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financial backer, producer, screenwriter, principal actor, director, and soundtrack composer for over 80 films
Charles Spencer Chaplin was born in Walworth, London, England, on April 16, 1889, the son of Charles and Hannah (Hill) Chaplin. His father, a notorious drinker, abandoned Chaplin, his mother, and his older half-brother, Sydney, not long after Chaplin's birth. Chaplin's mother, a music hall singer who went by the stage name Lily Harley, was able to support her family for a few years, but inexplicably lost her voice in the middle of a show. The stage manager pushed five-year-old Charlie, whom he'd heard sing, onto the stage to replace her. Charlie proved to be a hit with the audience, but his mother's voice never returned and she eventually ran out of money. Charlie and Sydney spent the next several years in and out of charity homes and workhouses between their mother's increasingly frequent bouts of mrntal instability. She was committed to Cane Hill Asylum in May of 1903 and lived there until 1921, when Chaplin moved her to California.
Chaplin began his "official" stage career at the age of eight, when he joined a clog dancing troupe called The Eight Lancashire Lads. He enjoyed the gig, but it didn't pay well and he ended up having to support himself with a variety of jobs. His break came at about age 12, when he appeared as "Billy the page boy" in support of William Gillette in "Sherlock Holmes." At the close of this engagement, he started a career as a comedian in a vaudeville outfit named Casey's Court Circus, and in 1908 teamed up with the Fred Karno pantomime troupe, where Chaplin became one of its stars as The Drunk in the comedic sketch A Night in an English Music Hall. The troupe toured the United States in 1910, and again in 1912. During the second tour, Chaplin was seen by Mack Sennett, who offered him a contract at his Keystone Studios.
In 1913, after completing his vaudeville committments, Chaplin made his way to California and agreed to a $150-a-week contract at Keystone. He subsequently starred in and directed 35 short films, beginning with Making A Living (1914). It was for these films that Chaplin developed his "Little Tramp" character.
In November 1914, Chaplin left Keystone and signed on at Essanay, for $1,250 a week. Here he made a total of 15 films, including The Tramp (1915).
By 1916 Chaplin was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and that year he signed on at Mutual Studios, for $670,000 a year. He made a total of 12 films for Mutual, including One A.M. (1916), in which he was the only character with the exception of the entrance of a cab driver in the opening scene, and Easy Street (1917), heralded as his greatest production up to that time.
Early in 1918, Chaplin entered into an agreement with First National Exhibitors' Circuit, an organization formed specifically to exploit his pictures. His first film under this new deal was A Dog's Life (1918). After this production, he turned his attention to a national tour on behalf of the war effort, after which he made The Bond (1918), a film the U.S. government used to popularize the Liberty Loan drive. Shoulder Arms (1918), a comedy about the war, added enormously to Chaplin's popularity. This film was followed by Sunnyside and A Day's Pleasure, both released in 1919. He completed his contract with First National with his six-reel masterpiece The Kid (1921), which introduced Jackie Coogan to the world.
In 1919, Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith formed United Artists, but he did not assume an active role there until after completing The Kid. He then embarked on an extended tour of Europe, where he received tumultuous receptions almost everywhere he went. Only then did he resume his motion picture work.
Under his arrangement with United Artists, Chaplin made eight feature-length pictures: A Woman of Paris (1925), his first non-comedy and the first in which he did not appear in every scene; The Gold Rush (1928); The Circus (1928), which earned him his first Academy Award (honorary); City Lights (1931), which incorporated music he had scored himself; Modern Times (1936), his first "talkie"; The Great Dictator (1940); Monsieur Verdoux (1947); Limelight (1952), for which he earned Best Music and Best Original Dramatic Music Academy Awards (the awards were not given until 1973, however, because the film was not shown in a Los Angeles-area theater until 1972); A King in New York (1957); and A Countess in Hong Kong (1967), his only color film.
Chaplin's life and career was full of scandal and controversy. His first big scandal was during World War I, during which time his loyalty to England, his home country, was questioned.
Chaplin's The Great Dictator, in which Chaplin plays a humorous caricature of Adolf Hitler, also created some controversy. Some thought the film was poorly done and in bad taste, but it grossed over $5 million and earned five Academy Award Nominations.
Chaplin was also scrutinized for his support in aiding the Russian struggle against the invading Nazis during World War II, and the U. S. government questioned his moral and political views, suspecting him of having Communist ties. For this reason, the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed him in 1947. Although the Committee ultimately decided it did not require his testimony, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover remained skeptical about Chaplin's loyalties, especially since he had never applied for U.S. citizenship. In 1952, while Chaplin and his family were on a ship to London for the premiere there of Limelight, he learned that his re-entry visa had been rescinded. He and his family decided to settle at Manoir de Ban in Corsier sur Vevey, Switzerland, where he spent the rest of his life. His last two films for United Artists were produced from there. He only returned to the United States once after 1957, to accept a special award from the Motion Picture Academy in 1972.
Chaplin was married four times and had a total of 11 children. His first marriage was to 16-year-old Mildred Harris, on October 23, 1918. The couple had one son, Norman Spencer, but he only lived three days. The marriage ended in divorce on April 4, 1921. On November 26, 1924, Chaplin married 16-year-old actress Lita Grey, with whom he had had an affair during filming of The Gold Rush. The marriage had been spurred by pregnancy and produced two children, Charles Jr. and Sydney, but was never a happy one; it ended in divorce on August 25, 1927. He got married again on June 1, 1936, this time to Paulette Goddard, a chorus girl. This marriage produced no children and ended in divorce on June 4, 1942.
After divorcing Goddard, Chaplin dated 22-year-old Joan Barry. The relationship came to an end soon after it started, however, after a series of harassing actions from her. In May of 1943 Barry claimed that she was pregnant with Chaplin's child and filed a paternity suit. Although blood tests proved that Chaplin was not the child's father, the court ruled the tests inadmissable and ordered Chaplin to pay $75 a week until the child turned 21.
Chaplin's final marriage was to Oona O'Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill, on June 16, 1943. This marriage resulted in eight children: Geraldine, Michael, Josephine, Victoria, Eugene, Jane, Annette-Emilie, and Christopher.
Charlie Chaplin died at his home in Switzerland on December 25, 1977, surrounded by Oona and seven of their children; his eighth child with her survived him but was not at home at the time; the son he had with Lita also survived him.
Through his work, Chaplin came to be known as a grueling perfectionist. His love for experimentation often meant countless retakes and it was not uncommon for him to order the rebuilding of an entire set. It also wasn't rare for him to begin with one leading actor, realize he'd made a mistake in his casting, and start again with someone new.
Chaplin was one of the rare comedians who not only financed and produced all his films (with the exception of A Countess from Hong Kong), but was the screenwriter, principal actor, director, and soundtrack composer for them as well. He was also the author of four books -- My Trip Abroad (1922), A Comedian Sees the World (1933), My Autobiography (1964), and My Life in Pictures (1974). An accomplished musician, though self-taught, he played a variety of instruments with equal skill and facility (playing violin and cello left-handed). Songs he wrote and published independent of his films include "Sing a Song," "With You Dear in Bombay," and "There's Always One You Can't Forget."
Chaplin was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1975.
In 1978, Chaplin's corpse was stolen from its grave near Lake Geneva and held for ransom. It was recovered after three months and re-buried in a vault surrounded by concrete.
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This page was last updated on 12/25/2018.