. A pre-screening was not a success, but the press was seduced. A journalist wrote: “Nobody else but Charlie Chaplin could have done it. He is the only one who has that strange something called ”audience appeal” in sufficient quantity to defy the popular penchant for talking pictures. Upon its official release in January 1931, City Lights was a popular and financial success, grossing over three million dollars. The British Film Institute cited it as Chaplin”s greatest achievement and critic James Agee referred to its finale as “the finest acting and the greatest moment in the history of the cinema.”
City Lights was a success, but Chaplin was not sure he could make another film without dialogue. He remained convinced that sound would not work in his films, but was also “obsessed with the depressing fear of being old-fashioned. Because of these uncertainties, the actor chose in early 1931 to take a vacation and stopped shooting for 16 months. He visited Western Europe, including France and Switzerland, and spontaneously decided to go to the Empire of Japan. There, he witnessed the incident of May 15, 1932, during which nationalist officers attempted a coup d”état, assassinating the Prime Minister of Japan Tsuyoshi Inukai. The initial plan included killing Charlie Chaplin in order to start a war with the United States. When the Prime Minister is killed, his son Takeru Inukai attends a sumo competition with Charlie Chaplin, which probably saved their lives.
In his autobiography, he notes that upon his return to Los Angeles in June 1932, he felt “lost and aimless, tired and conscious of extreme loneliness.” He briefly considered the possibility of retiring and moving to China.
Chaplin”s loneliness was eased when he met the 21-year-old actress Paulette Goddard in July, with whom he formed a happy couple. Still hesitating about whether to make a film, he wrote a serialized novel about his travels, which was published in Woman”s Home Companion magazine. His stay abroad, during which he met several influential figures, had a very stimulating effect on Chaplin, and he became increasingly interested in international issues. The state of American labor during the Great Depression troubled him and he feared that capitalism and machines would lead to high unemployment. It was these concerns that motivated him to develop his new film.
Modern Times was presented by Chaplin as “a satire of certain situations in our industrial life. He considered making it a talking picture, but changed his mind during rehearsals. Like its predecessors, Modern Times uses synchronized sound effects, but almost no speech. In the film, Chaplin”s interpretation of a song in “gibberish” nevertheless gives the Tramp a voice for the first time. After the music was recorded, the result was presented in February 1936. This was his first film since The Kid to incorporate political and social references, and this aspect led to strong media coverage, even though Chaplin tried to minimize the subject. The film was less successful than his previous films and critics were more mixed, some disapproving of its political significance. Modern Times nevertheless became a classic in Chaplin”s repertoire.
Following this outing, Chaplin traveled to the Far East with Goddard. The couple refused to comment on the nature of their relationship and it was unclear whether they were married or not. Some time later, Chaplin revealed that they were married in Canton, China, during this trip. However, the two soon drifted apart to focus on their work; Goddard finally filed for divorce in 1942, claiming that they had been separated for over a year.
Controversies and declining popularity (1939-1952)
Chaplin was deeply disturbed by the political tensions and the rise of nationalism in Europe in the 1930s and felt that he could not ignore them in his films. Observers made comparisons with Adolf Hitler: they were born four days apart, both had achieved worldwide fame despite their humble origins, and the German dictator wore the same mustache as Chaplin. This physical resemblance became the basis for Chaplin”s next film, The Great Dictator, which directly mocks Hitler and fascism.
Chaplin spent two years writing the script and began shooting in September 1939, just as the Second World War broke out. Chaplin decided to give up silent film, which he considered old-fashioned and because it was easier to deliver a political message with words. Making a comedy about Hitler was very delicate, but Chaplin”s financial independence allowed him to take the risk: “I was determined to do it because Hitler had to be made fun of. In the film, Chaplin moves away from his character of Charlie Chaplin, while maintaining his get-up, by playing a “Jewish barber” living in a European dictatorship that closely resembles Hitler”s dictatorship; Chaplin thus responds to the Nazis who claim that he is Jewish. Charlie Chaplin also played the dictator “Adenoid Hynkel”, parodying Hitler.
