The film actor, director, and writer Charles Spencer Chaplin (1889-1977) was one of the most original creators in the history of the cinema. His remarkable portrayal of "the tramp"—a sympathetic comic character in ill-fitting clothes and a trademark mustache—won admiration from international audiences.
Charlie Chaplin was born in a poor district of London on April 16, 1889. His mother, a talented singer, spent most of her life in and out of mental hospitals; his father was a fairly successful vaudevillian until he began drinking. After his parents separated, Charlie and his half brother, Sidney, spent most of their childhood in the Lambeth Workhouse. Barely able to read and write, Chaplin left school to tour with a group of clog dancers. Later he had the lead in a comedy act; by the age of 19 he had become one of the most popular music-hall performers in England.
Arrived in the United States
In 1910 Chaplin went to the United States to tour in A Night in an English Music Hall and was chosen by film maker Mack Sennett to appear in the silent Keystone comedy series. In these early movies (Making a Living, Tillie's Punctured Romance), Chaplin made the transition from a comedian of overdrawn theatrics to one of cinematic delicacy and choreographic precision. He created the role of the tramp, a masterful comic conception, notable, as George Bernard Shaw remarked, for its combination of "noble melancholy and impish humour."
Appearing in over 30 short films, Chaplin realized that the breakneck speed of Sennett's productions was hindering his personal talents. He left to work at the Essanay Studios. Outstanding during this period were His New Job, The Tramp, and The Champion, notable for their comic pathos and leisurely exploration of character. More realistic and satiric were his 1917 films for the Mutual Company: One A.M., The Pilgrim, The Cure, Easy Street, and The Immigrant. In 1918 Chaplin built his own studio and signed a $1,000,000 contract with National Films, producing such silent-screen classics as A Dog's Life, comparing the life of a dog with that of a tramp, Shoulder Arms, a satire on World War I, and The Kid a touching vignette of slum life.
In 1923 Chaplin, D. W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford formed United Artists to produce feature-length movies of high quality. A Woman of Paris (1923), a psychological drama, was followed by two of Chaplin's funniest films, The Gold Rush (1925) and The Circus (1928). Chaplin directed City Lights (1931), a beautifully lyrical, Depression tale about the tramp's friendship with a drunken millionaire and a blind flower girl, considered by many critics his finest work. His only concession to the new sound medium occurred in the hilarious scene in which the tramp hiccoughs with a tin whistle in his windpipe while trying to listen politely to a concert. The pathos of the closing scene, in which the flower girl, who has just regained her sight (thanks to the tramp) sees him for the first time, is described by James Agee (1958): "She has imagined and anticipated him as princely, to say the least; and it has never seriously occurred to him that he is inadequate. She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silent toward her. And he recognizes himself for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet close-ups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in the movies."
Modern Times (1936), a savagely hilarious farce on the cruelty, hypocrisy, and greed of modern industrialism, contains some of the funniest sight gags and comic sequences in film history, the most famous being the tramp's battle with an eating machine gone berserk. Chaplin's burlesque of Hitler (as the character Hynkel) in The Great Dictator (1940), although a devastating satire, loses impact in retrospect. The last film using the tramp, it contains an epilogue in which Chaplin pleads for love and freedom.
It was with these more complex productions of the 1930s and 1940s that Chaplin achieved true greatness as film director and satirist. Monsieur Verdoux, brilliantly directed by Chaplin in 1947 (and subsequently condemned by the American Legion of Decency), is one of the subtlest and most compelling moral statements ever put on the screen. Long before European film makers taught audiences to appreciate the role of the writer-director, Chaplin revealed the astonishing breadth of his talents by functioning as such in his productions.
Political Views Stir Trouble
The love showered upon Chaplin in the early years of his career was more than equaled by the vilification directed toward him during the 1940s and early 1950s. The American public was outraged by the outspoken quality of his political views, the turbulence of his personal life, and the sarcastic, often bitter, element expressed in his art. An avowed socialist and atheist, Chaplin expressed a hatred for right-wing dictatorship which made him politically suspect during the early days of the cold war. This hostility was compounded when he released his version of the Bluebeard theme, Monsieur Verdoux. With its brilliantly sustained parallels between mass murder and capitalistic exploitation, the film is, as Agee said, "the greatest of talking comedies though so cold and savage that it had to find its audience in grimly experienced Europe."
During the next 5 years Chaplin devoted himself to Limelight (1952), a strongly autobiographical work with a gentle lyricism and sad dignity, in sharp contrast to the mordant pessimism of Monsieur Verdoux. "I was optimistic and still not convinced," he wrote, "that I had completely lost the affection of the American people, that they could be so politically conscious or so humorless as to boycott anyone that could amuse them." Further tarnishing Chaplin's image was a much-publicized paternity suit brought against him. Although Chaplin proved he was not the child's father, the reaction to the charges was overwhelmingly negative.
On vacation in Europe in 1952, Chaplin was notified by the U.S. attorney general that his reentry into the United States would be challenged. The charge was moral turpitude and political unreliability. Chaplin, who had never become a United States citizen, sold all his American possessions and settled in Geneva, Switzerland, with his fourth wife, Oona O'Neill, daughter of the American playwright Eugene O'Neill, and their children.
In 1957 Chaplin visited England to direct The King in New York a satire on American institutions, which was never shown in the United States. My Autobiography, published in 1964, is a long, detailed account that descends from a vivid, Dickensian mode to endless self apologies and name-dropping. Such an error, wrote John Mason Brown, "is only a proof of his modesty. He forgets that one of the biggest names he has to drop is Charlie Chaplin." Chaplin's 1967 film, A Countess from Hong Kong, was considered disastrous by most critics.
Return to the U.S.
By the 1970s times had changed, and Chaplin was again recognized for his rich contribution to film making. He returned to the United States in 1972, where he was honored by major tributes in New York City and Hollywood, including receiving an honorary Academy Award. In 1975, he became Sir Charles Chaplin after being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. Two years later, on December 25, 1977, Chaplin died in his sleep in Switzerland.
In all his work Chaplin consistently displayed emotional expressiveness, physical grace, and intellectual vision characteristic of the finest actors. The classical austerity and deceptive simplicity of his directorial style (emulated by Ingmar Bergman and others) has not been surpassed. A film about Chaplin's life, titled Chaplin was released in 1992.
Chaplin's most conspicuous deficiencies as an artist were attributable more to personal limitations than to aesthetic insensitivity. His occasional sentimentality represented an attempt to conceal deep bitterness; his frequently irritating tendency to idealize the female sex betrayed, as critic Andrew Sarris noted, the mark of the confirmed misogynist. Chaplin was a lovable but unloving figure—a fascinating, elusive, and difficult human being.
Further Reading on Charles Spencer Chaplin
Chaplin, Charlie, My Autobiography, Simon & Schuster, 1964
Kerr, Walter, The Silent Clowns, Alfred A. Knopf, 1975
Robinson, David Chaplin: His Life and Art, McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1985