Spencer Chaplin, Jr, known as Charlie Chaplin, was a British-born
actor, the most famous actor in early to mid Hollywood cinema era,
and also a notable director. His principal character was "The
Tramp": a vagrant with the refined manners and dignity of a
gentleman who wears a tight coat, oversized pants and shoes, a derby
or bowler hat, a bamboo cane, and his signature toothbrush moustache.
Chaplin was one of the most creative personalities in the silent
film era; he acted in, directed, scripted, produced, and eventually
scored his own films.
He was believed to have been born on April 16, 1889 . There
is some doubt whether April 16 is actually his birthday, and it
is possible he was not born in 1889. There is also uncertainty
about his birthplace: London or Fontainebleau, France. There is
no doubt, however, as to his parentage: he was born to Charles
Chaplin, Sr. and Hannah Harriette Hill (aka Lily Harley on stage),
both Music Hall entertainers. His parents separated soon after
his birth, leaving him in the care of his increasingly unstable
A postage stamp issued by IndiaIn 1896, Chaplin's mother was unable
to find work; Charlie and his older half-brother Sydney Chaplin
had to be left in the workhouse at Lambeth, moving after several
weeks to Hanwell School for Orphans and Destitute Children. His
father died an alcoholic when Charlie was 12, and his mother suffered
a mental breakdown, and was eventually admitted temporarily to
the Cane Hill Asylum at Coulsdon (near Croydon). She died in 1928
in the United States, two years after coming to the States to
live with Chaplin, by then a commercial success.
Charlie first took to the stage when, aged five, he performed
in Music Hall in 1894, standing in for his mother. As a child,
he was confined to a bed for weeks due to a serious illness, and,
at night, his mother would sit at the window and act out what
was going on outside. In 1900, aged 11, his brother helped get
him the role of a comic cat in the pantomime Cinderella at the
London Hippodrome. In 1903 he appeared in 'Jim, A Romance of Cockayne',
followed by his first regular job, as the newspaper boy Billy
in Sherlock Holmes, a part he played into 1906. This was followed
by Casey's 'Court Circus' variety show, and, the following year,
he became a clown in Fred Karno's 'Fun Factory' slapstick comedy
According to immigration records, he arrived in the United States
with the Karno troupe on October 2, 1912. In the Karno Company
was Arthur Stanley Jefferson, who would later become known as
Stan Laurel. Chaplin and Laurel wound up sharing a room in a boarding
house. Stan Laurel returned to England but Chaplin remained in
the United States. Chaplin's act was seen by film producer Mack
Sennett, who hired him for his studio, the Keystone Film Company.
Chaplin initially had difficulty adjusting to the Keystone style
of film acting, he soon adapted and flourished in the medium.
This was made possible in part by Chaplin developing his signature
Tramp persona, and by eventually earning directorship and creative
control, which enabled him to become Keystone's top star and talent.
His salary history shows how rapidly he became world famous, and
the skill of his brother, Sydney, at being his business manager.
Keystone, worked for $150 a week
1914-1915: Essanay Studios, of Chicago, Illinois, $1250 a week,
plus $10,000 signing bonus
1916-1917: Mutual, $10,000 a week, plus $150,000 signing bonus
1917: First National, $1 million deal — the first actor
ever to earn that sum. He also formed his own independent production
company, the Charles Chaplin Film Corporation, which made him
a very wealthy man
Chaplin built his own Hollywood studio in 1918, and assumed an
unparalleled degree of artistic and financial control over his
productions. Using this independence, over the next 35 years he
created a remarkable, timeless body of work that remains entertaining
and influential. These include comedy shorts including: A Dog's
Life (1918), and Pay Day (1922); longer films, such as: Shoulder
Arms (1918) and The Pilgrim (1923); and his great silent feature
length films, among them: The Kid (1921), A Woman of Paris (1923),
The Gold Rush (1925), and The Circus (1928). After the arrival
of sound films, he made City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936),
essentially silent films scored with his own music and sound effects.
His dialogue films made in Hollywood were The Great Dictator (1940),
Monsieur Verdoux (1947), and Limelight (1952).
"Modern Times" (1936) depicts the dismal situation of
workers and the poor in industrial society. The Eating Machine
Scene depicts the dehumanizing effect of mechanization.While Modern
Times (1936) is a non-talkie, it does contain talk -- usually
coming from inanimate objects such as a radio or a TV monitor.
This was done to help 1930s audiences, who were out of the habit
of watching silent films, adjust to not hearing dialogue. Chaplin
being observed by his boss while sneaking a smoke in the bathroom
came before George Orwell's "Big Brother" by more than
a decade, and might have inspired it. Modern Times was the first
film where Chaplin's voice is heard (in the nonsense song at the
end). However, for most viewers it is still considered a silent
In 1919 he founded the United Artists film distribution company
with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith, and
served on the board of UA until the early 1950s.
