Recognized as one of the greatest entertainers in movie history, Charlie Chaplin drew from his impoverished childhood in South London to create the most iconic character in cinema history, The Tramp, a good-natured, undaunted and somewhat unscrupulous cavalier from the 19th century trying to survive the isolating, technologically-driven 20th century. Outfitted in tattered baggy pants, a cutaway coat and vest, impossibly large worn-out shoes and a battered derby hat, The Tramp appeared in untold numbers of short films and made Chaplin the first true Hollywood star. After making his debut in "Kid Auto Races at Venice" (1914), Chaplin's Tramp was the focus of many iconic films like "The Tramp" (1915), "Behind the Screen" (1916), "Easy Street" (1917) and "The Immigrant" (1917). With his output slowed down a bit after World War I, Chaplin entered into one of his most creatively satisfying periods that saw "The Kid" (1921), "The Gold Rush" (1925) and "City Lights" (1931) hit the screen. Chaplin was one of the last to bow down to pressure and succumb to the sound era with "Modern Times" (1936), in which he reluctantly agreed to allow the public to hear the Tramp's voice - the first and only time this occurred. Having retired the character for good, Chaplin - who was also a pioneering writer and director on many of his films - starred in what became his last truly exemplary film, "The Great Dictator" (1940), before outraging audiences with an atypical turn in the thriller "Monsieur Verdoux" (1947). His last ode to the Tramp, "Limelight" (1952), failed to reach American screens amidst the political witch hunts of the McCarthy era, which led to him permanently residing in Switzerland until his death in 1977. Despite the hardships endured later in his career, Chaplin remained one of Hollywood's true geniuses while his Tramp characterization became one of Cinema's most recognizable and defining images.
Born on April 16, 1889 in London, England, Chaplin was raised in a home with enough gentility to keep a maid, yet at a very early age, he watched his family lose everything. Both his father, Charles, and his mother, Hannah, were music hall entertainers, which gave the young boy early exposure to the world that would eventually become his life. When he was three years old, his father abandoned the family for another woman and left his mother in complete torment. She suffered a nervous breakdown that led her to be institutionalized for much of her remaining life. The utter dismantling of the family unit left Chaplin and his older half-brother, Sydney, at the mercy of the state. Both spent their youth living in pauper homes and workhouses while fending for themselves on the streets. Occasionally they found themselves living with their alcoholic father and his mistress, particularly when their mother landed herself back in the asylum, only to return to charity homes. Though his mother continued to perform, which led to Chaplin making his own debut at the age of five, a serious throat condition effectively ended her career. Meanwhile, the cruel deprivation Chaplin experienced in his formative years deeply scarred and affected him for the rest of his life.
In 1901, when he was 12 years old, Chaplin lost his father to cirrhosis brought on by his father's alcoholism. Prior to that, he began his professional career in earnest in the summer of 1898 as one of the Eight Lancashire Lads, a children's musical troupe that toured England's provincial music halls. Two years after his father's death, he played Billy the pageboy in William Gillette's West End production of "Sherlock Holmes" (1905). At the prompting of his brother, Chaplin then secured a spot in Fred Karno's music hall revue, quickly becoming its star attraction. He remained with the Karno troupe for seven years until film producer Mack Sennett discovered him during the troupe's second tour of America in 1913 and signed the youngster to the Keystone Company. Chaplin's European music hall style was out of place in the mechanized world of Sennett, who ran his studio with production-line efficiency, churning out two films a week and allowing no more than 10 camera set-ups per film. For an actor used to refining a character night after night with the Karno company, the Sennett method seemed careless, sloppy and crude.
Chaplin's first film for Sennett, "Making a Living" (1914), was mediocre, featuring him in standard English music hall garb racing across the frame for the entire reel. His inability to adapt to the rigors of filmmaking, which was still in its infancy at that time, almost led to the young actor's abrupt exit from Hollywood. But he was given a second chance with "Kid Auto Races at Venice" (1914), which turned out to be a much different story. Borrowing a bowler hat, reedy cane and baggy pants from Fatty Arbuckle to go with floppy shoes from Fred Sterling, Chaplin assembled his trademark Tramp costume, forever transforming cinema. In the film, as Chaplin's Tramp arrives to watch the races, he discovers a movie camera and crew recording the event, and in an unstructured half-reel of improvised clowning makes himself the star of the newsreel. After a four-month apprenticeship, Chaplin had by this time begun directing and scripting shorts like "Laughing Gas" (1914), "Mabel's Busy Day" (1914) and "The Knockout" (1914). Separating himself from the Sennett style, he moved the camera closer than Sennett permitted, focusing on character to bring a comedy of emotions to the frenetic Keystone world. He also slowed the breakneck Keystone pace, reducing the number of gags per film and increasing the time devoted to each. Though his technique tended to be invisible, he gradually evolved a principle of cinema based on framing: finding the exact way to frame a shot to reveal its motion and meaning completely, thus avoiding disturbing cuts.
