There are stars, superstars, and legends and then there is Charlie Chaplin – “the little fellow” who bore the torch ahead for future creative filmmakers, as Vanity Fair had once written, “the little fellow was not a small man.” Every professional field has some exceptional member who is way ahead of their time thereby not earning the respect they deserve. Charles Spencer Chaplin has been a constant participant in the list of our happy memories as several generations grew up watching his films.
Born on April 16, 1889, Charles Spencer Chaplin had a rough start to life witnessing acute poverty and problems faced by the unprivileged in southern London. Chaplin’s is one of the most impressive rags to riches story in the entire world. Charlie had been exposed to the stage at a very early age since both his parents were music hall entertainers. As his parents separated when he was a toddler, Charlie and his half brother Sydney were initially brought up by their struggling single mother in the slums and later in he was sent to a workhouse. It was because of their mother that Charlie developed an interest in performing art. He later wrote: “[she] imbued me with the feeling that I had some sort of talent”.
Sydney secured his 16-year-old brother a fortnight’s trial with England’s foremost impresarios Fred Karno. Chaplin’s brilliant comic performance helped him anchor a spot in the troupe. After performing with this troupe for a few years Charlie received a good offer from Hollywood’s ‘king of comedy’ Mack Sennet to join Keystone studios. Chaplin’s famous on-screen persona – The Tramp’s first appearance on screen was in Kid auto races at Venice in 1914 where he is seen shoved aside by the cameraman who tries to shoot the car races, but the tramp finds his way back in front of the camera to visibility.
Moving on to work with various other production houses, young Chaplin fought his way through to convince the bosses and gifted the world one after other creative pieces. It was said that Chaplin did not work with a script, his ideas would help the story roll on the spot while his loyal crew toiled to keep up with his unique creativity. Comedy, in the monochromatic silent films era, meant mostly slapstick- people falling, throwing cakes at each other and the likes. With films like The Immigrant, Chaplin brought meaning to comedy. With Chaplin’s lead, films were gradually becoming an art form other than being a mere source of entertainment.
Chaplin joined forces with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and DW Griffith to form a new distribution company – United Artists, established in January 1919. The arrangement was revolutionary in the industry, as it enabled the four creative artists to personally fund their pictures and have complete control. His first full-length feature film was The Kid. Its plot exposed his comedy-loving audience to a world of pathos and poverty. It was the first film to portray comedy and heart-wrenching pain simultaneously in one story. Chaplin had said, “Life is tragedy in close-up, comedy in long shot.” A Woman in Paris, in 1923 flopped, for it was ahead of its time and Chaplin wasn’t acting in it. It proved the fact that his fans were more interested in watching him act rather than just his thoughts perform on-screen.
Then came one of his greatest films – The Gold Rush. To set his standards high Chaplin had planned to create an epic. Inspired by a photograph of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, he made what Geoffrey Macnab calls “an epic comedy out of grim subject matter.” The Gold Rush portrays the Tramp as a lonely prospector fighting adversity and looking for love. The comedy contains some of Chaplin’s most famous sequences, such as the Tramp eating his shoe out of hunger and the “Dance of the Rolls”. Chaplin stated, “This is the picture that I want to be remembered by,” at the time of the film’s release in 1925. With fame, came hardships, when Chaplin had to marry Mildred Harris and Lita Grey out of false pregnancy claims. Both his marriages failed and defamed him with scandals. Chaplin had a brief affair with Lita Grey just when he was looking for a female lead for ‘The Gold Rush’. He had to marry her as she suspected that she was pregnant, and since she was underage Chaplin could have been imprisoned. They had two sons, but eventually Grey divorced him due to Chaplin’s alleged numerous affairs outside marriage.
With the advent of sound in films, The Jazz Singer being the first talkie in Hollywood in 1927, expectations of the film viewing audience increased, but Chaplin was adamant. “I was determined to continue making silent films… I was a pantomimist and in that medium, I was unique and, without false modesty, a master,” he explained in the 1930s. A journalist after viewing ‘City Lights’ in 1930, wrote, “Nobody in the world but Charlie Chaplin could have done it. He is the only person that has that peculiar something called ‘audience appeal’ in sufficient quality to defy the popular penchant for movies that talk.” The Tramp falls in love with a blind girl and befriends an alcoholic wealthy man, which follows in a series of funny accounts in the City Lights. At the 1st Academy Awards, Chaplin was awarded a special trophy “For versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus.” It tells the story of the little Tramp as a clown, who as discovered by the ringmaster of a circus can only be funny unintentionally, not on purpose.
The state of labour in America in the early 1930s worried him that machinery in the workplace would increase unemployment levels and that stimulated Chaplin to develop his new film – Modern Times. He announced it as “a satire on certain phases of our industrial life.” Modern Times employed sound effects but almost no dialogues. But Chaplin’s performance of a gibberish song gave the Tramp a voice for the only time on film. The film received mixed reviews, as some viewers disliked the politicising. Chaplin met Paulette Goddard in the early 1930s, the leading lady in Modern Times, they got married during a trip but gradually the couple drifted apart as both individuals focused on their careers.
A new and visible boldness in expressing his political beliefs started to be evident in his films. Parallels between himself and Adolf Hitler had been widely noted – both had risen from poverty to world prominence, and both wore the same toothbrush moustache. This resemblance supplied the plot for Chaplin’s next film, The Great Dictator, which directly satirised Hitler and attacked fascism. Chaplin used spoken dialogue in this film, partly out of acceptance that he had no other choice, but also because he considered it a better way for delivering a political message. A comedy about Hitler was definitely controversial, but Chaplin’s financial independence allowed him to take the risk. “I was determined to go ahead,” he later wrote, “for Hitler must be laughed at.” Chaplin introduced a Jewish barber in the attire of the Tramp, and in a dual performance, he also played the dictator Adenoid Hynkel parodying Hitler. He also used fake German language to mock the dictator. The film generated a vast amount of publicity upon release in 1940, with a critic calling it “the most eagerly awaited picture of the year”. Chaplin concluded the film with an elaborate speech against the war in which he abandoned his barber character, looked directly into the camera.
After controversies like that of Joan Barry claiming to be pregnant with Chaplin’s child and the FBI director charging him with violation of the Mann Act (which could eventually land him up in the prison for several years), Chaplin had to pay child support for the daughter of Barry even though tests did not provide any evidence of him being the father.
It is unfortunate that his fan could not accept films like Monsier Vordeux (a black comedy) and Limelight (story of a forgotten vaudeville comedian and a young ballerina, highly autobiographical), which were not the usual Chaplin films. Limelight was boycotted in America for his declining fame owing to several scandals he got labelled with for his political views.
He left the United States and lived with his fourth wife Oona O’Niel in Switzerland. Though he found love and peace at an advanced age, he described Oona as “the happiest event of my life.” Chaplin made his most bitter film, A King in New York in 1954, after which he mainly focused only in re-editing his older films. The comedian, passed away on December 25, 1977, suffering a stroke. In later life, Chaplin had once stated that he was a “citizen of the world”, a fact that cannot be denied given his worldwide popularity in the early 1900s and even today.