Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sir Charles "Charlie" Chaplin (1889-1977)

It's difficult to even attempt a post on someone of Charlie Chaplin's stature.  He personifies everything that an icon is and his unbelievable talents paved the way for many actors/ directors/writers and performers throughout the history of cinema and stage.  I apologize in advance if I miss any crucial details of his life as it was both fascinating and at times very controversial.

London born Charles Spencer Chaplin started out his young life as a survivor in order to care for himself and his older brother Sydney. Both his parents were stage performers and Charlie followed in their talented footsteps, taking the London stage at the age of three.  He traveled around England and the United States in  vaudeville and after being discovered by Mack Sennett and his Keystone Company he got work in comedy shorts.  He made his way to the U.S in 1912.  (By the age of ten Charlie's father had died and his mother was suffering from mental illness and unable to properly care for him or Sydney).

Charlie's wife Lita Grey with sons Sydney and Charles Jr.

Charlie continued to work for Mack Sennett upon arriving in Hollywood, appearing in shorts with Stan Laurel and The Keystone Kops. He had met Stan Laurel during his previous travels to the states while touring and they even shared a boarding house room at one time.  (Imagine the antics of those two during their early touring days and the severe laughter they both caused).  His extreme talent on screen prompted directors to request working with him and by 1915 he was signed with The Essanay Company.  By this time Sydney had arrived from England and took Charlie's place with The Keystone Company.

In 1914 Charlie borrowed some large pants and a top hat from comedic actor Fatty Arbuckle, he created a mustache from crepe hair in order to disguise his expression, cutaway tails from Chester Conklin and size 14 shoes from Ford Sterling. The shoes were so big that Charlie put them on the wrong feet in order to keep them on.  The only part of the costume that belonged to Charlie was the whangee cane.  He walked out in the getup to start filming the Mack Sennett short "Kid Auto Races at Venice" and "The Tramp" was born.

In 1915 Charlie was the most popular comedic actor in Hollywood as he filmed his first short that year "The Tramp".  In the popular short he gets work on the family farm and finds the girl of his dreams, played by popular silent actress Edna Purviance.  Charlie would appear in seven more hugely successful shorts that same year.  Charlie and Edna had a romantic relationship off the set from 1916 to 1918 when Charlie took up with silent actress Mildred Harris.  Edna and Charlie's on screen relationship lasted until 1923 and she remained on Charlie's payroll until her death in 1958.

During 1916 Charlie continued to make successful shorts like "The Fireman", "The Rink", "The Count", and "The Vagabond" to name just a few.  1918 brought us the great shorts "The Immigrant", "Easy Street" and "The Adventurer".  In 1918 Charlie married for the first time to actress Mildred Harris at the age of 29.  She was only 16 and soon the mother to his first child Norman Spencer Chaplin who they called "Little Mouse".  He died just three days after his birth and was buried under the name "Little Mouse" at Inglewood Park Cemetery.  Charlie would be separated from the child actress by 1919 and living at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. Their openly ugly divorce would become final in 1920 but more on Mildred a bit later.

in "The Count" 1916 with then off screen love interest Edna Purviance

Throughout the rest of the 1910's Charlie put his comedic genius to work with several more popular shorts. In 1919 he teamed up with Hollywood royalty and close friends Douglas Fairbanks and  Mary Pickford to create United Artist Corporation along with D.W. Griffith.   This would allow Charlie and company full creative license and a studio in which to create full length pictures as Charlie moved into the director/writer and actors seat. 

Chaplin in "The Pawn Shop" 1916

In "The Immigrant" 1917

One of Charlie's most popular and recognized shorts is "A Dog's Life" 1917 and "Sunnyside" 1919 which would be one of his last shorts before the founding of UA and his first full length picture "The Kid" 1921.  The first full length picture for Charlie and the film that would make child actor Jackie Coogan a star.  Charlie reprises his role as The Tramp as he takes care of the adorable homeless boy.  Edna Purviance also stars in the silent as the little boys caretaker when Charlie loses him only to be reunited later after much mischief.  It certainly will bring a few tears to your eyes.  