The Great Dictator spent a year in post-production and was released to the public in October 1940. The film was the subject of a major publicity campaign and a New York Times critic called it the most anticipated film of the year. It was a considerable popular success, even though the ending was controversial. In the finale, in which his Jewish barber character takes the place of the dictator, Chaplin gives a six-minute speech to the camera in which he states his personal political views. According to film historian Charles J. Maland, at a time when cinema avoided controversial political themes, this take on liberty marked the beginning of Chaplin”s decline in popularity: “From now on, no fan will be able to separate the political dimension from the film star.” The Great Dictator was nominated in five categories at the 13th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Screenplay, although it did not win any statuettes.
In the mid-1940s, Chaplin was involved in a series of trials that consumed much of his time and affected his public image. These were related to his intermittent relationship with the aspiring actress Joan Barry, between June 1941 and the summer of 1942. They separated after the latter showed mental problems, and she was arrested twice for harassment after this breakup. She reappeared the following year announcing that she was pregnant with the director; the latter denied it and Barry began a procedure for recognition of paternity.
J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), suspicious of Chaplin”s political leanings, exploited the opportunity to damage his reputation. As part of a smear campaign, the FBI indicted him in four cases related to the scandal. In particular, Chaplin was accused of violating the Mann Act, which prohibited the interstate transportation of women for sexual purposes. Historian Otto Friedrich argued that these were “absurd prosecutions” under an “old text,” but Chaplin faced up to 23 years in prison. The evidence on three counts proved insufficient to go to trial, but the investigation of the Mann Act violation began in March 1944. Chaplin was acquitted two weeks later. The case made frequent headlines and Newsweek called it “the biggest public relations scandal since the Roscoe Arbuckle murder trial in 1921.
Barry gave birth to a daughter, Carole Ann, in October 1944 and the paternity trial began in February 1945. After two difficult trials during which Chaplin was accused of “moral turpitude” by the prosecutor, he was declared the father. The judge refused to accept the medical evidence, particularly the difference in blood type that invalidated this conclusion, and Chaplin was ordered to pay child support to his daughter until she was 21. Media coverage of the trial was influenced by the FBI, which passed on information to the influential tabloid journalist Hedda Hopper.
The controversy surrounding Chaplin increased further when on June 16, 1943, two weeks after the paternity proceedings had begun, a new marriage was announced with his new 18-year-old protégée, Oona O”Neill, the daughter of the American playwright Eugene O”Neill. Chaplin, then 54 years old, was introduced to her by an art agent seven months earlier, and in his autobiography, he describes their meeting as “the happiest event of life” and indicates that he had discovered “perfect love. They remained married until his death in 1977 and had eight children: Geraldine Leigh (1944), Michael John (1946), Josephine Hannah (1949), Victoria (1951), Eugene Anthony (1953), Jane Cecil (1957), Annette Emily (1959) and Christopher James (1962).
Chaplin claimed that these trials had demolished his creativity and in April 1946, he began shooting a film he had been working on since 1942. Monsieur Verdoux is a black comedy about a French bank clerk, M. Verdoux played by Chaplin, who is reduced to unemployment and begins to marry and murder rich widows to support his family. The idea was provided to him by Orson Welles, who wanted him to star in a film about the French serial killer Henri Désiré Landru. Chaplin felt that the concept “would make a superb comedy” and bought the script from Welles for $5,000 (about $65,555 in 2021 dollars.
Chaplin again expresses his political ideas in Monsieur Verdoux by criticizing capitalism and the film is very controversial at its release in April 1947. He was booed at the premiere and some called for it to be banned. It was the first film in which his character had no connection with Charlie Chaplain; it was also the first to be a critical and commercial failure in the United States, and was better received abroad. It was nominated for best screenplay at the 20th Academy Awards. Chaplin was nevertheless proud of his work and wrote in his autobiography: “Monsieur Verdoux is the most intelligent and brilliant film I have ever made.
