Biography of Charlie Chaplin, Legendary Movie Comedian

charlie chaplin the gold rush
The Gold Rush (1925). Bettmann / Getty Images

Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) was an English filmmaker who wrote, acted, and directed his films. His "Little Tramp" character remains an iconic comedy creation. He was arguably the most popular performer of the silent film era.

Fast Facts: Charlie Chaplin

  • Full Name: Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin, Knight of the British Empire
  • Occupation: Film actor, director, writer
  • Born: April 16, 1889 in England
  • Died: December 25, 1977, in Vaud, Switzerland
  • Parents: Hannah and Charles Chaplin, Sr.
  • Spouses: Mildred Harris (m. 1918; div. 1920), Lita Grey (m. 1924; div. 1927), Paulette Goddard (m. 1936; div. 1942), Oona O'Neill (m. 1943)
  • Children: Norman, Susan, Stephan, Geraldine, Michael, Josephine, Victoria, Eugene, Jane, Annette, Christopher
  • Selected Films: "The Gold Rush" (1925), "City Lights" (1931), "Modern Times" (1936), "The Great Dictator" (1940)

Early Life and Stage Career

Born into a family of music hall entertainers, Charlie Chaplin first appeared on stage when he was five years old. It was a one-time appearance taking over from his mother, Hannah, but by age nine, he'd caught the entertainment bug.

Chaplin grew up in poverty. He was sent to a workhouse when he was seven. When his mother spent two months in an insane asylum, the nine-year-old Charlie was sent with his brother, Sydney, to live with his alcoholic father. When Charlie was 16, his mother was committed to an institution permanently.

At age 14, Chaplin began performing on stage in plays in London's West End. He quickly became a noted comedy performer. In 1910, the Fred Karno comedy company sent Chaplin on a 21-month tour of the American vaudeville circuit. The company included another notable performer, Stan Laurel.

charlie chaplin
English comic actor Charlie Chaplin (center) with other members of the Casey's Circus music hall comedy troupe, UK, 1906. Michael Ochs Archive / Getty Images

First Movie Success

During a second vaudeville tour, the New York Motion Picture Company invited Charlie Chaplin to be part of their Keystone Studios troupe. He began working with Keystone under Mack Sennett in January 2014. His first appearance on film was in the 1914 short "Making a Living."

Chaplin soon created his legendary "Little Tramp" character. The character was introduced to audiences in February 1914 in "Kid Auto Races at Venice" and "Mabel's Strange Predicament." The films were so successful with audiences that Mack Sennett invited his new star to direct his own films. The first short directed by Charlie Chaplin was "Caught in the Rain," released in May 1914. He would continue to direct most of his films for the rest of his career.

November 1914's "Tillie's Punctured Romance," starring Marie Dressler, included Charlie Chaplin's first feature film appearance. It was a box office success causing Chaplin to ask for a raise. Mack Sennett thought it was too expensive and his young star moved to the Essanay studio of Chicago.

While working for Essanay, Chaplin recruited Edna Purviance to be his co-star. She would go on to appear in 35 of his movies. By the time the one-year contract with Essanay expired, Charlie Chaplin was one of the biggest movie stars in the world. In December 1915, he signed a contract with the Mutual Film Corporation worth $670,000 a year (approximately $15.4 million today).

charlie chaplin the rink
The Rink (1916). George Rinhart / Getty Images

Silent Star

Located in Los Angeles, Mutual introduced Charlie Chaplin to Hollywood. His stardom continued to grow. He moved to First National for the years 1918-1922. Among his memorable films of the era are his World War I movie "Shoulder Arms," which placed the Little Tramp in the trenches. "The Kid," released in 1921, was Chaplin's longest film to date at 68 minutes, and it included child star Jackie Coogan.

In 1922, at the end of his contract with First National, Charlie Chaplin became an independent producer laying groundwork for future filmmakers to take artistic control over their work. "The Gold Rush," released in 1925 and his second independent feature, became one of the most successful movies of his career. It included key scenes such as the Little Tramp, a gold rush prospector, eating a boot and an impromptu dance of dinner rolls speared on forks. Chaplin considered it his best work.

Charlie Chaplin released his next film "The Circus" in 1928. It was another success and earned him a special award at the first Academy Awards celebration. However, personal issues including a divorce controversy, made the filming of "The Circus" difficult, and Chaplin rarely spoke about it, omitting it entirely from his autobiography.

charlie chaplin the circus
The Circus (1928). Bettmann / Getty Images

Despite the addition of sound to films, Charlie Chaplin resolutely continued to work on his next movie "City Lights" as a silent picture. Released in 1931, it was a critical and commercial success. Many film historians considered it his finest achievement and his best use of pathos in his work. One concession to sound was the introduction of a musical score, which Chaplin composed himself.