"A Dog's Life" 1917

with Jackie Coogan in "The Kid" 1921

During the early 1920's Charlie was involved with actress Pola Negri but their engagement was called off after only nine months.  It's been speculated that their relationship was for publicity and to repair Charlie's image after his scandalous relationship with the 16 year old, Mildred that ended a year earlier.  United Artists was a thriving studio just with Charlie's film projects alone.  1921 brought us "The Idle Class" among other occasional shorts Charlie put out as "The Tramp" then in 1925 came "The Gold Rush" with "Camille" to follow in 1926.  It was Charlie's only film that year, most likely because he was newly married to the child star Lita Grey whom he met while filming "The Kid".  They married while Charlie was preparing to film "The Gold Rush".  Charlie was 35 and Lita was 16.  Of course Lita was only 13 when they met during filming of "The Kid".  Obviously Charlie learned nothing from his relationship with Mildred as his marriage to Lita was a disaster.  They had their first son Charlie Chaplin Jr in 1925 then Sydney Chaplin in 1926.  The marriage was doomed from the start and ended bitterly in 1927 but more on Lolita, oops I mean Lita a bit later.

Charlie with Douglas Fairbanks, wife Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith at UA.

Now divorced and a father to two boys, Charlie went back to work in 1928 and filmed "The Circus" then "City Lights" that same year.  If anyone were to ask me which film I love the most of Charlie's it would be "City Lights". His interactions with the blind girl at the flower shop played by Virginia Cherrill is terribly moving and genius as you really feel she knows exactly what he looks like by the end of their courting process.  Charlie's facial expressions show his amazing talent for drawing you in to every emotion during a silent film.  Of course talkies were introduced by the time Charlie started filming "City Lights" but he refused to allow the Tramp to speak and moved forward with his last silent film, retiring The Tramp character once it was done.  

In "City Lights" with Virginia Cherrill

Charlie made only one film during 1936, his masterpiece "Modern Times".  He had taken a five year break from making any films after "City Lights".  He certainly spent his free time romancing actresses and perhaps he  was put off by talkies and everyone needs a break.  He became involved with actress and close friend of Lita Grey, Merna Kennedy who he met during filming of  "The Circus" in 1928.  The relationship didn't last and he became involved with actress Georgia Hale while filming "The Gold Rush".  She was Lita's replacement in the film and just 19 at the time of their relationship which lasted several years.  Charlie had also taken an extended trip back to England with his two sons and remained there from 1931 into 1932.  When he returned from his trip abroad he became romantically involved with actress Paulette Goddard.  They would soon marry and stay together until the end of 1940.

with Merna Kennedy his on screen and off screen love interest in "The Circus"

in "Modern Times" 1936 with Paulette Goddard

Charlie's autographed photo from my collection. Enlarge for a closer view of his signature which is middle left.

After "Modern Times" Charlie did not film anything until 1940 which was the controversial "The Great Dictator".  The film was his first talkie and a scathing parody on Nazism.  Charlie plays Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Tomania.   Actor Jackie Oakie plays Benzino Napaloni, Dictator of Bacteria which was a swipe at Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini.  Paulette Goddard also stars in the film as a girl from the ghetto who interacts with Charlie's other character, a Jewish barber.  Due to the world climate during 1940 I can only imagine the controversy and raw feelings this created.  He was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Director, Original Screenplay (Writer) and Best Actor and Best Picture.  He lost in all categories which the Academy would make up for much later.  

with Al Jolson, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson and Zanuck among others

with wife, actress Paulette Goddard

in "Modern Times"

Charlie was dealing with immigration issues during the end of the 1930's into the 1940's brought on by McCarthyism and even though he had lived in the United States continuously since 1914 he was still target number one by J. Edgar Hoover who put pressure on the FBI to have him testify before being deported. (There had been several articles written claiming that Charlie was actually of Jewish decent which was not true).  Of course this went on for years with Charlie finally leaving the U.S for good in 1952.  Charlie made just a few more films "Monsieur Verdoux" in 1947 then "Limelight" in 1952.  His last film would be "A Countess From Hong Kong" in 1967.  Still chasing women, Charlie married for the last time in 1942 to actress Oona O'Neil.  Charlie was fifty four and Oona had just turned 18.  They met during his court battle with actress Wendy Barry over a custody suit but more on that later.  

