Overview of His Life
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in London, England, on April 16th 1889. His father was a versatile vocalist and actor; and his mother, known under the stage name of Lily Harley, was an attractive actress and singer, who gained a reputation for herwork in the light opera field.
Charlie was thrown on his own resources before he reached the age of ten as the early death of his father and the subsequent illness of his mother made it necessary for Charlie and his brother, Sydney, to fend for themselves.
Having inherited natural talents from their parents, the youngsters took to the stage as the best opportunity for a career. Charlie made his professional debut as a member of a juvenile group called „The Eight Lancashire Lads“ and rapidly won popular favour as an outstanding tap dancer.
Beginning of his career
When he was about twelve, he got his first chance to act in a legitimate stage show, and appeared as „Billy“ the page boy, in support of William Gillette in „Sherlock Holmes“. At the close of this engagement, Charlie started a career as a comedian in vaudeville, which eventually took him to the United States in 1910 as a featured player with the Fred Karno Repertoire Company.
He scored an immediate hit with American audiences, particularly with his characterization in a sketch entitled „A Night in an English Music Hall“. When the Fred Karno troupe returned to the United States in the fall of 1912 for a repeat tour, Chaplin was offered a motion picture contract.
He finally agreed to appear before the cameras at the expiration of his vaudeville commitments in November 1913; and his entrance in the cinema world took place that month when he joined Mack Sennett and the Keystone Film Company. His initial salary was $150 a week, but his overnight success on the screen spurred other producers to start negotiations for his services.
At the completion of his Sennett contract, Chaplin moved on to the EssanayCompany (1915) at a large increase. Sydney Chaplin had then arrived from England, and took his brother’s place with Keystone as their leading comedian.
The following year Charlie was even more in demand and signed with the Mutual Film Corporation for a much larger sum to make 12 two-reel comedies. These include „The Floorwalker“, „The Fireman“, „The Vagabond“, „One A.M.“ (a production in which he was the only character for the entire two reels with the exception of the entrance of a cab driver in the opening scene), „The Count“, „The Pawnshop“, „Behind the Screen“, „The Rink“, „Easy Street“ (heralded as his greatest production upto that time), „The Cure“, „The Immigrant“ and „The Adventurer“.
When his contract with Mutual expired in 1917, Chaplin decided to become an independent producer in a desire for more freedom and greater leisure in making his movies. To that end, he busied himself with the construction of his own studios. This plant was situated in the heart of the residential section of Hollywood at La Brea Avenue.
Early in 1918, Chaplin entered into an agreement with First National Exhibitors’ Circuit, a new organization specially formed to exploit his pictures. His first filmunder this new deal was „A Dog’s Life“. After this production, he turned his attention to a national tour on behalf of the war effort, following which he made a film the USgovernment used to popularize the Liberty Loan drive: „The Bond“.
His next commercial venture was the production of a comedy dealing with the war. „Shoulder Arms“, released in 1918 at a most opportune time, proved a veritable mirthquake at the box office and added enormously to Chaplin’s popularity. This he followed with „Sunnyside“ and „A Day’s Pleasure“, both released in 1919.
In April of that year, Chaplin joined with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith to found the United Artists Corporation. B.B. Hampton, in his „History of the Movies“ says:
„The corporation was organized as a distributor, each of the artists retaining entirecontrol of his or her respective producing activities, delivering to United Artists the completed pictures for distribution on the same general plan they would have followed with a distributing organization which they did not own. The stock of United Artists was divided equally among the founders. This arrangement introduced a new method into the industry. Heretofore, producers and distributors had been the employers, paying salaries and sometimes a share of the profits to the stars. Under the United Artists system, the stars became their own employers. They had to do their own financing, but they received the producer profits that had formerly gone to their employers and each received his share of the profits of the distributing organization.“
The Kid (1921)
However, before he could assume his responsibilities with United Artists, Chaplin had to complete his contract with First National. So early in 1921, he came out with a six-reel masterpiece : The Kid, in which he introduced to the screen one of the greatest child actors the world has ever known – Jackie Coogan. The next year, he produced „The Idle Class“, in which he portrayed a dual character.
Then, feeling the need of a complete rest from his motion picture activities, Chaplin sailed for Europe in September 1921. London, Paris, Berlin and other capitals on the continent gave him tumultuous receptions. After an extended vacation, Chaplin returned to Hollywood to resume his picture work and start his active association with United Artists.
