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Biography of Charlie Chaplin, the Little Tramp

Charlie Chaplin biography (April 16, 1889 – December 25, 1977)

Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp in his silent short film, His New ProfessionCharlie Chaplin, who brought laughter to millions worldwide as the silent “Little Tramp” clown, had the type of deprived childhood that one would expect to find in a Dickens novel.  Born in East Street, Walworth, London on 16 April 1889, Charles Spencer Chaplin was the son of a music hall singer and his wife.  Charlie Chaplin’s parents divorced early in his life, with his father providing little to no support, either financial or otherwise, leaving his mother to support them as best she could. Charlie Chaplin’s mother Hannah was the brightest spot in Charlie’s childhood.  Formerly an actor on stage, she had lost her ability to perform.  She managed to earn a subsistence living for herself, Charlie, and Charlie’s older half-brother Sidney by sewing. She was an integral part of Charlie’s young life, and he credited her with much of his success.Sadly, she slowly succumbed to mental illness, and by the time that Charlie Chaplin was 7 years old, she was confined to an asylum; Charlie and Sidney were relegated to a workhouse (a government facility for orphaned and abandoned children) — not for the last time. After 2 months, she was released, and the family was happily reunited, for a time. In later years, she was readmitted for an 8-month stretch later, during which time Charlie Chaplin lived with his alcoholic father and stepmother, in a strained environment.

Charlie Chaplin’s first taste of show business

Charlie Chaplin - the little trampSidney left home first, working first on a sailing ship, and later on the stage, opening the door for Charlie to follow in his footsteps later. Young Charlie Chaplin felt more alone than ever without the presence of his brother, his closest friend, and confidant. However, there was a bright spot as well in Charlie Chaplin’s 9th year.  He toured with a stage company, the 8 Lancashire Lads, with a kindhearted couple who led the troupe, and gave Charlie Chaplin his first taste of stage life. He also met a young Stan Laurel as part of the troupe.

At the age of 12, Charlie Chaplin’s father died quite young.

At the age of 14, Charlie Chaplin’s mother is readmitted to the asylum, while Sidney is out of town on an extended trip. Charlie provided for himself as best he can, desperate to avoid returning to the workhouse, until Sydney returns home. With Sidney’s return, young Charlie Chaplin’s luck begins to turn for the better. He wins a part in the stage play “Jim, A Romance of Cockney” to glowing reviews. Later in the same year, he earns the part of Billy in a stage adaptation of “Sherlock Holmes,” again to sterling reviews, and tours with the company playing that part. The tour continues through the next year, and Hannah is again released, seemingly in her right mind. All seems to be going well, until Hannah relapses, and is institutionalized for the next 7 years; Charlie Chaplin is 16 years old.

Charlie Chaplin tours with the Karno troupe and enters films

Young Charlie Chaplin continued in his acting career, as his brother Sidney joins the Karno troupe, again opening the way there for Charlie. Charlie Chaplin joined the Karno troupe the next year, again working alongside Stan Laurel. Two years later, Charlie Chaplin (along with the rest of the Karno troupe) tour the United States’ vaudeville circuit. Two years later, in 1912, Charlie Chaplin returned with the Karno troupe to the USA, but this time decides to stay. The next year, Charlie Chaplin left the stage to join Mack Sennet’s Keystone Films Studio, marking a milestone both in his own life and in the history of film.

Charlie Chaplin - the little trampCharlie Chaplin’s famous Tramp character is born

The pace of filmmaking in early Hollywood seems impossible by today’s standards. In just two months, Charlie Chaplin appeared in the following Keystone films: Making a Living, Kid Auto Races At Venice, Mabel’s Strange Predicament, Between Showers, A Film Johnnie, Tango Tangles, His Favourite Pastime, Cruel, Cruel Love. Although Charlie Chaplin started at the Keystone company as a bit player, with the introduction of his world-famous tramp character he quickly exploded into a major star. By April, at the age of 25, Charlie Chaplin directs his first film, Twenty Minutes of Love.