Charlie with his last wife Oona O'Neil

When Charlie returned to Europe in 1952 Hoover got wind of it and revoked his U.S. citizenship while he was abroad.  Charlie made Vevey Switzerland his home until his death in 1977.   He returned to the states only briefly with his wife Oona when he received an Honorary Oscar in 1971.  Charlie and Oona remained married until his death and they had eight children together. WOW!  Charlie's last child was born when he was 73.  

Charlie suffered a stroke in 1977, never recovering.  He passed away on Christmas Day surrounded by his wife Oona.  He was buried near his Switzerland home in a small village cemetery. The grave site can be viewed HERE.  He is buried next to Oona who passed away from pancreatic cancer just fourteen years later.  Of Charlie's eleven children eight are still living.  You can view Charlie's Hollywood mansions HEREHERE and HERE.  I guess when you have that many marriages and children you need several homes.

Charlie Chaplin Facts:

Long after becoming a millionaire he still lived in a shabby hotel room and kept his paychecks in a trunk for months.

Paulette Goddard was the only woman he married who was over 18.  She was 26 and even though Oona claimed to be 18 when she married Charlie records dispute the fact and have her age at only 17 at the time.

Charlie's first love was with Hetty Kelly, a dancer that he met during his vaudeville days.  He asked her to marry him when she was only 15 and he was 18 in 1908.  She turned down his proposal, breaking his heart.  Years later when Charlie discovered that she had died in 1921 of influenza due to the 1918 flu pandemic he was devastated.

His Beverly Hills residence was known as "Breakaway House".  Designed by Chaplin himself and built by studio carpenters it began to fall apart throughout the years, much to the amusement of his visitors.  It housed a giant pipe organ that Charlie enjoyed playing for his guests.  He lived in the same neighborhood as the Fairbanks and their fabulous "Pickfair" estate.  Even the elusive Greta Garbo was a frequent guest at his get to-gethers.

He went through a messy divorce with his first wife Mildred Harris.  She drug him to court and was granted some of their community property and $100,000.  Charlie claimed that he was never in love with her and he claimed he found out she had been having an affair with actress Alla Nazimova who was well known for her liaisons with many Hollywood actresses.  Speculation at the time was that the studio forced Charlie to marry Mildred once she became pregnant as to avoid a huge scandal with her age and her threats of accusing Charlie of rape unless he agreed to the union.

Charlie was a close friend of actress Marion Davies and a frequent guest of her and William Randolph Hearst's castle at San Simeon.  Charlie was also a frequent visitor to Marion's Santa Monica beach house and it was rumored that they were carrying on an affair from 1924 while he was involved with Lita and continuing off and on until 1931.  It's been rumored that Charlie was in love with Marion and he urged her to leave Hearst and marry him without any luck.

In 1927 Charlie became involved in yet another custody battle and divorce settlement that made headlines for months. Grey used the information that Charlie began an affair with actress Merna Kennedy during filming of "The Circus" to boost her infidelity claims. The divorce was ugly with many accusations and Lita being awarded a then unheard of settlement of $825,000 and Charlie being left with almost a million dollars in legal fees.  Lita Grey is the inspiration for the book "Lolita" written by Vladmir Nabokov in 1950.  James Mason also starred in the film "Lolita" in 1962.  

