“The little fellow,” Vanity Fair once wrote, “was not a small man.”
Indeed, there are movie stars. There are superstars. There are legends. And then there’s Charlie Chaplin.
He was born on April 16, 1889 in south London at a time when poverty was rife, housing was scarce, and low-income tenements had decomposed into dirty, overcrowded slums. Charlie knew such poverty intimately during his unstable childhood and spent most of it in and out of workhouses and schools for the poor while his mother, a failed singer, bounced in and out of sanitariums. His entire life-course was to be a product (whether directly or indirectly) of the desperation of privation.
At only 10 years old, Charlie joined a troupe of child actors which provided sanctuary from the oppressive London streets. At 16, Charlie teamed up with his half brother Sydney who secured him a two week trial with one of England’s foremost impresarios, Fred Karno. Charlie’s inspired performance as a drunken dandy had audiences roaring and cemented his spot in the troupe.
From 1910 through 1913, Fred Karno and company made two American tours and, in the spring of 1913, Charlie would receive his calling in the form of a telegram. Hollywood’s ‘King of Comedy’ Mack Sennett had seen his on stage inebriate and wanted to recruit him, feeling that the lithely comic was a natural fit for the movies. He lured West the reluctant Chaplin by promising a paycheck of $150 a week.
Initially mystified by the breakneck pace of the Sennett movie factory, and frustrated by the inauspicious first weeks with both Sennett and his number one star (and girlfriend) Mabel Normand, Chaplin finally found his footing in the oversized shoes of a nameless vagrant. “I had no idea of the character,” Chaplin said. “But the moment I dressed, the clothes and makeup made me feel who he was … by the time I walked on stage, he was fully born.” Mostly true, although Keystone Chaplin is an amoral cad compared to the sensitive little fellow in later films. The Tramp’s first appearance on screen in Kid Auto Races at Venice is, in fact, more Charles Chaplin The Man than Charlie Chaplin The Tramp: kicked and shoved out of the way by a cameraman who is dutifully trying to film the car races, the Tramp relentlessly wrestles his way in front of the camera. Whatever the cost, he must be seen.
There has rarely been a more prophetic screen debut than that of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp.
Upon finishing his year with Keystone, Chaplin signed with Essanay pictures. Even though he butted heads with the studio bosses throughout his contract, it afforded the 26 year old the ability to flex his creative muscles as both an actor and filmmaker. The Essanay’s are a fascinating visual diary of an artist learning his instrument—a portrait, if you will, of the artist as a young man.
By the time he finished with Essanay, Europe would be bitterly embroiled in war, but Charlie would be the most famous man in the world. Later in life Chaplin would defend his controversial politics by calling himself a “citizen of the world”– in 1916, no one would have dared argue the fact.
His next deal with The Mutual Film Company gave him more of the creative control he coveted—not to mention $10,000 a week in exchange for 12 two-reelers. Already, Chaplin’s auteur sensibilities were evident. He threw himself into work with a tireless creativity that would give birth to some of the best work of his career. Two particularly noteworthy films in the Mutual series—The Immigrant and Easy Street—are textured, poignant, socially conscious two-reelers that emerge as fully Chaplinesque. With The Immigrant especially it is very clear that Chaplin was lifting comedy from pie-throwing crudity, into something deeply meaningful. Without doubt, the Mutual period is what makes the rest of Chaplin’s oeuvre possible.
As evidenced in the superb documentary Unknown Chaplin, he did not work from a script. He merely started with an idea and willed the story on the fly—sometimes inspiration would charge like a runaway train, sometimes it would derail completely and the crew retreated to games of pinochle while Chaplin agonized. His unique creative process required a highly adaptable, long-suffering, loyal crew who believed in Chaplin’s vision as much as he did.
Although he was prone to virulent mood swings, the Chaplin set enjoyed a chemistry that made it easy for his crew to discount his inevitable outbursts. Indeed, pranks, fits of laughter and a spirit of excitement prevailed on many of those magical days on set. And when tempers did flare (and they flared often) loyalty was still the undercurrent in the personal confrontations between Chaplin and his right hand men. Chaplin and his crew could fight like the dickens, but loyalty prevailed in the end and it was not uncommon for Charlie to be the first to wave the white flag. (He once even offered his ass to cameraman Rollie Totheroh for the kicking it deserved. Rollie obliged.)
