Charlie Chaplin was one of the most celebrated, influential, innovative and ultimately controversial film-makers of the twentieth century. As a star of silent films he became arguably the most important Hollywood figure of his era. Film critic Andrew Sarris called Chaplin ‘arguably the single most important artist produced by the cinema, certainly its most extraordinary performer and probably still its most universal icon.’ Even today the image of Charlie Chaplin as the iconic ‘Tramp’ is recognisable to many people who have never seen his films.
Born Charles Spencer Chaplin (April 16, 1889) in London to singers Charles Chaplin Snr. and Hannah Chaplin, his upbringing was fraught with poverty and hardships. Abandoned by his father at a young age and with his mother confined to a mental asylum, Charlie found himself sent to the workhouse and a school for destitute children. His biographer David Robinson called Chaplin’s career ‘the most dramatic of all the rags to riches stories ever told.’
It quickly became apparent Charlie had a natural gift for performing. He made his first stage performance at the age just of five. By the age of ten he was performing regularly with the ‘Eight Lancashire Lads’ clog dancing troupe, touring England’s music halls. Yearning for more comedic roles, he found work with the prestigious Fred Karno Comedy Company and soon rose to become its star performer. Whilst touring with the company in America he was invited to join the New York Motion Picture Company. His on-screen career was about to commence.
Chaplin’s first film appearance was in Making a Living in 1914 – a one-reel comedy film which Chaplin personally disliked but which immediately marked him out for stardom. Despite his popularity, Chaplin’s career nearly came to a crashing halt just as he was starting out. After clashing with several directors over their reluctance to entertain his creative ideas, he was nearly released from his contract with the studio.
However, with orders for his films pouring in, the studio resolved to keep him. Craving creative control, Chaplin cut a deal with his studio boss Mack Sennett to direct his next film. After the commercial success of Caught in the Rain (1914), Chaplin’s rise a film director was meteoric. Within a year he was negotiating huge annual salaries with film studios to direct and star in dozens of short films including a first lead role for The Tramp (1915).
Nevertheless, Chaplin was unhappy, feeling pressure to produce lower quality quickly, he made the revolutionary move to start his own production company. Chaplin started United Artists with three of Hollywood’s leading stars; Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D. W. Griffith. Away from the pressure of studio deadlines Chaplin could produce only the films he wanted.
His time at United Artists was the most productive of Chaplin’s career and included some of his best loved feature films. These included The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) – each centred on the trials and tribulations of the iconic ‘Tramp.’ Despite this critically successful period, Chaplin’s reluctance to embrace ‘talkies’ was hurting box-office takings. He believed that sound simply would not work in his films. Eventually Chaplin’s stubborn resistance collapsed and somewhat ironically his first foray in talking pictures produced his most profitable film.
The Great Dictator (1940), a satirical attack on Adolf Hitler and Fascism, became Chaplin’s most commercially successful film. Despite the risks of making a comedy film about Hitler in wartime, Chaplin was determined to proceed. He later wrote, ‘I was determined to go ahead, for Hitler must be laughed at.’ The film was positively received, garnering five Academy Award nominations for Chaplin.
Despite the commercial success, the film’s controversial final scene in which Chaplin looked directly into the camera and professed his own political beliefs, was unpopular with viewers. This controversial ending marked the beginning of a period of political scandal for Chaplin which saw him labelled a Communist sympathiser, resulting in his deportation from the United States.
Charlie Chaplin’s legacy is an enduring one. When he died on Christmas Day 1977, tributes poured in from leading Hollywood figures mourning the passing of a screen legend. His films are considered amongst the greatest ever made. Six of Chaplin’s films have been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. His ‘auteur’ film-making style and slap-stick comedy have found many subsequent imitators. To modern generations he is synonymous with silent film, but Chaplin’s unique styles of acting, comedy and film-making had a much wider influence.