Charles Spencer Chaplin in London, England, 16 April 1889.
Married 1) Mildred Harris, 1918 (divorced 1920); 2) Lita Grey, 1924
(divorced 1927), two sons; 3) Paulette Goddard, 1936 (divorced 1941); 4)
Oona O'Neill, 1943, eight children.
At age nine, followed the careers of his parents, Charles and Hannah
Chaplin, as a music hall performer; 1903–06—appeared as the
youth Billy in the stage play
; 1907—hired for the Fred Karno troupe; 1913—signed by Mack
Sennett for Keystone studios after second Karno tour of the United States;
moved to Hollywood; 1914—first film,
Making a Living
, followed by 34 more films that same year; 1915—left Keystone to
write, direct, and act in 14 films for Essanay Films; 1916—moved to
Mutual Films to create 12 films through 1917;
1918–23—produced seven shorts and one feature,
(1921), for First National; 1919—co-founder with D. W. Griffith,
Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks of United Artists; 1923—first
film for United Artists,
A Woman of Paris
; 1952—visited London; political pressure forced cancellation of
his reentry permit to return to the United States; 1953—moved to
Vevey, on Lake Geneva, Switzerland.
Best Actor, New York Film Critics, for
The Great Dictator
, 1940; Foreign Language Press Critics designate
as best film, 1953; Honorary Oscar, "for the incalcuable effect he
has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century,"
1971; Academy Award for Best Original Dramatic Score (shared), for
, 1972 (film first released in 1952, but had not been shown in Los Angeles
until 1972); Golden Lion, Venice Film Festival, 1972; Knighted, 1975.
In Vevey, Switzerland, 25 December 1977.
(shorts for Keystone Film Company; role as Charlie unless otherwise noted)
Making a Living ( A Busted Johnny ; Troubles ; Doing His Best ) (Lehrman) (as reporter); Kid Auto Races at Venice ( The Kid Auto Race ) (Lehrman); Mabel's Strange Predicament ( Hotel Mixup ) (Lehrman and Sennett); Between Showers ( The Flirts ; Charlie and the Umbrella ; In Wrong ) (Lehrman); A Film Johnnie ( Movie Nut ; Million Dollar Job ; Charlie at the Studio ) (Sennett); Tango Tangles ( Charlie's Recreation ; Music Hall ) (Sennett); His Favorite Pastime ( The Bonehead ; His Reckless Fling ) (Nichols); Cruel, Cruel Love (Sennett); The Star Boarder ( The Hash-House Hero ) (Sennett); Mabel at the Wheel ( His Daredevil Queen ; Hot Finish ) (Norman and Sennett); Twenty Minutes of Love ( He Loved Her So ; Cops and Watches ) (Sennett) (as Charlie, + sc); The Knockout ( Counted Out ; The Pugilist ) (Arbuckle); Tillie's Punctured Romance ( Tillie's Nightmare ; For the Love of Tillie ; Marie's Millions ) (Sennett—feature)
His Regeneration (Anderson) (guest appearance)
The Nut (Reed) (guest appearance)
Souls for Sale (Hughes) (guest appearance)
Show People (King Vidor) (guest appearance)
(shorts for Keystone Film Company)
Caught in a Cabaret ( Jazz Waiter ; Faking with Society ) (co-d, co-sc); Caught in the Rain ( At It Again ; Who Got Stung? ); A Busy Day ( Lady Charlie ; Militant Suffragette ); The Fatal Mallet ( The Pile Driver ; The Rival Suitors ; Hit Him Again ) (co-d, co-sc); Her Friend the Bandit ( Mabel's Flirtation ; A Thief Catcher ) (co-d with Normand, co-sc); Mabel's Busy Day ( Charlie and the Sausages ; Love and Lunch ; Hot Dogs ) (co-d with Normand, co-sc); Mabel's Married Life ( When You're Married ; The Squarehead ) (co-d with Normand); Laughing Gas ( Tuning His Ivories ; The Dentist ); The Property Man ( Getting His Goat ; The Roustabout ; Vamping Venus ); The Face on the Bar-Room Floor ( The Ham Artist ); Recreation ( Spring Fever ); The Masquerader ( Putting One Over ; The Female Impersonator ); His New Profession ( The Good-for-Nothing ; Helping Himself ); The Rounder ( Two of a Kind ; The Love Thief ; Oh, What a Night! ); The New Janitor ( The Porter ; The Blundering Boob ); Those Love Pangs ( The Rival Mashers ; Busted Hearts ); Dough and Dynamite ( The Doughnut Designer ; The Cook ); Gentlemen of Nerve ( Some Nerve ; Charlie at the Races ); His Musical Career ( The Piano Movers ; Musical Tramps ); His Trysting Place ( Family Home ); Getting Acquainted ( A Fair Exchange ; Hullo Everybody ); His Prehistoric Past ( A Dream ; King Charlie ; The Caveman )