By the end of his Keystone year, Chaplin had become so popular that Sennett's offer of $750 per week - five times his 1914 salary - was not enough to keep him in the fold. Within that year, he had revolutionized film comedy by introducing characterization, mime and slapstick pathos, and his emphasis on character paved the way for the subsequent achievements of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Joining the Essanay Company for $1,250 per week plus a $10,000 signing bonus, Chaplin embarked on a transitional year between the knockabout Sennett farces and the more subtle comedies of psychological observation and moral debate that would mark the mature artist. Though early films for Essanay recalled Sennett, "The Tramp" (1915) looked to the future, firmly establishing the relationship of his screen persona to the respectable social world. After protecting his idealized woman (real life companion Edna Purviance) from harm, Chaplin at first mistakes her kindness for another type of love but ultimately realizes the respectable Ednas of the world are not for tramps like him. Taking to the road, his back to the camera, he walks briskly to his future, with a kick of his feet and a twirl of the cane, providing the ending that became his hallmark for the next two decades.
Ranking among his greatest achievements, Chaplin's 12 Mutual two-reelers of 1916 and 1917 were so inventive, intimate and hilariously clever that they brought him worldwide popularity. In "One A.M." (1916), he once again tailored his Karno drunk for the camera, while "Behind the Screen" (1916) glimpsed life inside a movie studio, and "The Rink" (1916) put him on roller skates for the first time. In "Easy Street" (1917), he was cast in his only performance as a policeman while converting the most sordid subjects - wife-beating, drug addiction, police brutality and rape - into surprisingly funny material for comic routines. He brought drunken chaos to an entire health spa for "The Cure" (1917) before ending his Mutual run with two remarkable films, "The Immigrant" (1917), which identified the plight of a whole class with the solitary Tramp, and "The Adventurer" (1917), which showcased his comic skills as an escaped convict who saves an attractive heiress (Edna Purviance) and her mother from drowning. His non-stop race to escape his police pursuers in the latter was his ultimate tribute to the kind of chase that former boss Sennett had made intrinsic to film comedy. The Mutual films revealed a master at work, stitching mime, satire, sentimentality and slapstick into a seamless whole.
As an independent filmmaker distributing through First National, Chaplin broke out of his popular two-reel format. Though his contract called for 12 two-reelers in one year, he actually took five years to deliver eight films, of which only three were of the specified length. His initial film for First National, "A Dog's Life" (1918), was longer at three reels and richer than any he had attempted, and introduced the mongrel Scraps, an outcast like the Tramp, both of whom must fight to survive in a world of tougher, bigger dogs. He followed with another three-reeler, "Shoulder Arms" (1918), which transported the Tramp to the battlefields of Europe, before suffering a major disappointment with "Sunnyside" (1919), his first film to be ill-received by the public. More than 18 months elapsed before the appearance of "The Kid" (1921), his most ambitious film up to that point, which to the consternation of First National had grown from its planned three-reel length into a massive six. Elaborating on the friend-ally embodied by Scraps, Chaplin worked hard with his child co-star, Jackie Coogan, shaping the boy into a mirror of himself. The result was the biggest hit in motion picture history up until that time outside of D.W. Griffith's epic "Birth of a Nation" (1915).
In 1919, Chaplin, along with fellow stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford and director Griffith, founded United Artists, for whom his first film was "A Woman of Paris" (1923), a romantic melodrama and swan song for long-time co-star Purviance that was rare for its lack of the Tramp. Though quite sophisticated for its time, the film flopped commercially, but became a powerful influence on Ernst Lubitsch, the eventual grand master of the genre. His next four features once again featured the Tramp and his conflict with "normal" social expectations, forming what might be called the so-called marriage group. "The Gold Rush" (1925), featuring the famous feasting on shoe leather scene, suggested that his striking it rich might make him an acceptable mate, but he was back on the road in "The Circus" (1928) after failing to fulfill the heroine's vision of romance. Audiences rewarded the director's bold move of resisting sound for "City Lights" (1931), proving they would still see a silent film if Chaplin was the star. The fourth-biggest grosser of the year told the story of the Tramp's love for a blind flower girl, and though he facilitates the operation that gives her sight, the abrupt conclusion suggests she will not share her life with a lowly tramp - an ending widely considered to be one of the most moving in cinema history.
Silence was the medium in which the Tramp lived, but for "City Lights," Chaplin's concession to sound was providing musical scoring and sound effects. From that point on, he composed the scores for all his sound films, as well as adding musical tracks to silent classics. No longer able to resist synchronized sound, he finally bid farewell to the Tramp in "Modern Times" (1936), allowing him his only talking sequence on film, a jumble of gibberish in the form of a song and dance number. When he took to the road this last time, it was also finally in the company of another, Paulette Goddard, Chaplin's wife at the time, albeit secretly. He had made only four films in 11 years, but his output slowed even further with his final three American films coming in the next 16 years. "The Great Dictator" (1940), his first full-talkie, combined slapstick, satire and social commentary, casting Chaplin in the dual role of a Tramp-like Jewish barber and Adenoid Hynkel, the Hitler-like dictator of Tomania. In addition to the send-up of Hitler as a maniacal clown, Jack Oakie weighed in unforgettably as Benzino Napaloni of rival country Bacteria, a hysterical take-off of Mussolini. At the time, however, Chaplin courted public controversy for his unorthodox support of a second European front alongside the Soviet army. Still, the film was a smash success and earned five Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor, Best Writing and Best Picture.