Edna Purviance, a former stenographer and Chaplin’s leading lady and lover at the time (he kept her on the studio payroll for the rest of her life) was the prototypical Chaplin actress—an inexperienced ingénue who could be trained to do Chaplin’s exact bidding, right down to the raise of her brow. It is understandable why some, in this post Stanislavsky world, fault Chaplin for dictating to actors their precise movements. (Take after take after take–thousands of feet of film, hundreds and hundreds of takes.) However, when compared to the often overblown, over-the-top acting so ubiquitous in silent film (particularly those of the late teens), the acting in Chaplin films is remarkably realistic. Such dexterous nuance is particularly apparent in the Mutuals and would later be more perfectly achieved in the likes of Chaplin’s elegant A Woman of Paris and City Lights.
Film historian James Neibaur said “With his direction of the actors, Chaplin effectively replaces the broad gestures by which so much of screen drama had been represented. Chaplin believed that human beings would naturally hide their emotions. This penchant for realism, and the understated performances of his actors, redefined acting in dramatic cinema, just as his short films had brought screen comedy to another level.”
Regardless of the neurotic underpinnings of his process, the results are consistently marvelous.
Hardly an expressionist, Chaplin films do lack aesthetic creativity and are noted for Totheroh’s static (some call it narcissistic) long shots. But Chaplin was a comedian who grew up in the wide angles of the music hall stage where improvisation sprang from a gag which had to be played out for the benefit of the folks down in front as well as the folks up in the balcony. His brain worked in the aspect ratio of the stage and, for better or worse, Rollie Totheroh’s lenses were notoriously short in keeping with this tradition to provide Chaplin with a steady canvas on which to paint. It can be argued that Chaplin’s stubbornly short lens is what makes his close ups so wrenchingly effective. His close-ups are not acts of fawning self-indulgence: they are powerful tools used to pack an emotional punch that only the silence of pantomime can evoke. All the words in the world fall short of expressing what Chaplin expressed in his close-ups.
People were forming an emotional connection to movies and, in Chaplin’s films particularly, were able to explore the emotional complexities of the human condition through the images on screen. In other words, film was becoming an art form.
With his landmark contract at First National, Chaplin became his own producer, netted a million a year and was given a liberal amount of control. Unfortunately, the time constraints of the First National contract brought much anxiety to Chaplin and his work suffers visibly. A Day’s Pleasure and Sunnyside, in particular, lack the excitement and vitality of the Mutual films and feel forced and disjointed. (“A Day’s Pleasure,” wrote one critic, “is anything but.”) But from First National also comes some of his strongest work. Shoulder Arms, A Dog’s Life, The Pilgrim, and his first full-length feature film, The Kid. With the sensational Jackie Coogan at his side (Chaplin’s best co-star hands down) the film stunned audiences and critics alike with a dramatic subplot that climaxed into a tear-jerking medley of pain and pathos. And then, seamlessly, he draws the audience into laughter again. No one had ever done it before, and to this day few have ever done it quite so well.
Chaplin was right: “life is tragedy in close up, comedy in long shot.”
In 1918 Chaplin built his own studio on a 4-acre lot amidst the plush Hollywood orange groves at Sunset and La Brea Boulevards. (The English cottage facade was built to purposefully keep the neighborhood genteel– today, ironically, it remains the only truly genteel spot in central Hollywood.) Chaplin had escaped the Hollywood studio system and would spend the rest of his life refusing to play by their rules—or anyone’s rules for that matter–as a fiercely independent filmmaker. Since Chaplin was an inexorable perfectionist who favored quality over quantity, it is not surprising that his output of work slowed down dramatically after he went into business for himself—by means of United Artists. One of the 4 founding ‘lunatics’ who ‘took over the asylum,’ Chaplin along with friends Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith, formed the distribution company as a means to control and protect their work and creative rights.
Notwithstanding his 1923 drama A Woman of Paris, Chaplin’s independent films were consistent box office smashes. David Robinson writes that for A Woman of Paris, Chaplin “wanted to explore the limits of expressiveness—the range, subtlety and sophistication of sentiments and motives that could be revealed in pictures.” The result is a film somewhat ahead of its time emotionally—as evidenced by the disappointing box office performance. (To be fair, the real reason the film flopped is because Chaplin was not in it.) The ‘sophistication of sentiments’ Chaplin successfully achieved in A Woman of Paris are put to work in his next (and for some, his greatest) comedy, The Gold Rush. A cinematic tour de force that continues to inspire filmmakers 80 years after its initial release, Chaplin delivers one of the best performance of his career (topped only by City Lights) as well as some of the most iconic moments in screen history.