(shorts, two-reelers unless noted otherwise, for Essanay Company)
His New Job ; A Night Out ( Champagne Charlie ); The Champion ( Battling Charlie ); In the Park ( Charlie on the Spree ) (one reel); A Jitney Elopement ( Married in Haste ); The Tramp ( Charlie the Hobo ); By the Sea ( Charlie's Day Out ) (one reel); Work ( The Paper Hanger ; The Plumber ); A Woman ( The Perfect Lady ); The Bank ; Shanghaied ( Charlie the Sailor ; Charlie on the Ocean ); A Night in the Show
Carmen ( Charlie Chaplin's Burlesque on Carmen ); Police! ( Charlie the Burglar )
(two-reelers for Mutual Films)
The Floorwalker ( The Store ); The Fireman ; The Vagabond ; One A.M. ; The Count ; The Pawnshop ; Behind the Screen ; The Rink
Easy Street ; The Cure ; The Immigrant ; The Adventurer
Triple Trouble (an Essanay compilation release of 1915 Chaplin footage plus non-Chaplin footage)
(for First National Film Company)
A Dog's Life (three reels); The Bond (half-reel for Liberty Loan Committee); Shoulder Arms (three reels)
Sunnyside (three reels); A Day's Pleasure (two reels)
The Kid (+ pr); The Idle Class (two reels) (+ pr)
Pay Day (two reels) (+ pr); Nice and Friendly (+ pr) (made privately and unreleased)
The Pilgrim (four reels) (+ pr)
(features for United Artists Company)
A Woman of Paris (+ pr)
The Gold Rush (+ pr, narration, mus for sound reissue)
The Circus (+ pr, mus, song for sound reissue)
City Lights (+ pr, mus)
Modern Times (+ pr, mus)
The Great Dictator (+ pr, mus)
Monsieur Verdoux (+ pr, mus)
Limelight (+ pr, co-mus, co-choreographer)
(feature for Attic-Archway Company)
A King in New York (+ pr, mus)
(feature for Universal)
A Countess from Hong Kong (+ mus)
Charlie Chaplin's Own Story , Indianapolis, 1916.
My Trip Abroad , New York, 1922.
A Comedian Sees the World , New York, 1933.
My Autobiography , London, 1964.
My Life in Pictures , London, 1974.
"How I Made My Success," in The Theatre (New York), September 1915.
"What People Laugh At," in American Magazine (New York), 1918.
"In Defense of Myself," in Colliers (New York), 11 November 1922.
"Pantomime and Comedy," in New York Times , 25 January 1931.
Interview with Margaret Hinxman, in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1957.
Interview with Richard Merryman, in Life (New York), 10 March 1967.
"The INS Interview with Chaplin," edited by Charles J. Maland, in Cineaste (New York), vol. 14, no. 4, 1986.
Delluc, Louis, Charlie Chaplin , Paris, 1921; translation by Hamish Miles, London, 1922.
Tyler, Parker, Chaplin, the Last of the Clowns , New York, 1947.
Cotes, Peter, and Thelma Niklaus, The Little Fellow: The Life and Works of Charles Spencer Chaplin , London, 1951, reprinted, New York, 1965.
Huff, Theodore, Charlie Chaplin , New York, 1951.
Payne, Robert, The Great God Pan: A Biography of the Tramp Played by Charlie Chaplin , New York, 1952.
Minney, R. J., Chaplin, the Immortal Tramp , London, 1954.
McDonald, Gerald D., Michael Conway, and Mark Ricci, editors, The Films of Charlie Chaplin , New York, 1965.
Martin, Marcel, Charlie Chaplin , Paris, 1966; 3rd ed., Paris, 1983.
McCaffrey, Donald W., Four Great Comedians: Chaplin, Lloyd, Keaton, Langdon , New York, 1968.
Quigley, Isabel, Charlie Chaplin: Early Comedies , London, 1968.
Leprohon, Pierre, Charles Chaplin , Paris, 1970.
McCaffrey, Donald W., editor, Focus on Chaplin , Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1971.