The negative reception of Monsieur Verdoux was largely the result of Chaplin”s changing public image. In addition to the scandal of the Joan Barry affair, he was publicly accused of being a communist. His political actions intensified during World War II and he campaigned for the opening of a second front to relieve the Soviets. He became close to known Communist sympathizers such as Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht and attended receptions hosted by Soviet diplomats in Los Angeles. In the political context of the “Red Scare” that prevailed in the United States at the time, such activities made Chaplin, according to Larcher, considered “dangerously progressive and amoral.” The FBI, determined to get him out of the country, launched an official investigation against him in 1947.
Chaplin denied being a communist and presented himself as a pacifist who believed that the actions of the U.S. government to suppress an ideology were an unacceptable violation of civil liberties. Refusing to remain silent on this issue, he openly protested the trials of members of the American Communist Party before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and was summoned by the latter. As his actions were widely reported in the press and the Cold War grew in intensity, his failure to acquire U.S. citizenship was criticized and some called for his deportation. Mississippi Representative John E. Rankin (en) declared before Congress in June 1947: “His life in Hollywood is harmful to the moral fabric of the United States. If he is not removed, his disgusting films can be kept out of the sight of American youth. We must expel him and get rid of him once and for all.
Although Chaplin remained politically active in the years following the failure of Monsieur Verdoux, his next film about a forgotten vaudeville comedian and a young ballerina in Edwardian London was devoid of political significance. Lights of the Ramp is largely autobiographical and refers to Chaplin”s childhood, his parents” lives and his loss of popularity in the United States. The cast includes several members of his family, including his oldest children and his half-brother, Wheeler Dryden.
After three years of preparation, shooting began in November 1951. He adopted a much more serious tone than in his previous films and regularly spoke of “melancholy” when explaining the script to his partner Claire Bloom. The film is also notable for the presence of Buster Keaton – whose only collaboration with Chaplin.
Chaplin decided to hold the world premiere of The Rampage in London, since the film was set there. Leaving Los Angeles, he said he expected never to return, driven out by McCarthyist America. In New York, he boarded the transatlantic liner HMS Queen Elizabeth with his family on September 18, 1952. The next day, U.S. Attorney General James McGranery revoked Chaplin”s visa and declared that he must submit to an interview about his political views and character in order to return to the United States. Although McGranery tells the press that he has “a pretty strong case against Chaplin,” Maland concludes, based on FBI documents released in the 1980s, that the U.S. government does not really have sufficient evidence to prevent Chaplin”s return; it is even likely that he would have been granted a visa if he had applied for one. However, when he received a cable informing him of this decision, Chaplin decided to sever all ties with the United States:
“Whether I came back to this sad country or not was of little importance to me. I wanted to tell them that the sooner I was rid of this hateful atmosphere, the better off I would be, that I was tired of the insults and moral arrogance of America.”
Since all his assets were in the United States, Chaplin did not make any negative comments in the press. While Chaplin and his film were well received in Europe, The Rampage was largely boycotted in the United States despite positive reviews. Maland wrote that Chaplin”s fall from an all-time high in popularity “may be the most dramatic in the history of American celebrity.
European years (1953-1977)
Chaplin did not attempt to return to the United States after his entry visa was revoked and sent his wife to Los Angeles to settle her affairs. The couple decided to move to Switzerland and the family settled in January 1953 at the Manoir de Ban, a 15-hectare property overlooking Lake Geneva in the commune of Corsier-sur-Vevey. Chaplin put his Beverly Hills residence and studio up for sale in March and returned his visa in April. The following year, his wife renounced her American nationality and became British. He abandoned his last professional ties with the United States in 1955 when he sold his shares in United Artists, which had been in financial difficulties since the early 1940s.
Chaplin remained a controversial figure throughout the 1950s, especially after receiving the International Peace Prize from the communist World Peace Council and his meetings with the Chinese Zhou Enlai and the Soviet Nikita Khrushchev. He began developing his first European film, A King in New York, in 1954. Playing the role of an exiled king seeking asylum in the United States, Chaplin exploited his recent problems to write the script. His son, Michael, is portrayed as a boy whose parents are targeted by the FBI, while Chaplin”s character is accused of being a communist. This political satire parodies the actions of HUAC as well as the consumerism of 1950s American society. In his review, playwright John Osborne called it Chaplin”s “most acidic…and overtly personal” film.
