Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin KBE (16 April 1889 – 25 December 1977) was an English comic actor, filmmaker, and composer who rose to fame in the era of silent film. He became a worldwide icon through his screen persona, The Tramp, and is considered one of the most important figures in the history of the film industry. His career spanned more than 75 years, from childhood in the Victorian era until a year before his death in 1977, and encompassed both adulation and controversy.
Chaplin’s childhood in London was one of poverty and hardship, as his father was absent and his mother struggled financially, and he was sent to a workhouse twice before the age of nine. When he was 14, his mother was committed to a mental asylum. Chaplin began performing at an early age, touring music halls and later working as a stage actor and comedian. At 19, he was signed to the prestigious Fred Karno company, which took him to America. He was scouted for the film industry and began appearing in 1914 for Keystone Studios. He soon developed the Tramp persona and formed a large fan base. He directed his own films and continued to hone his craft as he moved to the Essanay, Mutual, and First National corporations. By 1918, he was one of the best-known figures in the world.
In 1919, Chaplin co-founded the distribution company United Artists, which gave him complete control over his films. His first feature-length film was The Kid (1921), followed by A Woman of Paris (1923), The Gold Rush (1925), and The Circus (1928). He initially refused to move to sound films in the 1930s, instead producing City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) without dialogue. He became increasingly political, and his first sound film was The Great Dictator (1940), which satirised Adolf Hitler. The 1940s were a decade marked with controversy for Chaplin, and his popularity declined rapidly. He was accused of communist sympathies, and some members of the press and public found his involvement in a paternity suit, and marriages to much younger women, scandalous. An FBI investigation was opened, and Chaplin was forced to leave the United States and settle in Switzerland. He abandoned the Tramp in his later films, which include Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), A King in New York (1957), and A Countess from Hong Kong (1967).
Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, edited, starred in, and composed the music for most of his films. He was a perfectionist, and his financial independence enabled him to spend years on the development and production of a picture. His films are characterised by slapstick combined with pathos, typified in the Tramp’s struggles against adversity. Many contain social and political themes, as well as autobiographical elements. He received an Honorary Academy Award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century” in 1972, as part of a renewed appreciation for his work. He continues to be held in high regard, with The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator often ranked on lists of the greatest films of all time.
Background and childhood hardship
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born on 16 April 1889 to Hannah Chaplin (born Hannah Harriet Pedlingham Hill) and Charles Chaplin Sr. There is no official record of his birth, although Chaplin believed he was born at East Street, Walworth, in South London. His parents had married four years previously, at which time Charles Sr. became the legal guardian of Hannah’s illegitimate son, Sydney John Hill. At the time of his birth, Chaplin’s parents were both music hall entertainers. Hannah, the daughter of a shoemaker, had a brief and unsuccessful career under the stage name Lily Harley, while Charles Sr., a butcher’s son, was a popular singer. Although they never divorced, Chaplin’s parents were estranged by around 1891. The following year, Hannah gave birth to a third son, George Wheeler Dryden, fathered by the music hall entertainer Leo Dryden. The child was taken by Dryden at six months old, and did not re-enter Chaplin’s life for thirty years.
Chaplin’s childhood was fraught with poverty and hardship, making his eventual trajectory “the most dramatic of all the rags to riches stories ever told” according to his authorised biographer David Robinson. Chaplin’s early years were spent with his mother and brother Sydney in the London district of Kennington; Hannah had no means of income, other than occasional nursing and dressmaking, and Chaplin Sr. provided no financial support. As the situation deteriorated, Chaplin was sent to Lambeth Workhouse when he was seven years old. The council housed him at the Central London District School for paupers, which Chaplin remembered as “a forlorn existence”. He was briefly reunited with his mother 18 months later, before Hannah was forced to readmit her family to the workhouse in July 1898. The boys were promptly sent to Norwood Schools, another institution for destitute children.
I was hardly aware of a crisis because we lived in a continual crisis; and, being a boy, I dismissed our troubles with gracious forgetfulness.— Charlie Chaplin, on his childhood
In September 1898, Hannah was committed to Cane Hill mental asylum; she had developed a psychosis seemingly brought on by an infection of syphilis and malnutrition. For the two months she was there, Chaplin and his brother Sydney were sent to live with their father, whom the young boys scarcely knew. Charles Sr. was by then a severe alcoholic, and life there was bad enough to provoke a visit from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Chaplin’s father died two years later, at 38 years old, from cirrhosis of the liver.
