(Sir) Charles (Spencer) Chaplin 1889–1977
English director, actor, producer, screenwriter, and musical composer.
Chaplin is widely heralded as the first genius of the cinema. He will be forever remembered for the creation of one of the most popular characters in the history of film—the little tramp. "Charlie"'s tottering gait and expressive face distinguished the character that many imitated but few equaled. Audiences saw the tramp as a symbol of humanity—a man becoming involved in dangerous situations, only to escape each time and still retain a warm love of friends and foes alike.
Chaplin was born in the slums of London to parents who were entertainers. Charlie and his brother were sent to an orphanage at an early age, where there was little food and severe punishment for any wrongdoing. The fact that the tramp character was sympathetic to the poor and underprivileged appears to stem directly from Chaplin's childhood.
Chaplin was introduced to the stage while very young, and joined the Fred Karno vaudeville troupe in 1906. On a tour to the United States in 1913, Chaplin was discovered by Mack Sennett, who signed him to a contract with Keystone Studios, despite Chaplin's worry that he would fail in films as a mime. He made thirty-five films within a year for Keystone. Kid Auto Races at Venice was the first film in which the "little tramp" appeared, and the character soon became widely popular.
When Chaplin switched to Essanay in 1915, he was allowed to direct all fourteen of his films, and the slapstick became less frenzied, with the tramp's sentimentality becoming more apparent. The Tramp, made during this period, is viewed as Chaplin's first masterpiece. His now standard character took on many roles—the mischievous boy, the frustrated lover, the underdog—in order to unify the theme of the individual crushed by the pressure of society.
In 1919 Chaplin, along with D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, formed United Artists, and distributed his own films for the rest of his career. He wrote and directed A Woman of Paris, showing his great abilities as a director in a serious work. Chaplin had always had ambitions to star in a serious film, but did not get the chance until much later. In The Gold Rush, The Circus, and City Lights, Chaplin began to voice his increasing dissatisfaction with the modern world and its inventions. In fact, he refused to use sound, except for music, in City Lights, even though it had become a very popular addition to films. Modern Times was also mostly silent, and continued to satirize modern machines, but was also vicious in its portrayal of society.
The Great Dictator marked the decline of Chaplin's popularity. His divorces had made him more and more susceptible to ridicule and scandal, and the political commentary in the film further outraged many critics and fans. The Great Dictator was his first film in which sound was used throughout, and it was Chaplin's speeches that angered people the most. His concluding speech was thought to be Communist dogma, but Chaplin had intended it as a plea for freedom and peace. Chaplin played two roles in the film, and his tramp character was clearly overshadowed by Hynkel, the Hitlerian dictator. It seems not coincidental that Chaplin's popularity declined when he began to speak in philosophical jargon. The Great Dictator marked the last appearance of the "little tramp" on the screen.
Chaplin was labeled a Communist when, in 1942, after a paternity suit and another divorce, he urged American friendship with Russia. Monsieur Verdoux was widely picketed and withdrawn soon after its release. Most critics seemed to view the film as a "bad joke," others as a brilliant satire on capitalism. Limelight saw Chaplin at his most philosophically vocal, so much so that many critics wished he had never abandoned silent films. A most serious film, it deals with an aging clown on the decline, and appeared to parallel Chaplin's own life. When on his way to England to promote the film in 1952, the U.S. government branded Chaplin as a Communist sympathizer, and informed him that he probably would not be allowed back into the country. Chaplin settled in Switzerland, where he continued to live until his death. He returned once to the U.S., in 1972, to accept a special Academy Award and was triumphantly welcomed.
Chaplin is seen by many critics as an egotist who was successful only insofar as the tramp was successful. Others see him as a comic genius, writing scripts which paralleled his own early life, and making films in which his philosophical views were portrayed more effectively through mime than through the verbose lectures of his later films. His creation went beyond class boundaries, and it was the tramp's overtly "human" character that film audiences took to heart. His comedy continues to delight audiences today, and his lasting fame as a film pioneer and comedian is secure. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84; obituary, Vols. 73-76.)