By November of that year, Charlie Chaplin left Keystone, having signed an exclusive contract with the newly formed Essanay Film Company. Sidney follows in Charlie’s steps this time and joins the Keystone company shortly before Charlie left it.

In February of 1915, Charlie Chaplin began work for Essanay, with greater control over his films than ever before.  But not enough to avoid ‘creative differences‘ with his bosses at Essanay. However, another milestone occurs at the same time.  He meets Edna Purviance, who was to be his leading lady for many of his films, as well as an off-again, on-again romance. At Essanay, Charlie Chaplin created many of the classic short films he’s best remembered for.  These include His New Job, A Jitney Elopement, The Tramp, A Night in the Show, and The Immigrant. In February of 1916, Charlie Chaplin again jumped to another film company, Chaplin Mutual Comedies RestoredMutual, where he continues to create some of his finest shorts.  These include The Floorwalker, The Vagabond, The Pawnshop, Behind the Screen, and The Rink.

In both his personal and professional life, his inner circle began to expand.  He first hired Henry Bergman (the ‘heavy villain’ in so many of Charlie Chaplin’s films), as well as hiring Tom Harrington as his personal secretary, a position which he kept for many decades, becoming Charlie Chaplin’s right-hand man in many respects. It was also at Mutual that he hired Eric Campbell, the “gentle giant” that was his on-screen nemesis and personal friend, who co-starred in 11 of his 12 Mutual films.

movie poster of Charlie Chaplin in Shoulder ArmsDesiring even more creative control, Charlie Chaplin began building his own studio in the fall of 1917, and signed with yet another studio, First National. For the first time, Charlie Chaplin had complete control over every step of his films. Sadly, Eric Campbell died in a car accident, causing Charlie Chaplin’s style of comedy to change, being centered more around Charlie Chaplin himself. For First National, Charlie Chaplin continued to create classic shorts: A Dog’s Life, Shoulder Arms, and The Bond. In 1918, he also marries for the first (but not the last) time, to Mildred Harris.

Charlie Chaplin’s woman troubles

Charlie Chaplin began in his personal life a recurring, destructive pattern — he chases (and frequently marries) a young woman, loses interest in her (being consumed by his creative energies), goes through a messy break up (or divorce), typically impacting his professional life, and then repeats the pattern. In November of that year, his first true love, Hetty Kelly, dies — although Charlie Chaplin didn’t find this out until he visited England in 1921.

Charlie Chaplin – pathos and comedy

movie poster of Charlie Chaplin in Sunnyside1919 was a year of both great gains and losses for Charlie Chaplin. One of his most popular short films, Sunnyside, is released — demonstrating a degree of both pathos and comedy mixed together to a high degree. Charlie Chaplin had been slowly moving the Little Tramp towards this more balanced characterization for some time — and now Charlie the tramp is maturing. Sadly, Charlie the human being suffered a terrible loss, as his & Mildred’s infant child is born, horribly deformed, and dies after only 3 days. Charlie Chaplin sought solace in his work, alienating his wife even more. In that same year, he formed United Artists with his closest friend Douglas Fairbanks and Fairbanks’ wife, screen legend Mary Pickford — in a successful effort to keep the major studios from monopolizing and controlling all aspects of production. In December of that year, A Day’s Pleasure was released, dealing with a happy family trying to enjoy a quiet day at the beach — somewhat ironically, considering the state of Charlie Chaplin’s personal life at that stage. But something new was on the horizon — Charlie Chaplin had begun production of The Kid.

Charlie Chaplin – The Kid

movie poster of Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The KidThe Kid was Charlie Chaplin’s first full-length movie. It, more than anything else to that date, made Charlie Chaplin a living legend. It took over a year to produce, and was an incredible success for Charlie Chaplin, both financially and artistically.

Over the next year, Charlie Chaplin continued working on The Kid.  His perfectionism takes more and more time in creating his film masterpieces. Sadly, he and Mildred Harris divorce at this time, in one of the most bitter Hollywood divorces seen up to this point. But there is light at the end of the tunnel, as The Kid is finally released to unanimous praise, and record box office success, in 1921.

