Chaplin: The Comic Genius of Early Hollywood

Charlie Chaplin is regarded as one of the most famous cultural icons of the twentieth century. As a pioneering comic actor, filmmaker, and composer, Chaplin became one of the cinema’s great and most important auteurs. His screen persona “The Tramp” is still iconic today.

Chaplin during the height of his success in the 1920s

Charles Spencer Chaplin was born on 16 April 1889 to music hall entertainers Charles Chaplin Sr. and Hannah Chaplin (born Hannah Pedlingham Hill). There are no official documents of his birthplace, but Chaplin was certain that he was born in East Street, Walworth, in South London.

His parents had been married for four years previously. Charles Sr. had become the legal guardian of Hannah’s illegitimate son Sydney John Hill.

Charles Sr., the son of a butcher, was a versatile singer and actor. Hannah, the daughter of a shoemaker, was an opera singer whose stage name was Lily Harley. Hannah and Charles Sr. separated around 1891, but they never divorced. Hannah gave birth to Sydney from her affair with music hall entertainer Leo Dryden.

Poverty

Chaplin’s childhood was beset with poverty. He lived with his mother and brother Sydney in the London district of Kennington. Live was tough for the family because Charles Sr. did not provide them with any financial support. Hannah struggled to bring in any income, except for occasional nursing and dressmaking work.

Chaplin at the Central London District School in Hanwell, 1897

At the age of seven, Charles was sent to Lambeth Workhouse and he was later housed by the council at the Central London District School for children of destitute families.

In September 1898, Hannah was sent to a mental asylum, having developed psychosis, after been previously confined for two months. In the meantime, Charles and his brother were sent to live with their father.

Charles Sr. was now a severe alcoholic and he treated the children very badly. He was once visited by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. He would soon succumb to the effects of alcohol abuse, dying two years later from cirrhosis of the liver. He was 38 years old.

Hannah continued to struggle with mental illness. When he was 14 years old, Chaplin brought his mother to the infirmary, where she was then sent to Cane Hill Hospital. With Sydney in the navy, Chaplin found himself alone, penniless, and hungry. Returning from one of his voyages in 1903, Sydney discovered that his mother had been committed to a mental hospital and his brother Chaplin living on the streets. Determined to change their lives, Sydney saved all his money and like Charlie Chaplin, would join the theatre.

Although she had brief moments of remission, by 1905 Hannah’s mental illness would become permanent. She would remain in care until she died in 1928.

Stage

During those times when Chaplin was sent to various institutions, he would perform with his mother on stage and even took over from his mother during one show in Aldershot. Nevertheless, his mother encouraged him to perform and to utilize his talents ever since he was young.

By 1899, Chaplin had become a member of the Eight Lancashire lads clog-dancing troupe that was popular with audiences, but he wanted to concentrate on comedy. He would soon be given his first role in Jim, A Romance of Cockayne in 1903, a short-lived show but Chaplin’s performance garnered much praise from the critics.

Harry Saintsbury, who produced Jim, A Romance of Cockayne, secured the role of Billy the pageboy for Chaplin in Charles Frohman’s production of Sherlock Holmes and would soon play opposite William Gillette, the original Holmes at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 1905. Chaplin would leave the show in 1906, after more than two successful years.

Charlie Chaplin went on tour with his brother Sydney, who had acting ambitions, in a comedy piece called Repairs. Chaplin joined Casey’s Circus in May 1906 and developed comedy routines, whilst his brother Sydney became a key performer in Fred Karno’s comedy company. By 1908, he was able to get his brother, who was not having too much success, a trial for skeptical Fred Karno, who was soon won over by Chaplin’s positive impact on the first night at the London Coliseum, that he was given an immediate contract.

Chaplin would soon rise from minor parts to starring parts, playing the lead in the successful Jimmy the Fearless in April 1910. He was selected to join Karno’s company, which included Stan Laurel, to tour North America for 21 months and return in 1912. Chaplin had developed his comedy skills that won over each audience during the tour, who reveled in his popular drunk act.

Movies

Chaplin working in the cutting room in 1915

Six months into his second American tour, Chaplin was approached to join the New York Motion Company after an agent had seen some of his performances. The agent wanted Chaplin to replace their leaving star Fred Mace, but Chaplin had felt their Keystone movies were mostly crude. Nevertheless, he wanted to be in the movies, and in September 1913, Chaplin signed a contract with the company worth 150 dollars a week.