Hannah entered a period of remission but, in May 1903, became ill again. Chaplin, then 14, had the task of taking his mother to the infirmary, from where she was sent back to Cane Hill. He lived alone for several days, searching for food and occasionally sleeping rough, until Sydney – who had joined the Navy two years earlier – returned. Hannah was released from the asylum eight months later, but in March 1905, her illness returned, this time permanently. “There was nothing we could do but accept poor mother’s fate,” Chaplin later wrote, and she remained in care until her death in 1928.
Between his time in the poor schools and his mother succumbing to mental illness, Chaplin began to perform on stage. He later recalled making his first amateur appearance at the age of five years, when he took over from Hannah one night in Aldershot. This was an isolated occurrence, but by the time he was nine Chaplin had, with his mother’s encouragement, grown interested in performing. He later wrote: “[she] imbued me with the feeling that I had some sort of talent”. Through his father’s connections, Chaplin became a member of the Eight Lancashire Lads clog-dancing troupe, with whom he toured English music halls throughout 1899 and 1900. Chaplin worked hard, and the act was popular with audiences, but he was not satisfied with dancing and wished to form a comedy act.
In the years Chaplin was touring with the Eight Lancashire Lads, his mother ensured that he still attended school but, by age 13, he had abandoned education. He supported himself with a range of jobs, while nursing his ambition to become an actor. At 14, shortly after his mother’s relapse, he registered with a theatrical agency in London’s West End. The manager sensed potential in Chaplin, who was promptly given his first role as a newsboy in Harry Arthur Saintsbury’s Jim, a Romance of Cockayne. It opened in July 1903, but the show was unsuccessful and closed after two weeks. Chaplin’s comic performance, however, was singled out for praise in many of the reviews.
Saintsbury secured a role for Chaplin in Charles Frohman’s production of Sherlock Holmes, where he played Billy the pageboy in three nationwide tours. His performance was so well received that he was called to London to play the role alongside William Gillette, the original Holmes. “It was like tidings from heaven,” Chaplin recalled. At 16 years old, Chaplin starred in the play’s West End production at the Duke of York’s Theatre from October to December 1905. He completed one final tour of Sherlock Holmes in early 1906, before leaving the play after more than two-and-a-half years.
Stage comedy and vaudeville
Chaplin soon found work with a new company and went on tour with his brother, who was also pursuing an acting career, in a comedy sketch called Repairs. In May 1906, Chaplin joined the juvenile act Casey’s Circus, where he developed popular burlesque pieces and was soon the star of the show. By the time the act finished touring in July 1907, the 18-year-old had become an accomplished comedic performer. He struggled to find more work, however, and a brief attempt at a solo act was a failure. Advertisement from Chaplin’s American tour with the Fred Karno comedy company, 1913
Meanwhile, Sydney Chaplin had joined Fred Karno’s prestigious comedy company in 1906 and, by 1908, he was one of their key performers. In February, he managed to secure a two-week trial for his younger brother. Karno was initially wary, and considered Chaplin a “pale, puny, sullen-looking youngster” who “looked much too shy to do any good in the theatre”. However, the teenager made an impact on his first night at the London Coliseum and he was quickly signed to a contract. Chaplin began by playing a series of minor parts, eventually progressing to starring roles in 1909. In April 1910, he was given the lead in a new sketch, Jimmy the Fearless. It was a big success, and Chaplin received considerable press attention.
Karno selected his new star to join the section of the company, one that also included Stan Laurel, that toured North America’s vaudeville circuit. The young comedian headed the show and impressed reviewers, being described as “one of the best pantomime artists ever seen here”. His most successful role was a drunk called the “Inebriate Swell”, which drew him significant recognition. The tour lasted 21 months, and the troupe returned to England in June 1912. Chaplin recalled that he “had a disquieting feeling of sinking back into a depressing commonplaceness” and was, therefore, delighted when a new tour began in October.