Charlie's body was stolen from his grave in Switzerland in 1978 and not recovered for several months when the coffin and his remains were found in woods nearby.  The two local farm hands who were arrested for the crime were going to use his body as ransom.  After his body was recovered from the grave robbers his body was in cased in a cement vault at the Swiss cemetery.

He was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Council in 1947.  He postponed his appearance several times before sending them a telegram that said "I am not a Communist, neither have I ever joined a political party or organization in my life". The HUAC decided that it was no longer needed for him to appear.

Cooking was not allowed in the boarding house that Charlie and Stan Laurel (of Laurel and Hardy) shared so Charlie would play the violin loudly to cover up the sound of Stan cooking.  The two long time friends met when Stan was Charlie's understudy on the London stage.

He was the first actor to appear on the cover of Time Magazine in 1925.

His bowler hat and cane sold at auction for $150,000 in 1987.

Like his parents he was an accomplished musician who often reissued his silent films with new musical scores that he had written.  He composed the famous song "Smile" for his film "Modern Times".  The song was remastered years later and released by Nat King Cole.  Most recently the song was sung at singer/performer Michael Jackson's funeral by his brother who stated it was Michaels favorite song.

After the controversy over his political views his hand and foot prints were removed from public display by Grauman's Chinese Theatre.  In later years the cement could not be located and it's been feared lost.

Rumor has it that Adolph Hitler wasn't a fan of Charlie's but he realized that Charlie was loved and admired the world over so he grew the Chaplin mustache in the hopes that it would endear him to people.  (Nope it didn't work).  

As a child he was confined to bed due to a serious illness so his mother would sit at the window and act out things that she would see.  Charlie claims this is the reason he became a comedian.  

His favorite movie was "Battleship Potemkin" 1925.

People always assumed that he had brown eyes since his films were all done in black and white and he wore heavy, dark eye makeup.  His eyes were actually very blue which he said surprised most people upon meeting him for the first time.

He had a two month affair with then Ziegfeld Follies star Louise Brooks during his visit to New York to promote "Gold Rush".  They were seen out together and cohorted together at the Ritz and Ambassador Hotel's.

During Chaplin's voyage to Europe in 1931 he became infatuated with his stenographer after their first meeting.  They carried on an affair which lasted during Charlie's year long trip at the disgust of his brother Sydney.  Charlie removed her from his entourage when he discovered she was also carrying on with Sydney behind his back.

Even though Charlie and Paulette lived together from 1931-1940 a marriage claim was never made. This caused Paulette to be removed from consideration for the part of Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind".  After their relationship dissolved Charlie and Paulette stated publicly that they had been secretly married since 1936.  Theres speculation that the public announcement was done to prevent further damage to Paulette's career.  She received a settlement and went on to have a very successful career.

In later years when Buster Keaton was out of work and  no longer given parts in Hollywood Charlie gave him a part in his movie "Limelight".  Charlie realized Buster was down on his luck and badly in need of money.  It had been rumored that during their early careers that they were rivals.  In Buster Keaton's autobiography he stated that Charlie Chaplin was the greatest silent comedian of all time.

Marlon Brando worked with Charlie on his last film "A Countess From Hong Kong".  Before filming started Brando had the opinion that Charlie was the greatest acting talent in their medium, afterwards his opinion changed.  It was a strained working relationship and Brando wrote in his autobiography that Charlie was the most sadistic man he had ever met.  Charlie said that working with Brando was simply impossible.  I can see that since Brando was known for his lack of work ethic, lateness when he did manage to make it on to the set, then his inability to study and learn his lines. On the other hand Charlie was a perfectionist, often staying up all night going over the days rushes and re-shooting things over and over until it was 100% to his liking.  (Sorry Brando but very few actors were given the opportunity to learn from and act along side Charlie Chaplin so you should have sucked it up).