Chaplin started working for the Keystone studio on 5 January 1914. Keystone boss Mack Sennett was initially cynical about Chaplin, who had to wait until February for his first film appearance. Chaplin debuted in Making a Living, but the film was poorly received, and his performance was disappointing.

Tramp

Chaplin decided to pick his costume and chose one to differentiate himself from all the other actors in the studio. He decided to play one identifiable character called “The Tramp” which first appeared in Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914). In his autobiography, Chaplin revealed that he wore a small moustache to make him look older and he “wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large”.

A scene from The Tramp (1915)

Chaplin plays The Tramp as childlike but good-hearted. Although the Tramp is a vagrant, he behaves like a gentleman. He often flaunts the instructions imposed on him by authority figures, and he usually falls in love with a damsel in distress. The Tramp is rarely mentioned by name.

For the next year, Chaplin would appear in over 35 movies, including Tillie’s Punctured Romance, the first-ever full-length comedy picture in history. It is also the last Chaplin film which he neither wrote nor directed.

In 1915, Chaplin left Keystone Studios to join the Essanay Company for 1,250 dollars a week. His brother Sydney was his business manager. During his first year with Essanay, Chaplin made 14 films, including The Tramp in 1915. Telling the story of a tramp who saves a farmer’s daughter from a gang of thieving hoboes, The Tramp was a popular comedy for Essanay and is one of Chaplin’s first acclaimed short films.

Mutual

Chaplin with regulars Eric Campbell and Edna Purviance in The Immigrant (1917)

Now a superstar at 26 years old, Chaplin signed a contract with Mutual Company for 670,000 dollars a year, making him one of the highest-paid performers in the world. Chaplin created some of his best shorts for Mutual such as The Vagabond (1916), Easy Street (1917), The Cure (1917), The Immigrant (1917), and The Adventurer (1917).

Chaplin’s regular co-stars include Albert Austin from Birmingham in England, who previously performed with Chaplin in Fred Karno’s Company in 1910. Eric Campbell from Cheshire in England played the villain in the Mutual shorts and was a close friend of Chaplin. His career ended in September 1917 with a fatal drunken car crash, following a series of tragic events, including the sudden death of his wife.

The underrated Edna Purviance, from Paradise Alley in Nevada, played the female lead in 30 films with Chaplin. She became romantically involved with Chaplin in the early years but later married a Pan-American pilot in 1938. Following her retirement from cinema in 1927, Chaplin kept Purviance on his payroll for decades.

Although his new contract with Mutual stipulated a release of two-reel films every four weeks, the ambitious and creative Chaplin began to demand more time for filming. His reputation as a perfectionist was renowned throughout the industry. Chaplin considered his Mutual years as his happiest but also felt that the shorts were becoming formulaic. Chaplin was driven to more experimentation and invention of the new medium of film

Chaplin with Edna Purviance and Eric Campbell

The contract with the Mutual Company ended amicably. Chaplin strived for creative independence. In June 1917, Chaplin signed for eight films for First National Exhibitor’s Circuit for $1 million, which he was given total artistic independence and a studio.

His first film with First National was A Dog’s Life but Chaplin was worried that his Tramp character was now becoming a sad clown character or “Pierrot”.

Chaplin toured the United States to raise funds for the Allies of the First World War and produced the propaganda short called The Bond. Then, Chaplin made a comedy about his Tramp character in the trenches called Shoulder Arms and although he was told not to make movies set in the war, Chaplin was not deterred. The film was released in 1918 and was extremely popular.

United Artists

Despite the commercial success of Shoulder Arms, First National refused Chaplin additional money to finance future productions. With rumors of a merger between First National and Famous Players-Lasky, Chaplin decided to join forces with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith to form a new distribution company called United Artists in January 1919.

Chaplin was anxious to begin work with United Artists but First National refused his offer to buy him out of the contract and forced him to complete his contracted final six films for the company.

The following decade did not subdue Charlie’s creative output, releasing The Kid (1921), The Pilgrim (1923), A Woman in Paris (1923), The Gold Rush (1925), and The Circus (1928). The Kid and The Gold Rush are critical favorites and are often quoted amongst Chaplin’s best work.