Manvell, Roger, Chaplin , Boston, 1974.
Lyons, T. J., compiler, Charles Chaplin—A Guide to References and Resources , Boston, 1977.
Sobel, Raoul, and David Francis, Chaplin, Genesis of a Clown , London, 1977.
McCabe, John, Charlie Chaplin , New York, 1978.
Gehring, Wes D., Charlie Chaplin: A Bio-Bibliography , Westport, Connecticut, 1983.
Kamin, Dan, Charlie Chaplin's One-Man Show , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1984.
Smith, Julian, Chaplin , Boston, 1984.
Robinson, David, Chaplin: His Life and Art , London, 1985.
Geduld, Harry W., Chapliniana I: The Keystone Films , Bloomington, Indiana, 1987.
Epstein, Jerry, Remembering Charlie: A Pictorial Biography , Garden City, New York, 1989.
Silver, Charles, Charlie Chaplin: An Appreciation , New York, 1989.
Maland, Charles J., Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star , 1990.
Karney, Robyn, and Robin Cross, The Life and Times of Charlie Chaplin , London, 1992.
MacCann, Richard Dyer, editor, The Silent Comedians (vol. 4 of American Movies: The First Thirty Years ), Metuchen, New Jersey, 1993.
Hale, Georgia, Charlie Chaplin: Intimate Close-Ups , edited by Heather Kierman, Metuchen, New Jersey, 1995.
Milton, Joyce, Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin , New York, 1996.
Mitchell, Glenn, The Chaplin Encyclopedia , London, 1997.
Flom, Eric L., Chaplin in the Sound Era: An Analysis of the Seven Talkies , Jefferson, North Carolina, 1997.
Ramsaye, Terry, "Chaplin—And How He Does It," in Photoplay (New York), September 1917.
Hilbert, James E., "A Day with Charlie Chaplin on Location," in Motion Picture Classic (New York), November 1917.
Young, Stark, "Dear Mr. Chaplin," in New Republic (New York), 23 August 1922.
Carr, Harry, "Chaplin vs. Lloyd, a Comparison," in Motion Picture Magazine (New York), November 1922.
Seldes, Gilbert, "'I Am Here Today': Charlie Chaplin," in The 7 Lively Arts , New York, 1924; reprinted, 1957.
Cooke, Alistair, "Charlie Chaplin," in Atlantic Monthly (New York), August 1939.
Agee, James, "Comedy's Greatest Era," in Life (New York), 5 September 1949.
"Chaplin at Work: He Reveals His Movie-Making Secrets," in Life (New York), 17 March 1952.
Montgomery, John, "Chaplin—The Perfect Clown," in Comedy Films , London, 1954.
Spears, Jack, "Chaplin Collaborators," in Films in Review (New York), January 1962.
Brownlow, Kevin, "Chaplin," in The Parade's Gone By . . . , New York, 1968.
"Chaplin" issue of Film Comment (New York), September/October 1972.
Mast, Gerald, "Chaplin and Keaton" (part III), in The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies , New York, 1973.
Schickel, Richard, "A Chaplin Overview," in The National Society of Film Critics on Movie Comedy , edited by Stuart Byron and Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1977.
Obituary in New York Times , 26 December 1977.
Canby, Vincent, "He Took Pains to Make Us Laugh," in New York Times , 1 January 1978.
Corliss, Richard, "Chaplin," in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1978.
"Chaplin" issue of University Film Association Journal (Houston), no. 1, 1979.
Everson, William K., "Rediscovery: 'New' Chaplin Films," in Films in Review (New York), November 1981.
Millar, Gavin, "The Unknown Chaplin," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1983.
"Chaplin" section of American Film (Washington, D.C.), September 1984.
Winokur, Mark, " Modern Times and the Comedy of Transformation," in Film/Literature Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 15, no. 3, 1987.
Maland, Charles J., "From The Kid to The Gold Rush ," in Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of the Star Image , Princeton, New Jersey, 1989.
Jones, Chuck, "Journal" (on Chaplin), in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1989.
Kerr, Walter, "Spinning Reels of Memory on a Master's Centenary," in New York Times , 9 April 1989.
Canby, Vincent, "The Charlie Chaplin Centennial: A Genius Revisited," in New York Times , 14 April 1989.
Nightingale, Benedict, "The Melancholy that Forged a Comic Genius," in New York Times , 22 March 1992.