The New York Times film review of August 17, 1925 explains the alchemy behind Chaplin’s Lone Prospector: “there is more than mere laughter in The Gold Rush. In back of it, masked by ludicrous situations, is something of the comedian’s early life—the hungry days in London, the times when he was depressed by disappointments, the hopes, his loneliness and the adulation he felt for successful actors. It is told with a background of the Klondike, and one can only appreciate the true meaning of some of the incidents by translating them mentally from the various plights in which the pathetic little Lone Prospector continually finds himself. It is as much a dramatic story as a comedy.”
Even a cursory examination of Chaplin’s films is obliged to make mention of his much-publicized love affairs. Indeed, the two are often inextricably linked and would, along with Chaplin’s political beliefs, be his undoing in Hollywood. Not only was Chaplin a mega superstar, he also happened to be Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor: charismatic, charming, good-looking and fabulously wealthy. Since Chaplin was not the sort of man to took no for an answer, he always got the girl. Young girls. Again and again. It was inevitable that trouble would find him. Which it did. Again and again.
It was precisely this brand of trouble that shadowed the production of Chaplin’s next film, The Circus. His notorious fetish for young girls led to the pregnancy of 16 year old Lita Grey, his original leading lady for The Gold Rush (thankfully recast by Georgia Hale) and the shotgun wedding, inevitably, a very messy, very public, very expensive divorce trial.
The Circus, however, remains a film that is, quite possibly, Chaplin’s funniest work. Often overlooked as it lacks the refinement of The Gold Rush and the sentiment of The Kid, it is a nod to the straightforward gag-centered slapstick of his early years.
It was the golden age of comedy. Chaplin’s contemporaries Harold Lloyd and, most importantly, Buster Keaton, were likewise at the top of their game. Stone-faced Keaton’s adventurous imagination and extraordinary physical prowess resulted in comedies that were consistent envelope pushers. Chaplin was not one to be outdone, and his films of the ‘20s are, although spare in number, representative of the heights to which film comedy was capable of reaching.
But the arrival of talking pictures in 1927 strangled film comedy in its prime. Overnight, silent pantomime, once a voice for the entire world, was gone forever. Chaplin firmly believed that sound would rob the Tramp of his intrinsic universality and he defiantly refused to acquiesce to the microphone. (Although he was certainly not opposed to the idea of synchronized music and, as a former aspiring musician, went on to score the rest of his films under the trained hand of a musical advisor.)
In the midst of Hollywood’s upheaval, Chaplin dove into a nearly 3 year production for City Lights. By the time it was released in 1931, silent movies were nothing more than an echo from another time and Chaplin was thought foolish and arrogant for releasing something so anacrhonistic. But City Lights would be his masterpiece and his greatest creative and financial triumph. Heartbreakingly beautiful, it was cinematic perfection borne from a turbulent sea of inner turmoil and neurosis. Chaplin spent a full year abroad enjoying its afterglow.
But times were changing. America was drowning in a Depression. A political firestorm was threatening to engulf Europe yet again. Chaplin sought to reflect on society’s upheaval. Social comment had always been a thread in Chaplin’s narrative fabric, but his 1936 release Modern Times is an overtly political film. Chaplin used his comedic arsenal fully in what is on the outside an entertaining piece of mostly-silent slapstick, but what is in actuality a damning protest film.
The film is famous too for being the first film in which Chaplin allowed his character to speak–although in cleverly crafted gibberish. Chaplin scored the film, as he did City Lights, under the rigorous supervision of Robert Raskin and from it gave birth to one of the 20th century’s most beloved standards, Smile. (To this day the song is endearingly popular–it was the favorite song of lifelong Chaplin fan Michael Jackson, and was introduced to a new generation in the wake of Jackson’s untimely passing.)
There is a scene in Modern Times that sums up Chaplin’s conspicuous politics: A flag falls from the flatbed of a passing truck. The ever-obliging tramp picks it up and shouts after the driver to come back. He waves the flag frantically and, as he marches after the truck, an army of demonstrators round into view behind him. Oblivious to their presence, the tramp marches on, flag waving, and the men soldier on behind him . We realize with gleeful alacrity: the flag is red! A swarm of cops burst onto the scene to break up the communist demonstrators of whom the Tramp is the unwitting leader. The Tramp’s guilt by association lands him in jail.
It would be a similar guilt by association—Chaplin’s open courting of the Left—that would land him in exile.