Chaplin with Tom Wilson and child sensation Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921)

Private Life

Although Chaplin had become the most popular performer in the world and was universally revered by the critics, his personal life left a lot to be desired. Chaplin had a reputation for romantic dalliances with young girls, most notably his marriage to 16-year-old Mildred Harris when she falsely claimed that she was pregnant. He also married teenage actress Lita Grey for the same reason and to avoid statute rape. Lita was 16 years old and Chaplin was 35. They divorced in 1927.

Sound

Chaplin continued to make movies during the sound era, which was post-1927, but he was cynical of talking pictures. He had felt that languages now would be a barrier to the success of films on a world stage. He had written the screenplay for City Lights in 1928 but still filmed it as a silent picture in 1931. With the help of Alfred Newman, Chaplin created a score that was synchronized for the picture because his preferred choice of live orchestras was now no longer an option.

City Lights was and remains a critical success. However, several historians have issues with Chaplin’s over-use of sentiment in the film, but that is a criticism that could be applied to almost all of Chaplin’s pictures.

His next film, Modern Times, was released in 1936. It was also filmed as a silent, using synchronized orchestral sound and effects. It was a huge critical triumph and it continues to be praised as a witty but unflattering portrayal of industrial society. Modern Times became Chaplin’s last silent picture and although it was a commercial disappointment in the United States, it was successful abroad. Modern Times is the last picture that Chaplin plays the Little Tramp.

Chaplin had become more openly political and expressed his concern about the surge of far-right nationalism that prevailed in Europe in the 1930s.

Dictator

Boasting a similar-looking moustache as Hitler, Chaplin plays the lead character Adenoid Hynkel in his next comedy The Great Dictator, which satirizes and condemns Adolf Hitler, fascism, antisemitism, and the Nazis. Chaplin also plays the persecuted Jewish barber, which is a similar character to his Little Tramp character.

Charles Chaplin, Henry Daniell, Carter DeHaven, and Jack Oakie in The Great Dictator (1940)

Chaplin spent two years developing the script and filming began in September 1939, only six days after Britain declared war on Germany. The Great Dictator was released in 1940 and was a huge hit at the box office.

The film was well-received by the critics and received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor. However, the ending has been heavily criticized. The five-minute speech by Chaplin, as he looks directly into the camera, seemed to many critics to be overt preaching against war and fascism.

Making a comedy about Hitler was always going to controversial, but Chaplin was determined to complete the picture. However, Chaplin revealed many years later that had he could not have made the film if he had known the true extent of the horrors in the Nazi concentration camps.

Scandal

Chaplin had been married to co-star Paulette Goddard from 1936 to 1942 and then married Oona O’Neill, daughter of Irish-American playwright Eugene O’Neill in 1943. There was much controversy over the age gap between them. Oona was 18 years old and Chaplin was 54. Their union permanently severed ties between Oona and her father.

Chaplin with his wife Oona O’Neill

During the forties, Chaplin’s turbulent personal life attracted more press attention. He became preoccupied with a series of trials stemmed from his affair with 22-year-old aspiring actress Joan Barry. Their relationship ended following claims of a series of harassing actions from her. Barry won a paternity suit against 52-year-old Chaplin in 1943 for two terminated pregnancies and daughter Carol Ann.

During a trial in 1944, blood tests proved that Chaplin was not the father, but his blood tests were inadmissible as evidence in Californian courts. Chaplin continued to financially support Mary Ann until her 21st birthday, but this scandal did much to taint Chaplin’s image and popularity. The critical reaction to his 1947 film Monsieur Verdoux was mostly negative, mostly due to his criticisms of capitalism in the film and the negative publicity he was receiving. Monsieur Verdoux has been re-appreciated more positively in recent years.

Chaplin was also accused of being a communist. He was suspected of supporting Russia against the Nazis during the war and he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 but was not required for him to testify in person. They had no evidence at all that Chaplin was involved with any communist activities.

Not ever holding American citizenship, Chaplin was denied re-entry to the United States in 1952 when he and his family traveled to England for the premiere of his highly acclaimed 1952 British film Limelight. Chaplin and his family moved permanently to Switzerland.

Despite being Chaplin returned to England to direct the poorly received A King in New York in 1957, but his directorial career ended badly with the critical failure A Countess from Hong Kong in 1967.

Recognition

During the 1970s, the film industry again recognized Charlie’s achievements and he was allowed back to the United States to receive a Special Academy Award in 1973. In 1975, he received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II of England.

Chaplin (with Oona) after accepting his Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1972

Chaplin’s marriage to Oona proved to be his most enduring marriage and they were together until he died of a stroke in his sleep in Switzerland on 25 December 1977. He was 88 years old.