Chaplin founded a new production company called Attica and filmed in the Shepperton studios, in the suburbs of London. This shooting was difficult because he was used to his Hollywood studio and crews, and no longer had an unlimited production time. This had an impact on the quality of the film, which received mixed reviews on its release in September 1957. Chaplin prevented American journalists from attending the premiere in Paris and decided not to broadcast the film in the United States. This greatly hindered the commercial success of the film, even though it was considered a success in Europe. A King in New York was not shown in the United States until 1973.
From the mid-1950s onwards, Chaplin concentrated on the re-recording and re-editing of his old films, as well as on protecting his copyright. The first of these reissues was The Tramp”s Review (1959), which included new versions of A Dog”s Life, The Tramp as a Soldier and The Pilgrim.
In the United States, the political atmosphere was beginning to change and public attention was turning back to Chaplin”s films and away from his opinions. In July 1962, the New York Times published an editorial stating that “we don”t think the Republic would be in danger if yesterday”s unforgettable little Charlie Chaplin were allowed to walk the gangplank of a ship or plane in an American port.” That same month, Chaplin received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Oxford and Durham Universities. In November 1963, the Plaza Theater in New York began a retrospective of Chaplin”s films, including Monsieur Verdoux and Les Feux de la rampe, for which the reviews were much more positive than ten years earlier. September 1964 saw the publication of his memoirs, Histoire de ma vie, on which he had been working since 1957. The 500-page book, which focuses on his early years and his private life, is a worldwide success, even if critics point out the lack of information on his film career.
Shortly after the publication of his memoirs, Chaplin began work on The Countess of Hong Kong (1967), a romantic comedy based on a script he had written in the 1930s for Paulette Goddard. Set on an ocean liner, the action features Marlon Brando as an American ambassador and Sophia Loren as a stowaway. The film differed from Chaplin”s previous productions in several ways: it was the first to employ technicolor and widescreen resolution, while Chaplin concentrated on directing and appeared on screen only in the minor role of a sick steward. He also signed a contract with the studio Universal Pictures to distribute it. The Countess of Hong Kong received negative reviews upon its release in January 1967 and was a commercial failure. Chaplin is deeply affected by this setback and this film will be the last.
Chaplin suffered several minor strokes in the late 1950s and this marked the beginning of a slow decline in his health. Despite these difficulties, he soon began writing the script for his new film project, The Freak, about a winged girl discovered in South America, a project intended to launch the career of his daughter, Victoria Chaplin. However, his frail health prevented him from completing this project, and in the early 1970s Chaplin concentrated instead on re-releasing his older films, including The Kid and The Circus, for which he remade the soundtrack. In 1971, he was made Commander of the National Order of the Legion of Honor at the Cannes Film Festival and the following year he received a Golden Lion for his career during the Venice Film Festival.
In 1972, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him an honorary Oscar, which Robinson saw as the first sign that the United States “wanted to make amends. Chaplin hesitated to accept it, then decided to visit Los Angeles for the first time in twenty years. The visit was widely covered by the media, and at the award ceremony he received a twelve-minute standing ovation, the longest in the history of the Oscars. Visibly moved, Chaplin accepted the statuette, paying tribute to “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.
Although Chaplin still had film projects, his health became very fragile in the mid-1970s. Several strokes affected his speech and he had to use a wheelchair. Among his last accomplishments were the creation of an autobiography in pictures, My Life in Pictures (1974) and the revival of Public Opinion in 1976. He also appeared in a documentary about his life, The Gentleman Tramp (1975), directed by Richard Patterson. In 1975, Queen Elizabeth II knighted him.