1940’s The Great Dictator is Chaplin’s first all talkie feature, the Tramp’s last appearance on film, and the bravest work of Charlie’s career. At a time when America was intent to ignore the war raging in Europe, Chaplin spoke up on behalf of humanity by relentlessly skewering Adolf Hitler. Chaplin believed that if he had to make a talking picture, he damn well better have something important to say. The film is not remembered so much for the comedy, but for the famous final speech –an awing moment when Chaplin breaks character to plead for peace amongst all mankind in a fervent denunciation of fascism.
But people weren’t ready to hear it and during the Red Scare, the film would be falsely misconstrued as a veiled piece of Red propaganda.
On the subject of Chaplin’s complicated fall from favor with the American public and subsequent exile, Time Magazine states: “Chaplin never became a U.S. citizen. An internationalist by temperament and fame, he considered patriotism “the greatest insanity that the world has ever suffered.” As the Depression gave way to World War II and the cold war, the increasingly politicized message of his films, his expressed sympathies with pacifists, communists and Soviet supporters, became suspect. It didn’t help that Chaplin, a bafflingly complex and private man, had a weakness for young girls. His first two wives were 16 when he married them; his last, Oona O’Neill, daughter of Eugene O’Neill, was 18. In 1943 he was the defendant in a public, protracted paternity suit. Denouncing his “leering, sneering attitude” toward the U.S. and his “unsavory” morals, various public officials, citizen groups and gossip columnists led a boycott of his pictures.”
These various officials included none other than J Edgar Hoover, whose dossier on Chaplin contained an incomprehensible 2,000 pages.
Right-wing gossip columnist Hedda Hopper took it upon herself to spearhead a smear campaign against Chaplin using her highly influential gossip column to condemn Chaplin personally, politically and professionally. In its fine essay Hedda Hopper, Hollywood Gossip and the Campaign Against Charlie Chaplin, The Australian Journal of American Studies states categorically that “Hopper’s red scare politics linked her to important forces in domestic anticommunism within and beyond Hollywood and she collaborated with these forces in a far-reaching campaign against Chaplin between 1940 and 1952. … Hopper never wavered in her belief that Chaplin, as a foreigner and political progressive, ‘upheld an ideology offensive to most Americans and contrary to the principles that have left this nation the last refuse of freedom-loving people,’ an ideology he was—she claimed—‘fostering’ through his activities and his films.’
Without proof of Chaplin’s alleged communist affiliation, the FBI and INS had to resort to Chaplin’s well documented questionable morality. ‘If what has been said about him is true,” said the Attorney General, “he is, in my opinion, an unsavoury character who has been publicly charged with being a member of the Communist Party, with grave moral charges and with making statements that would indicate a leering, sneering attitude toward a country whose hospitality has enriched him.’
In 1952 Chaplin left for England to promote Limelight—a poignant fable about “a clown and a ballerina” that features his only collaboration with Chaplin’s greatest contemporary Buster Keaton– and was ceremonially informed that his re-entry visa had been revoked.
Chaplin settled in Switzerland with Oona and his children.
He would only return to America 20 years later, at the age of 83, to receive an Honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Daniel Taradash’s eloquent speech that night was one of reverent gratitude for Chaplin’s contributions to cinema. It was obvious, after all, in the clarity of hindsight, that the man once thought of as a “sneering” communist had been nothing more than a philosophizing humanist. But Chaplin had outlived his most vocal opponents, and the acceptance of his honorary Oscar is truly extraordinary to behold. For three emotional minutes, the audience applauds and bravos the little old man on the stage— artist of the cinema, advocate for humanity, agent of laughter.
Nearly 100 years separate us from the birth of Charlie’s little tramp, and yet his impact is still apparent in film today: he was cinema’s first artist and one of its last. Although a flawed man of many contradictions and suppressed demons, he was, at the end of the day, Charlie: generous and loyal, a passionate lover of all things beautiful and true and good. He was a fearless fighter and inspired craftsman whose madding quest for perfection gave the world the eternal gift of laughter. His work is a profoundly deep expression of the human condition, without which modern cinema would simply not be possible.
Further Viewing: The Chaplin Collection volumes 1 and 2, Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin by Richard Schickel (available only in the Chaplin Collection box set), The Chaplin Mutuals, and Unknown Chaplin by Kevin Brownlow. (Richard Attenborough’s biopic Chaplin is rather choppy in its storytelling, but Robert Downey Jr’s passionate, thoroughly believable portrayal of Chaplin is definitely worth the watch.)