"talkies" became the dominant mode of moviemaking soon
after they were introduced in 1927, Chaplin resisted making a
talkie all through the 1930s. It is a tribute to Chaplin's versatility
that he also has one film credit for choreography for the 1952
film Limelight, and one credit as a singer for the title music
of the 1928 film The Circus. The best-known of several songs he
composed are "Smile", famously covered by Nat King Cole,
among others, and the theme from Limelight.
"The Great Dictator" (1940) was an act of defiance against
Adolf Hitler and fascism. Chaplin played a fascist dictator clearly
modeled on Hitler (also with a certain physical likeness).
The Great Dictator
His first dialogue picture, The Great Dictator (1940) was an act
of defiance against Adolf Hitler and fascism, filmed and released
in the United States one year before it abandoned its policy of
isolationism to enter World War II. The film was seen as an act
of courage in the political environment of the time, both for
its ridicule of Nazism and for the portrayal of overt Jewish characters
and the depiction of their persecution. Chaplin played a fascist
dictator clearly modeled on Hitler (also with a certain physical
likeness), as well as a Jewish barber cruelly persecuted by the
Nazis. Hitler, who was a great fan of movies, is known to have
seen the film twice (records were kept of movies ordered for his
personal theater). Interestingly, Chaplin and Hitler were born
only four days apart (Hilter was born on April 20, 1889).
Chaplin's political sympathies always lay with the left. His politics
seem tame by modern standards, but after the 1940's his views
(in conjunction with his influence and fame) were seen by many
as dangerously radical. His silent films made prior to the Great
Depression typically did not contain overt political themes or
messages, apart from the Tramp's plight in poverty and his run
ins with the law. But his films made in the 1930's were more openly
political. Modern Times (1936) depicts the dismal situation of
workers and the poor in industrial society. The final dramatic
speech in his 1940 film The Great Dictator, which was critical
of patriotic nationalism, was highly controversial, as was his
vocal public support for the opening of a second European front
in 1942 to assist the Soviet Union in World War II. The critical
view of capitalism in his 1947 black comedy Monsieur Verdoux was
hugely controversial, with the film being protested at many US
Although Chaplin had his major successes in the United States
and was a resident from 1914 to 1952, he retained his British
nationality. During the era of McCarthyism, Chaplin was accused
of "un-American activities" as a suspected communist;
and J. Edgar Hoover, who had instructed the FBI to keep extensive
files on him, tried to end his United States residency. FBI pressure
on Chaplin grew after his 1942 campaign for a second front in
the war, and reached a critical level in the late 1940's, when
Congressional figures threatened to call him as a witness in hearings.
This was never done, probably because of fear of Chaplin's ability
to ridicule and lampoon the investigators.
1952, Chaplin left the US for a trip to England; Hoover learned
of it and negotiated with the INS to revoke his re-entry permit.
Chaplin then decided to stay in Europe, and made his home in Vevey,
Switzerland. He briefly returned to the United States in April
1972, with his wife, to receive an Honorary Oscar. Even though
he was invited by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
(the Academy Awards), he was only issued a one-time entry visa
valid for two months.
Chaplin won two honorary Oscars. When the first Oscars were awarded
on May 16, 1929, the voting audit procedures that now exist had
not yet been put into place, and the categories were still very
fluid. Chaplin had originally been nominated for both Best Actor
and Best Comedy Directing for his movie The Circus, but his name
was withdrawn and the Academy decided to give him a special award
"for versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing
and producing The Circus" instead. The other film to receive
a special award that year was The Jazz Singer.
second honorary award came 44 years later in 1972, and was for
"the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures
the art form of this century". He came out of his exile to
accept his award. Upon receiving the award, Chaplin received the
longest standing ovation in Academy Award history, lasting a full
five minutes from the delighted, enthralled star-studded studio
was also nominated without success for Best Picture, Best Actor,
and Best Original Screenplay for The Great Dictator, and again
for Best Original Screenplay for Monsieur Verdoux (1947).
is sometimes overlooked that Chaplin also won a competitive Academy
Award. In 1973, he received an Oscar for the Best Music in an
Original Dramatic Score for the 1952 film Limelight, which co-starred
Claire Bloom. The film also features a cameo with Buster Keaton,
which was the first and last time the two great comedians ever
appeared together. Because of Chaplin's difficulties with McCarthyism,
the film did not open in Los Angeles when it was first produced.
This criterion for nomination was not fulfilled until 1972.
final films were A King in New York (1957) and A Countess From
Hong Kong (1967), starring Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando.
Chaplin's professional successes were repeatedly overshadowed
by his private life, particularly with regard to his politics
and his pattern of relationship with young women. On October 23,
1918, the 28 year old Chaplin married the 16-year-old Mildred
Harris. They had one child, Norman Spencer Chaplin, who died in
infancy; they divorced in 1920. During the divorce Chaplin claimed
Harris had had a lesbian affair with noted actress of the time
Alla Nazimova, well known for seducing young actresses. Harris
in turn claimed Chaplin was a sexual addict into very unusual
sex activities. Both claims have merit.