Charlie Chaplin had gone through a very difficult time, and needed time to relax, and renew himself. He took his first vacation, returning to Europe to crowds that were beyond his wildest dreams. In a bittersweet moment, he learns of Hetty Kelly’s death from her brother while in London. More cheerfully, he begins several friendships in London that become lifelong, including with the famous writer H. G. Welles. In addition, he and Sydney brought their mother, Hannah, to the States, where she lived the rest of her life, under the best medical care that Charlie’s money could provide.

Returning to America, and to his work, Charlie Chaplin quickly produced his next film, The Idle Class. Charlie Chaplin began working on his next film, Payday, in his professional life, and meets the European actress Pola Negri, with whom he has an off-again, on-again romantic relationship that goes on for nearly a year. Over the course of that year, Charlie Chaplin releases his next film, The Pilgrim (about an escaped convict who takes on the role of a preacher to avoid recapture), and prepares for his first dramatic film, A Woman of Paris, designed to catapult Edna Purviance into her own career. Audiences by now had associated the name Charlie Chaplin with comedy, however, and were not expecting serious fare. Although a good movie, it died at the box office — and gave Charlie Chaplin his first commercial failure.

Charlie Chaplin in  The Gold Rush – and in a family way

movie poster of Charlie Chaplin in The Gold RushThat was reversed by his next film, one of the classics of the silent era — The Gold Rush. It is the story of the Little Tramp going north to the Alaskan gold rush, and by more luck than skill both getting the girl and becoming rich. It is touching, poignant, and hilarious, containing some of Charlie Chaplin’s most famous routines. However, early in the filming of the movie, Charlie Chaplin’s leading lady, Lita Grey, had to be replaced by Georgia Hale — since Charlie Chaplin had married Lita Grey, and she had become pregnant. She was only 16 at the time.

Charlie Chaplin worried incessantly about his young wife’s pregnancy.  He felt that the death of his first son was, in some way, his fault. Thankfully, in 1925 this child was born healthy — Charles Spencer Chaplin Jr. Charlie Chaplin had qualms about naming the child after himself, fearing that the boy would live in his father’s shadow, but he gave way to Lita. That same year, The Gold Rush was released to critical acclaim and great financial success. Some believe it is Charlie Chaplin’s finest film. Ironically, there was a third birth that year that would become integral to Charlie Chaplin years later — Oona O’Neil was born.

movie poster of Charlie Chaplin in The Gold RushThe next year, Charlie Chaplin began work on his next film, The Circus. As John McCabe noted in his excellent biography of Charlie Chaplin, The Circus was not the equal of The Gold Rush, but was a good film in its’ own right — and, given the circumstances under which it was filmed, it was a miracle that it was even palatable.

Charlie Chaplin in a messy divorce

Despite the birth of a second son, Sidney, in 1926, Charlie & Lita’s marriage broke apart — bitterly, and publicly. Charges went back and forth, with newspapers gleefully displaying the details of the Chaplins’ marital woes. Charlie Chaplin always refused to discuss his marriage with Lita; Lita, however, wrote a one-sided account, Wife of the Life of the Party. The divorce ended in 1927 with a record-breaking divorce settlement of $825,000. The stress was enough to permanently turn Charlie Chaplin’s hair prematurely white. During all of this, Charlie Chaplin continued to film The Circus, one of his lesser-known, but best, films.

In 1928, Charlie Chaplin released The Circus to popular acclaim, and also received a special Oscar for his work on the film as director, actor, producer. Sadly, this positive year was also crushingly negative, as Charlie’s beloved mother died. Charlie Chaplin’s life continued to be centered around his work, even in his grief, as he began work on his next film towards the end of that year: City Lights.

Charlie Chaplin – the end of the Tramp

movie poster of Charlie Chaplin in City LightsCity Lights, released in 1931, was Charlie Chaplin’s first non-silent film. But it still was not a ‘talking’ picture. Charlie Chaplin included the musical soundtrack, and used sound effects, but nobody spoke in the picture yet. This was a major gamble for Charlie Chaplin, since sound pictures had now become the standard. But it was a gamble that paid off handsomely. The movie was both a financial and critical success, and many believe it to be one of Charlie Chaplin’s finest films, if not his best.