The final mostly silent Chaplin movie was "Modern Times" released in 1936. It included sound effects and a musical score as well as one song sung in gibberish. The underlying political commentary on the dangers of automation in the workplace prompted criticism from some viewers. While praised for its physical comedy, the movie was a commercial disappointment.

Controversial Films and Reduced Popularity

The 1940s became one of the most controversial decades of Charlie Chaplin's career. It began with his broad satire of the rise to power of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Europe before World War II. "The Great Dictator" is Chaplin's most overtly political film. He believed that it was necessary to laugh at Hitler. Some audiences disagreed, and the film was a controversial release. The movie included the first spoken dialogue in a Chaplin piece. Successful with critics, "The Great Dictator" earned five Academy Award nominations including for Best Picture and Best Actor.

charlie chaplin the great dictator
The Great Dictator (1940). Bettmann / Getty Images

Legal difficulties filled most of the first half of the 1940s. An affair with aspiring actress Joan Barry resulted in an FBI investigation and a trial based on an alleged violation of the Mann Act, a law prohibiting the transportation of women across state boundaries for sexual purposes. A court acquitted Chaplin two weeks after the trial began. A paternity suit followed less than a year later that determined Chaplin was the father of Barry's child, Carol Ann. Blood tests that concluded it wasn't true were not admissible in the trial.

The personal controversy intensified with the announcement in 1945, amidst the paternity trials, that Charlie Chaplin married his fourth wife, 18-year-old Oona O'Neill, the daughter of acclaimed playwright Eugene O'Neill. Chaplin was then 54, but both appeared to have found their soul mates. The couple remained married until Chaplin's death, and they had eight children together.

Charlie Chaplin finally returned to movie screens in 1947 with "Monsieur Verdoux," a black comedy about an unemployed clerk who marries and murders widows to support his family. Suffering from audience responses to his personal troubles, Chaplin faced the most negative critical and commercial reactions of his career. In the wake of the release of the film, he was openly called a Communist for his political views, and many Americans raised questions about his reluctance to apply for American citizenship. Today, some observers consider "Monsieur Verdoux" one of Charlie Chaplin's best movies.

Exile From the United States

Chaplin's next film, "Limelight," was an autobiographical work and was more serious than most of his movies. It set politics aside but addressed his loss of popularity in the twilight of his career. It includes the only onscreen appearance with legendary silent film comedian Buster Keaton.

Charlie Chaplin decided to hold the 1952 premiere of "Limelight" in London, the setting for the movie. While he was gone, U.S. Attorney General James P. McGranery revoked his permit to re-enter the U.S. Although the Attorney General told the press that he had a "pretty good case" against Chaplin, files released in the 1980s showed there was no real evidence to support keeping him out.

charlie chaplin limelight
Limelight (1952). Bettmann / Getty Images

Despite European success, "Limelight" met a hostile reception in the U.S. including organized boycotts. Chaplin did not return to the U.S. for 20 years.

Final Films and Return to the United States

Charlie Chaplin established a permanent residence in Switzerland in 1953. His next film, 1957's "A King in New York," addressed much of his experience with accusations of being a Communist. It was a sometimes bitter political satire, and Chaplin refused to release it in the U.S. The final Charlie Chaplin movie, "A Countess from Hong Kong," appeared in 1967, and it was a romantic comedy. It co-starred two of the world's biggest movie stars, Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, and Chaplin himself only appeared briefly. Unfortunately, it was a commercial failure and received negative reviews.

In 1972, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences invited Charlie Chaplin to return to the U.S. to receive a special Oscar for his lifetime of achievements. Initially reluctant, he decided to return and earned a 12-minute standing ovation, the longest ever at the Academy Awards ceremony.

charlie chaplin academy awards 1972
Famed comedian Charlie Chaplin, recipient of an honorary Oscar, during acceptance speech at the 44th annual Academy Awards presentation ceremony at Los Angeles Music Center. Bettmann / Getty Images

While he continued to work, Chaplin's health declined. Queen Elizabeth II knighted him in 1975. He died on Christmas Day, December 25, 1977, after having a stroke in his sleep.

Legacy

Charlie Chaplin remains one of the most successful filmmakers of all time. He changed the course of comedy in film by introducing elements of pathos and sadness that deepened the emotional impact of his work. Four of his movies, "The Gold Rush," "City Lights," "Modern Times," and "The Great Dictator" are often included on lists of the best films of all time.

charlie chaplin modern times
Modern Times (1936). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Sources

  • Ackroyd, Peter. Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life. Nan A. Talese, 2014.
  • Chaplin, Charles. My Autobiography. Penguin, 2003.