Gabler, Neal, "Film View: Chaplin Blazed the Trail, Woody Allen Follows," in New York Times , 27 September 1992.
Lieberman, E.A., "Charlie the Trickster," Journal of Film and Video (Atlanta, Georgia), vol. 46, no. 3, 1994.
Siegel, Scott, and Barbara Siegel, "Charlie Chaplin," in American Film Comedy , New York, 1994.
Woal, M., and L.K. Woal, "Chaplin and the Comedy of Melodrama," Journal of Film and Video (Atlanta, Georgia), vol. 46, no. 3, 1994.
Frumkes, Roy, "Chaplin on Laser Disc," in Films in Review (New York), February 1994.
Maland, C., "How Much Chaplin Appears in Chaplin?," Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), vol. 25, no. 1, 1995.
Miller, Blair, "Charles Spencer 'Charlie' Chaplin," in American Silent Film Comedies: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Persons, Studios, and Terminology , Jefferson, North Carolina, 1995.
Codelli, Lorenzo, editor, "Forgotten Laughter: A Symposium on American Silent Comedy," in The Journal of Film History: Griffithiana (Italy/United States), May 1995.
Milton, J. "In the Mail: Un-American Activities?," New Yorker (New York), 23 September 1996.
Thomajan, D. "Charlie Chaplin Never Called Me Pig," Film Comment (New York), no. 32, November/December 1996.
Weisman, S.M. "Charlie Chaplin's Film Heroines," Film History (London), vol. 8, no. 4, 1996.
Lemaster, David J. "The Pathos of the Unconscious: Charlie Chaplin and Dreams," Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington D.C.), vol. 25, no. 3, Fall 1997.
Chaplinesque, My Life and Hard Times , documentary directed by Harry Hurwitz, 1972.
Unknown Chaplin , television documentary directed by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, 1983.
Young Charlie Chaplin , television film biography directed by Baz Taylor, 1989.
Chaplin , film biography directed by Richard Attenborough, 1992.
* * *
It took only a very busy year of acting and directing short films for Charles Chaplin to launch his own career and alter the format of the Mack Sennett comic film. While the famous comedian owed much to the Sennett tradition—the story material and plotting, the techniques of the medium, and the comic vigor—he had his own contribution to make to the comic film. The more subtle humor of this English music hall entertainer was thwarted by the fast pace and farcical plotting of many of the Sennett one- and two-reel comedies.
Chaplin's fame emerged with the development of the little tramp character as early as 1914 when he co-starred with Mabel Normand for Keystone studio and producer Mack Sennett. When he left Sennett's company to work for Essanay and Mutual studios he added finishing touches to the tramp character so that it became a marvelous comic portrait for all times. At the same time, from 1915 to 1917 Chaplin came very close to perfection in the construction of the two-reel humorous film, especially with The Cure and Easy Street in 1917. But the most important aspect of his work was not structure, it was the heights he brought to his acting skills.
The quality of Chaplin's acting as it relates to the total work and his fellow players surfaced in these early works. The Cure and Easy Street , for example, illustrate how he achieved a balanced enactment with his casts. Although he is the leading figure, there are convincing performances by all of the supporting players so that the works display theatrical unity. From the documentary on the working method of Chaplin, 1983's Unknown Chaplin , featuring a number of outtakes from the comedian's The Cure , we now know he often acted out a number of roles which would later be played by other members of his cast. From the evidence in this documentary, extensive rehearsal by all cast members proved Chaplin demanded the devotion of those who worked with him on his films. With all the repetition of one scene it is a wonder the acting did not become stale, flat, and mechanical. But the comedian's portraits emerged fresh, providing a first-time illusion. Especially noteworthy in The Cure is Chaplin's portrayal of an alcoholic who has arrived at a mineral springs hotel for a cure. Gone from his portrayal is the broad, staggering stereotype of the Sennett comedies. He teeters and leans aslant as his locomotion becomes comically askew. And, of course, his mind also reveals it is askew. When he is pushed into the gym to receive physical therapy he sees the masseur as an attacker and strikes the pose of a wrestler. He then begins a series of moves to avoid what he thinks is an opponent. The comedian handles this pantomime adroitly with the grace of a dancer. It is little wonder then that W. C. Fields is reported to have declared in a fit of jealousy: "The son of a bitch is a ballet dancer!"