Charlie won his first Honorary Oscar in 1929 which his son Charlie Jr claimed his father used as a door stop. Charlie developed a disdain for the Academy after his films "Limelight" and "Modern Times" were overlooked.  Perhaps his views changed over the years since he returned to the states in his 70's to receive his second Honorary Oscar.  He appeared very moved by the acknowledgement the second time.  (I wasn't very old when he received the Oscar in 1972 but I remember crying with my mother when Charlie took the stage 
as they showed clips of his films while the audience stood crying and clapping.  My favorite Oscar moment).

The last movie that he saw that he enjoyed very much was "Rocky" in 1976.

He began an affair with actress Joan Barry in 1942 but he ended it abruptly when she started harassing him and displaying signs of mental illness similar to his mother.  Even though he ended the affair his involvement created a nightmare for him when Barry had a child and filed a paternity suit against him in 1943.  Even though blood tests showed Charlie was not the father the courts did not use the test in evidence so Charlie was ordered to support the child.  This caused quite a controversy resulting in the California courts to start allowing blood testing to be presented as evidence during paternity suits.  Of course this did nothing to repair Charlie's now crumbling public image and it didn't help matters when his ex wife Lita Grey claimed Charlie paid off a corrupt Government official to taint the blood test in his favor.  Barry was institutionalized in 1953 after she was found walking the streets barefoot carrying a pair of baby sandals, a child's ring and murmuring "This is magic".  Obviously Charlie didn't learn much from the Barry ordeal as he met his last wife Oona O'Neil who was only 16 during the paternity case.

He was Knighted in 1975.

According to his daughter Geraldine, he started to worry in the last years of his life that people wouldn't remember him after his death.  This is why he agreed to have his character "The Tramp"  trademarked on several products in 1970.  (Thats so heartbreaking and I am trying to hold back tears).  I think he would be most proud of the legacy he created and  his image will live on forever.

Charlie Chaplin Personal Quotes:

"I remain just one thing, and one thing only and that is a clown.  It places me on a higher plane than any politician".

"I have no further use for America.  I wouldn't go back there if Jesus Christ was President".

"Figuring out what the audience expects then doing something different is great fun for me".

"I don't believe I deserve dinner unless I've done a full days work".

On Doug Fairbanks: "He had extraordinary magnetism and charm and a genuine boyish enthusiasm which he conveyed to the public".

On D.W. Griffith: "The whole industry owes it's existence to him".

"My only enemy is time".

Upon watching a young Jerry Lewis on TV: "That bastard is funny! He knows how to take the audience".

"My childhood was sad but now I remember it as nostalgia like a dream".

On being informed that Adolph Hitler sat through two screenings of his film "The Great Dictator" 1940:  "I'd give anything to know what he thought of it".

"The saddest thing I can imagine is getting used to luxury".

"It's always funny to see a man slip on a banana peel but it's even funnier to see that same man see the banana peel, step over it then walk several feet and fall down a manhole".

"All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman and a pretty girl".

I hope you've enjoyed todays post and please enjoy the clip of Charlie below, the great ending to "City Lights"


  1. Page, I really lost out by not seeing this post. You have certainly proven your talent in not only your funny pictorials, but this kind of review as well. My gosh, Chaplin was a busy little bee! All these very young girls, all the affairs, babies everywhere, and genius movies as well.

    My favorites of Chaplin's movies are (1)The Kid (2) Modern times (3) City Lights (4) The Great Dictator (5) Gold Rush. There are so many more. The man was an incredible filmmaker and actor. Not so good at private life, but then my honey Errol Flynn was the same way! He also liked young women (girls) up the end of his life.

    You know, just knowing Chaplin kept Edna on his payroll like that says a lot about a good heart. And knowing his fear of being forgotten, as well as how badly he was treated during the McCarthy Era (it ruined so many live), it makes perfect sense that he cried at the Oscars honoring him. I remember I cried too. It meant so much to him.

    Can you imagine being low-life enough to steal Chaplin's body? That is so sick and terrible. I never knew about that. There are a lot of things in your article that I never knew before. Honestly, this is your best non-snark work. Kudos, Page!

