Charlie Chaplin history
Charlie Chaplin is perhaps best known for his comic roles in silent black-and-white films. However, he was also a film director, producer and composer. He is often described as the most creative person in film history.
Chaplin was born on April 16, 1889, in London. Both his parents were actors and singers. They split up when Charlie was very young. When his mother could no longer look after them, Charlie and his brother Sydney were sent to a local workhouse, and afterwards an orphanage for poor children. Charlie first performed as a child when he sang on stage aged only 5 years old. By the time he was 8 he had joined a troupe of child performers putting on shows in music halls. Sydney began working for Fred Karno’s famous theatrical company and when Charlie was 17 he joined him. Karno sent Charlie to the United States on a pantomime tour in 1910. He liked it there so much that he decided to stay.
A CAREER IN FILM
Chaplin first appeared on film in 1913 with the Keystone Film Company, which made the well-known comical Keystone Cops films. For his part in Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), Chaplin wore baggy trousers, enormous shoes and a bowler hat, and he carried a bamboo cane. This was the first appearance of his now world-famous “little tramp” character. Over the next couple of years he played this classic role in more than 70 films, including one entitled The Tramp (1915).
Chaplin perfected an individual style of performing. It was based on the circus clown and used elements of mime. He used acrobatic elegance, gestures and facial expressions to communicate without speaking. His portrayal of the little tramp won him a reputation for being a great “tragicomedian”—someone who can play a part that is both tragic and comical at the same time.
To begin with Chaplin worked for other companies, but by 1918 he had set up his own Hollywood studio. During these years Chaplin gradually developed the tramp character from a jaunty, slapstick comedy personality into the kind human figure loved by audiences throughout the world. Poverty, hunger and loneliness—all things he had experienced as a child—were often used as
themes in his films.
In 1919 Chaplin helped form the United Artists Corporation with other stars of the cinema such as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith. Chaplin remained a part of the company until 1952. Chaplin produced, directed and starred in important pictures, including The Kid (1921), The Pilgrim (1923), The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952) and A King in New York (1957). Chaplin wrote, directed and played in The Countess from Hong Kong (1967). He also composed the background music for most of his films.
When sound recording was introduced to films from the late 1920s onwards, it did not suit Chaplin’s pantomime, slapstick style of performance. So in his first two films of the sound era, City Lights and Modern Times, Chaplin’s little tramp remained silent. After that, he stopped playing the role of the tramp and worked instead on portraying different characters. It was also about this time that Chaplin’s work became more concerned with particular issues that people were facing at the time. Modern Times is about a character having to cope with social and economic changes that were affecting many people in America. His next big film, The Great Dictator, is about a military tyrant (a character that Chaplin based on Adolf Hitler) who is trying to rid the world of Jewish people. This film, which made use of all the sound recording options available at the time, marks an important career change for Chaplin.
Chaplin’s handling of the subjects in these and his later films mixed humour and pathos, demonstrating his love of humanity and individual freedom.
CHAPLIN’S LATER LIFE
In the late 1940s and early 1950s Chaplin was criticized in the United States for his left-wing political views and for not having applied for American citizenship. He left the United States in 1952 and settled in Switzerland, although he returned to the United States briefly, in 1972, to receive several tributes. One of them was a special Oscar award for his contributions to the film industry.
Chaplin wrote two books, My Autobiography (1964; reprinted as My Early Years, 1982), and My Life in Movies (1975). He became Sir Charlie Chaplin when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1975. He died aged 88 on Christmas Day, 1977, at Corsier-sur-Vevey in Switzerland.