After City Lights, Charlie Chaplin did something totally out of character; he took a vacation. Actually, Charlie Chaplin took vacations quite frequently, both to refresh himself and to find new ideas for his films. But this was his first extended vacation, away from creating a new movie for nearly two years. He talks at length about this time in his autobiography (My Autobiography), including globe-trotting and how he was nearly assassinated in Japan; but perhaps his most pivotal moment was in 1932, when he met was in 1932, when he met Paulette Goddard, who would co-star in his next film — Modern Times— which would be the Tramp’s final film.

DVD - Charlie Chaplin in Modern TimesAfter the release of Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard were married in secret, while on vacation in the Orient. Upon his return, Charlie Chaplin began his most audacious comedy yet – The Great Dictator, making fun of Adolph Hitler himself. Hitler, in many ways, was a natural subject for Charlie Chaplin to satirize. Hitler, it is said, adopted his mustache in imitation of Charlie Chaplin. Both were smaller men, of slight build. And Chaplin saw the ideas that Hitler was championing as horrible, evil; and Charlie Chaplin was determined to show the world what he saw.

Charlie Chaplin attacks Hitler in The Great Dictator

DVD - Charlie Chaplin in The Great DictatorThe Great Dictator was Charlie Chaplin’s first truly talking picture, and when it was finally released in 1940, it was a worldwide sensation. Many people mistakenly think that the character of the Jewish Barber in the film is the Tramp, but Charlie Chaplin was adamant that they are different characters. Although the barber uses many of the Tramp’s mannerisms, he is also clearly an individual in his own right. And the barber is far more long-winded, as the famous “Look Up, Hannah” speech at the end of the movie reminds us.

Charlie Chaplin – un-American?

In the same year that Charlie Chaplin began working on The Great Dictator, the House Un-American Committee begins investigating Charlie Chaplin. At first glance, there seems to be no reason for this — until the second glance. Earlier Charlie Chaplin had done his patriotic part in raising money for the war effort, alongside his long-time friends Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.  They raised large amounts of money for the war. Charlie Chaplin was a lifelong pacifist, but he was also a realist who saw that the aggression of the Axis powers had to be stopped.

In many ways, Charlie Chaplin was politically naive.  Such as speaking at fundraisers for the Communist USSR, whom Charlie Chaplin simply saw as our allies in the fight. And by suggesting that America immediately open a two front war to help our “friends” in the Soviet Union. These were some of the reasons that the government began keeping tabs on the immigrant filmmaker (although he worked for all of these years in America, he maintained his British citizenship, and had no intention of becoming an American citizen).

1942 was a very busy year for Charlie Chaplin, at least in his personal life.  Paulette Goddard, co-star of Modern Times and The Great Dictator, divorced Charlie Chaplin.  She went on to be a star in her own right. In that same year, Charlie Chaplin met another young lady, whom he falls deeply, and permanently, in love with — Oona O’Neil. Oona, although young, is mature beyond her years — perhaps from having grown up in the household of her father, Eugene O’Neil, the famous playwright. Eugene O’Neil was opposed to having his daughter date Charlie Chaplin; given Charlie Chaplin’s track record to date, one can hardly blame him. In addition, Charlie Chaplin met another young lady that year, whose relationship to Charlie Chaplin would almost seem to confirm the playwright’s suspicions — Joan Barry.

By all accounts, Joan Barry was a troubled young woman, who had some talent for acting. She had met Charlie Chaplin, who had given her a screen test for a role.  ut did not hire her for any of his movies. Although they dated on and off, nothing serious came of it. But in Joan Barry’s mind, it was very serious.  Serious enough that she breaks into Charlie Chaplin’s home later that year, armed with a gun. Charlie Chaplin eventually talked her out of any violence, got her to leave quietly, and then called the police.  This resulted in a restraining order that should have served to keep her out of Charlie Chaplin’s life.