  2. My favorite Chaplin movie has GOT to be The Gold Rush, it's hard to choose favorites after that for me. If only I got the chance to see one of his films when they came out. That must've been wonderful if you were alive then. Truly amazing what that man created for the silver screen. Not only was he an actor to his films, he also directed, produced, wrote, and composed many of the movies he made. He deserved an Oscar for every film he ever made, too. I think his Honorary Oscar was to represent each award he should have won for each picture. If you haven't read Chaplin's autobiography, "My Autobiography", you should read it and you'd find out a lot about the man behind the Tramp. Although parts of it are some what vague, its quite interesting. And i must agree with ClassicBecky, there were some things that i didn't know about. Like the farmers stealing his body, how pathetic that is. I can only imagine what it must have been to meet him, magical i'm guessing. Thanks for posting this! Being a huge Chaplin myself, it's good to see others enjoy his work just as much as i do!

  3. Great post! Got your link via Sucks BB board. I teach drama and I show The Kid every year to my students, then have them create a scene without words to CC's music. I love seeing how Chaplin effortlessly reaches across time to
    my 4th & 5th grade students who watch entranced, despite the ancient technologies of b&w film and no words.

  4. Hi VG,
    So glad you enjoyed the Chaplin post. A genius that deserves kudos often. It sounds like you have a fantastic job teaching our youth.

    I hope that you'll return often and look through the archives for other posts. I'll be back to blogging shortly.

  5. Hello -

    I really enjoyed reading your post; your love and respect for Charlie really shines through! :-)

    Just a few quick comments in kinship from a fellow Charlie fan, based mostly on some info I myself was enlightened with not long ago:

    1) Charlie received his honorary Oscar in 1972, not 1971.

    2) The photo right below the one of Charlie and Jackie Coogan in "The Kid" is not Charlie but a very good impersonator. This exact pic has fooled a lot of fans, including yours truly when it was pointed out to me in a comment on one of my Chaplin YouTube videos (after which I swapped that pic out for one I *knew* for sure was Charlie).

    3) I don't think Stan Laurel and Charlie appeared in any movies together (not counting documentaries, etc.), but if you know of any that they did, I'd love to hear it. I always used to wish Charlie would've done a film with Laurel & Hardy - 3 clowns of the bowler hats! lol

    4) I also think Charlie and Edna's relationship might have started a year earlier in 1915, since that was the year he started with Essanay and also started Edna as his leading lady. I certainly could be wrong; this may just be a widely-assumed "fact" as of course he was known to be involved with his leading ladies.

    Yeah, I know I may seem too nit-picky, but that's one mixed-bag trait I seem to share with Charlie. ;-) I was a university music major and later switched to IT - so I sorta had perfection drilled into me. But being all too human I've still remained far from perfect. :)

    Anyways, thanks for sharing your Charlie love and please keep it goin'!

    Best wishes,

  6. Missy,
    Thanks for the info! I actually changed the Honorary Oscar date to 1971 after two other bio's with that date so I went back and forth. (Now corrected)
    I adore Charlie so it's always nice to hear from other fans.
    Please come back often and join in on our discussions.

  7. I just found your site and love this biography you did on Mr. Chaplin. I just had the pleasure of taking a college film class built entirely on Mr. Chaplin and his career. We had to watch a good size portion of his films and, while he may have had issues in his personal life, his career was stellar.

    1. Hi Tracy.

      Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting about your recent opportunity to study Chaplin's work. I'm quite fond of him while realizing he made some pretty bad choices in his personal life. It was a different time back then which I accept.

      It's heartbreaking to know he worried that he would be forgotten. His talents were far superior to any comedian we've been exposed to since his brilliant work on screen.

      I would love to take a class on his career. That had to be a lot of fun.
      Now that you've found my place I hope you'll stop by and join in on the discussion often. There are a ton of articles in my archives. I'll also be featuring Charlie's fabulous mansions in my Hollywood at Home series. I think you'll enjoy that.
      All the best!