Silents are Golden Column: Silent Superstars–Charlie Chaplin, the Eternal King of Comedy
Of the many iconic performers that we all recognize today – Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, James Dean – there is one that stands alone as the most recognizable of all. Even people who’ve never seen his films know who he is – heck, even people who’ve only seen caricatures of him know who he is. I’m talking, of course, about Charlie Chaplin.
But while his image has endured, not everyone is as familiar with his backstory. And it’s a remarkable one. Rising from an impoverished London childhood that can only be described as Dickensian, Chaplin not only achieved success and fame not only beyond his wildest dreams but beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. In an era when the cinema was still new, he became a megastar whose moving image became a familiar sight across the globe. Arguably, no one before him had ever quite reached that same level of fame.
Born in London on April 16, 1889, Charles Spencer Chaplin was the son of two entertainers. His father Charles Sr. was a popular music hall singer, and his mother Hannah was a soubrette. The family’s history was a tumultuous one. Charlie’s older brother Sydney was the result of Hannah having an affair, and additional half brother, Wheeler, was in the custody of his father and wouldn’t meet Charlie for thirty years. Charles Sr. became an alcoholic, leading to his separation from Hannah around 1891.
Hannah and her sons had to scratch out a meager living, at times staying in workhouses or even enduring separation as the boys were sent to various charity schools. Hannah’s health also began affecting her stage career. One a fateful night her voice gave out onstage, and five-year-old Charlie was brought in as a last-minute replacement. His little rendition of “‘E Dunno Where ‘E Are” was a hit, and probably cemented his desire for a life in the theater.
At age 9, thanks to his mother’s encouragement and his father’s connections, Chaplin joined a group of young clog-dancers called the Eight Lancashire Lads. Becoming more and more ambitious as he grew older, he was eventually able to nab a few acting roles in West End plays. But all was not smooth sailing, Hannah had begun to succumb to mental illness, and sadly, at the young age of 14 Chaplin had to commit his mother to a sanitarium. He would provide for her care for the rest of her life.
Both Sydney and Charlie joined Fred Karno’s famous comedy troupe (which also included a young Stan Laurel). The Karno style, which was heavy on slapstick with touches of “wistful” feeling, was a huge influence on Chaplin’s own style. The troupe would eventually tour North America. During a performance in New York City in late 1912, somebody – possibly a motion picture executive, or possibly Mack Sennett himself – was impressed with Chaplin’s performance and made him an offer to join the Keystone Film Company. Figuring appearances in “pictures” would boost his popularity on the stage, Chaplin agreed.
Keystone, a bustling “laugh factory” always working on several slapstick shorts at once, was an intimidating place to Chaplin at first. But it wasn’t long before the charismatic young comedian began to prove his talent for improvising gags and coming up with comic situations. Fortunately, he found his onscreen “look” early on, improvising an eye-catching costume that would be his signature for the rest of his life: a derby, a tight coat, baggy pants, big shoes, a cane, and a tiny mustache.
After a year of working alongside Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, Roscoe Arbuckle, and other Keystone stars, Charlie Chaplin had risen to be the most popular star of them all. Upon the expiration of his Keystone contract in late 1914 he moved over to Essanay, where his star rose even further, and then to Mutual in 1916, where he made his most celebrated shorts (including The Immigrant and Easy Street, both 1917). Audiences couldn’t get enough of him–soon there was Chaplin merchandise, Chaplin look-alike contests, and even Chaplin imitators popping up in other comedy studios. It was getting to the point where journalists declared that society had caught “Chaplinitis.”
After the great success of the Mutual shorts, Chaplin decided he had the clout to be an independent producer and had his own studio constructed on La Brea Avenue in Hollywood. Both A Dog’s Life (1918) and Shoulder Arms (1918), set in the trenches of WWI, were huge hits. His follow-ups Sunnyside (1919) and A Day’s Pleasure (1919) were less well received, but all was forgiven with the release of The Kid (1921), a masterpiece that still moves viewers today.
By this point, Chaplin was not only recognized as a masterful comedian but an “artist” as well – likely a first for a slapstick comedian. He had explored the idea of comedy with touches of pathos ever since the Essanay short The Tramp (1915), and in time this style became known as “Chaplinesque.” His character, now known as the “Little Tramp,” began to function as a universal figure for downtrodden-yet-plucky individuals.
He released only a few features in the 1920s (one of which was a romantic drama, A Woman of Paris, which he only directed), but took immense amounts of care and time with each one. Classic sequences in The Gold Rush (1925), such as “the Dance of the Rolls,” are still much-loved today. The coming of sound made Chaplin uneasy, concerned that a talking Tramp would destroy some of the character’s charm. Accordingly, his 1931 City Lights was defiantly silent, despite a general consensus that silents out of date (such was his fame that City Lights was still a huge success).
After the silent era, Chaplin would only make a few more features, starting with the quasi-talkie Modern Times (1935), regarded as one of his finest works. Both the weight of extreme fame and personal troubles likely contributed to the sparse amount of films. His first marriage in 1918 to Mildred Harris had only lasted two years, and his second marriage to the much-younger Lita Grey went through a very public and bitter divorce. His third marriage to Paulette Goddard would also end, although amicably. Surprisingly, his fourth marriage in 1943 to 18-year-old Oona O’Neill would prove to be a lasting one. The two would have eight children and stay together until Chaplin’s death.
Unfortunately, by the 1950s a combination of a public scandal involving unstable actress Joan Barry and a Cold War-era suspicion that Chaplin had pro-communist leanings lead to a downfall in his popularity. After a 1952 trip to London, the government did not allow him to re-enter the U.S. He accordingly moved his family to Vevey, Switzerland, where he spent the remainder of his life in an estate overlooking Lake Geneva.
Time, of course, has faded the bitter memories of those later years and preserved Chaplin’s image as a massively influential and beloved figure in cinema. The majority of his films have been beautifully preserved, and retain all of this comedic master’s freshness and mischievous energy. And while the names of many other silent stars have faded, I think it’s safe to assume that the iconic “Little Tramp” will always be known as the king of screen comedy.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.