Under his arrangement with U.A., Chaplin made eight pictures, each of featurelength, in the following order:
The Masterpiece Features
(Note : the comments on each film are taken from articles by David Robinson which we strongly recommend you read by following the link since they have many more insights on his life)
A Woman of Paris (1923)
was a courageous step in the career of Charles Chaplin. After seventy films in which he himself had appeared in every scene, he now directed a picture in which he merely walked on for a few seconds as an unbilled and unrecognisable extra – a porter at a railroad station. Until this time, every film had been a comedy. A Woman of Paris was a romantic drama. This was not a sudden impulse. For a long time Chaplin had wanted to try his hand at directing a serious film. In the end, the inspiration for A Woman of Paris came from three women. First was Edna Purviance,who had been his ideal partner in more than 35 films. Now, though, he felt that Edna was growing too mature for comedy, and decided to make a film that would launch her on a new career as a dramatic actress.
The Gold Rush (1925)
Chaplin generally strove to separate his work from his private life; but in this case the two became inextricably and painfully mixed.
Searching for a new leading lady, he rediscovered Lillita MacMurray, whom he had employed, as a pretty 12-year-old, in The Kid Still not yet sixteen, Lillita was putunder contract and re-named Lita Grey.
Chaplin quickly embarked on a clandestine affair with her; and when the film was six months into shooting, Lita discovered she was pregnant. Chaplin found himself forced into a marriage which brought misery to both partners, though it produced two sons, Charles Jr and Sydney Chaplin.
The Circus (1928)
„The Circus“ won Charles Chaplin his first Academy Award – it was still not yet called the ‘Oscar’ – he was given it at the first presentations ceremony, in 1929. But as late as 1964, it seemed, this was a film he preferred to forget. The reason was not the film itself, but the deeply fraught circumstances surrounding its making.
Chaplin was in the throes of the break-up of his marriage with Lita Grey; and production of The Circus coincided with one of the most unseemly and sensational divorces of twenties Hollywood, as Lita’s lawyers sought every means to ruin Chaplin’s career by smearing his reputation.
As if his domestic troubles were not enough, the film seemed fated to catastrophe of every kind […]
In the late 1960s, after the years spent trying to forget it, Chaplin returned to „The Circus“ to re-release it with a new musical score of his own composition. […] It seemed to symbolize his reconciliation to the film which cost him so much stress.
City Lights (1931)
„City Lights“ proved to be the hardest and longest undertaking of Chaplin’s career. By the time it was completed he had spent two years and eight months on the work,with almost 190 days of actual shooting. The marvel is that the finished film betrays nothing of this effort and anxiety. Even before he began City Lights the sound film was firmly established.
This new revolution was a bigger challenge to Chaplin than to other silent stars. His Tramp character was universal. His mime was understood in every part of the world.But if the Tramp now began to speak in English, that world-wide audience would instantly shrink.
Chaplin boldly solved the problem by ignoring speech, and making City Lights in theway he had always worked before, as a silent film. However he astounded the press and the public by composing the entire score for „City Lights“.
The premieres were among the most brilliant the cinema had ever seen. In Los Angeles, Chaplin’s guest was Albert Einstein; while in London Bernard Shaw sat beside him. „City Lights“ was a critical triumph. All Chaplin’s struggles and anxieties, it seemed, were compensated by the film which still appears as the zenith of his achievement and reputation.
Modern Times (1936)
Chaplin was acutely preoccupied with the social and economic problems of this newage. In 1931 and 1932 he had left Hollywood behind, to embark on an 18-monthworld tour. In Europe, he had been disturbed to see the rise of nationalism and the social effects of the Depression, of unemployment and of automation.
He read books on economic theory; and devised his own Economic Solution, an intelligent exercise in utopian idealism, based on a more equitable distribution not just of wealth but of work.
In 1931 he told a newspaper interviewer, “Unemployment is the vital question . . . Machinery should benefit mankind. It should not spell tragedy and throw it out of work”.
The Great Dictator (1940)
When writing „The Great Dictator“ in 1939, Chaplin was as famous worldwide as Hitler, and his Tramp character wore the same moustache. He decided to pit his celebrity and humour against the dictator’s own celebrity and evil. He benefited – if that is the right word for it, given the times – from his “reputation” as a Jew, which he was not – (he said “I do not have that pleasure”).
In the film Chaplin plays a dual role –a Jewish barber who lost his memory in a plane accident in the first war, and spent years in hospital before being discharged into an antisemite country that he does not understand, and Hynkel, the dictator leader of Ptomania, whose armies are the forces of the Double Cross, and who will do anything along those lines to increase his possibilities for becoming emperor of theworld. Chaplin’s aim is obvious, and the film ends with a now famous and humanitarian speech made by the barber, „speaking Chaplin’s own words“:/en/articles/29 .
Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
The idea was originally suggested by Orson Welles, as a project for a dramatised documentary on the career of the legendary French murder Henri Désiré Landru –who was executed in 1922, having murdered at least ten women, two dogs and oneboy.
Chaplin was so intrigued by the idea that he paid Welles $5000 for it. The agreement was signed in 1941, but Chaplin took four more years to complete the script. In the meantime the irritating distractions of a much-publicised and ugly paternity suit had been compensated by his brilliantly successful marriage to Oona O’Neill.