The Genius of Charlie Chaplin

(Much of this information was obtained from Baseline)

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 of $150,000.

The Films of Charlie Chaplin

"The Circus" (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.

"City Lights" (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.

"Modern Times" (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 1936.

"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 scene.

"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 all-talkie.

"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".

"Monsieur Verdoux" (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.

"The Kid" (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 club.

"Limelight" (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.