One of the most famous and recognizable figures in cinema, Charles (Charlie) Spencer Chaplin was born on April 16, 1889, in London. His parents, Charles Sr. and Hannah Chaplin, were both music hall performers on South London's vaudeville circuit. Chaplin's childhood was plagued by poverty and hardship. Following his birth, Charles Sr. abandoned Hannah, a very young Charlie, and his half-brother Spencer Hawks. To help support the family, Chaplin danced and performed in the streets for change.
Chaplin's skills as a performer caused him to be noticed by vaudevillian troupes. In 1898, at the age of nine, he began to tour with a clog-dancing troupe, the Eight Lancashire Lads. Chaplin's talents at improvisation and pantomime opened doors to a number of minor roles in theatrical productions. He returned to vaudeville in 1906, joining Casey's Circus, a troupe that specialized in impersonating prominent personalities of the day. By 1907, Chaplin was brought to the attention of Fred Karno, the founder and leader of England's most famous pantomime troupe. Spencer, already a member of Karno's Troup, lobbied hard to get his brother Charlie a spot in the group.
Mentored by Karno, Chaplin soon emerged as a featured player of the troupe. With the Karno Troup, he toured England, Paris, and, later, the United States, in 1910 and 1913. Praised by critics, he gained the attention of Mack Sennett, founder of the Keystone Film Studio. Chaplin, seeking to expand his career beyond the stage, signed with Keystone in May 1913. After the release of his first film in February 1914, Making a Living, he appeared in 33 one- or two-reel comedies and one feature film for Keystone. He immersed himself in the process of filmmaking and soon was writing and directing films for Keystone.
It was with Keystone that he created his most endearing character, the Tramp. Unsure how to utilize Chaplin's talents, Sennett ordered him to develop a costume for his bit part in the film Mabel's Strange Predicament. Donning oversized trousers and shoes (size 14, so large they had to be worn on the wrong feet), undersized coat and derby, a cane, and wearing a toothbrush mustache, he created an iconic figure of the early cinema. The Tramp, or a variation of the character, was a Chaplin staple for the next 22 years.
A number of disputes emerged between Chaplin and Keystone, primarily over salary and artistic control. Leaving Keystone, he signed next with Essanay Studios in November 1914. He completed 14 films for Essanay, including The Tramp (released April 11, 1915). During his time with Essanay, his popularity continued to soar. Known as “Chaplinitis,” his characters inspired fans to imitate their hero. Songs were written about him, merchandise sold, and numerous impersonators emerged. Essanay, seeking to profit from his popularity, pushed him to release more and more films. Chaplin, however, was taking longer to finish each picture. With the end of his Essanay contract, he signed a one-year contract with Mutual Film Corporation worth $670,000 and that gave him complete artistic freedom. He completed 12 two-reel films over the next year.
In June 1917, Chaplin left Mutual and signed with First National Films. First National allowed him to produce his own films and to establish his own studio. His studio, constructed on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, was the setting for his films for the next 35 years. His initial First National release, A Dog's Life, paired Chaplin's Tramp with the down-and-out dog Scraps. This laid the foundation for his teaming with young Jackie Coogan in 1921's The Kid.
It was during his time with First National that Chaplin began to use his influence within the cinematic community to push his political agenda. With the entry of the United States into World War I, he enlisted, only to fail the physical. Personally antimilitaristic, he aided the war effort by touring with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks on the third Liberty Bond Drive. Impressed with the support for the war that he witnessed on the tour, he put on a uniform for the 1918 film Shoulder's Arms, in which his character actually captures the German Kaiser.
In 1921, Chaplin made a triumphal return to England. Scandal, however, followed. Upon leaving the United States, he was asked his opinion of Bolshevism. His vague comments led many in the United States to the conclusion that he was a communist sympathizer. Upon his return to the United States, he began working for United Artists, a production company founded by Chaplin, Fairbanks, D. W. Griffith, and Pickford. It was while he was with United Artists that Chaplin produced his most famous films, including The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931), and Modern Times (1936). Interestingly, even with the development of talking motion pictures, he remained steadfast in his support of the silent film. Modern Times, however, marked the end of his silent career, and also the retirement of his Tramp persona.
His first sound film, The Great Dictator (1940), was his most controversial. A satirical look at Hitler and Nazism, the final speech, given by Chaplin's character, led many critics to believe his sentiments lay with communism and the Soviet Union. His next film, Monsieur Verdoux (1947), continued to stir up controversy and was banned in parts of the United States.
Controversy and scandal finally caught up with Chaplin. Traveling to England with his family, he was informed in September 1952 that he could not return to the United States until he addressed questions concerning his political affiliations. He decided to remain in exile in Switzerland, returning to the United States only once more, in 1972, to receive a special Academy Award for his contribution to the cinema. Overseas, he produced and starred in two more films, the last being A Countess from Hong Kong in 1966. Chaplin died on December 25, 1977.
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