In October 1977, Chaplin”s health deteriorated to the point that he required constant attention. He died of a stroke in his sleep on the morning of December 25, 1977, at the age of 88. According to his last wishes, a small Anglican funeral ceremony was organized on December 27 and he was buried in the cemetery of Corsier-sur-Vevey. Among the tributes from the film world, the director René Clair wrote “he was a monument of the cinema” and the actor Bob Hope declared: “we were lucky to live in his time”.
On March 1, 1978, Chaplin”s coffin was exhumed and stolen by two car mechanics, a Pole, Roman Wardas, and a Bulgarian, Gantcho Ganev. Their goal was to extort a ransom of one hundred thousand Swiss francs from Oona Chaplin in order to open a car garage later. They were arrested during a large police operation on May 17, 1978 and the coffin was found buried in a cornfield near the nearby village of Noville. It was reburied in the cemetery of Corsier-sur-Vevey and a reinforced concrete vault was added to prevent any further incidents.
Chaplin considered his first inspiration to be his mother, who amused him as a child by sitting at the window and imitating passers-by: “It was from her that I learned not only to express emotions with my hands and face but also to observe and study people. Chaplin”s early years in the music hall allowed him to observe the work of comedians; he also attended Christmas mime shows at the Drury Lane Theatre, where he studied the art of frivolity with artists like Dan Leno. His years with Fred Karno”s company had a formative effect on his career as an actor and director. He learned to combine tragedy with comedy and to use absurd elements that became recurrent in his works. In the film industry, Chaplin relied on the works of the French comedian Max Linder, whom he admired. In developing the costume and acting of the Tramp, he was probably inspired by the American vaudeville scene where tramp characters were common.
Throughout his career, Chaplin spoke relatively little about his filmmaking techniques and likened it to revealing his secrets to a magician. Little is known about his working methods, but they have been studied by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill and skilfully exposed in the documentary series Unknown Chaplin (1983).
Before making talking pictures with The Great Dictator, Chaplin never began a film shoot with a finished script. For his first films, he had only a vague idea, such as “The Tramp goes to a spa” or “The Tramp works as a pawnbroker”. He then had the sets made and worked with the other actors to improvise comic effects while refining the script throughout the production. As ideas were accepted or rejected, a narrative structure emerged and Chaplin was often forced to flip scenes that went against the story. Beginning with Public Opinion, Chaplin began to shoot from a pre-established script, but all of his films, until Modern Times, continued to undergo changes until they reached their final form.
In making films in this manner, Chaplin needed more time than any other director of the time. If he ran out of ideas, he would go away from the studio for days at a time, keeping his crews ready as soon as inspiration returned. The filmmaking process was also slowed down by his perfectionism. According to his British friend and director Ivor Montagu, “nothing short of perfection was good enough” for him. Since he personally financed his films, Chaplin had the freedom to achieve this goal and take as many shots as necessary. The number of takes was often excessive; each completed take of The Kid required 53 takes, while for the 20 minutes of The Emigrant, he used more than 12,000 meters of film, enough to make a feature film.
Describing his production methods as “sheer determination to the brink of madness,” Chaplin was usually completely exhausted from filming. Even in his later years, his work “took precedence over everything and everyone else.” The mixture of improvisation and perfectionism that resulted in days of effort and thousands of feet of wasted film proved to be taxing for Chaplin, which could lead him to lash out at his actors and crews.
Chaplin exercised complete control over his work, even to the point of mimicking other roles so that his actors would imitate him exactly. He personally edited all of his films, digging through large amounts of film stock to create the desired film. Chaplin did, however, receive help from other artists, including his friend and director of photography Roland Totheroh, his brother Sydney Chaplin, and various assistant directors, such as Harry Crocker, Dan James and Charles Reisner.
Style and themes
While Chaplin”s comedic style is generally referred to as slapstick, it is considered restrained and intelligent, and film historian Philip Kemp describes his work as a blend of “graceful physical comedy and thoughtful situational comedy.” Chaplin moved away from traditional slapstick by slowing the pace of the action and focusing on the viewer”s relationship with the characters. The comedic effects in Chaplin”s films are centered on the Tramp”s reaction to the things that happen to him: the humor comes not from the fact that the Tramp runs into a tree, but from the fact that he lifts his hat to apologize. His biographer Dan Kamin writes that Chaplin”s “eccentric mannerisms” and his “serious demeanor at the heart of slapstick” are other central aspects of his comic style.