Charlie Chaplin in the paternity suit

However, two things happened that next year that prevented that from happening. First was Joan Barry’s pregnancy; she named Charlie Chaplin as the father. Second, Charlie Chaplin married Oona O’Neil — and, in a very real sense, they lived happily ever after. The couple truly loved each other, were devoted to each other, and grew closer as time went on.

In the more immediate term, Charlie Chaplin denied being the father of Joan Barry’s child.  A blood test proved his innocence. However, the blood test was inadmissible in the California court at the time, and a jury of his peers ordered Charlie Chaplin to pay child support. (This is recreated quite well in the 1992 ‘Chaplin‘ movie starring Robert Downey, and is highly recommended viewing).

The Chaplin Collection - Monsieur VerdouxIn 1946, the first of Oona and Charlie Chaplin’s children, Michael, is born. Over the years, he will have 7 more siblings (Josephine, Victoria, Eugene, Jane, Annette, and Christopher). Charlie Chaplin also began his next film, a very great departure from anything Charlie has ever attempted.  The dark comedy Monsieur Verdoux.

Monsieur Verdoux is a very dark comedy, in which the title character, a fired bank clerk, makes his living by marrying rich older women and then killing them for their money. Charlie Chaplin used it to make a statement about the paradox of killing millions in war is virtuous for the winning side, but killing individuals is a crime.   Although it has moments both humorous and engaging, it was not the fare that the public was expecting from Charlie Chaplin.  It did not do well domestically, although it did well overseas, and Charlie Chaplin made a tidy profit from it. He also used Edna Purviance on screen for the last time, essentially as an extra.

Charlie Chaplin’s final films

movie review of Limelight, starring Charlie ChaplinIn 1951, Charlie Chaplin made one of his finest films, and one of his least well known – Limelight. Limelight is the story of a formerly great dance hall tramp clown, Calvero (portrayed by Chaplin) on a downward spiral.  Contrasting with a young dancer on her way to fame – into the spotlight. A funny, poignant film, it also teamed two of the great clowns of the silent era.  Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin performed together for the first and only time.

Limelight did not do well at American movie houses.  Largely it was due to the false rumors that Charlie Chaplin was a communist.  Also, an organized protest by various unions resulting in theaters refusing to show the film. As a result, it was not seen widely in the United States of America for decades. Years later, when it finally played in Los Angeles, it was nominated for the Best Music Academy Award — and won.

Charlie Chaplin in Exile

After Limelight, Charlie Chaplin took another vacation to England, wanting to show his new wife and children his native country. Upon leaving the territorial waters of the United States of America, Charlie Chaplin received a cable.  The cable informed him that the State Department had rescinded his reentry permit.  Effectively locking him out of the country as an undesirable alien. There were many reasons for this.  Charlie Chaplin’s unorthodox political views, the false accusation that he was a Communist, and not least of all, money. There would have been an attempt by the federal government to seize Charlie Chaplin’s assets, which were enormous. However, his wife Oona returned to the United States and promptly took all of the liquid assets.  She also liquidated everything she could.  Leaving the government without a penny for its’ trouble.

Charlie Chaplin was not, however, a man without a country. He was still a citizen of Great Britain, but he did not desire to live there. After the stress of the situation had been dealt with, the Chaplins relocated to Vevey, Switzerland in 1953.  Where the Chaplins lived for the remainder of their lives together. After their death, it has been turned into an international Charlie Chaplin museum.

In 1954, Oona renounced her U.S. citizenship, casting her lot with her husband. And, ironically, Charlie Chaplin was awarded World Peace Council Prize in that same year. In the next year, he resumes doing what he does best — making comedies.

A King in New York, starring Charlie ChaplinHis next film, A King In New York, was a biting indictment of modern society. In it, he played the role of King Shadov, a European monarch in exile, who comes to New York to promote the peaceful uses of nuclear power. Along the way, he pokes fun at the Red Scare, commercials, movies, celebrities, movie magazines, and life in urban America. Filmed in England, it was the last film in which he was on screen as a major character.