At 35, he became involved with 16-year-old Lita Grey during preparations
for The Gold Rush. They married on November 26, 1924 after she
became pregnant. They had two sons, the actors Charles Chaplin
Jr. (1925-1968) and Sydney Earle Chaplin. Their extraordinarily
bitter divorce in 1928 had Chaplin paying Grey a then-record-breaking
$825,000 settlement. The stress of the sensational divorce, compounded
by a tax dispute, allegedly turned his hair white. The publication
of court records, which included many intimate details, led to
a campaign against him.
Chaplin and actress Paulette Goddard were involved in a romantic
and professional relationship between 1932 and 1940, with Goddard
living with Chaplin in his Beverly Hills home for most of this
time. After the relationship ended, Chaplin made public statements
that they had been secretly married in 1936, but in private he
claimed they were in fact never officially married. In any case,
their common-law marriage ended amicably in 1942, with Goddard
being granted a divorce and settlement.
Chaplin briefly dated actress Joan Barry, but ended it when she
started harassing him and displaying signs of severe mental illness.
In May 1943, she filed a paternity suit against him. Blood tests
proved Chaplin was not the father, but as blood tests were inadmissible
evidence in court, he was ordered to pay $75 a week until the
child turned 21.
Shortly thereafter, he met Oona O'Neill, daughter of Eugene O'Neill,
and married her on June 16, 1943. He was 54; she was 17. This
happened in the face of her father's refusal to give his permission;
he said that if they went through with the marriage, he would
never speak to Oona again. As far as is known, he kept his word.
Despite this, the marriage was a long and happy one, with eight
children. They had three sons: Christopher, Eugene and Michael
Chaplin and five daughters: Geraldine, Josephine, Jane, Victoria
and Annette-Emilie Chaplin.
On March 4, 1975, he was knighted as a Knight Commander of the
British Empire (KBE) by Queen Elizabeth II. The honour was first
proposed in 1956, but was vetoed by the British Foreign Office
on the grounds that he sympathized with the left and that it would
damage British relations with the United States, at the height
of the Cold War and with planning for the ill-fated invasion of
Chaplin died on Christmas Day, 1977, in Vevey, Switzerland, following
a stroke, aged 88, and was interred in Corsier-Sur-Vevey Cemetery
in Corsier-Sur-Vevey, Vaud. On March 1, 1978, his body was stolen
in an attempt to extort money from his family. The plot failed,
the robbers were captured, and the body was recovered 11 weeks
later near Lake Geneva.
Some have said or suggested Chaplin was Jewish. It is unclear
how this rumour began. One anti-Semite, George Lincoln Rockwell
founder of the American Nazi Party, claimed Chaplin's real name
was Israel Thonstein. There has never been any documentation showing
Charlie Chaplin was Jewish and he made a point of not giving an
answer so as to not dignify the question.
There is a statue of Chaplin in front of the alimentarium in Vevey
to commemorate the last part of his life.
Amongst his many honours, Chaplin has a star on the Hollywood
Walk of Fame and in 1985 he was honoured with his image on a postage
stamp of the United Kingdom and in 1994 he appeared on a United
States postage stamp designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.
In 1992 a film was made about his life entitled Chaplin, directed
by Oscar-winner Lord Richard Attenborough, and starring Robert
Downey Jr., Dan Aykroyd, Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie's daughter,
portraying Charlie's mother, her own grandmother), Sir Anthony
Hopkins, Milla Jovovich, Moira Kelly, Kevin Kline, Diane Lane,
Penelope Ann Miller, Paul Rhys, Marisa Tomei, Nancy Travis, and
In 2001, British comedian Eddie Izzard played Chaplin in the film,
The Cat's Meow, which theorized about the still-unsolved death
of producer Thomas Ince aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht,
of which Chaplin was a passenger of at the time.
Geraldine Chaplin played her own grandmother, Hannah Chaplin,
in Richard Attenborough's 1992 film "Chaplin"
A bronze statue to Chaplin was erected in the small seaside town
of Waterville, Co. Kerry, Ireland where the star spent many holidays
in later life.
A young Chaplin is a character in Shanghai Knights; the movie
presented the fictional idea that Chaplin originally came to America
by stowing away with Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson's characters.
It is true that Charlie Chaplin once lost a "Charlie Chaplin
look-a-like" competition. As Chaplin became popular throughout
America, Chaplin look-a-like competitions became popular. On one
occasion, a rising young actor called Bob Hope took first prize!
Chaplin was a friend of Luis Buñuel in the early 30s.
In a 2005 poll to find The Comedian's Comedian, he was voted among
the top 20 greatest comedy acts ever by fellow comedians and comedy
All his life, Chaplin was known to be an avowed atheist. He had
nothing but contempt for any form of religion. He once joked,
"I would love to play the part of Jesus! I fit it perfectly
because I am a comedian."