It is surprising to many that Chaplin, who was a hugely important pioneer of filmmaking, only won one competitive Academy Award for the Best Score for the re-release of Limelight in 1973 (shared with Ray Rasch and Larry Russell). He won honorary awards in 1972 and for “versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing, and producing” The Circus in 1929.

In the early days of Hollywood, Chaplin pushed artistic boundaries at a time when cinema was young and technically limited. A genius and a visionary, Chaplin successfully achieved artistic independence in the industry and became increasingly inventive throughout his career. His achievements are many but the fact that he escaped poverty and hardship to become the biggest celebrity on the planet is simply astonishing.

His career lasted more than 75 years, from his time as a child during the Victoria era until the mid-seventies. Although Chaplin received acclaim and controversy during his lifetime, the film industry still owes a huge debt to this former Little Tramp.

Chaplin and Paulette Goddard in Modern Times (1935)

CHARLES CHAPLIN FILMOGRAPHY

Keystone Studios (1914)

•    Making a Living

•    Kid Auto Races at Venice

•    Mabel’s Strange Predicament (which was released earlier than Kid Auto Races)

•    A Thief Catcher

•    Between Showers

•    A Film Johnnie

•    Tango Tangles

•    His Favorite Pastime

•    Cruel, Cruel Love

•    The Star Boarder

•    Mabel at the Wheel

•    Twenty Minutes of Love

•    Caught in a Cabaret

•    Caught in the Rain

•    A Busy Day

•    The Fatal Mallet

•    Her Friend the Bandit

•    The Knockout

•    Mabel’s Busy Day

•    Mabel’s Married Life

•    Laughing Gas

•    The Property Man

•    The Face on the Bar Room Floor

•    Recreation

•    The Masquerader

•    His New Profession

•    The Rounders

•    The New Janitor

•    Those Love Pangs

•    Dough and Dynamite

•    Gentlemen of Nerve

•    His Musical Career

•    His Trysting Place

•    Tillie’s Punctured Romance

•    Getting Acquainted

•    His Prehistoric Past

With Essanay (1915 – 1916)

•    His New Job (1915)

•    A Night Out (1915)

•    The Champion (1915)

•    In the Park (1915)

•    A Jitney Elopement (1915)

•    The Tramp (1915)

•    By the Sea (1915)

•    Work (1915)

•    A Woman (1915)

•    The Bank (1915)

•    Shanghaied (1915)

•    A Night in the Show (1915)

•    Charlie’s Burlesque on Carmen (1916)

•    Police (1916)

With Mutual Film Corporation (1916 to 1917)

•    The Floorwalker (1916)

•    The Fireman (1916)

•    The Vagabond (1916)

•    One A.M (1916)

•    The Count (1916)

•    The Pawnshop (1916)

•    Behind the Screen (1916)

•    The Rink (1916)

•    Easy Street (1917)

•    The Cure (1917)

•    The Immigrant (1917)

•    The Adventurer (1917)

With First National (1918 to 1923)

•    A Dog’s Life (1918)

•    The Bond (1918)

•    Shoulder Arms (1918)

•    Sunnyside (1919)

•    A Day’s Pleasure (1919)

•    The Kid (1921)

•    The Idle Class (1921)

•    Pay Day (1922)

•    The Pilgrim (1923)

With United Artists (1923 to 1952)

•    A Woman of Paris (1923)

•    The Gold Rush (1925 and 1942)

•    The Circus (1928)

•    City Lights (1931)

•    Modern Lights (1936)

•    The Great Dictator (1940)

•    Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

•    Limelight (1952)

Other Releases (1957 – 1967)

•    A King of New York (1957)

•    The Chaplin Review (which includes A Dog’s Life, The Pilgrim, Shoulder Arms, etc)

•    A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

Categories Uncategorized

4 thoughts on “Chaplin: The Comic Genius of Early Hollywood

  1. Beautiful article as usual! Hope you’ll do the same on Buster Keaton or Fatty Arbuckle.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you very much. You are very kind. I hope to write something on Keaton in the near future.

      Like

  2. Wow! Your presentation of Charlie is perfect! He was a flawed genius. He was a perfect example of God’s wonderful gifts given to man and man’s struggle to know how to use them. Your summary was so insightful and I learned so many new things about him from it! Thank you for a wonderful post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your very kind words. Much appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

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