In the same year that A King In New York premiered, Charlie Chaplin’s half-brother Wheeler Dryden died. Wheeler had been introduced to Charlie Chaplin many years before by Edna Purviance — Charlie had been unaware of him. Wheeler was a competent, though not gifted, actor, and idolized his famous brother. He began to work for Charlie Chaplin in various roles and positions.  Years later he served as Charlie’s assistant director on The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux. Jerome Robinsons’ photo journal, Charlie and Me, contains some interesting anecdotes about Charlie’s lesser-known sibling.

Charlie Chaplin’s professional pace seemed to be slowing down, to an outside observer. After all, he was now 69 years old. However, Charlie Chaplin was not finished working. He had been re-editing some of his earlier movies, and composing new music for some of them. Charlie Chaplin was musical by nature as well as profession, and he wrote some of the most enduring melodies of the century.  Not least among them the song ‘Smile‘.  However, before he could release his re-edited movies, now narrated by Charlie Chaplin himself, death claimed another old friend.  Edna Purviance died in 1958. And, to add insult to injury, Charlie Chaplin’s name was removed from Los Angeles’ Walk of Fame.

The Chaplin Revue, starring Charlie ChaplinIn 1959, The Chaplin Revue was released, to worldwide acclaim. Charlie Chaplin continued his work in Switzerland, writing and composing, and raising his growing brood of children. In 1964 he published his autobiography, which he humbly titled ‘My Autobiography‘.  It was an interesting look into the life of Charlie Chaplin, although incomplete.  He mentioned his marriage to Lita Grey in only one sentence.

In 1965, death again intruded on Charlie Chaplin’s family life, as his older brother Sidney died. This was a strong blow to Charlie Chaplin, second only to the loss of him mother in 1928. Sidney had been his brother, friend, companion, confidant and business manager all rolled into one. Charlie Chaplin grieved deeply for the loss of his beloved brother.

A Countess in Hong Kong, starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, directed by Charlie ChaplinBut Charlie Chaplin did not stop working. After dealing with his grief as best he could, in 1966 Charlie began work on his next, and final, movie, A Countess in Hong Kong. It was a number of firsts for Charlie Chaplin.  He did not star in the film, and only had a small, Hitchcock-esque walk-on scene as a porter. Instead, he directed two of Hollywood’s largest stars of the day, Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren. Although an interesting idea, it was not a hit at the box office when released in 1967.

In 1968, Charlie Chaplin was now 79 years old. It is not surprising that more and more of his friends and coworkers died.  For example, his longtime cameraman and assistant Rollie Totheroh died the previous year. However, Charlie Chaplin’s oldest son, Charles Chaplin Jr., died. Again, Charlie Chaplin worked through his grief and threw himself into his work. He was preparing a new film, ‘The Freak‘, about a young girl who sprouts wings, as a vehicle for his daughter.  But it never went past the planning stages.

In 1972, Charlie Chaplin did something he never thought he would do — he returned to the United States of America. He was returning to accept a lifetime achievement Academy Award. The foolishness of 20 years previous had been forgotten, and Charlie Chaplin was greeted by America with open arms. Correcting another old injustice, Charlie Chaplin’s name was added again to the ‘Walk of Fame’ in  Los Angeles. Charlie Chaplin was also awarded the Golden Lion at that year’s Venice Film Festival.

In 1974, Charlie Chaplin published another book, ‘My Life in Pictures‘.  The next year, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and became Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin.

In 1977, Charlie Chaplin passed away, on Christmas Day. He left behind grieving family and friends, and millions of fans worldwide.

In 2001, Charlie Chaplin was inducted into the Clown Hall of Fame.

Quotes by Charlie Chaplin:

  • “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it!”
  • “I remain just one thing, and one thing only — and that is a clown. It places me on a far higher plane than any politician.”
  • “Laughter is the tonic, the relief, the surcease for pain”

For more images of Chaplin, please check out the Charlie Chaplin Gallery.

Other Charlie Chaplin Resources

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