Chaplin”s silent films generally follow Charlie”s efforts to survive in a hostile world. Although he lives in poverty and is frequently mistreated, he remains kind and optimistic; defying his social position, he strives to be seen as a gentleman. The Tramp opposes authority figures and “gives as good as he gets,” which led Robinson and Louvish to see him as a representative of the underprivileged: “An Everyman becoming a heroic savior. Hansmeyer notes that many of Chaplin”s films end with “Chaplin destitute and alone with optimism…toward the setting sun…to continue his journey.”
The use of pathos is a well-known aspect of Chaplin”s work and Larcher notes his ability to “. Chaplin sometimes draws on tragic events for his films as in The Gold Rush, which is inspired by the unfortunate fate of the Donner expedition. Different themes are represented in his early comedies such as greed (The Gold Rush), abandonment (The Kid) and more controversial subjects such as immigration (The Emigrant) or drugs (The Policeman).
Social commentary is also important in his early films, as he portrays the underprivileged in a positive light and highlights their difficulties. Later, he developed a great interest in economics and felt compelled to share his opinions in his films. Modern Times illustrates the difficult working conditions of industrial workers, The Great Dictator parodies Hitler and Mussolini and ends with a speech against nationalism, Monsieur Verdoux criticizes the war and nationalism, while A King in New York attacks McCarthyism.
Chaplin incorporates several autobiographical elements in his films and the psychologist Sigmund Freud considers that he “always represents himself as he was in his sad childhood. It is generally agreed that The Kid reflects the trauma he suffered in an orphanage, while the main character in The Searchlights refers to his parents” lives and A King in New York refers to his expulsion from the United States. His difficult relationship with his mentally ill mother is often reflected in the female characters in his films and in Charlie”s desire to save them.
As for the structure of his films, film historian Gerald Mast sees them as a series of sketches linked by a common thread rather than as a sequence ordered by a specific script. Visually, they are simple and economical, with scenes acted out like theater. In his autobiography, Chaplin wrote that “simplicity is best…pompous effects slow down the action, are dull and unpleasant…The camera should not intrude.” This approach has not been universally accepted and has been called old-fashioned since the 1940s, while film historian Donald McCaffrey sees it as an indication that Chaplin never fully understood the medium of film. Kamin argues, however, that Chaplin”s comedic talent would never have been enough to keep him funny on screen if he had not had “the ability to conceive and direct scenes specifically for the cinema.”
Chaplin developed a passion for music from childhood and taught himself to play the piano, violin and cello. He considered the musical accompaniment to be an integral part of the film and from The Public Opinion onwards he devoted a lot of time to this field. He composed the soundtrack for City Lights himself and did the same for all his subsequent films; from the end of the 1950s until his death, he soundtracked all his old silent shorts.
Since he had no musical education, Chaplin never knew how to read or write scores. He therefore called upon professional composers such as David Raksin, Raymond Rasch and Eric James to shape his ideas. Some critics have argued that the music for his films should be attributed to the composers who worked with him; Raksin, who helped set the music for Modern Times, nevertheless emphasized Chaplin”s creative and driving role in the composition process. At the beginning of this work, which can last for months, Chaplin describes exactly what he wants to the composers and plays the elements he has improvised on the piano. These melodies are then developed in close collaboration. For film historian Jeffrey Vance, “even though he relied on his associates to shape complex instrumentations, the musical instructions were his own, and not a note was placed without his approval.
Chaplin”s compositions resulted in three popular songs. Smile, composed for Modern Times, was later set to lyrics by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons, and performed by Nat King Cole in 1954. For The Rampage, Chaplin composed Terry”s Theme, which was popularized by Jimmy Young as Eternally in 1952. Finally, the song This Is My Song, sung by Petula Clark for The Countess of Hong Kong, was a great commercial success and reached the top of the British charts in 1967. Apart from his two honorary awards, the only Oscar that Chaplin won was for best film score on the occasion of the re-release of The Rampage in 1973.