When Chaplin moved to the feature length film with The Kid in 1921, the richness of his character and acting sprang forth. A greater range of humor was finally achieved because the feature allowed the actor the total dimension of the little tramp. While his two-reelers often moved in the rapid, farcical, slapstick style of Mack Sennett, his full-length films explored the spectrum of his little man-child clown. The quiet, personal moments of the social outcast blossomed, and what critics called "Chaplin's pathos" was born. The little tramp raises a foundling to have many of the awry social values of a social outcast—providing the viewer with some understanding of survival necessities. The kid breaks windows with a pocketful of rocks as the little tramp follows behind as a glazer who repairs the damage for a fee. When an orphanage official takes the kid away in a truck, the tramp pursues and stops the abduction. In an emotional embrace of his adopted son, Chaplin underplays the joy of the moment in a powerful shot of the scene. It may not be what has been called "pathos"—more like sympathy—nevertheless, this shows the essence of a subtle tone without moving to sentimentality.
Other examples of the range of Chaplin's acting deftness display his skill. Critics often point to turns of Chaplin's innovation, such as the oceanic roll dance when he entertains a guest with a routine that shows his head hovering over rolls on forks executing a ballet—an unusual bit in The Gold Rush . There are also more subtle scenes such as one when the little fellow is starving in a remote cabin in Alaska. With delicate, facile pantomime the hollow-eyed, comic hero eyes the stub of a candle. Sadly, the little tramp picks it up and nibbles it with rabbit bites—as if the candle were a piece of carrot or celery. And with a deft touch that again shows Chaplin's genius, he sprinkles salt on the morsel of wax, finds that it tastes better, and pops it into his mouth. With such actions a new depth in comic character was added, a dimension that was to make Chaplin the darling of the critics.
Evaluators of the comedian's work have been most generous in the hundreds of articles published and more than 25 major books solely devoted to his life and films. Sometimes critics believe comedy films do not receive recognition for social significance and employ sweeping symbols and allusions to elevate them. Theodore Huff, usually detached and low-key in his 1951 work, Charlie Chaplin , writes that the comedian has become "a symbol of the age, the twentieth-century Everyman." In The Little Fellow , Peter Cotes and Thelma Niklaus try to give the comedian the position of the champion of the poor and oppressed by stating: "He and Dickens are of the same stock, filled with the same humanism, the same passionate pity for the underdog, the same blaze of anger against persecution, exploitation, and injustice." Such statements strain credulity because the majority of evaluators see Modern Times and The Great Dictator as designed or intended to be satires but end up being lampoons. By far the most rhapsodic commentary comes from Robert Payne who uses the pretentious title The Great God Pan for a biography of Chaplin. He writes: "Far more than Sir Galahad, he [Chaplin] represents the heroic figure of the man pure and undefiled."
These three statements by writers of major works in the early 1950s use allusions that touch upon themes and not the acting, which was the major quality that places Chaplin as the leading king of comedy of the 1920s. For subtle nuances in humor he is the champion. Both Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton were his equal in the broad, athletic comic moments, but only in a few flickering moments in their features did these two rival the master. Much of this early affection for Chaplin resulted from the continued showing of his films and the fact that much of the work of Keaton did not see the light until the 1960s. Since then, 8 studies of Lloyd and 11 evaluations of Keaton focused on the life and films of these two comedians.
One of the most neglected of the kings of silent screen comedy, Harry Langdon, was the one actor most often compared with Chaplin's character—because Langdon employed a tramplike and child-man person. Nevertheless, Langdon's character falls into the class of "dumb" clowns—low mental ability. Most of the humor of his best films, The Strong Man and Long Pants , directed by Frank Capra, springs from a childlike man who is lost in a sophisticated world. Much of the complicated world is a wonder to this wide-eyed person who tries to figure out things that baffle him, like a four year old. Also, Langdon's character does not have the joy and enthusiasm that Chaplin exhibits in his relationship with another person, as in The Kid with his child and in Modern Times with a girlfriend waif.
The type of enthusiasm and joy Chaplin gave to his character is another distinguishing feature. Granted, Harold Lloyd possessed it—like the boy-next-door—but Chaplin had it in the manner of the child in slums who finds a quarter. As critics have pointed out, Chaplin followed in the tradition of the commedia dell'arte . He combined many characteristics of the sad and joyful clowns as he acted in various scenes of his movies. He almost seemed to be the reincarnation of the famous nineteenth-century French clown, Jean-Gaspard Debureau, a renowned Pierrot, blended with all the rollicking good spirit of the Clown created by the English music hall's favorite comedian, Grimaldi.
—Donald W. McCaffrey