The Tramp had been a character of 19th century sensibilities, a leftover from a Dickensian world. But with "Monsieur Verdoux" (1947), Chaplin proved he was firmly in the 20th century with a resonant film of his times. Another political fable, "Verdoux" presented him as a man who marries rich, repellent ladies and murders them to support his beloved wife on an idyllic farm. The startling transformation of their precious Tramp into a murderous Bluebeard turned his once adoring public against him. But his creative expression was right on target for a post-Holocaust world. Equating Verdoux's murderous trade with acceptable professions - munitions manufacturing, stock trading, banking - was clearly years ahead of its time, and its wry humor and pacifist sentiments made it quite contemporary compared to later decades. Under fire for his liberal views in an era defined by Joe McCarthy's anti-Communist tirades, Chaplin released a final affectionate tribute to his art and its traditions, "Limelight" (1952). But because of his public support for a joint front with the Soviets during World War II, he became a target of FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, who revoked Chaplin's re-entry permit after learning the actor had briefly left the country for his native England. Having never become an American citizen, Chaplin settled with his family in Switzerland, while "Limelight" failed to receive American distribution until 1972.
"Limelight" functioned as Chaplin's cinematic swan song. In his most autobiographical and most underrated work, Chaplin played Calvero, an old, drunken has-been comedian struggling for a comeback - a superb commentary on his own fabulous career, one which saw the triumph and decline of the physical comedy he had brought to silent films from the English music hall. For the last time on celluloid, he exercised classic pantomime bits that recalled the Tramp, like taming a flea and imagining himself a great lion tamer. Chaplin's hilarious routine with the great Buster Keaton - the only time the two appeared together - before Calvero collapses and dies is his last significant screen image, a fitting finale to a wondrous career. Meanwhile, public reaction against Chaplin was so rabid that his first European film, "A King in New York" (1957), a slight satire on American consumerism and political paranoia, remained unreleased in the United States until 1973. Chaplin's final film as a director, "A Countess From Hong Kong" (1967), in which he merely made a cameo appearance as a waiter opposite stars Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando, was even more disappointing, suffering as had its predecessor at the hands of a low budget, tight schedule and a production team of strangers.
Throughout his career, Chaplin was involved with numerous women, some of who he married; others he did not, while siring a great number of children, particularly with his last wife, Oona O'Neill, daughter of famed playwright Eugene O'Neill. He had a longtime affair with aforementioned costar Edna Purviance before he married child actress, Mildred Harris, when she was 16 - a penchant for underage girls he displayed throughout his life. Following the death of their newborn child, they divorced in 1920 and Chaplin moved on to a high profile romance with Polish actress Pola Negri. He next married the 16-year-old actress Lita Grey, with whom he had two sons, while reportedly carrying on with starlet and William Randolph Hearst mistress, Marion Davies. In the mid- to late-1930s, some controversy sprang over whether or not Chaplin had married star Paulette Goddard, though the two were living together for a number of years in the actor's Beverly Hills home. Perhaps most troublesome was his brief fling with aspiring actress, Joan Barry, who later claimed that Chaplin was the father of her daughter. A highly public and tawdry court battle ensued that ended with a judge dismissing a negative blood test as evidence and ordering Chaplin to pay for child support. At 54 years old, Chaplin married O'Neill when she was barely 18 and proceeded to father eight children with her, the last coming when he was 73. Chaplin and O'Neill stayed together for the remainder of his life.
Almost 20 years after he was effectively exiled from the country that once claimed him as his own, Hollywood welcomed the Tramp back, presenting Chaplin with an Honorary Academy Award amid the loudest and longest ovation in its history - a full 12 minutes when all was told. His speech consisted of a simple ode of thanks for being invited while stating that words for such a moment would seem futile. The frail man of 82, who had long since given up radical politics, also picked up an Oscar the following year for writing the score of "Limelight," which was eligible since it had not played the Los Angeles area before 1972. His final great tribute came when Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in 1975. With his very name inextricably linked to the very idea of movies, Chaplin's stature and legacy only stood to grow following his death on Dec. 25, 1977 after years of declining health that led to diminished speech and the use of a wheelchair. Despite some personal failings and public outcry over his politics, The Little Tramp brought countless joy and sublimity to a world always in desperate need of laughter. Writer James Agee perhaps said it best: "Of all comedians, he worked most deeply and most shrewdly within a realization of what a human being is, and is up against. The Tramp is as centrally representative of humanity, as many-sided and as mysterious, as Hamlet, and it seems unlikely that any dancer or actor can ever have excelled him in eloquence, variety, or poignancy of motion."