On the occasion of the publication of his autobiography, Chaplin established his filmography, which then consists of 80 films (The Countess of Hong Kong, made three years later, was later added). In 2010, a copy of The Thief”s Run, made in 1914 and until then considered lost, was discovered in an antique shop in Michigan, bringing his filmography to 82 films.
Chaplin”s films, up to and including Le Cirque, are silent, although some have been reissued with soundtracks. City Lights and Modern Times are silent, but include soundtracks composed of music, sound effects and spoken sequences for the latter. The last five films of Chaplin are talking. Except for The Countess of Hong Kong, all Chaplin”s films were shot in 35 mm black and white format.
In French, Jacques Dumesnil doubled Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux, Les Feux de la rampe and Un roi à New York. Chaplin was also dubbed by Henri Virlogeux in the 1942 sound version of The Gold Rush, in 1968 by Roger Carel in The Great Dictator and by Jean-Henri Chambois in The Countess of Hong Kong.
Feature films :
Chaplin received a total of three Oscars: a first honorary Oscar in 1929 “for his versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus,” a second in 1972 “for the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century,” and a third in 1973 for Best Original Score (jointly with Ray Rasch and Larry Russell), for The Rampage. He was also nominated in the categories of best actor, best film and best screenplay for The Great Dictator, as well as best screenplay for Monsieur Verdoux.
Six of Chaplin”s films have been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress: The Emigrant (1917), The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936) and The Dictator (1940).
In 1998, critic Andrew Sarris wrote that Chaplin is “arguably the greatest artist that cinema has created, certainly its most extraordinary performer and probably still its most universal icon. He is described by the British Film Institute as “a tutelary figure of world culture,” and Time magazine listed him among the 100 most important people of the 20th century for “bringing laughter to millions” and because he “more or less invented worldwide fame and helped turn an industry into an art form.
Film historian Christian Hansmeyer has noted that the image of Charlie Chaplin is part of cultural history; according to Simon Louvish, the character is known even in places where his films have never been shown. Critic Richard Schickel suggests that Chaplin”s films with Charlie Chaplin present “the most eloquent and richest comic expressions of the human spirit” in film history. Objects associated with the character continue to fascinate audiences and in 2006, a bowler hat and bamboo cane that belonged to Chaplin were purchased for $140,000 at an auction in Los Angeles.
On the occasion of the Brussels World”s Fair in 1958, an international jury of 117 critics established a ranking of the best films of all time: The Gold Rush (1925) was ranked second behind Sergei Eisenstein”s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and ahead of Vittorio De Sica”s The Bicycle Thief (1948). Many of Chaplin”s films are still considered among the greatest ever made. British magazine Sight and Sound”s 2012 list of the best films in history, conducted among film critics, lists City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and The Gold Rush at 50th, 63rd, 144th, and 154th, respectively; the same survey of directors places Modern Times at 22nd, City Lights at 30th, and The Gold Rush at 91st. In 2007, the American Film Institute named City Lights the 11th greatest American film of all time, while The Gold Rush and Modern Times made the top 100.
The Irish town of Waterville, where Chaplin spent several summers with his family in the 1960s, has hosted the Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival every year since 2011, designed to honor the comedian”s legacy and discover new talent. Among other tributes, a minor planet, (3623) Chaplin, was named in his honor in 1981 by the Soviet astronomer Lyudmila Karatchkina and many countries have issued stamps bearing his effigy.
Xavier Beauvois” 2014 film The Ransom of Glory, starring Benoît Poelvoorde and Roschdy Zem, is very loosely based on the theft of Charlie Chaplin”s remains in 1978.
Bernard Swysen tells his life story in a comic book entitled Charlie Chaplin, the stars of history, drawn by Bruno Bazile and published in October 2019.