Actor, director, producer, screenwriter, composer.
b. April 16, 1889, London. d. 1977. The son of music hall entertainers
who separated when he was one year old, he accompanied his mother
on her frequent travels, absorbing the stage atmosphere from a
tender age. At five he took his first turn on stage under unhappy
circumstances, when his mother's voice cracked in the middle of
a singing performance and he was rushed on stage to take over.
This was the beginning of the end of his mother's career. Shortly
afterward his father died, and Charlie and his older half-brother
Sydney suddenly found themselves hungry little urchins roaming
the streets of Cockney London while their mother was suffering
a complete breakdown. The boys, who resorted to dancing on the
streets and passing a hat for pennies, were placed in an orphanage
for destitute children.
Thanks to his mother's connections, however,
Charlie was able to join a troupe of child dancers, the Eight
Lancashire Lads. He was now eight and a professional performer.
Later he played child parts in London stage plays, including
the opening show at the Hippodrome in 1900 and the premiere performance
of 'Peter Pan' in 1904. When he was 17 he took the first important
step of his career when he joined the successful Fred Karno company
where Sydney had already become established as a popular comic.
The Karno company consisted of several troupes that performed
throughout Britain and abroad, and it was with Karno that Chaplin
acquired his basic comic Skills and the rudiments of the style
that was to be immortalized in his films.
Chaplin went on a US tour with one of the troupes
in 1910 and again in 1912, and it was during the latter tour that
Max Sennett, the boss of Keystone, caught a glimpse of him playing
a drunken reveler in the show 'A Night in a London Music Hall.'
In December 1913, Chaplin joined Keystone, but his first film,
"Making a Living", in which he played a smooth villain,
wearing a high hat, a frock coat, a drooping mustache, and a monocle,
disappointed Sennett. Chaplin's performance was adequate although
it hardly suggested the emergence of the greatest screen clown
of all time. But it was then that the now-famous Chaplin screen
character began to metamorphose.
Already in his second film, "Kid Auto
Races at Venice", he is seen wearing a bowler, baggy trousers,
and a mashed mustache and using a cane as an indispensable prop.
In early films for Keystone he played mainly in support of such
established comedy stars as Ford Sterling, Chester Conklin, Fatty Arbuckle, and Mabel Normand, Sennett himself, and others. A veteran of 11 one-and two- reel films after less than three months as
a screen actor, Chaplin was seized with an urge to direct. He
assisted Miss Normand with the direction of his 12th film and
wrote and directed solo his 13th, "Caught in the Rain".
With the creative control he had now acquired, he began shaping
and refining the lovable character of Charlie the Tramp.
Chaplin made 35 films during his year at Keystone,
many of which he also wrote and directed. It was a formative
year of experimentation and discovery during which he learned
to adapt all he had learned on the music hall stage to the medium
of film. By the end of the year he was a popular screen comedian,
successful enough to demand an receive $1,250 a week when he signed
with Essanay in 1915, up from the $175 he had been earning at
Keystone, plus a $10,000 bonus. The Essanay period saw the full
bloom of Charlie's screen character, the invincible vagabond,
the resilient little fellow with an eye for beauty and a pretense
of elegance who stood up heroically and pathetically against overwhelming
odds and somehow triumphed.
The final touches were applied in "The
Tramp", released in April of 1915 and generally accepted
as Chaplin's first masterpiece. Charlie was now making fewer
films with an increasing attention to quality. At the end of
is first year with Essanay his contract was renewed at $5,000
a week. In the middle of 1916 he moved on to Mutual, where he
was offered an unprecedented salary of $10,000 a week plus a bonus
(1928): The Tramp romances the bareback rider of a small-time
big-top concern. Though relatively neglected, this won Chaplin
a special Oscar; when it was successfully reissued in 1970. There's
yet another unforgettable Chaplin final shot; Key's tape also
includes the short A Day's Pleasure.
(1931): The Tramp falls in love with a blind girl, convincing
her he's a handsome millionaire. Filmed in the talkie era but
still a silent, this is alternately hilarious (the boxing scene)
and poignant (the legendary final shot)- the resulting sublime
net effect makes this many individuals favorite Chaplin film.
Co-star Virginia Cherrill was Cary Grant's first wife.
"The Chaplin Revue"
(1958): Chaplin narrated and composed the music for this two-hour
reissue compilation, consisting of: the self-descriptive A Dog's
Life (1918); the World War I classic Shoulder Arms (1918); and
The Pilgrim (1923). The last, about a crook masquerading as a
Texas preacher, is my favorite "unsung" Chaplin.
(1936): Except for the Tramp's nonsense song near the end (where
audiences discovered that Chaplin actually had a lovely voice),
this is the swan song of silent cinema. Some of the factory scenes-especially
the TV-screen image that spies on laborers in the washroom-predate
George Orwell's 1984 by a decade and a half, though new-on-tape
The Great Ziegfeld somehow took the Oscar, in spite of the fact
that most people now regard this as the most enduring film of
"The Gold Rush"
(1925): This silent classic was reissued in 1942 with music,
sound effects and Chaplins narration added. The original version
is still available complete with the still marvelous boot eating
"The Great Dictator"
(1940): Not as seamless as the other major Chaplin works, but
this Hitler satire (Termed "prematurely anti-Fascist"
by some Chaplin critics) has two of Chaplins best screen moments.
One is Adenoid Hynkel's ballet with a balloon globe; the other
is Hynkel's one-ups-man-ship seating game with Jack Oakie's Mussolini
take-off - Napaloni, Dictator of Bacteria. This is Chaplin's first
"A King in New York"
(1957): Peasants revolt, and the impoverished king of Estovia
(Chaplin) takes residence in an NYC hotel. This was Chaplin's
restrained response to those who called him a Communist; not until
1973 was it shown in this country. Mild--but still an excellent
satire of '50s vulgarity after "The Girl Can't Help It".
(1947): Its decade's most controversial film concerns a broken-spirited
bank clerk who murders a series of rich wives; the black-comic
result isn't really ha ha funny, but neither is "Dr. Strangelove".
A devastating all-timer; legendary film critic James Agee shook
up Chaplin - and a press conference full of Chaplin -baiters-
by asking: "How does it feel to be an artist who has enriched
the world with so much happiness and understanding of the little
people - and to be derided and held up to hate and scorn by the
so called representatives of the American press?" Bravo.
(1921): Chaplin referees a fight between young Jackie Coogan and
another lad, and few Chaplin scenes are funnier; even so, this
is even better as a look at pre-Depression urban poverty than
it is as a comedy. This is frequently paired with "The
Idle Class" - mistaken-identity amusement at the country
(1952): An aging music performer helps a ballerina back to health
after her suicide attempt, falling in love with her in the process.
Long (145 Minutes) but not overlong, this film contains a superlative
Chaplin performance; then-newcomer Claire Bloom is another plus;
so is Buster Keaton's onstage cameo with Chaplin.